Seoul – President Moon Jae-in may have delivered a crippling blow to South Korea’s opposition, but he also turned a prime minister who once served him into a potential rival within a more powerful ruling party.
Lee Nak-yon, 67, not only led Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea last week to the largest parliamentary victory since the end of military-backed rule more than three decades ago, he personally defeated the leader of the conservative opposition. That makes Lee a power broker in his own right and the presumptive frontrunner to succeed Moon when he’s constitutionally required to leave office in 2022.
While Lee proved himself a loyal Moon lieutenant during his record 31-month tenure as prime minister, the journalist-turned-lawmaker reached beyond the president’s left-leaning base to build his own following with independents. Lee was credited with drawing stronger support from his home region in South Korea’s southwest, which jockeys with Moon’s southeast for influence in the ruling party.
“It is also a warning against Moon and his political bloc to support Lee along the way,” said Park Sung-min, head of Seoul-based political advisory firm MIN Consulting. “The election has made it even clearer that Lee is a clear frontrunner for presidency. So I think quite a big portion of Moon’s bloc will join Lee’s forces.”
The election victory gives Moon, also 67, a freer hand to push policymaking leftward, including goals of reducing income inequality, reforming chaebol conglomerates, and tightening rules on expensive housing development. The Democratic Party, which previously lacked outright control over the 300-seat National Assembly, now leads a coalition with a three-fifths supermajority and can pass legislation without opposition votes.
While the government faces the immediate concern of passing stimulus measures to repair an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic, Moon may also use the chance to push through a controversial reform of the state prosecution system. He could revive a failed proposal to amend the constitution, extend term limits and spare future presidents from a cycle of scandal and gridlock as their influence wanes.
How Lee manages the opportunity will shape his own chances at the nation’s top job. Even before defeating United Future Party leader Hwang Kyo-ahn in a central Seoul legislative district that has produced three future presidents, he was the country’s most favored candidate to succeed Moon, with 22 percent supporting him in a Gallup Korea poll released earlier this month.
“We should take the responsibilities given to us seriously,” said Lee, who has denied aspirations to lead the Democratic Party or run for president. “We’re at a critical moment and there are lots of works to be done.”
Lee’s popularity grew during his stint as prime minister, in which he was known for forceful exchanges with opposition lawmakers and attempts to communicate directly with citizens. During efforts to fight a wildfire on the North Korean border last year, Lee won praise for sitting on the ground with victims to explain the government’s plans.
“It’s a great inconvenience for me to let Lee leave my cabinet, but it would be more appropriate to do so that he can start his own politics,” said Moon in December while announcing Lee’s successor.
Lee was born in 1952 during the Korean War to a couple struggling with poverty and seven surviving children. His deep voice as a boy led some to call him “Grandpa,” one of several nicknames he acquired over the years, including “Lee-tail” for his attention to the minutiae.
After studying at the prestigious Seoul National University — working as a resident tutor to make ends meet — and serving alongside American soldiers in the military, Lee entered journalism. He covered politics for the DongA Ilbo newspaper and spent a few years in Japan as a correspondent.
Former President Kim Dae-jung urged Lee to try politics himself, where he largely avoided controversy during stints as a lawmaker and a regional governor. Most of the legislation he proposed included measures to help farmers, but he tried to cut credit cards fees to help small merchants and raise taxes on chaebol and the wealthy to help pay for social welfare programs.
“For now, Lee’s received by voters as a relaxed liberal who embraces differences,” said Kim Man-heum, head of the Korea Academy of Politics and Leadership.
The election result could test Lee’s ability to stay above the fray. During the campaign, he promised residents in one of Seoul’s most expensive areas that he’ll reduce some taxes for owning home, a pledge likely to run counter with Moon’s pledge to unveil “countless” measures to rein in housing prices.
Lee’s rise leaves Moon with a choice: Support him and hope he protects your legacy. Or wait for some other successor to arise.
“Moon’s own political bloc will split off between those who believe in Lee’s potential, aligning themselves with Lee, and others who don’t trust Lee’s loyalty,” said Park, of MIN Consulting. “For Moon, the most ideal situation would be succession by someone within his political bloc — someone who surely will have his back after leaving office.”