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Lee Nak-yon, 'man of prudence' with experience in administration and politics

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Lee Nak-yon, a presidential contender of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, delivers a speech during a regional primary event of Gangwon Province, held at Oak Valley Resort Convention Center in Wonju, Sunday. He ranked second after Gyeonggi Provincial Governor Lee Jae-myung. Yonhap
Lee Nak-yon, a presidential contender of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, delivers a speech during a regional primary event of Gangwon Province, held at Oak Valley Resort Convention Center in Wonju, Sunday. He ranked second after Gyeonggi Provincial Governor Lee Jae-myung. Yonhap

This article is the second in a series on the major presidential contenders' leadership styles, campaign promises, strengths and weaknesses, as well as career histories ― ED.

By Jung Da-min

Former ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) Chairman Lee Nak-yon has been called a "man of prudence, seriousness and balance."

His supporters point to his rationality and ability to make balanced decisions after listening to conflicting parties, as having enabled him to succeed in managing various administrative and political positions stably, but the same attributes have also given him the image of being unable to make swift decisions in urgent situations.

Reflecting this, the support rate for Lee as a potential presidential hopeful that had been highest for nearly a year in 2020, has fallen significantly, and he is now the second-most popular contender after Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung. The gap between the front-runner and Lee is quite wide: in the DPK's regional primaries for Daejeon, Sejong, North and South Chungcheong provinces, Daegu, north Gyeongsang Province and Gangwon Province, the Gyeonggi Province governor gained an accumulated 51.41 percent of support from party members and the general public to and former DPK head Lee's 31.08 percent.

Against this backdrop, Lee had to redefine his election strategy to find a breakthrough in the upcoming rounds of the primary. He began by announcing, Sept. 8, that he would give up his National Assembly seat to concentrate fully on his presidential campaign. His resignation was passed at an Assembly plenary vote, Wednesday.

Whether this brinkmanship will come to fruition will be shown in the upcoming primaries to take place through Oct. 10. If nobody takes more than half of the total votes, a final round will be held four to five days later.

Lee Nak-yon, a presidential contender of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, announces that he will give up his National Assembly seat to concentrate fully on his presidential campaign, during a press conference at Gwangju Metropolitan Council, Sept. 8. Yonhap
Lee Nak-yon, a presidential contender of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, announces that he will give up his National Assembly seat to concentrate fully on his presidential campaign, during a press conference at Gwangju Metropolitan Council, Sept. 8. Yonhap

Prudent leadership becomes double-edged sword

Although now in second, Lee, a five-term lawmaker and former DPK chairman, is a strong presidential contender who could appeal to wide range of voters regardless of their political inclinations, due to his image as a veteran politician who has held many important positions including that of prime minister post and governor of South Jeolla Province, political watchers said. Before serving as the DPK chairman, Lee was prime minister to President Moon Jae-in and set a record of holding the position for the longest period since Korea adopted the direct presidential election system in 1987.

The journalist-turned-politician is well recognized for his stable and skillful speech and writing abilities. His image as a prudent but keen politician who issues impactful messages led him to enjoy high popularity while serving as the prime minister. At the time, he left a good impression on the public with his displays of taking memos at disaster scenes or during trips to various regions while listening to the difficulties of local staff and the hardships of members of the public.

President Moon Jae-in enters the presidential press room in Cheong Wa Dae to announce his nomination of then-South Jeolla Province Governor Lee Nak-yon, at the rear, as his first prime minister, in this May 10, 2017 photo. Korea Times file
President Moon Jae-in enters the presidential press room in Cheong Wa Dae to announce his nomination of then-South Jeolla Province Governor Lee Nak-yon, at the rear, as his first prime minister, in this May 10, 2017 photo. Korea Times file
Lee had long topped polls of prospective presidential candidates, for almost a year, but his popularity began to decline after he became the DPK chairman in August last year. Political watchers attributed his failure to win public support as the ruling party chief to his "too prudent" leadership style as he failed to impress party supporters as well as the public while "procrastinating" in making decisions on pending issues.

For example, some said Lee needed to show his leadership by mediating the sharp conflicts between former Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl over the Moon government's prosecutorial reform policies.

Some political watchers also said Lee failed to present his own political vision or a clear political message.

"Lee's strong point is that he could appeal to the general public outside the DPK with his image as a reasonable politician, as he has often taken a neutral attitude rather than siding with enthusiastic supporters of the party on contentious political issues. But this has ironically become his weak point in the DPK's primary to select its presidential candidate as he failed to win support from the party members," said Cha Jae-won, a professor of special affairs at the Catholic University of Pusan.

"Lee is a veteran politician and his leadership is moderate and elegant, but the problem is that he failed to present a clear political vision of his own or policy promises which show his own ideas."

Less polished pledges

For policy promises, he vowed to alleviate economic polarization by increasing the proportion of the middle class to 70 percent from the current 57 percent, while fostering high-tech sectors such as artificial intelligence, bio-technology, electric vehicles and hydrogen powered cars.

As to housing, which has been one of the Moon government's policy failures, Lee has pledged to transfer the function of Seoul Airport in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, which is a military airport, to Gimpo International Airport and instead use the site to build 30,000 apartment homes ― a promise which many experts say lacks feasibility.

To deal with the ever decreasing birthrate, Lee promised to provide 1 million won monthly to parents until a child turns five years old.

For diplomacy and security, he said he would inherit the peace diplomacy of former President Kim Dae-jung, former President Roh Moo-hyun and President Moon, to continue the liberal governments' engagement policy toward North Korea.

Lee Nak-yon, a presidential contender of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, leaves Seoul National Cemetery, where former President Kim Dae-jung is buried, after paying his respects to the late president, Sept. 7. Joint Press Corps
Lee Nak-yon, a presidential contender of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, leaves Seoul National Cemetery, where former President Kim Dae-jung is buried, after paying his respects to the late president, Sept. 7. Joint Press Corps
Jung Da-min damin.jung@koreatimes.co.kr


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