The Korea Herald


[KH Explains] Who is Lee Jae-myung?

Top presidential contender went from poor factory worker to one of the most influential figures in S. Korean politics

By Ko Jun-tae

Published : July 2, 2021 - 14:23

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Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung (Yonhap) Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung (Yonhap)
The life story of Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung, one of the top contenders for the presidential election next March, is a quintessential rags-to-riches tale in South Korea.

His policy initiatives and past works, as well as his political philosophy, have been controversial and criticized by many, but to call the path that he has walked to date as simply dramatic could be an understatement.

From being a young factory worker to assuming the top gubernatorial post of this country, Lee is one of the most influential figures in Korean politics. Affiliated with the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, he could be the one to lead the liberal ruling camp as its final candidate in the coming months.

The Korea Herald seeks to uncover how Lee has risen through the ranks and how his past experiences are tied to his official entry in the upcoming presidential race.

Q. So tell me the basics. What do you mean he has gone from rags to riches?

A. Lee is the fifth of seven children born into a poor farmer’s family in 1964 in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. After graduating elementary school when he was 12, he moved to Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province where he worked at a factory during his school years.

His family reportedly could not afford to send Lee to school anymore, so Lee spent six years as a factory worker and took GED tests to earn his middle and high school diplomas. An injury he suffered while working in the factory exempted him from mandatory military service.

In 1982, he entered Chung-Ang University as a legal studies major with a scholarship. Upon graduating in 1986, he passed the Korean bar exam and became a lawyer in 1989.

He opened up his own office in Seongnam and worked as a labor rights lawyer, a decision which he said was influenced by a lecture from the late former President Roh Moo-hyun.

His legal career in fighting for laborers’ rights eventually led him to the political scene and now sets his sights on becoming Korea’s next president.

Q. How has his political career been?

Lee entered politics in August 2005 by joining the now-defunct liberal Uri Party. He earned the party’s support to run for mayor of Seongnam in 2006 but lost the bid. He ran for a lawmaker seat in the city two years later but lost again.

His first victory as a politician came in 2010 when he was elected mayor for Seongnam on the Our Party ticket. He was reelected for the seat in 2014 to renew his four-year term.

He gained fame for creating a social welfare program exclusively for Seongnam and banning dog meat from Moran Market, which used to be known as the largest dog meat market in Korea since 1960.

While serving as mayor, Lee competed in the 2017 presidential election under the Democratic Party of Korea but fell short and ranked third in the party’s primaries. The loss led him to his successful bid in 2018 for the gubernatorial seat of Gyeonggi Province and his current post.

Q. What and how has he done as Gyeonggi Province governor? Why is he a top contender for the presidential race?

His term has not yet concluded, so it’s still early days to evaluate his performance, but it is evident that Lee has a fan base strong enough to put him as one of the top two contenders for next year’s race at this point.

Lee has made himself known by pushing for improvements in social welfare programs for the province and acting independently from central government initiatives. He is a firm supporter of government-led financial initiatives like the adoption of a universal basic income.

He is labeled by his opponents as populist and was even compared to US Sen. Bernie Sanders, but the direction has clearly helped him up until this point.

The governor also has a strong fan base due to his honest, bold comments on many issues, but of course, that has made a lot of enemies against him, too. He is not on familiar terms with those surrounding President Moon Jae-in in the Democratic Party, and his journey to win the Democratic primaries may not be so easy when Moon supporters are believed to be the majority within the party.

Lee has also been involved in several legal disputes in the past, which had cast doubt on his reputation. While he has been cleared of the charges in July last year, Lee could still face challenges from other presidential candidates on the matter.