The 36-year-old leader of South Korea’s biggest opposition party said his fellow millennials will push back against Chinese "cruelty” in places like Hong Kong, indicating a tougher line with Beijing if his political group regains power.
Harvard-educated Lee Jun-seok, the newly installed leader of the People Power Party, said in an interview with Bloomberg that generational change is taking place and that he aims to harness it at home to return his conservative group to the presidency, and abroad to revisit Seoul’s relations with the international community.
"We’re definitely going to have to fight against the enemies of democracy,” Lee, the youngest person ever selected to lead a major South Korean political party, said from his office Friday. Lee, who took part in Hong Kong protests in 2019, said the pro-democracy movement in the Asian financial hub was reminiscent of South Korea’s campaign in the 1980s that toppled its autocratic government.
"The younger generation definitely cares a lot about democracy," Lee said. "I was born in 1985 and the Korean people earned, or acquired democracy in 1987. We were definitely born given the privilege of democracy. This younger generation believes that if people of other countries are deprived of such a privilege, we feel sorry for them.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration is filled with people who were part of pro-democracy protests in the 1980s. Moon has walked a fine line with China, his country’s biggest trading partner, taking a softer tone than the U.S. and European Union in criticizing moves from Beijing they say are suppressing autonomy in Hong Kong and causing forced labor in Xinjiang.
South Korea was conspicuously absent in a joint statement from the U.S. and 20 of its allies that criticized a crackdown by Hong Kong authorities on the outspoken Apple Daily newspaper and its staff. The statement over the weekend from the "Media Freedom Coalition” called on Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to uphold press freedom "in line with China’s international legal obligations.”
The Moon government has pledged to protect human rights but has faced criticism from the opposition for not taking a stronger stand against countries faulted for their records like China and North Korea. "I can definitely say the Moon administration is leaning towards China,” Lee said, adding that the Korean public is "not happy about it.”
Moon’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the Foreign Ministry has previously stated it supports Hong Kong’s "high degree of autonomy” in accordance with China’s "one country, two systems” principle.
Lee is also staking out new territory for the conservative bloc toward China, after Park Geun-hye — its last leader to become president — courted Beijing as she sought to better diplomatic and commercial ties.
Moon’s single five-year term ends in 2022 and one of Lee’s biggest tasks will be finding a conservative candidate to lead his party’s charge. Lee’s too young to run, with the South Korean constitution requiring a person be at least 40 to become president.
Lee also had questions about the current policy with the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un, a year older than the PPP leader. Lee said the North Korean system has little to offer now when it comes to unification. "Do we want to preserve anything from their economic system? I say no.”
"It’s a different relation from before. That almost means that it could be a little harder negotiation with the North because we have nothing to lose now but they have everything to lose,” Lee said.
For the North's Kim, Lee had harsh words.
"He studied in a Western school, I heard, and that means he knows the values of democracy and social systems of a developed country," he said. "Then, why is he acting in such a way?”
In the interview, Lee also addressed the meaning of democracy for younger South Koreans.
"I am pretty confident that they are actually looking forward to the next presidential election coming up in March. They believe that they can change the nation.”
On the topic of a possible presidential bid in 2027, Lee was clear.
"Definitely no. I believe if you were to run for presidency, you have to be prepared to debate in global situations for your people, and I need more training.”
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