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South Korea's presidential favorite seeks crushing win in party poll

Former prime minister and Japan hand Lee Nak-yon faces a tough political battle

South Korea's former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon is known to be knowledgable on Japan.    © Reuters

TOKYO -- A "20-month political battle" is now underway in South Korea as Lee Nak-yon, the front-runner in the race to succeed President Moon Jae-in, faces his first challenge in the ruling Democratic Party's Aug. 29 leadership election.

The progressive party's upcoming leadership election will likely be a two-way race between former Prime Minister Lee, who is known as a top Japan expert in South Korea's political world, and former Interior and Safety Minister Kim Boo-kyum. 

Most important for Lee is a significant victory in the party vote, which would further boost his prospects in the South Korean presidential election in March 2022.

The outcome of the 20-month political battle in South Korea will also affect the future of the country's relations with Japan, which have been strained in recent years over history-related issues. There are growing hopes for a breakthrough in bilateral ties under Lee.

Various opinion polls have shown Lee far ahead of his potential rivals in the South Korean presidential race. Although one recent survey shows Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung narrowing his gap with Lee Nak-yon to less than 10 points, the latter is still keeping a wide lead.

Lee Jae-myung, also from the ruling Democratic Party, has gained enthusiastic supporters thanks to his extreme remarks and ability to take action. He is also known as a hard-liner on Japan.

South Korea's Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung is gaining popularity but still trails the frontrunner by a significant amount.    © Reuters

Former Prime Minister Lee is well-versed in Japan. In 2004, he talked to a Nikkei reporter who visited his native South Jeolla Province to cover that year's general election about his impression of Japan during his time there in the 1900s. He said in Japanese: "Isogashii (busy), shinsetsu (kind), kirei (clean)."

Lee worked in Japan for a little over three years from 1990 as a Tokyo correspondent for the Dong-A Ilbo, a major conservative newspaper. 

While in Japan, Lee built a network of personal connections so energetically that his boss at the time was astonished. Recalling that time, he said, "It carried more than half of the weight of my 21-year life as a journalist."

Lee still speaks fluent Japanese. Since entering politics at the invitation of former President Kim Dae-jung, he has also served as a precious conduit between South Korea and Japan despite belonging to progressive forces, which are particularly critical of Japan over history issues.

Lee visited Japan secretly one month before being nominated as prime minister by President Moon in May 2017. While in Japan, he met with university professors and listened to their views on bilateral ties of the time and the Japanese political world's perception of South Korea.

In October 2019, Lee visited Japan to attend Emperor Naruhito's enthronement ceremony. During his stay in Tokyo, he also held talks with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe.

Lee also explored a breakthrough on the dispute over compensation for Koreans who were forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II. He did so as an official in charge of the South Korean government task force on the issue, the most contentious between the two Asian neighbors.

But it also became clear that there is a limit to what a South Korean premier can do in a country where power is concentrated in the hands of the president.

Given the current South Korean political atmosphere, being an expert on Japan could be a liability rather than an asset.

Forming the core of the Blue House and the Democratic Party are former leaders of student movements and citizen groups.

On the security and economic fronts, many in the presidential office and the ruling party also favor a conciliatory approach to North Korea while seeking to eliminate the influence of the U.S. and Japan.

Former Prime Minister Lee belongs to an intraparty group of former President Kim Dae-jung's followers, which has its stronghold in the Jeolla-do region in southwestern South Korea.

Lee's group is positioned as a non-mainstream faction in the party under the administration of President Moon. The mainstream intraparty faction is a pro-Moon group of former President Roh Moo-hyun's followers.

Lee and Kim Boo-kyum, a former parliamentary member who served as interior and safety minister in the Moon administration, are likely to face off in the upcoming party leadership election.

South Korea's former Interior and Safety Minister Kim Boo-kyum in 2017. 

Although Kim is also seen as a potential presidential candidates, Lee is widely believed to have the upper hand.

The main opposition United Future Party suffered a resounding defeat in the April general election. The conservative party is now rushing to find a presidential candidate, hoping for a young reformist familiar with economic affairs.

But the United Future Party's declining atmosphere cannot be denied, as conservative forces are fractured. For many years, South Korea has seen conservative and progressive presidents become occupants of the Blue House alternately every 10 years.

That trend may still apply in the 2022 presidential election. There is believed to be a strong possibility of Moon's successor being elected from progressive forces again.

Although there is no one in the opposition camp who can be called former Prime Minister Lee's rival, his "formidable rival" is believed to appear from within the ruling camp in the future.

The mainstream pro-Moon faction in the ruling Democratic Party did not field its own candidate for the upcoming party leadership election, sparking speculation about the move within the country.

Some political pundits said that the faction made the move to avoid making it appear to be disrupting Lee's activities even as he supported the Moon administration.

Other political pundits said the faction has decided to take a wait-and-see attitude, because if its own candidate loses, the management of government and selection of the party's presidential candidate will be affected.

Former Prime Minister Lee "has abundant administrative experience, including as a provincial governor, but his (political) finesse is still untested in Yeouido," said one diplomatic source involved in relations between Japan and South Korea.

Yeouido in Seoul is the political district equivalent to Japan's Nagatacho and Washington's Capitol Hill. South Korean politics has a history of repeating blood-and-guts factional struggles.

The South Korean presidential race will go into full swing in March next year, just a year before the presidential election.

Many observers say that even if Lee wins the upcoming party leadership election, the pro-Moon faction will put up a rival candidate in a party presidential primary in a bid to take the initiative in the presidential vote.

South Korea's former Justice Minister Cho Kuk gets into a car in Gwacheon, South Korea, on Oct. 14, 2019. 

One person President Moon has in mind in the mainstream faction is said to be former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who became famous, even in Japan, for a string of scandals involving his family.

Among the names mentioned within the pro-Moon faction are Lim Jong-seok, a former chief of staff to the president. As a university student, Lim headed a pro-North Korea student group.

Former Prime Minister Lee's supporters are concerned that he might be labeled as "pro-Japan" by rival political forces. They also think expectations for Lee's presidency in Japan could reflect negatively on him.

Lee recently declined a request to become chairman of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union, a group of South Korean lawmakers promoting ties with Japan, said sources familiar with the matter.

If Lee is to prevail in the 20-month political battle, he will have to demonstrate a crushing victory in the upcoming party leadership election both internally and externally first.

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