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Yoon, Lee end first talks with differences, agree to meet more

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : April 29, 2024 - 18:32

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President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) and the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea leader Rep. Lee Jae-myung pose for a photo after their first meeting since Yoon was inaugurated, at the presidential office in Seoul on Monday. (Presidential office) President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) and the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea leader Rep. Lee Jae-myung pose for a photo after their first meeting since Yoon was inaugurated, at the presidential office in Seoul on Monday. (Presidential office)

President Yoon Suk Yeol held talks Monday with Democratic Party of Korea Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung for the first time since taking office in May 2022, seeking the possibility of bipartisan cooperation after the opposition party's sweeping victory in the general election earlier this month.

Lee, Yoon's former presidential rival, said his party would cooperate with the ruling bloc with regard to thorny issues such as the government's standoff with the medical circles that has left the remaining staff in teaching hospitals fatigued due to a staffing shortage; a sweeping rental housing scam associated with South Korea's unique "jeonse" scheme to rent a house with a lump sum of money; as well as the reform of the public pension, which is projected to deplete faster with the unfolding population crisis.

The meeting ended with the differences on other domestic issues producing no official agreement, but the two agreed to meet more after the meeting which lasted over two hours.

On Lee's request to endorse the opposition party's campaign promise to provide 250,000 won ($182) in cash handouts to the entire population, Yoon suggested offering "more effective ways of lending a helping hand to the underserved," citing fiscal constraints and the possibility of the universal scheme further raising inflation.

Also, Lee expressed his regret over Yoon's repeated use of his veto power to strike down opposition-sponsored bills aimed at launching special probes into several issues.

Lee called for a special probe into the 2022 Itaewon crowd crush, which resulted in the deaths of 159 individuals.

Yoon's media aide told reporters after the meeting that the president sympathized with the need to launch a renewed investigation, but told Lee that the Democratic Party's proposal has a "legal glitch" that should be resolved before resuming the discussion.

President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) and the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea leader Rep. Lee Jae-myung talk during their first meeting since Yoon was inaugurated, at the presidential office in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) and the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea leader Rep. Lee Jae-myung talk during their first meeting since Yoon was inaugurated, at the presidential office in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

Lee also urged the president to agree to a special investigation into suspicions surrounding a Marine's death and address concerns regarding his family, potentially referring to first lady Kim Keon Hee.

The opposition bloc has accused his administration of coercing the investigator in charge into abandoning charges against a division commander over the death of Marine Cpl. Chae Su-geun. Chae died after being swept away by the flash flood during a rescue operation in which he lacked safety equipment.

The opposition has also pointed to law enforcement's failure to take action against the first lady over her alleged involvement in a stock price manipulation scheme in the early 2000s and alleged violation of anti-graft rules in a high-profile "Dior bag" scandal while Yoon was in office.

According to Yoon's office, those two subjects were not touched upon during their closed-door talks.

Meanwhile, Yoon asked Lee to create a three-way consultative body involving the ruling party, the main opposition party and the government.

Accompanying the landmark meeting were Yoon's Chief of Staff Chung Jin-suk; Hong Chul-ho, senior presidential secretary for political affairs; and Lee Do-woon, Yoon's senior secretary for public relations affairs. From the main opposition, Rep. Jin Sung-joon, the party's chief policymaker; Rep. Cheon Jun-ho, Party Chair Lee's aide; and Rep. Park Sung-joon, the party's senior spokesperson, attended the meeting at the presidential office.

The meeting was held at a critical time when Yoon faces the challenge of restoring his popularity following a landslide defeat of the ruling bloc in the April 10 general election.

The main opposition and its satellite party won 175 seats combined out of 300 at the National Assembly in the election, enough to single-handedly pass a bill but not enough to override a veto by the president.

Yoon's approval rating has been on a downtrend for the past three weeks, hitting 30.2 percent, the lowest since August 2022, in a Realmeter poll Monday. The rating dropped 7.1 percentage points over the past three weeks, compared with the preelection figure.

Another poll on Friday by Gallup Korea showed that Yoon's weekly approval rating remained in the 20 percent range for the second consecutive week.

Lee Do-woon, senior presidential secretary for public relations, speaks to reporters after the meeting of President Yoon Suk Yeol and Democratic Party Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung on Monday. (Yonhap) Lee Do-woon, senior presidential secretary for public relations, speaks to reporters after the meeting of President Yoon Suk Yeol and Democratic Party Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung on Monday. (Yonhap)

Before Monday's meeting, Yoon was the only South Korean President not to formally meet the main opposition leader within the first 112 days or more in office.

Lee, for his part, is facing multiple criminal allegations, including one regarding the high-profile Daejang-dong land corruption scandal in southern Gyeonggi Province. Yoon was quoted as saying by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo in September that his meeting with a person currently on criminal trial "could be seen as unfair."

Yoon took a U-turn from his stance in the wake of the election defeat, by saying he was "open to meeting" opposition party leaders because there is "nothing he can't do for the sake of the people" on April 16, as polls showed Yoon's lack of communication had dampened his popularity.

On April 22, Yoon told reporters that he invited Lee "to listen to what Chair Lee has to say."

Representatives of Yoon's office and their Democratic Party counterpart met twice the previous week, as they were at odds over whether the topics for discussion and the relevant arrangements should be complete before the meeting. But on Friday, Lee said he would push ahead for a meeting with Yoon because time was running out.