Don't be fooled by the genteel exterior: Lee Jae-myung is a political player with old-school working-class cred. Image: YouTube

SEOUL Cometh the hour, cometh the man: In the class-centric South Korea that has birthed Oscar-winning blockbuster Parasite and Netflix sensation Squid Game, a champion has emerged.

An outspoken, can-do leftist who promotes the controversial concept of universal basic income, or UBI, Lee Jae-myung confirmed his weekend victory to be the presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, or DPK, after a challenge from the runner up was quashed on Monday.

With the incumbent Moon Jae-in constitutionally limited to a single term, a presidential election will be held next March. The winning candidate enters office in May.

Lee, a former human rights lawyer and the current governor of Gyeonggi – the prosperous province surrounding the capital, Seoul won with 50.29% of all votes cast in primaries, leaving former journalist and ex-prime minister Lee Nak-yon (no relation) with 39.14%.

Not untypically for the Gyeonggi province governor, who operates within a swirl of near-constant strife, his win was not without controversy. The other Lee appealed the results.

But it was to no avail. The governor was confirmed as the DPs candidate by Song Young-gil, the party chairman, on Monday. Then, yet another challenge emerged on Tuesday.

None other than President Moon ordered a prosecution probe into a very South Korean scandal. There have been long-simmering allegations that Lee passed on privileged information to a crony, enabling the amassing of massive profits in Seongnam when the presidential candidate was mayor of that city, south of Seoul, in 2014.

If – as looks likely – Lee’s Teflon skin deflects the allegations, he may bring just the right mix of personality and policies to win the presidency next year. Lee is no champagne socialist. A member of the old-school working class, he is widely seen as a tough, gutter fighter of a politician who gets things done without much caring for legal niceties.

And many want things done – for in defiance of its outward trappings of prosperity, today’s South Korea is a land where many believe that society is desperately unfair. It is those beliefs that have spawned the classist fictions that are Parasite and Squid Game – both of which have captured the insecurities of middle-class angst globally.

‘Parasite’ has shone new light upon South Korean cinema – and magnified social inequalities in the country. Screenshot: YouTube

Poor, angry, tough

Don’t be fooled by the genteel gray hair and business suits. Lee comes from a rough place. In local parlance, the 56-year-old was born with a “dirty spoon” rather than a “golden spoon” in his mouth.

Born the seventh of nine children at a time when Koreans customarily had sprawling families as a counter to a high infant mortality rate, Lee, during South Korea’s breakneck, corner-cutting industrialization drive, labored in factories in the industrial city of Seongnam south of Seoul.

Today a center of the IT industry, it was formally a gritty pot pourri, a town where unfortunates evicted from Seoul and migrants from the countryside gathered. On the shop floor, Lee suffered a debilitating arm injury which he now leverages as a sign of his working-class origins.

Naturally bright, he took advantage of South Korea’s burgeoning education system to study law and climb the socio-economic ladder. In a country that uses continental, rather than common law, bar passers can choose between becoming judges, prosecutors or lawyers.

Lee chose to be a lawyer, specializing in human rights. In that, he followed the late Roh Moo-hyun (president from 2003-2008) and Roh’s disciple, Moon Jae-in (who took power in 2017 and leaves office in 2022).

Like many members of today’s DPK, Lee aligned himself against the authoritarian regime of Chun Do-hwan, the general who seized power via a coup in 1980 and stepped down when South Korea democratized in 1987. Lee has said that a speech by Roh persuaded him to enter politics.

He did that in 2010, winning the mayor’s office in Seongnam, where he thrust through a series of admired welfare reforms. These included free uniforms for school children, free post-natal care and UBI.

UBI, which he subsequently handed out to provincial residents after winning the Gyeonggi governorship, became his flagship policy. It is one of his presidential pledges, as is the provision of 1 million new homes.

President Moon Jae-in was also a lawyer, specializing in human rights. Photo: Handout

Lee is seen as a no-nonsense can-doer.

During the pandemic, he evicted students from a local college to provide bed space – a move which some praised and some criticized for overlooking legal niceties. He also took flak for being discriminatory when he mandated the testing of third-world migrant workers in Gyeonggi.

Lee is a charismatic, if blunt, speaker who likes to refer to the imagined effect of carbonated drinks unclogging digestive systems as a political metaphor.

Professionally, he fits the mold of South Korean presidents and presidential hopefuls. Both Roh and Moon were lawyers, and Lee’s primary win sets up a possible battle between him and yet another ex-legal pro, the leading right-wing People’s Power Party candidate and former prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl, now fighting his own primaries.

Lee has overcome prior scandal allegations with bravura. Dogged by rumors of an affair with an actress, who claimed he had a birthmark on his nether regions, Lee had a medical check-up to disprove the contention, and remarked, when the allegation resurfaced: “Do I need to drop my trousers again?”

That has not been the only rock in his road. He was barraged with criticism when a phone call to his sister-in-law became public. Lee’s language was laced with vulgarities.  

For DPK mandarins, Lee Nak-yon might have been a safer choice. A sophisticated mid-lefter, the ex-prime minister had long political experience and connections in the capital. Not so Lee Jae-myung, whose political experience has been provincial.

Still, the DPK could not have found a candidate more closely in synch with the zeitgeist. 

The sparkling city of Seoul is home to 10 million people – and widespread angst about class inequality. Photo: Robert Koehler

Farewell, ‘Korean Dream’

Korea confounds many. Its national psychology may be captured in a comparison with its bigger neighbor: “While Chinese are capitalist socialists, Koreans are socialist capitalists,” a retired conglomerate chairman told Asia Times.

Viewed through a macro lens, South Korea, which became the world’s tenth richest country in 2020, is extraordinarily successful.

It boasts top-tier national infrastructure, a world-class export portfolio bristling with global brands, a surging startup scene and a popular culture sector that is the region’s envy.

Its cityscapes are characterized by endless, identical apartment complexes that scream equality, and it is rare to see a shabbily dressed person on the streets of a society that appears relentlessly middle class.

Yet on the micro front, there is a surging belief in inequality, reflected, in popular culture, in the Oscar-winning Parasite, the record-smashing Netflix show Squid Game and the rich-poor romance storyline that underwrites so, so many of Korea’s soap operas.

Parasite, which contrasts two households – a scheming clan of underclass grifters and a privileged family of indolent ultra-rich – captured the fears of not just middle-class Koreans, but the world’s bourgeoise. Squid Game, which pits fearfully indebted characters against one another in a savage survival game, reflects stratospheric levels of household debt.

South Korea is partly a victim of its own success.

Having transitioned from agrarian backwater to manufacturing powerhouse within two decades, its economic trajectory was incredibly swift. Amid surging growth, those living in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s were virtually guaranteed decent jobs; amid skyrocketing living standards, they could confidently expect better tomorrows.

Since the 1998 Asian financial crisis, the poor but gentler Korea of yesteryear – as seen in this traditional market – has been replaced by a more cut-throat society in which social insecurities loom large. Photo: Tom Coyner

The “Korean dream” – a university education, a stable, white-collar job and an apartment – beckoned to all.

Then, in 1997, the shock Asian financial crisis wiped out lifetime employment while exposing the corrupt relationships that had united government, finance and business. Korea exited the crisis with a V-shaped recovery and a recession-proofed economy, but subsequent economic maturity, slowing growth and conglomerate offshoring saw white-collar jobs dwindle.

That generated social stresses. Moreover, in an effort to accelerate the economy out of the crisis, Seoul had loosened all conditions for mortgage and credit cards. As job competition became savage, South Koreans seeking to enter top universities spent massively on cram schools – banned under authoritarian governments.

Meanwhile, apartment prices in the Seoul metropolitan area continued to soar. Prosperous South Koreans prefer to speculate in brick-and-mortar rather than capital markets. This situation pushed those desperate to mount a rung on the property ladder at almost any cost in debt. As of last year, failure to reign in metropolitan real estate prices has been an Achilles heel of the DPK.

The result of all the above was massive debt burdens.

According to recent reports, household debt now stands at 103% of national GDP. By contracts, that of the US is 79.5% and the UK, 90%. That makes Koreans the seventh most indebted people among 43 countries followed by the Bank of International Settlements.

This combination of factors – elite power abuse; an overeducated populace piling into an under-performing job market; rising debt combined with rising home prices – shattered the Korean dream. Many young Koreans now refer to their country as “Hell Joseon.” The latter word references a pre-modern Korean kingdom.

While the homelessness, drug addiction, begging and violence seen among youth in many Western cities is largely invisible in Korea, social discontent is bubbling away. This is seen in high youth under-employment, the OECD’s highest overall suicide rates, a fall-off in marriages and births and a demographic plunge.

Assessing Lee

Given these many issues, Lee – who has been compared to Donald Trump for his unconventionality and to Bernie Sanders for his leftism – may be the man in 2022.

The classist horror/fantasy/drama Squid Game is Netflix’s biggest property ever. Photo: Netflix

Two questions are germane. Do enough South Koreans believe they, indeed, live in a highly unequal society that needs fixing? Or – given a situation where older, more conservative voters might consider the inequality complaints of the young to be those of a pampered demographic – could Lee find himself a Jeremy Corbyn/Bernie Sanders-type figure who is too radical for the mainstream?

“I don’t know if Lee is the man to fix things, but the DPK thought that a gentleman like Moon could soothe things over but Moon, this conciliator, now seems lost,” said Kim Sung-nam, a college instructor based in Seoul’s port city of Inchon.

“This man comes from an underclass background, he did not have the upper middle-class upbringing that a lot of social elites come from, and his bend-the-rules thuggishness may get things done.”

Noting that the former city of Seongnam where he cut his political teeth as a wealth redistribution politician today enjoys generous tax revenues from the IT sector, one voter questioned how feasible Lee’s plans are on the national level.

“The big question is whether his policies are viable,” said Shin Hee-seok, a lecturer at the Catholic University of Korean and a human rights activist. “How will he finance these extravagant plans – and is this the best way to address the wealth gap?”

And is narrowing the wealth gap the best battleground to fight an election on?

According to Statista, citing 2019 data, South Korea’s GINI co-efficient is “on the lower end of the scale” suggesting relatively healthy income equality. And in a ranking of 157 nations by GINI co-efficient complied by the World Bank, South Korea was way low down the list in 134th place – a better positioning than the more unequal France, Ireland, Germany, Japan and the UK.

Still, perceptions of unfairness and injustice are widespread. Shin is convinced that Korea has indeed reverted to a more damaging lifestyle than was the case previously.

“Before the 1990s, we had a more paternalistic, corporate state model with lifetime employment,” Shin said. “But people [after the Asian financial crisis] have experienced a more brutal capitalist economy. That kind of change is stark.”

Even so, there are cultural issues at play.

“South Korea is a very tight-knit society, so people can feel this disparity much more easily than in other countries,” admitted Shin, noting that locals are “passionate and emotional.”

This means that, while Parasite and Squid Game may massively magnify the issue, the perceptions their plotlines are based upon have emotive force.

Squid Game is made about the archetypal Korean personalities that people think have got stuck in ‘Hell Joseon,’” said Lisa Espinosa, who covers Korean film for Han Cinema. “There is this perception that Koreans have to break themselves out of it.”