Lee Jae-myung: Populist, Left-wing, Unapologetic

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Lee Jae-myung maintained the broad grin of a hopeful politician as he took the podium in Seoul on Feb. 16 for a Gwanhun Club debate, a formal gathering of suited men discussing policy. He casually took his seat, the focal point of attention as the only presidential candidate on a panel of journalists, arms on the table in front of him, exuding the confidence of a prize fighter at a pre-bout weigh-in.

He kept smiling as the clicking of countless camera shutters were the room’s only sounds. A few minutes later, when called on by the moderator to speak first, Lee launched into a story that is by now familiar to anyone following his moves as he positions himself for a presidential run: The story of what he describes as his “dirt spoon” background.

Born in 1964 in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, Lee moved to Seongnam in 1976. Lee’s father abandoned the family while Lee was in middle school, leaving his mother to raise seven children on her own. With his family in need of another earner, after graduating middle school, instead of going on to high school Lee went to work in a watch factory. He nevertheless overcame poverty to rise to become a lawyer and then in 2010 was elected mayor of Seongnam, now a prosperous mid-sized city on Seoul’s doorstep, after an unsuccessful run in 2006.

Lee at 16 (right) when he was a factory worker, with his younger brother.

“I had no special method,” Lee said, deadpan, as explanation for escaping his youth as an industrial laborer. “I had nothing but skill (실력),” he added as a sort of humblebrag.

While Lee likes to present himself as a fresh candidate seeking to make South Korea the latest country to turn its national politics on its head, this type of poor-boy-makes-good story will be nothing new or unfamiliar to South Korean voters. Narratives of using hard work to triumph over long odds are old hat in South Korea.

Only later in his remarks Lee proclaimed his belief that he could become something much rarer in the history of South Korean politics, something the country’s liberal opposition has long held mostly unrequited hope for: A unifying candidate, one person who could consolidate support on the splintered left, creating a cohesive movement that could wrest power from the traditionally better organized conservatives.

“Without a unified opposition, instituting reforms will be impossible,” Lee said, anointing himself the person for the job. “The Minjoo Party’s candidate has to be someone who can bring together supporters from the People’s Party and Justice Party,” Lee added, naming the country’s main opposition party, to which he belongs, followed by two smaller liberal opposition parties. Throughout the Gwanhun Club event, Lee was peppered by polite suggestions from fellow panelists and audience questioners that with his at-times brash demeanor, and reputation for speaking off the cuff, he might be ill-fitted to be a unifier, and might be unable to bring together the left, let alone build a national following.

He defended his tendency to make provocative remarks as earnestness, nothing to be put off by, something that might actually appeal to voters accustomed to politicians whose words obfuscate more than they clarify. “I’m very outspoken, and for many that’s a negative factor,” he acknowledged, before adding, “It’s my principle that when speaking to the people not to deceive by using political language that can be interpreted in different ways.”

Lee Jae-myung, middle, speaks with panelists during a Gwanhun Club debate (Credit: National Assembly TV).

As it stands now, despite his candor, Lee’s presidential ambitions can surely be interpreted in different ways. Is he a fresh, disruptive face, or a relatively inexperienced liberal candidate running mostly on old policy promises?

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In Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, he writes, “the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue.” In a similar manner, most foreign correspondents explain overseas developments by translating them into political language from their audience’s own society, positing that this politician you’ve never heard of can be understood by referring to the guy running in your country.

In this manner, most western media coverage of Lee frames him in comparison to two very different U.S. politicians. He is likened to Bernie Sanders, described as a kind of populist, left-wing firebrand, but also draws comparisons to Donald Trump for his seemingly off-the-cuff remarks and dexterous use of Twitter to communicate with the masses.

Neither comparison is especially helpful in understanding Lee, but he does have something in common with both Trump and Sanders, in that he embraces the role of the outsider, and depicts himself as someone who comes from outside the political establishment, and can step in and make sweeping changes to the systems that have failed voters.

But taking a closer look at Lee’s policy stances, his positions read mostly like a laundry list of typical liberal pledges, albeit presented with unusual gusto and without the usual attempt at appearing centrist.

At the moment, Lee is a vocal proponent of prosecuting President Park Geun-hye and Samsung’s de facto top dog Lee Jae-yong on charges of bribery. He threw shade at Ahn Hee-jung, a rising challenger for the presidency, criticizing Ahn’s contention that he would merely accept whatever the court decides on Park and the Samsung head’s fates. Lee has also called for a South Korean version of Wikileaks, prompting Julian Assange, the controversial Wikileaks founder, to tweet: 

Lee has claimed that he would withdraw the controversial decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system with the U.S., that he would pursue engagement with North Korea, and finally wrest control of South Korean society from a corrupt elite that draws its lineage back to families that grew wealthy by cooperating with the Japanese colonial administration.

* * *

One prominent debate in present-day South Korea is the role of effort in a stagnating economy, and the assumption that a value of fair reward for effort undergirds South Korean society. Young people are told to work hard if they want to succeed, but amid high unemployment, many young people work plenty hard, but still end up in low-paid, unstable jobs. Lee occupies an interesting position in this debate: He trumpets hard work as what made his success possible, but as a politician, advocates a significant expansion of South Korea’s welfare system, and stricter regulations to make society fairer.

In his introductory remarks at the Gwanhun Club event, Lee addressed this debate, saying, almost rhetorically, “The world Lee Jae-myung wants to make,” before pausing to allow a brief moment of suspense to fill the air, “is a fair world.”

“The biggest problems in our society are inequality and unfairness,” he continued.

While most of Lee’s stances are predictable coming from a South Korean liberal, Lee does have bolder hopes aimed at narrowing the gap between rich and poor, or gold and dirt spoons as the divide is described in South Korea. The most ambitious among them is to introduce an expanded system of basic income. In an age where more and more middle-class jobs are being outsourced or taken over by robots and artificial intelligence, the basic income has been floated as a possible solution. The gist of basic income is providing state handouts of enough money to allow recipients to afford basics such as food and housing, thereby eliminating poverty and freeing citizens to spend their time on creative or philanthropic projects.

“‘What is our family’s basic income?’ An invitation to his town-hall meeting.” Lee has been a passionate advocate for expanding welfare.

Lee has experience with a similar policy as mayor of Seongnam. He came up with what he called the youth dividend policy, which paid one million won to 24-year-olds (people in the tough spot between university graduation and their first real job) who had lived in Seongnam for at least three years, regardless of income or economic status.

He says if elected, he would seek to institute a broader policy on the national level. Lee’s policy would provide one million won per year to people younger than 29 and older than 65, as well as vulnerable groups like farmers, fishermen and people with disabilities that prevent them from working.

But how? Where might the funding for this utopian dream come from? Perhaps surprisingly, Lee has an answer for that. He says he would fill the pot by creating a new land-holding tax on the owners of property. An oft-heard cry at the candlelight rallies in South Korean cities over the past few months has been “The people are the owners”. It reiterates an idea that is at the core of South Korean liberalism: that it is the state that is responsible for providing citizens with a livelihood.

The most common basis for dismissing Lee’s promises to aggressively expand welfare is budget constraints, on the assumption that the funding for such expansions isn’t available. In characteristic fashion, Lee has a snappy comeback for this, saying, “It’s not that the government doesn’t have money, it’s that there are too many thieves.” He also argues that when viewed as a portion of the total funds available nationally, his welfare promises could be enacted without breaking the bank. Lee told China’s Xinhua news agency in an interview that, “If our social welfare programs are expanded for the whole country, it would cost an additional 4.5 trillion won. That’s below 1.2 percent of the central government’s combined budget.”

Lee’s supporters point to the fact that as mayor of Seongnam, after inheriting a load of debt from his predecessor, he has managed to balance the city’s finances, by raising taxes that went to funding his welfare programs.

* * *

Lee is sometimes referred to by the nickname “cider,” the meaning of which won’t be obvious to non-Korean speakers. “Cider” is the word used in Korean for clear, carbonated, fruit-inspired, mouth-puckering soft drinks, akin to 7-Up or Sprite.

A gulp of Cider creates a cool, tingly sensation in one’s throat, which South Koreans describe using a word that translates roughly as “refreshing”. Lee has earned a reputation for frankness in speech, for saying what is on everyone’s mind but no one wants to say. He is called Cider because he is, unique among politicians, willing to come out and say what he thinks, though that might create awkwardness at times. Lee therefore has to perform a balancing act of expressing himself freely enough to maintain his reputation as a straight-shooter, while being careful not to say something that could get him in trouble.

Throughout Lee’s campaign, he has been pestered by accusations that he used foul language in berating the wife of his older brother. Lee addressed this controversy in a lengthy Facebook post in early February. Lee starts that post by lightly grumbling about how media reports on his alleged harsh treatment of his sister-in-law were forcing him to publicly air his family’s business, ostensibly to put the ugly speculation to rest.

The main character of Lee’s screed is his beloved mother, and Lee bases his indignation on his brother and sister-in-law’s mistreatment of a selfless woman who sacrificed for her children, who walked him to school every morning “holding my hand in one hand and carrying the lunch box she made for me in the other.”

Lee alleges that his older brother, who allegedly boasted of having more than ten billion won to his name, asked his mother to lend him some of the fifty million won she had received as retirement money. When his mother refused, Lee alleges his brother cut off all ties with her, called her some of the foulest epithets imaginable, and threatened to mutilate her vagina with a knife.

According to Lee, this beef went on for years and apexed with Lee calling the police on his brother and sister-in-law after they broke into his mother’s house, trashed the place and beat her. Lee says a telephone recording of phone conversations with his brother and sister-in-law, from around this time, of him using foul language, were taken out of context, distributed online without explanation of why Lee was so angry.

He writes in the piece that had he witnessed his brother and sister-in-law beating his mother, it wouldn’t have been harsh language he would have used; he says he would have killed them. Lee ends the emotive piece firmly on message as the doting son, writing simply, “Mom, I love you.”

* * *

If the latest polls are any indication, Lee is a longshot for the presidency, and is unlikely to usurp liberal stalwart Moon Jae-in for the Minjoo Party’s nomination. While Moon is an imperfect candidate, having lost the 2012 presidential election to Park Geun-hye (and we all know how well she did as president), Lee is unlikely to be given a chance to unify the opposition. According to results of a Gallup Korea poll released on February 17, Lee had a support rate of just five percent, far behind Moon’s 33 percent, and also behind fellow liberals Ahn Hee-jung (22 percent) and Ahn Cheol-soo (nine percent).

In some ways, the timing may be right for a political outsider to break in. “Voters have tried a conservative, they’ve tried a progressive and now just want someone who will work for the people,” said Kim Byung-ki, a Professor of Politics and International Relations at Korea University.

Lee’s support spiked in late 2016 amid the surge of discontent with President Park over the Choi Soon-sil scandal, when he was one of the first politicians to call for her to be ousted, but has slowly waned since. His emphasis on becoming a candidate that can unite the left may be his attempt to arrest the sinking of his campaign.

Lee’s biggest political asset might be his image as a common man.

Will there be any lasting substance to Lee’s candidacy, or is his campaign, like the soft drinks that bear his nickname, just sugary, bubbly water that may briefly refresh, but ultimately falls short?

Cover Image Credit: Seongnam City Hall

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that “Lee’s policy would provide one million won per month to people younger than 29 and older than 65, as well as vulnerable groups like farmers, fishermen and people with disabilities that prevent them from working.” In reality, Lee is proposing to give each individual one million won per year, not per month.

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