A Chronicle of the Pre-election Race in ROK: Democrats Made Up their Mind, But…


The author continues his series of articles on the presidential race in South Korea, as both camps have made up their minds as to the leading candidates.

On 31 August 2021, the ruling Toburo Democratic Party launched a campaign to elect its candidate for the 2022 presidential election. 11 rounds of preliminary regional elections were held in stages in all regions of the country, ending on 10 October in Seoul. Lee Jae-myung, the 56-year-old “South Korean Bernie Sanders”, governor of the Gyeonggi-do metropolitan province and former human rights lawyer, won an overwhelming majority in most regions of the country, gaining more than 50 per cent of the vote in each.

In second place is Lee Nak-yon, the former prime minister and party leader, who received 39.14% of the vote and managed to defeat Lee Jae-myung only in his home province, where he used to be governor. In addition, Lee Nak-yon won the overseas Koreans’ vote and the ordinary citizens’ primary, where Lee Jae-myung was beaten by a very wide margin, 62% to 28%. That is why his final result was much lower than everyone expected (53-55%).

On October 13, the party’s Executive Committee confirmed that the ruling camp’s single candidate is Lee Jae-myung: the vote count was carried out in strict compliance with the governing documents and the regional election results would not be reconsidered.  After that, Lee Nak-yon conceded defeat and congratulated Lee Jae-myung on his victory.

On October 25, Lee Jae-myung announced his resignation as governor of Gyeonggi-do province to focus on election preparations and officially registered with the central election commission the same day.

The next day, a 50-minute meeting between Lee Jae-yon and Moon Jae-in took place.   Lee Jae-myung said he is a member of the “team” of the incumbent president, thus urging Moon Jae-in’s supporters to vote for him in future elections.   According to Lee Cheol-hee, the president’s senior secretary for political affairs, who attended the meeting, Lee also apologized for his harsh criticism of Moon during the previous primaries in 2017.

In addition, an all-party committee has been set up in support of Lee, comprised of the ex-governor’s main opponents, including Chu Mi-ae, appointed honorary head. Thus, Lee has no clear intraparty opposition at the moment.

It bears reminding the audience who governor Lee is and what his agenda is. He does come from a very poor family – when he was 12 his family moved to Seongnam, where Lee worked in various factories, injuring his arm in the process. In 1986, Lee graduated from the bar and worked as a human rights lawyer after he was allegedly inspired by a lecture by former President Roh Moo-hyun. His first foray into politics was in 2006, when he ran for mayor of Seongnam and lost. Two years later he ran unsuccessfully for the National Assembly. In 2010, he ran again for mayor of Seongnam and this time won. He was re-elected in 2014, and in 2018 became the first Liberal governor of Gyeonggi-do in 16 years.

Lee is certainly a populist in his political views, but more left-leaning than Moon. He was at the forefront of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment campaign, and during his mayoralty, Lee pushed hard for a host of welfare programs despite central government opposition, including universal basic income for young people, free school uniforms and free postnatal care.  Amid the determination of the COVID-19 payments, Lee gave all Gyeonggi-do residents 100,000 won ($84) each, ignoring accusations of populism and de facto vote-buying.

In a speech delivered after the preliminary election results were summed up, Lee Jae-myung promised, if elected president, to make efforts to stamp out corruption and to reform the real estate sector, as rising house prices are considered the biggest political failure of the Moon Jae-in government. Lee Jae-myung also promised to pursue state-led economic recovery policies, achieve general welfare and step up investment in science, technology and education. He promised to create a society “in which everyone can enjoy fair opportunities, regardless of political opinion or place of residence.”

As for the unconditional basic income, he promised to pay up to 1 million won (US$838.30) per year to each citizen and an additional 1 million won to each young adult. The same amount is to be paid as Covid compensation to each citizen. Or at least 300,000-500,000 won per person.

There are also some strange ideas like “running a system that puts a cap on the number of restaurants in the country.”  However, everyone jumped on such a proposal which violated freedom of enterprise, and he effectively took it back.

On foreign policy, Lee promises to continue Moon Jae-in’s course, saying he will play a more active role in mediating between the United States and North Korea, and has promised to meet with Joe Biden and Kim Jong-un. Lee notes that the US is the ROK’s “only ally” and “South Korea’s democracy and economy have risen to a globally recognized level through its decades-long alliance with the US”, but has promised to strengthen ties with China. In his view, South Korea has no reason to “narrow the room for maneuver” and “the question of peace on the Korean peninsula is an important issue on which many people living on the Korean peninsula stake their survival.”

In the same context, he advocates an early transfer of operational control of troops (OPCON) to Seoul and opposes further deployment of the US THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. Lee also expressed his opposition to the idea of a trilateral alliance involving South Korea, the US and Japan, saying the issue could be very dangerous as long as Japan continues to claim the Dokdo Islands.

At the same time, Lee often brags with statements viewed by the ROK public opinion as anti-American. For example, on November 10, 2021, Lee described the US troops that had entered the Korean peninsula immediately after the liberation of Korea in 1945 as an “occupying force”, repeating an expression he had used earlier.  And on November 12, during a meeting with Senator Jon Ossoff, he mentioned the Taft-Katsura agreement of 1905, under which America did not prevent Japan from taking over Korea: thus the United States played a role in Korea losing its sovereignty.

As for Japan, he will seek to deal with historical issues while other areas of cooperation will be dealt with separately.

However, Lee Jae-myung’s success was still a success for the Democratic Party in general, but not for Moon Jae-in, since Moon and Lee’s factions are at odds and Moon failed to get his protégé through the electoral procedure.

In such a situation, incumbent President Moon had several ways out of the situation where the person Moon was trying to imprison becomes the successor.

The first option is to knock Governor Lee out of the saddle by any means necessary. What might work best is the burgeoning land development scandal in Seongnam in 2015 during his term as mayor. Lee Jae-myung is accused of masterminding a corruption scheme that made the little-known firm Hwacheon Daeyu and its seven branches profit more than 1,000 times their investment.

Another story involves his wife Kim Hye-kyung being embroiled in a scandal in 2018 over suspicions that she owned a Twitter account, @08_hkkkim, which had been spreading offensive statements about her husband’s intraparty rivals, including President Moon Jae-in, for several years. Since 2013, around 40,000 controversial tweets have been uploaded to this Twitter account. Police said the account belonged to Kim Hye-kyung, but prosecutors released her without charges, citing a lack of evidence.

The other charges seem less striking to the author. Thus, Conservative MP Kim Yong-pan demanded Lee address allegations that he defended gangsters when he worked as a lawyer before launching his political career.  According to the testimony of a certain former gangster, the lawmaker claimed that Lee received nearly 2 billion won (US$1.68 million) in exchange for helping them obtain various business services. The proof was a photograph of wads of cash.

Lee chuckled: “If I did that, I would have been punished a long time ago,” especially as it soon emerged that the photo with the cash was the same one the former gangster had previously posted on Facebook to show his own income. After that, on October 19, the Democratic Party complained about Kim Yong-pan to the parliamentary ethics committee.

However, as long as no direct evidence is found against Lee, the servility of the system can fail, and as an experienced schemer, Moon realizes that there must be more than one plan. So there is another option – to try not so much to negotiate with Lee, but to bargain for acceptable terms of withdrawal, in part by making Lee appear not as a political opponent of Moon, but as a continuator of his cause. And judging by the outcome of the meeting between the candidate and the president, in which sensitive issues such as “Seongnam-gate” were not discussed, this trend is prevailing.

In any case, Lee Jae-myung needs to find a way to clear himself of involvement in the 2015 scandal and overcome factional infighting. Besides, the trust of the masses also needs to be restored – while on October 12-13 the hypothetical score of Lee Jae-myung was 43% and Yoon Seok-yeol – 40.4% of respondents, on October 15-16 Lee Jae-myung would be supported by 35.4% of respondents and Yoon Seok-yeol – by 37.1% of respondents. And then the gap began to widen, going beyond the statistical margin of error.

According to a poll conducted on November 3, 58.2% of respondents want a change of government and the opposition to come to power. 32.2% of respondents were in favor of keeping the ruling party “at the wheel.”

There also remains opposition to Lee’s ideas from Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum and Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki, from whose point of view the government cannot afford another round of payments to all and sundry: the most urgent task at the moment is to compensate the self-employed and small business owners suffering from the pandemic. But from Lee’s perspective, “the debt-to-GDP ratio should not be a stumbling block”

Sceptics, however, point out that the population of the ROK is 51.3 million and if the amount were increased to 1 million won per person, it would require an additional state budget of between 15 and 25 trillion won: 2.6 to 4.3% of the proposed state budget for next year. Especially since the national debt of the country is already rising.

Nevertheless, on November 9, the Democratic Party said it would try to provide assistance to all citizens.  In theory, it will all depend on a surplus of tax revenues.

This is what the situation looks like in the Democratic camp, and the next article in this series will focus on the Conservatives who chose as their candidate, though not without problems, Yoon Seok-yeol.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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