Presidential Hopeful Lee Jae-myung Seeks to Heal South Korea

Yout’s an old cliche that presidential hopefuls win votes by kissing babies. But it’s a brave parent who offers their infant to Lee Jae-myung, whose signature moves on the campaign trail are taekwondo kicks and punches, shattering boards labeled “COVID-19 crisis” and “pain of small business owners” in front of whooping supporters. “My staff asked me to do it,” Lee laughs, throwing a stiff jab at his laptop lens during our Zoom interview. “All Korean men know the basics of taekwondo.”

If Lee is successful in South Korea’s March 9 election, then he’ll have to smash through more than just boards. Voters demand that anyone who is elected to the Blue House president address the inequalities that have plagued South Korean society. These conditions were highlighted by scandals that occurred during the term of the incumbent President Moon Jae In. Local officials used their inside knowledge to make speculations on properties while prices for housing rose. Moon is not constitutionally eligible to run for another term. Lee represents the same Democratic Party.

“Lee has proven he is the one who can reform [Korea],” says Choo Yeon-chang, 65, who came to watch one of Lee’s rallies in the southern city of Daegu. “He can boost the morale of the entire country and bring change.”

Lee, 57, served as mayor of the city of Seongnam for seven years and, until the campaign, was governor of Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul and is South Korea’s most populous. He shot to national prominence through his uncompromising handling of the COVID-19 pandemic—even tactfully negotiating with the leader of a shadowy religious sect to allow testing within his commune—and advocating for universal basic income (UBI), where 1 million won ($840) would eventually be given to every citizen. In a period of rising inequality, South Korea would be the only major country to have a universal basic income (UBI). From 2017-2018, Finland ran an experiment with UBI. Andrew Yang (Democratic U.S. Presidential hopeful) has advocated similar schemes. Lee has also been campaigning for progressive policies, such as the guarantee that women make up at least 30% in top positions. A record number of 57 women were elected in April 2020 to the 300-seat parliament. While only 19% of them had been elected, this was the highest percentage since 1987’s democratization. It’s an urge that comes from “actually going through and experiencing [injustice] myself,” he says. “That desperate sense has definitely been a driving force for me in pursuing my political career.”

Lee’s opponent in the race is fellow lawyer Yoon Suk-yeol, standing for the main opposition conservative People Power Party, who as prosecutor general made his name pursuing high-profile corruption cases against jailed former President Park Geun-hye, as well as Moon’s administration. Although Yoon has no governing experience, he’s seen as a populist whose following is owed to a graft-busting image. TIME asked Yoon not to speak with them. In March 2003, the final permitted voting before the ballot was published. Both candidates were at neck.

From “the most backward place of 20th century Korea”

Lee’s appeal to South Korea’s downtrodden are not just words. Lee, the fifth in seven children from a farming family that was poor, would regularly walk the 10 miles to his elementary school every day and then return home to plough fields. Lee was too poor to buy crayons or paper, so he had to wash the school’s toilets once while his fellow classmates were participating in an art contest. The school’s small library was his sanctuary, where he devoured adventure books such as Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the SeaTo escape from the grim reality that you will go hungry every day.

Lee left school in his early teens, lying about his age to work in factories, where he was frequently hostage to unscrupulous bosses’ withholding wages. Lee was injured in an accident at a press machine. He was then officially declared disabled, and exempted from serving any national service. That torment, combined with his father’s gambling addiction, even led him to attempt suicide.

The pain of those formative years opened the young Lee’s eyes to social injustice that still plagues Korean society. Despite South Korea’s riches, it is also where even top college graduates struggle to earn enough to get a foot on the housing ladder, and where pensioners must recycle cardboard to make ends meet. Statistics Korea shows that the disposable income of the top 20 percent earners is 5.59x higher than the one for the bottom 20%.

“Before, I actually thought it was all my fault, it was my mistake, and my responsibility,” Lee says. “Later on, as I became a college student, I realized that it was actually a structural social issue. And I made a commitment that, if possible, I would not leave any people to live the same life as I did.”

Lee received his high school diploma without any formal secondary education. However, Lee went to law school the first time he tried. Later, Lee became a political professional. A cornerstone of his stint as mayor of Seongnam was paying “youth dividends” of 250,000 won ($200) per quarter to 24-year-old residents, which became so successful that he expanded the program across Gyeonggi Province when he became governor in 2018. If he wins, Lee’s UBI would be an extension of coronavirus-linked assistance that he rolled out in Gyeonggi Province, where each resident received 100,000 won ($80) last year but had to spend it within three months in order to boost local business.

“Lee originated from the most backward place of 20th century Korea,” says Bang Hyeon-seok, a professor at ChungAng University who authored an authoritative biography of Lee, “and is now standing on the front line of 21st century Korea.”

North Korea: The noisy neighbour

Domestic issues dominate the campaign. However, tensions in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), are again rising after North Korea launched 10 missiles during January’s record month of missile tests. Even with the extraordinary engagement of Moon, former President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Un has 60 nukes, best estimates say, along with intercontinental missiles that could destroy any U.S. town. North Korea also has the ability to launch nuke-tipped nuclear-tipped rockets from submarines. Yoon urged a preemptive military strike against Kim regime in January to quell any further provocations. (Yoon doubled down when challenged on the wisdom of a pre-emptive strike, saying it would be to “protect peace.”) For Lee, that is dangerous talk. “A lot of wars broke out not because of national interest, but because of such heated, emotional exchanges,” he says. “It’s important that we should not have any kind of unnecessary stimulation … that could escalate military tension.”

Never has the specter or conflict felt as close. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has already killed hundreds and displaced 1 million people, according to the U.N. Thousands of miles away, the invasion has brought back painful memories of when the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Japanese during World War II and the subsequent invasion by Soviet-backed forces in 1950, remaining today riven by Cold War animosities.

It’s lost on few here that North Korea’s only ally is China, which has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion, with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting Putin in Beijing just days before tanks rolled into Ukraine to hail a strategic partnership “without limits.” That Russia, a historic backer of North Korea, just invaded a sovereign nation of 44 million with the tacit support of Beijing is naturally a cause for alarm. Moon has signaled South Korea’s willingness to participate more in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Strategy, and the so-called Quad PLUS security apparatus. These are groups of Asian-Pacific democracy that have come together to limit China. He even emphasized the importance of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” provoking a rebuke from Beijing. “For South Korea, imagining this bloc of China, Russia, and North Korea hardening is an uncomfortable thought,” says Professor John Delury, an East Asia expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.

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In many ways, Lee’s rags-to-riches success story finds parallels in the story of South Korea itself. Despite being decimated following World War II and the 1950–’53 Korean War, the nation today with its population of 50 million boasts the world’s 10th largest economy, whose firms—like Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motors—are global behemoths. More recently, Korean culture—including food, TV and K-pop music—have drawn huge followings around the world. Netflix, the streaming service that has been releasing Korean hits this year, stated it would at least match its $460 million spent in the country in 2021. Asked whether the “boom” of Korean culture was important, Lee offers a correction: “I would like to wish and hope that it’s only in the beginning, initial stages.” While South Korea’s traditional influence is constrained by limits in terms of territory and population, if you look at the “soft power” side, Lee says, “the possibilities are endless.”

South Korea is once more watching its back as the invasion of Ukraine leaves it looking at Russia’s shoulder. Lee expresses “outrage” at Russia’s aggression and insists that the rules-based world order must be strengthened in the face of such violations. “It’s very important that the international community realizes and reaffirms its commitment once again that any type of invasion that threatens the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a nation should not be overlooked,” he says.

To stave off war with the North, Lee wants to continue with the “sunshine policy” resurrected by Moon, who over the course of 18 months navigated an astonishing process of engagement. Kim held three summits with Moon, five with Xi, one with Putin, and three with Trump, who said of the dictator following a summit in Singapore: “We fell in love.” Yet all that effort has achieved very little concrete reconciliation. North Korea opened a joint liaison office in Kaesong, near its border.

Lee says that trust is the key factor behind the stagnated progress. “Nothing gets resolved through force,” he says. “North Korea is also voicing frustration that some of the agreements [from Moon and Trump] were not upheld from our side.” Asked what his message is for Kim, he says that escalations like missile tests “will only further isolate them from the international society and … cost them the opportunity to cooperate with other countries. It’s not beneficial for the advancement or development of North Korea itself.”

South Korean voters remain deeply divided on the issue of engaging with North Korea. “Moon is a dictator and he is a friend of Kim Jong Un,” one elderly conservative Daegu resident tells TIME near Lee’s campaign rally. “Moon and his party are trying to give all the money we have to North Korea. Lee will be no different from Moon.”

How to manage expectations of breakthroughs

The sad reality is that the United States and other international communities will not be willing to accept inter-Korean economic collaboration without significant, verified progress in denuclearization. It is not clear if any agreement is possible at this time. Since the pandemic began, North Korea has been completely isolated and even turned away food aid. Kim is demanding that the South Korea-U.S. Joint Military Exercises be suspended as a condition of dialogues between both countries. Washington has rejected this demand. “No matter which candidate becomes elected in [South Korea], it appears to be difficult to induce a resumption of stalled inter-Korean and Washington-Pyongyang dialogues” says Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at Seoul’s influential Sejong Institute think tank.

The fate of Ukraine is a lesson for South Korea. It’s also relevant to North Korea. Ukraine was the world’s third largest nuclear weapons state—its scientists actually helped Pyongyang develop its missiles—when the Soviet Union broke up. From Kim’s perspective, Ukraine’s fatal mistake was swapping out the opportunity to have a nuclear deterrent for security guarantees from Russia and the West. “The chance of North Korea believing in U.S.-offered security assurance in return for nuclear disarmament—lock, stock and barrel—is now close to zero,” Cheong says.

Cheong thinks that Kim will seize the moment to fine-tune his weaponry, even as the rest of the world is distracted by Eastern Europe’s carnage. Not least since it’s now nigh impossible for the U.S. to seek Russia’s consent for new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang.

Lee thinks that his election will require him to strengthen relations with Beijing in order to protect the country. “It is necessary for us to grow and expand a cooperative relationship with China that is mutually beneficial,” he says. “While we firmly voice our position when necessary.”

Lee proposes a shakeup of the military establishment, while advocating dialogue wherever possible. South Korea hosts some 28,500 U.S. troops and Lee wants to continue Moon’s work of transferring Wartime Operational Control, or OPCON, of combined forces from the U.S. to the Korean military. South Korea should also build nuclear-powered submarines that can travel further and longer distances than conventional submarines. According to him, this will enable South Korea play a larger role in the region’s security. He is also eager to promote a “two-track strategy” to restore relations with Japan, which reached a nadir during the Moon administration because of South Korea’s pressing the Japanese on human-rights abuses during World War II. ​

To put this plan in action, you must first win over South Korean voters. It’s been a pretty grubby campaign so far—even by the standards of South Korea, where sleaze and corruption allegations are commonplace. Lee had to apologize after his son was caught gambling illegally, and has faced allegations that he illegally hired a provincial government employee to serve as his wife’s personal assistant, who then misappropriated state funds via his corporate credit card. Lee has committed to cooperating with all investigations. Three individuals involved with the corruption investigation into Lee-related scandals are now dead. (Lee’s campaign team were quick to dismiss any connection to their candidate as “fake news.”)

Yoon, in turn, had to apologize for inaccuracies on his wife’s resume many years ago when she applied for teaching jobs and denied allegations she was guilty of stock manipulation. Yoon also denies any accusations that he had an occultist hand during his campaign. He denied links to an al acupuncturist and a shaman. It’s hardly inspiring stuff. Ahn Cheolsoo (software mogul) was a fringe conservative candidate who dropped out of March 3. He backed Yoon.

Lee’s hopes appear to rest on the liberal voters’ consolidating behind him in response, on ordinary people’s seeing through the morass to focus on the issues that truly matter, and on his promise that he has the vision and track record to push real change. “There are many ways that you can learn about the world—it could be through books, it could be through anecdotes of other people,” he says, “but I think actually living it yourself, experiencing it, is a different thing.”

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