Ruling party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung lost the presidential election by a paper-thin margin. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

SEOUL “People refer to me as a very progressive liberal, but I think of myself as a pragmatist,” South Korean presidential hopeful Lee Jae-myung declared in Seoul Thursday.

“I have my values and what I want to achieve but I am not a philosopher or an activist,” he said. “I am a person of the people who has been delegated powers to exercise.”

The candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea in next March’s presidential election seemed keen to reassure those in middle Korea who fear his reputation as a leftist firebrand makes him unelectable – the fate suffered by Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

Lee, a former human rights lawyer, city mayor and latterly governor of Gyeonggi, the province that surrounds Seoul, has won fame for implementing widely admired social welfare programs for youth and the elderly.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, he grabbed national headlines for handing out universal basic income, or UBI, in the form of disaster relief payments to Gyeonggi citizens.

He has mentioned his admiration for Franklin D Roosevelt, and his state-led spending that led the US out of the Great Depression. An advocate of battling climate change, he has proposed offering UBI on the national level, with the necessary funds being raised from carbon and property taxes.

What he has not spoken much on, given his status as a provincial, rather than national politician, is foreign affairs and geopolitics.

Speaking fluently – albeit, in very general terms – at a press conference with foreign correspondents, he addressed those issues Thursday.

Boosting self belief, promoting self interest

Many observers find it striking that South Korea – despite its G10 economic status, stable democratic governance, formidable portfolio of global brands, sparkling infrastructure, highly educated populace and globally beloved popular culture – lacks self-confidence.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam pulls into port at Jeju. South Korea depends militarily on its US alliance. Photo: AFP / US Navy

Historically, it has been overawed by greater powers China, Japan and Russia. Today, it relies heavily upon Washington for its security – a relationship in which Seoul is, inevitably, the junior partner.

Domestic newspapers feverishly report Korea’s position in global surveys and rankings. There is constant chatter about how closely (or not) local practices cleave to those of so-called “advanced countries.” Overall, Koreans’ perceptions about their global status may well lag behind the realities of that status.

Now – as Korea is buffeted in the battle between its leading trade partner China and its strategic ally the US Lee said, “We will not be forced into making a decision, but will make choices that are in line with our national interests.”

He argued that the time is nigh for Korea’s voice in global affairs to match its national strength.

“As Korea is joining the race of top-10 economies, and is number six in terms of defense power, it is important to recognize the new status of Korea,” he said. “It is important for us not to be swayed, and to pursue our stance based on national interests.”

He promoted continued upgrades to national muscle – and championed himself as the brain to direct it.

“For a peninsula country to flourish, I believe there are two conditions,” he said. “A very strong national defense, and a leader with a strong commitment to an independent and balanced diplomacy. When those conditions are met, a peninsula can flourish.”

While Korean politicians inevitably talk up the near-sacrosanct US alliance, Lee placed equal emphasis on China.

“My pragmatic diplomacy that puts our national interests first is founded upon the solid advance of the [Korea-US] alliance and the promotion of strategic cooperative relations with China,” he said. “I will cooperate with the US and China in various fields.”

Koreans have mastered multiple fields of national endeavor, but often lack confidence in their achievements. Photo: Tom Coyner

Leading policy toward Pyongyang

In line with his assertions of national confidence – and even though Japan and the United States also see themselves under threat from North Korea’s missiles – Lee argued for Seoul’s primacy in dealings with Pyongyang.

“For the US, that is geographically located at a far distance, the Korean peninsula would be one part of global strategy,” he said. “But for people living on the Korea peninsula, for 80 million people, it is a matter directly related to our future and our very lives.”

In line with the global conventional wisdom, Lee said, “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is something we should be fully committed to.”

However, US-led hardline policies, notably sanctions, have signally failed to halt North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction.  Lee questioned the wisdom of that approach.

“The strong policy stance and pressure that Western countries have wanted and intended – it is difficult to say with 100% conviction that it has worked,” he said. “It does seem that more of a soft policy line would be more effective at this moment.”

He also hinted that he could make efforts to gain sanction waivers.

“In August 2020, I had the experience of getting granted an exemption from UN sanctions for the provision of greenhouse construction material for North Korea,” he said. “I will actively engage with North Korea in humanitarian aid, health and medical cooperation, and green cooperation.” 

He praised US former president Donald Trump for commencing dialog with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which he said was “helpful – a very good approach.” But he criticized Trump’s “Big Deal” approach to the negotiations. “Trying to find an approach that can resolve everything at one go, all at once, was close to impossible,” Lee said.

As for his own line, he said, “I think the very fundamental basis is rebuilding trust…if I cannot trust the counterpart, and the counterpart cannot trust me, there is no way forward.”

To bridge the trust gap, he suggested offering concessions and taking a “long-term approach…that would require a lot of initiatives taken by the South Korean government…with a fine-tuned level of detail.”

Lee praised Donald Trump for summitting with Kim Jong Un, but criticized his attempt to negotiate an all-in-one “big deal.” Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

The old enemy

Turning to Korea’s ever-prickly relations with neighbor Japan, he admitted he had earned a hardline reputation – but insisted it was an unfair characterization.

“The perception that I have made strong, hardline comments against Japan is only looking at one aspect,” he said. “There is a misunderstanding in that regard.”

As many politicians have done, he called for firewalls to be raised in bilateral relations between cultural, economic and political issues.

“We have to resolve historical past and territorial issues,” he said in respect to the endless, and increasingly bitter animosities over Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula, and a pair of islets between the countries occupied by Korea but claimed by Japan.

But those issues, “should be separate from social and economic exchanges,” he said. “That is what I call a two-track approach.”

Lee said that he personally admired Japanese people for their diligence, frugality and good manners, and expressed his “level of respect and love.”

Even so, he returned, repeatedly, to Japan’s historical sins. They range from a highly destructive invasion in the 16th century to the 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula, and still simmering issues of forced laborers and “comfort women.”

“Geographically, Korea and Japan are very close, and historically there have been a lot of cultural exchanges,” he said. “But there have been invasions of Korea by Japan and aggressions made upon the Korean people by Japan.”

Though Washington has long sought to bind the two powerful, Northeast Asia democracies together to deter North Korean and China, Lee, like sitting President Moon Jae-in, ruled out any such military linkage.

“Recently there has been talk of a military alliance between Korea and Japan and the US,” he said. “We have to acknowledge that there was an invasion by Japan and a lot of aggression and sufferings.”

Though Japanese, including emperors, premiers and cabinet secretaries have issued multiple apologies, Lee professed himself unsatisfied, saying there had been a lack of “sincere acknowledgments, or heartfelt apologies.”

And on the issue of war guilt, Lee repeated a commonly held contention: “I believe Japan could take lessons from Germany.”