Seongnam City Mayor Lee Jae-Myung:
A Can-do Politician for a Can-do Korea?
“It would be a colossal tragedy if the next generation had a lower standard of living than their parents, but that is where we’re headed”. Bernie Sanders
In June 2016, Mayor Lee Jae-Myung of Seongnam, a city of 900,000 southeast of Seoul, led an 11-day hunger strike to protest the erosion of local democracy in South Korea under the Park administration, as well as the government’s gradual elimination of the already inadequate social services upon which many Koreans depend. Largely ignored by mainstream domestic media, Lee’s protest garnered the support of the majority of opposition party leaders, who regularly visited his hunger strike site along with hundreds of Korean citizens. Thousands more, both in Korea and abroad, followed his cause via SNS, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media venues.
Lee had embarked on his hunger strike to protest the Park administration’s threatened shutdown of Seongnam’s social welfare programs as part of an unprecedented nationwide campaign to undermine the ability of local governments to run publicly funded social-welfare services. Park’s conservative neoliberal administration considers such programs to be a wasteful violation of free-market principles and is determined to shut them down.
Seongnam is among a dwindling number of local municipalities that have elected to provide social welfare assistance for their citizens without central government approval, and under Lee’s leadership, has successfully implemented an ambitious (and popular) number of programs providing childcare, aid for the elderly, and career support for youth. As in other municipalities, in absence of a strong national welfare and social service infrastructure, such programs are a virtual lifeline to many of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. This fact, however, has not deterred the Park administration’s determination to eliminate such programs, and when Lee refused to heed government calls to discontinue Seongnam’s social welfare services, state prosecutors promptly took legal measures against the city.
For months, Lee pled his cause in vain, calling on the Park administration to work with local governments and the National Assembly to develop a consensus-based approach for the administration of locally-funded social services. Systematically ignored by the central government and facing mounting legal pressure, he finally resorted to a hunger strike in order to raise awareness regarding the growing threat to social welfare programs such as Seongnam’s, as well as the increasing centralization of power and continuing erosion of local democracy under the Park administration.
Photo Credit: NP
Lee called off his hunger strike only when he had extracted a pledge from the Minjoo Party, Korea’s main opposition party, to address the issue at the National Assembly. Already well-known for his outspoken progressive politics, Lee’s resilience increased his popularity with the Korean public; an opinion poll taken immediately after the hunger strike placed the mayor as a viable presidential candidate for the next election.
What sets Lee apart from other progressive politicians is his record of transforming his ideas into concrete policies. He espouses result-oriented local politics, as evinced by his motto: “South Korea cannot, but Seongnam can.” Lee was elected in 2010 to lead a near-bankrupt city with a W 520 billion debt. Within four years, Seongnam had not only paid off its debt in full but was actually rated South Korea’ financially healthiest city. Lee accomplished this feat by combining fiscal conservatism with progressive social welfare policies to rescue a city that had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy by neoliberal conservative policies. His policies included:
• A ban on new taxes
• Re-prioritization of city projects to reduce wasteful spending
• Implementation of anti-corruption measures to clean up local politics
• Enactment of policies to reduce the number of irregular workers
• Progressive spending on welfare, education and employment
• Investment in social health services and facilities, including the inauguration of Seongnam’s Public Hospital and the provision of free postnatal care to all new mothers
His result-oriented progressive politics, while enormously popular with the public, caused a strong conservative backlash. The Saenuri party denounced Lee’s welfare policies as the “devil’s whispers”, while President Park Geun-hye’s government, alleging that Lee misused taxpayer money to promote his populist policies, has pledged to check the autonomy of local municipalities by pursuing stiff penalties against those who implement unilateral social welfare reforms. Lee in turn has pledged never to back down in the face of pressure from the central government.
While South Korea’s unitary system puts enormous power in the hands of the central government, progressive politicians like Lee are receiving increasing popular support. That’s becasuse of the disastrous economic state of the nation after two consecutive conservative administrations:
• 48.6% of the country’s elderly live in poverty
• The official youth unemployment rate hit a record high of 12.5% in 2016, while the actual youth unemployment rate is close to 40%
• The top 10 percent of the population accounts for 45% of total income while the bottom 50 percent accounts for only 9.5%
• Chaebol are accumulating larger profits while employing fewer employees and paying lower rates of taxes
• Korea’s income inequality is the worst among 22 countries in the Asia-Pacific region
• South Korea’s share of welfare spending relative to gross domestic product is the lowest among 28 members of the OECD and less than half the OECD average
Can Lee provide the kind of leadership that Korea needs now? Certainly a politician with a track record of transforming a progressive vision into concrete policies is a rarity in contemporary South Korea, where the political landscape is characterized by corrupt neoliberalism, political cynicism, lack of accountability, and the severe repression of workers and unions. Lee’s tenacity and credibility, coupled with his humble roots—he rose from a poor factory worker to a human rights attorney before being elected mayor—has contributed greatly to his popularity among younger and progressive voters, as well as the socially disenfranchised.
Lee himself is self-effacing regarding his popularity. Asked about the attention he drew with his hunger strike, he showed humility: “I am not sure why people make a big fuss about it—I am just doing my job. It is my responsibility to work to improve the lives of the people”.