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Wealth gap set to dominate South Korean presidential race

With approval ratings neck and neck, youth vote seen as key

This montage shows Lee Jun-seok, left, leader of the opposition People Power Party, and Song Young-gil, leader of the ruling Democratic Party. South Korea's two main parties are gearing up for what looks set to be a hard-fought race. (Source photos by AP/Ahn Seong-bok)

SEOUL -- Six months from Thursday, South Korean voters will go to the polls to choose their next president, and the leaders of the two main parties are gearing up for what looks set to be a hard-fought race.

The approval ratings of the ruling progressive Democratic Party and the conservative People Power Party, the largest opposition party, are roughly neck and neck in the run-up to their primaries, which will select the final candidates in October and November, respectively. President Moon Jae-in is closing out his single five-year term and cannot run again.

Speaking with Nikkei, Democratic Party leader Song Young-gil acknowledged that the Moon administration's economic policy fell short on some fronts, including soaring real estate prices, which he says look set to become a central issue in the race. The skyrocketing cost of buying a home has stoked public anger over inequality.

The People Power Party's Lee Jun-seok told Nikkei that he sees the youth vote as key to the outcome and warned of economic disaster if the Democrats remain in power.

Edited excerpts from their interviews follow.

Song Young-gil entered the National Assembly in 2000 and was elected as leader of the Democratic Party in May. (Photo by Ahn Seong-bok)

Song Young-gil, leader of the Democratic Party

Q: What do you think of the Moon administration's track record?

Song: It significantly increased defense spending and revived industries such as semiconductors, which had stalled under [previous President] Park [Geun-hye]. It was lacking when it came to real estate policy. Economic policies such as income-led growth and raising the minimum wage also need to be supplemented.

Q: What will be the focus of the presidential race?

Song: There are five issues. Domestically, there are coronavirus vaccinations and dealing with the surge in property prices. Internationally, there are semiconductors, climate change, and resuming dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea. If we can develop a homegrown vaccine before the election, it would be a big help.

Q: How does the situation look now?

Song: Just after the Seoul-Busan double mayoral election losses in April, there was a sense that a change in government was inevitable, but now it feels like we don't know who the next president will be. It's neck and neck.

Infighting is getting more intense within the opposition, which can be a risk going forward. Former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl led the investigation into [the corruption scandal surrounding] Park, and it's strange to see they are now supporting someone who pressed charges against a president they elected to become the next president.

Q: If Yoon became president, what would happen to South Korean politics?

Song: Lawmakers aligned with the ruling party hold 60% of the National Assembly -- 180 seats. Even after the next president is inaugurated, they will have more than two years left in their terms. In other words, the Democratic Party's overwhelming advantage in the legislature will go on for some time.

If Yoon becomes president, that 60% majority won't stay silent. Yoon has no experience as a lawmaker, so communicating with them would probably be difficult for him. The country likely would end up paralyzed due to a stand-off between the presidential office and the National Assembly.

Q: How should the next administration approach relations with Japan?

Song: Like a husband and wife, there's no choice but to acknowledge each other's differences and move forward with what we can agree on. Cooperation in economic areas is important, for example. And while it hasn't gone well so far, climate change and the coronavirus are also areas where cooperation is possible.

On the forced-labor issue, individual companies are being sued, and I don't think national governments should get involved and make it a foreign policy issue. If the companies can resolve the matter themselves, it would likely burnish their image.

People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok is a 36-year-old Harvard-educated startup founder. (Photo by Ahn Seong-bok)

Lee Jun-seok, leader of the People Power Party

Q: What do you think of the Moon administration's track record?

Lee: It was thrown together in a hurry as a result of former President Park's impeachment, so it wasn't fully prepared. Its policy incompetence was made evident by the surge in property prices, the slowness in securing coronavirus vaccines, and fruitless North-South summits.

The administration made up for that through political tactics. It kept digging up populist cards to play, like retaliation against the last administration, anti-Japanese sentiment and coronavirus disaster relief funds, to stop its approval rating from slipping.

Q: What will be the key to winning the election?

Lee: Who voters in their 20s and 30s choose. Oh Se-hoon won the Seoul mayoral race in April in a landslide with active support from 20- and 30-somethings. My win over Na Kyung-won -- a major political figure -- in the party leadership race in June was thanks to support from 20- and 30-somethings.

This isn't just a passing phenomenon, but a major trend. Traditionally, conservative parties have firm support from people in their 60s, and progressive parties from people in their 40s and 50s.

Regionally, the capital area will be key. Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung will probably be the candidate for the ruling party. He has political experience in the Seoul area, and he's candid and popular. Voters could say, "I don't like the Moon administration, but let's give Lee a chance." Our party's candidate will need to be even more reformist and agile.

Q: What do you think will happen if the Democrats hold on to the presidency?

Lee: They have pushed forward theories that don't appear in economics textbooks, such as "income-led growth," and created havoc for our country. They've rolled out an expansive fiscal policy using COVID as an excuse and deepened the burden for the state.

I don't expect the Democrats to change their agenda when the pandemic dies out. In that scenario, South Korea will follow the path of other nations that were bankrupted by irresponsible spending.

Q: What do you see for Japanese-South Korean relations?

Lee: Regardless of who becomes the next president, the time will come for the need to reestablish a triangular alliance between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. Both Japan and South Korea have built solid alliances with the U.S., but Japan and South Korea do not share a direct alliance.

It would be more accurate to call such a relationship trilateral security cooperation. To go so far as to mention a triangular alliance denotes the fact that the U.S. forms the center of the strong alliances it shares with South Korea and Japan.

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