Lee Jae-myung, the presidential nominee of South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party of Korea, has odds of below 50:50 for winning in the election next March. This forecast is based on the results of recent opinion polls in which nearly 60 percent of respondents expressed desire for a change of power. A crucial variable is whether the opposition community will be able to produce a single candidate to take on the 57-year-old governor of Gyeonggi Province.
Lee and the Democratic Party still have confidence in the extension of the left-wing rule because they believe opposition unity is unlikely. The current four-way nomination contest in the main opposition People Power Party will be finalized on Nov. 9, just four months before the election date. Even the rest accept the result of primaries, there are other right-wing groups vowing to put forward their own candidates.
The People Power Party, now presided over by a 36-year-old reformist, is still looking for effective leadership after more than four years in opposition. It is slowly gaining support from people weary of the Moon Jae-in administration’s economic failures and the behavioral improprieties of the group in power. As the main opposition party recruited Yoon Seok-youl to borrow the high popularity of the former prosecutor general, intraparty competition heated up.
So, the fate of Lee Jae-myung will largely depend on how neat the opposition slate will be. Coming to the polls, however, he has to negotiate a big hurdle -- the Daejang-dong scandal. The suspected graft between local business and administration now under prosecution and police investigation can make or break the sustainability of the ruling party candidate.
Lee had boasted he conceived the whole project while he was serving as the mayor of Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, which includes the former woodland known as Daejang-dong. As it was exposed that a handful of private businessmen divvied up huge profits from the housing project, Lee asserts he played no direct part in it, having taken not a single won or penny from it, and would only take moral responsibility for misdeeds that may have been committed by his former underlings.
Seongnam, now a relatively affluent autonomous city, was one of Seoul’s suburban areas where forced evacuees from the capital city’s redevelopment projects were resettled in the 1970s. Lee started his legal practice there after he passed the state judiciary examination, a great feat for the self-educated man who had spent years in daytime factory labor and nighttime study. Defending poor people in court, Lee set his sights on politics and succeeded in the mayoral election in 2010, after failing once before.
Over the past few decades, Seongnam grew rapidly with the construction of upscale residential blocks and information technology complexes in the Bundang and Pangyo districts. Lee rose to the national political stage by running in the presidential by-election following Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in 2017. Defeated by Moon Jae-in in the Democratic Party primary, Lee was elected in Gyeonggi Province the following year.
Since his days as Seongnam mayor, Lee has meticulously built up a Santa Claus image with emphasis on universal welfare programs and giveaways to the poor based on relatively heftier municipal revenues. The Daejang-dong case where several businesspeople of dubious backgrounds split up huge earnings created on the pains of small landowners and apartment buyers can destroy whatever popularity Lee has earned with his leftist platforms.
Two main players in the scandal have been arrested on suspicion of bribery and causing a loss to the city, while a third who provided investigators with tapes of his conversations with other partners remains free. The fourth, Kim Man-bae, who is the key architect of Daejang-dong and had the largest share of the “dividends,” avoided arrest as the prosecution failed to produce sufficient evidence. Lee denied anything beyond plain acquaintance with them.
Daejang-dong has come on to the center stage of South Korea’s preelection politics, pushing aside national security and the economic agenda. Opposition mouthpieces are calling on prosecutors to take stern actions against Lee, appealing to their dedication to the truth and warning of consequences to their professional career in the event they fail to establish justice. Lee and his supporters dismiss the opposition offensive as a witch hunt for the presidential campaign.
When former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon was finally eliminated in the Democratic Party primary, People Power Party strategists silently welcomed the outcome because they regard Lee Jae-myung as a more defective and easier foe to fight. They believed that the Democratic Party nominee will only add his credentials as an untrustworthy politician when he denies involvement in the Daejang-dong scandal on top of his many denials of the mistakes he made on his rather speedy rise to political prominence.
His earlier dismissals of allegations were related to an affair with an actor whom he met as her legal counsel and his arranging of a forced admission of his brother into a mental hospital using his position as Seongnam mayor. He tackled the former with the inspection of his body at a hospital to disprove the actor’s claim of a hidden physical feature and closed the latter with a Supreme Court decision.
This second charge could have been politically lethal to Lee because if convicted he was to be disqualified from taking public office forever. An appeals court had found him guilty of violating the election law for lying about the forced mental treatment of his brother in a public debate. While Lee’s final appeal was pending in the Supreme Court, Kim Man-bae, Lee’s alleged acquaintance, met a senior Supreme Court justice eight times. Soon after the top court acquitted Lee, Justice Kwon Soon-il retired and was employed by Kim’s office as a legal adviser.
The People Power Party has sued Kwon on charges of bribery, breach of public servants’ code of ethics and violation of legal counseling rules for his role in the final Supreme Court ruling in favor of Lee. Accusations against Lee are still largely circumstantial, and there are doubts that current investigations will go beyond the four known collaborators.
But the people’s verdict is a different matter. That will be handed down on March 9, 2022, by voters who will have reviewed all suspicions raised by the media and the opposition party, the authorities’ findings in Daejang-dong and, most importantly, the personal integrity the ruling party nominee showed of himself in making his defense. Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com