Seoul, South Korea – On April 27, South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the military demarcation line between the two Koreas.
After the handshake came the historic walk across the border that stunned the world.
Liberal politician Moon, 65, came into the office a year ago following months of candlelit protests that led to the unprecedented ousting of Park Geun-hye amid a swirling corruption scandal.
Unlike his predecessor, Moon, a former human rights lawyer, made an effort to portray himself as an accessible president, opening the office website as a platform for the public to lodge petitions and making it mandatory for the Blue House to respond if they garner 200,000 signatures within 30 days.
Moon’s approval rating peaked at a remarkable 83 percent following the successful hosting of the first inter-Korean summit on South Korean soil.
Moon’s approval rating at mid-80 percent is the highest achieved by any president after just one year in office, according to Bae Jong-chan, managing director of Research & Research.
Determined to avoid the same dangers of misplaced and misused authority that brought down the former president, Moon also hoped to reduce the power of the presidency by bringing in constitutional reform.
However, with a weak ruling party in parliament, his grand plan to revise the single-term, five-year presidency to a maximum of two four-year terms was stymied after the National Assembly failed to change the referendum law to bring the issue to a public vote.
After inheriting a country fed up with corruption and poor leadership, Moon’s image as a humble president is helping him garner high approval ratings.
Some pundits, however, warn that the rosy numbers could nosedive should the planned US-North Korea summit not end on a high note.
“‘Showing’ is very important in politics, but if the public can’t feel the change, their support will die too,” Shin Yul, Professor at Myongji University, told Al Jazeera.
“If the summit between Washington and Pyongyang goes well, it’ll prove that Moon was a good mediator. Until then, it’s too early to tell.”
Economy and employment
Prior to last year’s presidential elections, the state of inter-Korea relations was not a priority for many South Koreans.
A Gallup poll showed the top two priorities picked by voters for the incoming president to focus on were reviving the economy and creating jobs. Moon appears to have come up short on both.
According to a Korea Economic Daily poll of 140 opinion leaders on Moon’s first year, 73.6 percent said Moon was doing worst in “reviving the economy”.
At 11.6 percent, youth unemployment in March reached its highest in two years despite extra government spending of 11 trillion Korean Won ($10.2bn) last year.
“If the Moon administration enters its second or third year and the president can’t show sufficient economic achievement, his approval ratings could fall to 50 to 60 percent,” said Bae.
Demographically, most of his support comes from voters in their 20s and 30s, while people over 60 from the country’s conservative-leaning southeastern region show a lower approval of Moon.
But even those on the right are not immune to his charm, with one of the most conservative civic groups chanting pro-Moon slogans outside the Blue House on the same day as the inter-Korean summit.
Much of this popularity is based on Moon’s charisma.
“South Koreans are crazy about President Moon,” said Bae.
“But the president must be very careful and remember to narrow the gap between him and his government’s popularity.”