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Seongnam City Mayor Lee draws attention for ‘grassroot politics’

City officials and supporters describe Lee as Korea’s Bernie Sanders

When U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders joined the fray to be the Democrats’ next presidential candidate in April 2015, he had just 3 percent in the polls. However, several political analysts predicted he could be a dark horse, and appears to have become a reality.

Although Sanders previously had a lot of enthusiastic supporters, his drawback was that he did not have national popularity. However, CNN stated that his stance on solving inequality by reflecting public sentiment in his policies caused his sudden rising popularity.

While it may seem contradictory to see a socialist politician gain widespread popularity in a capitalistic country, his head-on countermeasures on the prevalence of inequality as well as his commoner image have garnered him increasing public support.

Promising to distribute wealth held by a few to the middle and poverty-stricken classes, his determined progressive stance to create a world for the 99 percent is present even within his political party.

Sanders’ increased public support was confirmed when he won the readers’ poll for Time magazine’s Person of the Year last year.

In Korea, Seongnam City Mayor Lee Jae-myeong is drawing the spotlight for his similarities with the U.S. politician.

Born to a poor working family like Sanders, Lee started work at age 12 to help his poverty-stricken family at various factories in Seongnam City, Gyeonggi Province, eventually getting injured in accidents that left him legally disabled with a stunted arm.

Nonetheless, not wanting to give up on his studies, he earned his general equivalency diploma and later graduated from Chung-Ang University majoring in law. In 1986, he passed the state-administered bar examination and started to work as a human rights lawyer to protect the socially weak. He was later elected mayor of Seongnam City by its population in excess of 1 million people in 2010, then reelected in 2014.

Lee was first mentioned in research company Gallup Korea’s nationwide polls with a popularity rating of 1 percent in April 2015, as he was selected as one of the up-and-coming four opposition leaders in Korea. He has since been the topic of several media outlets. 
Seongnam City Mayor Lee Jae-myeong
Seongnam City Mayor Lee Jae-myeong

Lee and Sanders have four main similarities.

First, they both stand against those who have the power of vested rights. Lee is known for not compromising and instead fights against the influential with exclusive power and wealth.

He is especially known to be a public leader as he voices the anger of the citizens and directly confronts those in power for the good of the people.

Although he is only one of 226 mayors of local governments, he has created a number of controversies in the political world. The central government filed a petition against the city of Seongnam for breaching the Framework Act on Social Security, and he in turn filed a case against the president for jurisdiction disputes, which is unprecedented in Korean political history.

Lee also recently started three different welfare programs: free uniforms for first-year middle schoolers, postnatal recovery aid for mothers and funds for young job seekers to help in their search, despite central and local government opposition.

Secondly, Lee and Sanders are both changing the world, and Lee is attempting to change the nation based on his success with Seongnam.

When Lee was elected mayor of Seongnam in 2010, the city declared a moratorium, or bankruptcy, as it was unable to pay off its debt. However, in only three years and six months, Lee was able to repay the debt. Since Seongnam’s finances stabilized, the city has received an “A” grade in its financial evaluation for three years straight, as judged by the Home Ministry.

Lee stated that he first thought that it would take five to six years to repay the debt of 730 billion won ($606.5 million). However, by making sure that the local government’s finances were not wasted, he was able to pay off the debt in half the time.

Lee was able to do this by making sure that his local government received financial inspections nearly every day. Last year, his city received inspections 260 times, which means nearly three out of four days were inspection days.

With the public budget used efficiently, Lee further stated that it would be no problem to finance the expenses of social welfare programs.

Third, both Lee and Sanders ask for active public participation in politics. To successfully drive change in society, Lee emphasizes public efforts. Called Lee Jae-myeong and the Army of Ten Thousand, Lee’s widely formed supporters have been using social media to their advantage. Also known as the Finger Revolutionary Army, the support group continually promotes Lee though social networks.

Moreover, through podcasts and social media, Lee’s public approval rating has increased as he has been able to directly communicate with the public as an active user. Lee also stated that he uses social networking as a tool to fight against false and distorted reports to unveil the truth to the public.

Finally, the two are financially supported by grassroots organizations.

Lee is backed by the power of support groups after reminding the public of their rights and encouraging them to participate in politics.

When asked about a potential presidential candidacy, Lee responded that if he had the chance he would run for presidency, but further stated that he did not have the chance, as he was low in polls, at about 2 to 3 percent. He also stated that it was difficult for him to go against those with power, especially when he brought radical and aggressive policies when the country’s vested rights system was so firmly in place that it resulted in a society where power defined truth.

Meanwhile, when Bernie Sanders’ autobiography was published in Korea, Lee Jae-myeong commented that the reason Sanders was successful was that he focused on the common people and strove to create a hopeful world where they could live happily.

How or whether Lee will grow to become more like Sanders in fighting to create a future for the public is to be keenly watched.

By Park Joung-kyu and Lee Seo-young(