S. Korean mayor rides wave of populism

He looks up to Trump, invokes Duterte, wants to jail Park and meet Kim Jong Un

Mr Lee Jae Myung, mayor of Seongnam city, near Seoul, is tapping into anger in South Korea over corruption and a lack of jobs.
Mr Lee Jae Myung, mayor of Seongnam city, near Seoul, is tapping into anger in South Korea over corruption and a lack of jobs. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SEOUL • He respects United States President-elect Donald Trump and enjoys being compared to Senator Bernie Sanders.

Mr Lee Jae Myung, mayor of a city near Seoul, is rising in opinion polls with about a year to go until South Korea's next presidential election.

He wants to break up the country's biggest companies, meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unconditionally, and throw President Park Geun Hye in jail over an influence-peddling scandal.

"Americans impeached their establishment by electing Trump," Mr Lee, 52, said in a recent interview at his office in Seongnam city. "Our own elections will mirror that."

With populist movements gaining traction globally, Mr Lee is tapping into anger in South Korea over corruption and a lack of jobs. In recent weeks, Seoul has seen some of the biggest protests since the 1980s as ordinary Koreans decry the links between politicians and big business that have stifled competition in Asia's fourth-biggest economy.

Ms Park's approval has dropped to a record low of 4 per cent, Gallup Korea said. Mr Lee - nicknamed Korea's Trump by some of his supporters - moved into third place in presidential polls released in the past week, behind United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and front-runner Moon Jae In, the runner-up to Ms Park in 2012.

While Mr Lee has declared his candidacy, neither Mr Ban nor Mr Moon have committed to running. Mr Lee expects to compete with Mr Moon to be the candidate for the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

While an election is currently a year off, the timetable could quickly accelerate.

If Ms Park were to resign or be removed from office, an election would be held within 60 days.

"Lee's fast rise does seem to suggest that his supporters are sick of business as usual in the Blue House," said Dr Steven Ward, who teaches political science at Chosun University. "Voter discontent with the establishment might very well be high enough to propel a populist into office on the protest vote, and Lee could be that person."

Unlike Mr Trump, Mr Lee, a former lawyer, comes from a working-class family. His left arm bears the marks of an injury after it was caught under a machine in a factory accident when he was a teenager.

He entered politics a decade ago after working as a human rights lawyer in Seongnam - a city that grew with an influx of workers unable to afford homes in Seoul during the country's high-growth years.

With a population of one million, the city now generates some of the highest tax revenue in the country and houses technology companies.

Mr Lee and Mr Trump both use social media to harangue critics and communicate with supporters. During a public speech in September, Mr Lee told a woman her son would die as tragically as the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, after she complained about a yellow-ribbon pin he wore in memory of the tragedy.

After running unsuccessfully for mayor in 2006, Mr Lee was elected in 2010. He said growing income disparities offered him a chance and that South Koreans should not repeat the mistake of American voters, who chose Mrs Hillary Clinton over Mr Sanders in the Democratic primary.

Mr Lee invoked Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in saying that, if he became president, he would eliminate an "establishment cartel" that had catered to dictators including Ms Park's father, Mr Park Chung Hee, and which survived the country's shift to democracy.

His proposal for a "revolutionary" change includes dividing up family-run conglomerates, known as chaebol, and expanding welfare payments for workers.

Mr Lee said he would not hesitate to seek a summit with North Korea if he became president, and would be able to work with Mr Trump should he open negotiations with the isolated nation.

While the US-South Korea alliance should strengthen, he said, Japan should be dubbed a security foe because it has not shown enough contrition for its aggression against Korea in the early 20th century.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline S. Korean mayor rides wave of populism. Subscribe