SOUTH KOREA (October 13, 2021)—Lee promised to uphold legacy of Democratic predecessors, but experts say any policy change depends on US.
“Outsider,” “populist,” a “bulldozer;” these are the labels that have followed Lee Jae-myung throughout his political career.
He now has the South Korean presidency firmly in his sights, leading many national polls and locking up the ruling Democratic Party’s nomination on Sunday.
So far, Lee has promised a “pragmatic” North Korea policy, which entails securing permanent sanctions exemptions for key inter-Korean projects, and proposing the idea of conditional sanctions relief with snapback measures to North Korea and the U.S. to revive denuclearization negotiation.
Whether Lee as president can carry out his promises will largely depend on whether Seoul can move Washington off its current North Korea position, said one expert.
“I think there’s relatively limited freedom of movement for a South Korean president these days, especially given the web of international sanctions that were brought in in 2017,” said Christopher Green, a North Korea expert and an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
“Maybe the Biden administration could be persuaded to move. I’m skeptical, but we’ll see.”
LEE JAE-MYUNG STYLE
In his eight years as mayor of Seongnam, a suburb of Seoul, as well as during a brief presidential campaign in 2017, Lee has put himself in the crosshairs of his opponents as well as the center of media attention with his outspoken comments on current affairs, which he frequently shares on social media.
Born in 1964 in rural South Korea, Lee Jae-myung often speaks of his childhood, which he spent making necklaces and baseball gloves in factories while his peers went to school. An accident during those days left him with a permanently disfigured left arm, which became a symbol of his rugged background.
His blunt style and aptitude for courting political controversy have made him a polarizing figure.
Early in his mayoral career, some conservatives called him a “follower of the North” (jongbuk), a politically charged term in a country where deep-rooted ideological conflict still looms over the discourse on North Korea.
“I disdain the inhumane and undemocratic North Korea,” Lee said in a 2016 interview with the conservative Monthly Chosun magazine. “To say that I’m a follower of their unreasonable system, where there’s [hereditary succession] of power for three generations, is to treat me like a lunatic.”
A recent policy speech from August this year also showed some willingness to show a stronger stance towards North Korea.
“I will ask for a change in North Korea’s wrong practices and attitudes,” Lee proclaimed, calling for “a new approach to North Korea that reflects the change in the [South Korean] public’s perceptions on North Korea and unification.”
NO STRANGER TO CONTROVERSY
As a mayor in and later governor of Gyeonggi Province, Lee has not hesitated to share his views on controversial security and foreign policy issues.
In a 2017 interview with local radio broadcaster CBS, he also called for Seoul to shrink its cost-sharing contributions to house U.S. forces on the peninsula, when then U.S. president-elect Donald Trump demanded larger contributions from U.S. allies.
In Nov. 2020, he questioned the United Nations Command’s mandate at the inter-Korean border and its control over access to the demilitarized zone in an interview with local media. In the same interview, he argued that there is more space for Seoul to influence Washington’s approach to the Korean Peninsula under the Biden administration.
Some question how much Lee’s past remarks will carry over into actual policies if he becomes president, however.
“I think we can think of it as a blank slate,” said Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies.
Bong said that Lee is not a value-driven politician, and that his statements have largely catered to strengthening his support base in domestic politics. Lee’s actual policies in the Blue House, if he gets elected, may be subject to change, he said.
But however much of a disconnect there might be between candidate Lee’s remarks and President Lee’s policies, another expert said that the 2022 Democratic hopeful could bring a particular tone and style to the Blue House that differs from his predecessor.
“One thing that is likable about Lee Jae-myung is that he’s not shy about saying these things publicly,” said Cheehyung Harrison Kim, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“Within the U.S. alliance system, he cannot simply ignore the U.S military,” he said. “But I think it’s time that South Korean citizens seriously consider a candidate that can critically address this big issue.”
SANCTIONS, SANCTIONS, SANCTIONS
When it comes to North Korea, Lee says he will “inherit and develop” the policies of Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and other liberals that engineered the so-called Sunshine Policy years.
But experts say his promises of engagement with the North are likely to face similar challenges that confronted his predecessors, particularly international sanctions.
One obvious issue is the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), which shut down in 2016 and that Lee Jae-myung has promised to reopen. In operation for about a decade, the KIC was the brainchild of the Kim Dae-jung administration and was envisioned as a sort of capitalist experiment in the socialist North.
The complex was closed by the conservative Park Geun-hye administration, in part as a consequence of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test that year.
Located some 14 km (9 miles) from the South Korean border city of Paju, the KIC has often been brought up by liberal politicians as well as Lee, who has his constituents in the city. He recently pledged to “persuade the United Nations to approve a comprehensive and permanent exemption from sanctions” for the KIC and other inter-Korean projects.
“I’m afraid that this sounds like an excellent political slogan, but it might not come off too well in a fight with reality,” Green of Leiden said.
“If it fails, it’ll fail because he’s promised to try and win comprehensive and permanent U.N. sanctions exemption, which requires, as ever, U.S. approval,” he said. “[Lee] is not spending any political capital by making the promise.”
Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, also noted that Washington will continue to be the indispensable variable in the next South Korean president’s North Korea policy.
“In any case, progressives should persuade the U.S,” he said. “I wish Lee can show pragmatism, not only in words but also in his actions, by working with the Biden administration.”
NOT A TOP-LEVEL ELECTION ISSUE?
Lee Sang-shin, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), said that it is still “too early” to evaluate the candidates’ North Korea policy and that any comments at this stage are primarily at a “theoretical level.”
“Different from what many people think, the North Korea issue hasn’t influenced the [presidential] election that much,” Lee noted.
“But this time, even more than before, no candidate is putting North Korea issues at the forefront,” he said. “Candidates will eventually touch on the DPRK … but I think they are being quite cautious because of some signs of changes in inter-Korean relations.”
Lee Jae-myung, after the announcement of the primary’s result on Sunday, vowed to continue the legacy of his predecessors, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in, but did not directly mention North Korea.
“I, Lee Jae-myung, will win without fail on Mar. 9 next year,” Lee said in his acceptance speech on Sunday. “And two months later, I will stand with President Moon Jae-in at the inauguration ceremony, with our hands held tight.”
Meanwhile, Lee’s conservative challenger will likely be determined at next month’s party primaries.
Source: NK News