South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung driven to politics by tough childhood

Mr Lee Jae-myung's family was poor and he had to work in factories during his childhood. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - Raising his left arm during a rally held in south-eastern port city Ulsan, Mr Lee Jae-myung recounted how he hurt it in an industrial accident when he was 13 years old and he can no longer bend it.

His family was poor and he had to work in factories during his childhood.

"If I don't go to work I don't get paid, so I went to work and used just one arm," said the 57-year-old presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party.

"The life I've been through is the reason I'm in politics, and the many scars on my body mark the beginning of my policies."

Determined to effect change, Mr Lee studied hard to pass the notoriously tough bar exams and became a human rights lawyer.

He then ran for mayorship in Seongnam city. He succeeded on his second bid in 2010. Eventually, he became the governor of Gyeonggi province.

He is known for being outspoken and pragmatic, and aggressive in pushing for policies that he believes in - such as free uniforms for middle school students, cash handouts of 500,000 won (S$560) a year for young people, and a "labour police" system to prevent industrial accidents.

"All of my policies stem from the experiences, emotions and desperate needs of my people, and I believe that that is the true value and meaning of politics," Mr Lee told The Sunday Times. "If I were to become president, I will not cease to serve, support, and listen to the needs of my fellow Koreans."

Mr Lee, who is married with two sons, has promised to remove social inequalities through policies such as universal basic income and by raising taxes on the wealthy.

During a rally held in front of Bosingak Pavilion, a Seoul landmark on Thursday (March 3), he also vowed to push for greater gender equality.

In addition, he pledged to "overcome the multi-layered crisis that Korea faces", such as the Covid-19 pandemic and being caught in the intensifying US-China rivalry.

"I am a pragmatist," he said. "National interest is my priority."

He acknowledged that US-China strategic competition is fuelling regional tensions, but it will not be easy to decouple the two giants.

In fact, he thinks South Korea, given its security alliance with the US and strategic partnership with China, can help bring about cooperation between the two giants and "expand the scope of our diplomacy, maximising national interests".

Mr Lee also stressed the importance of expanding cooperation with Asean - a continuation of the incumbent Moon Jae-in administration's New Southern Policy.

"Without a doubt, Asean is one of South Korea's most valuable companions and partners," said Mr Lee, adding that he has plans to build deeper and more diverse ties with member nations in areas such as digital standardisation.

Singapore has a special place in Mr Lee's heart and he hopes to make an official visit to the city state if elected as president.

"The basic housing policy I am currently conceptualising is very much inspired by Singapore's housing policy," he revealed. "And I respect that the country has overcome many challenges and achieved rapid growth and modernisation."

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