At a press briefing in Seoul this week, former Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan, chairperson of the main opposition Democratic United Party, told foreign journalists that when it comes to bringing about peace on the Korean Peninsula, that the positive results in inter-Korean relations achieved by two liberal South Korean presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, began to fade when South Korea’s current conservative hardline president Lee Myung-bak took office. Adding that under the Lee administration, “military clashes between the two Koreas are not uncommon any longer,” the DUP head advocated finalizing discussions regarding a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, saying this would be “a path to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, one of the pending issues that needs our immediate attention, and bringing stable peace to the Peninsula as well as Northeast Asia.”
Moreover, he said, “peace is directly linked to economic issues” and as of last year, South Korea’s national defense budget accounted for 2.7 percent of its GDP. That figure, he said, was much higher than other OECD member nations whose population size was similar to that of South Korea. He explained that “if peace is settled” on the Korean Peninsula, “at least more than 5 billion dollars of our defense expenditure can be immediately injected into implementing policies for improving people’s livelihoods.”
Lee also told foreign journalists that South Korea’s next president should focus on tackling social polarization in Korean society. Lee called such polarization – whether it is between regular and irregular workers, the highly educated or the undereducated, large conglomerates and SMEs (small and mid-sized enterprises), or metropolitan and regional areas – a growing crisis that permeates every aspect of Korean life. He also called it the foremost task Korea must “deal with for the next 20 to 30 years.”
According to Lee, the liberal DUP, including its presidential candidate in the upcoming presidential election in December this year, will have three national visions for coping with social polarization in the future: realizing economic democratization, building a universal welfare state, and achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula and common prosperity in northeast Asia. Of the three, Lee said the first task that needed to be completed was establishing economic democratization by building a nation where ordinary and middle-class citizens would have better perspectives for their future . He said the government should do this by implementing “stable employment policies that can guarantee every individual a certain amount of income,” as well as by paying careful attention to welfare and the “even distribution of goods and wealth.”
As for setting up a universal welfare state, Lee stressed that South Korea needed to proceed with a phased approach. Not only was the Korean economy mainly export-driven and dominated by big conglomerates, he said, but it also lacked experience and consensus regarding welfare policies in addition to being insufficiently aware of the role a country can play in embracing a welfare system for all.
Calling himself a seasoned politician who had been “directly involved in two presidential elections and two Seoul mayoral elections,” as well as one who had been a six-term lawmaker, Lee said he had been “engaged in the political circle for more than 20 years” and was thus well-qualified to offer his opinions for prospects for the upcoming South Korean presidential race in December. He predicted that elections would eventually be “a one-on-one confrontation between the democratic progressive camp and the conservative camp,” with the progressives standing “a good chance of winning the battle.”
Lee said “chances are that the ruling conservative” New Frontier Party will nominate Representative Park Geun-hye, “daughter of a slain South Korean dictator” and the leader among potential presidential candidates in current polls, “as the party’s presidential hopeful.” But he added that “there are limitations to her abilities because she has come this far using her father’s political clout rather than developing her own visions or policies.” He also said “her father’s legacy will tie her down to older ways of thinking and policies that were focused mostly on growth, privileges for the chaebol, standardization, centralization, anticommunism, patriotism and loyalty instead of forging a new future for Korea.”
By contrast, Lee foresees that “a coalition of progressive groups led by the DUP will write a dramatic story over the next five months about nominating a presidential candidate who can win the hearts and minds of the people in the days leading up to the presidential election.” Furthermore, he predicted that his camp “will produce more concrete and feasible campaign pledges for economic democratization, universal welfare and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Finally, Lee said, “We will hold fair and dynamic primaries to decide the final presidential candidate,” adding that those “procedures are designed to increase voter turnout” among younger voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are desperately hoping for social change.
Picture by Jennifer Chang
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