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South Korea election

Lee Jae-myung wins South Korea ruling party's presidential primary

Street cleaner's son known as populist who backs universal basic income

Gyeonggi  Gov. Lee Jae-Myung attends a ceremony to celebrate Buddha's birthday at Bongseonsa temple in Namyangju, South Korea, on May 19.   © AP

SEOUL -- The son of a street cleaner from outside South Korea's political elite was named Sunday as the ruling Democratic Party's candidate for the presidential election next March.

Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung picked up 50.3% of the vote over three rounds of polling by members of President Moon Jae-in's center-left party and citizens. He beat former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon into second place with 39.1%.

Lee, 56, was born into a poor family in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. After graduating from elementary school, he worked at factories in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province while studying for his middle school and high school diplomas. Lee went on to read legal studies at Chung-Ang University in Seoul and passed the bar in 1986.

He is well known for his clear messages and radical economic policies that include the introduction of a universal basic income. He is nicknamed "Sprite" -- the fizzy drink is a term used by South Koreans a metaphor for a person with an aggressive and unstoppable character.

"I will make the Republic of Korea surpass Japan, catch up advanced countries and finally lead the world," Lee proclaimed after winning the nomination.

Lee built his political career by paying 250,000 won ($210) of "youth dividends" per quarter to 24-year-old Seongnam residents when he was mayor of the city. He has adopted the program in Gyeonggi Province -- a province surrounding Seoul that is the country's most populous -- since becoming governor in 2018.

Such policies explain his popularity among the public, but some economists call him a populist.

"I am afraid that Lee may spend too much money in universal basic income program if he becomes the president, hurting the country's fiscal soundness seriously," said a senior economist at a foreign investment bank, who asked not to be named.

Lee's North Korea policy is similar to the Moon government as he supports engagement with Pyongyang. But he has suggested a "snapback" strategy in denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea, proposing a return to sanctions if Pyongyang does not follow agreements.

On relations with Tokyo, Lee last month took a typical South Korean approach, demanding that Japan apologizes to former comfort women who worked in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

Polls make Lee the favorite to win the presidency, but only marginally ahead of Yoon Seok-youl, the frontrunner for main opposition conservative party, the People Power Party. A survey by Gallup Korea of the four key runners showed that 34% of respondents had good feelings toward Lee, with Yoon getting support from 30%. But in a head to head with Yoon, the poll put Lee at 43% and his main opposition rival at 42%.

Lee also ran for the presidency in 2017, but ranked third in the Democratic Party race behind eventual winner, and now president, Moon Jae-in.

However, prosecutors are investigating a real estate development scandal in Seongnam, south of Seoul, where Lee had been mayor for eight years between 2010 and 2018. The prosecutors' office arrested Yoo Dong-gyu, Lee's aide and a former acting CEO of the city's development company last week, suspecting him to have taken hundreds of millions of won of bribes from businessmen in exchange for helping them take profits of more than 400 billion won ($336 million) in a project.

Analysts say that Democratic Party members are united in trying to protect Lee, while the People Power Party, is accusing him of being involved in the scandal.

"DP members are keen to protect Lee from attacks from the conservative side. They are worried they will hand over power to the opposition due to the scandal," said Park Sung-min, a senior political consultant and head of Min Consulting. "However, centrists may not accept this. It is a risk in the main election."

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