On Lee Jae-myung — B.R. Myers
Considering all that has come to light since 2019, and the Porsche-bribe allegations that just ruined the special prosecutor who worked up relatively tenuous charges against Park Geun-hye, this is the most scandal-ridden ruling camp in post-democratization history. Yet all will be forgotten if Moon Jae-in himself can retire in peace to his spread in Yangsan. Naturally almost the entire Minjoo Party wants to see that happen. This makes it a bit wary of Gyeonggi governor Lee Jae-myung, who is now the country’s most popular contender for the presidency.
Moon and Lee were never close, and are known to have fallen out in 2017 (to put things mildly) when Lee challenged the older man in the Minjoo primaries. Rightly or wrongly, it’s widely assumed that Moon would be safer from prosecution under a different Minjoo successor.
That’s not Lee’s only problem. Winning the full trust of the nationalist left without having done prison time for National Security Law violations in the 1980s or 1990s is like becoming a “made man” in the Mafia without Italian heritage. On the other hand, Lee has the best possible excuse: being from an exceptionally poor and large family, he had to work his way through college, leaving him no time for the protest movement. He has since done much to compensate for that hole in his resume. He was on exceptionally good terms with the pro-Pyongyang, now-banned United Progressive Party, whose candidate stood aside in 2010 so he could win the mayoral race in Seongnam.
Since he became governor of Gyeonggi in 2018, the province (which abuts the North) has led the ROK in declarations of eagerness to engage in inter-Korean cooperation. Lee has shown fewer qualms than Moon about criticizing America, especially in regard to THAAD and sanctions on the North. When he complains how conservatives keep questioning his loyalty to the republic, he is really signaling to fellow party members his suitedness to lead it.
The inter-Korean stuff is by no means the entirety of Lee’s platform, but it seems the most constant plank. His advocacy of a basic income has wavered of late, and to judge by his recent calls for a transfer of the capital to Sejong, he now supports the constitutional revision he professed not to consider urgent.
Speaking of American sanctions, they are turning out to be a godsend for the ruling party. It’s because none of the quiet confederation-building of the past four years has cost anything significant that tax-payers have paid no attention. The ROK opposition can no longer assail the government’s North policy by saying, as was said to great vote-getting effect in 2007, that the South should take care of its own citizens first. The PPP must now avoid the topic, or else be seen by younger voters as behind the times.
It’s a remarkable state of affairs, considering that in South Korea, where there has always been agreement on the need for social welfare, dislike of the North and a concern for security were always the distinguishing marks of the conservative. Nowadays the main opposition party stands only for a vague promise to do things better — and to stay cleaner while doing them. The past few weeks have shown how vulnerable this image is to scandals anywhere in the opposition camp, even if the ruling party is also implicated (see the seafood fraudster); vulnerable also to whatever screw-ups can be attributed to conservative governors or mayors (see the COVID surge in Seoul).
Meanwhile the left is going strong despite this administration’s abysmal track record precisely because it stands for something that transcends the mundane. “Belief is power,” Leslie Stephen said, “even when belief is most unreasonable.”
As I asserted in my last post, the transformation of inter-Korean cooperation into a neutral topic and the reduction of the right to a mere critic of official incompetence and corruption can be regarded as a political-cultural revolution of sorts. It may well go down in history as the Moon administration’s most significant achievement on the road to the “peace system.”
Back to Lee Jae-myung. Early this month he revisited the conventional myth (popularized in the West by Bruce Cumings) according to which South Korea was stymied at birth by its retention of pro-Japanese elements. Lee left out the usual contrastive part — unlike North Korea, which conducted a thorough purge — but the left understands the need for such omissions. Moon himself kept mentions of the North to a minimum during his last campaign, when he pretended to be fixated on job creation instead.
In fact Kim Il Sung gave all but the worst ex-collaborators (read: biggest landowners) a second chance, as DPRK historians state with approval. In later years the Great Leader told Erich Honecker he couldn’t have run the country without their help. Honecker must have understood, considering all the ex-Nazis in the SED. I can’t help wondering, though, if the “North Korean revolution” — as I love hearing it called — really needed such front-row cheerleaders of the Japanese war effort as Song Yŏng, Ch’oi Sŭng-hŭi and Cho Myŏng-am?
The thing is, most South Koreans want to believe that former lackeys of the colonial government were few enough for Rhee to have purged them with no adverse consequences had he only made the effort. It’s like how German movies about the Third Reich reduce the Nazi element to one reviled brownshirt per neighborhood. The fallacy of North Korea’s clean break with the past is thus given a grudging pass even by many on the right.
What Yoon Seok-yeol, now the main conservative contender for the presidency, unwisely took greater issue with was Lee’s talk of how the US military helped the colonial-era elite remain in power. (Worse, Yoon seemed to object to the term occupying troops itself.) He forgot that the opposition party, which he is yet to join, has thrived over the past year or so by avoiding ideological disputes of this sort.
Needless to say the nationalist left approves of what Lee said, and even the mainstream likes his sniping at the Suga administration. The South Korean public’s receptiveness to Japan-bashing waxes and wanes in roughly two-year cycles, the last high point having been in the summer of 2019. The Tokyo Olympics bear rich potential to take things up several notches. If this happens it will give Lee another boost at a perfect time.
So too will the profile pieces we can expect from the American press if this arch nationalist officially becomes the “liberal” nominee it must root for. His politics, like Moon’s, will be explained purely in terms of biography. “The son of a rest-room attendant….” will be the new “The son of North Korean refugees….” This friendly US coverage will in turn be invoked here to persuade voters that the scandals attached to his name are old hat and beneath notice.
(South Korean voters’ tendency to trust the judgment of observers who don’t even speak their language has long helped the left here, though it results from an inferiority complex the left criticizes the loudest.)
I suppose I should say something about the best-known scandals. It has been alleged that a) in 2007, when Lee was a lawyer, he had an extramarital affair with an actress whom he deceived into thinking he was single (a punishable offense); b) that while mayor of Seongnam, Lee tried forcibly to commit his older brother to a mental home, which the latter’s family attests was an effort to muzzle a healthy accountant who had criticized him in public, and c) that he subjected his sister-in-law to a stream of filthy misogynist abuse over the telephone — this appears to be borne out by a sound file. At present he is under police investigation for allegations of bribery relating to a large sum of money gathered from businesses in 2015 for the ostensible purpose of supporting the Seongnam football club.
There is also abundant video evidence of Lee’s irascibility under critical questioning, to mention here only the most recent exchange with his Minjoo rival Jeong Se-gyun who, having called in a debate for scrutiny of Lee’s past, received from him the retort: “Must I drop my pants again?”
Thus did the governor publicize the fact that the investigation into the actress’ allegations had entailed… but why insist on these details? What I want to stress is that none of the above seems to hurt Lee much with Gyeonggi voters, among whom he is generally popular, or with the nationalist left rank-and-file around the country, which sees him as just the kind of scrappy fighter the Cause needs. Here’s a man, they feel, who will resume the purge of the right with the necessary rigor, and forge ahead with Kim Jong-un whether Biden likes it or not.
It’s ironic that by keeping his foe on the margins of the Minjoo, President Moon has saved him from the taint of failure, avarice and hypocrisy that now attaches to the party establishment. Lee thus seems much more attractive to young voters than any of the other Minjoo contenders. A new poll positing a two-way match-up puts him at 43.9%, the main conservative contender Yoon Seok-yeol at 36%.
Even if he bears grudges of his own, a President Lee would certainly be better for Moon, Kim Jong Un and the confederation project than a President Yoon. It might never happen of course; there are rumors of vastly more incriminating “X files” being kept in reserve against the governor. Other variables include the pandemic, the economy, and that bribery investigation.
There is also a possibility that Yoon’s campaign collapses this summer, which would make the right more interested in the trough-sharing semi-presidential system that many in the Minjoo, including Moon, are known to favor — meaning that after an interim of some sort the ROK would get a conservative figurehead president (Yoon? Ban Ki-moon? Choe Jae-hyeong?) and a powerful nationalist-left premier.
Both right and left-wing media have recently been trying to build support for just such a dispensation. Candidates for the presidency are praised or criticized depending on their apparent interest in “integration” (t’onghap), a word now functioning as code for the semi-presidential system, just as “peace system” means confederation. If things move in that direction over the summer, as some observers say they are already moving, Lee’s lack of a strong parliamentary faction will hurt him and help his Minjoo rival Lee Nak-yeon. Be all that as it may: at present South Korea looks more likely to stay under nationalist left rule in 2022 than to move in the other direction.