The Korea Herald


[Election 2022] From ex-factory boy to presidential candidate, Lee Jae-myung aims high

By Kim Young-won

Published : March 6, 2022 - 09:21

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Presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea asks for support from female voters during a campaign rally held in Jongno-gu, central Seoul, on Thursday. (Joint Press Corps) Presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea asks for support from female voters during a campaign rally held in Jongno-gu, central Seoul, on Thursday. (Joint Press Corps)

Ruling party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung calls himself a person that is "unbreakable" as he has overcome various obstacles starting with his impoverished childhood, and he wants to prove it again in the March 9 election.

Known to be an aggressive public administrator, the former Seongnam mayor and Gyeonggi governor emphasizes that he is the one who can overcome the COVID-19 crisis, drive economic growth with fairness and bring national unity.

In the modern Korean vernacular, Lee was a "dirt spoon" -- as opposed to a "gold spoon" -- who was born poor and had little hope for social mobility.

Lee was born into dire poverty in the southeastern city of Andong, the seventh of nine children, in 1964. He walked 5 kilometers to go to his elementary school but often missed his classes to help his family's work.

At age 12, his family moved to Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, where Lee worked at various factories, damaging his sense of smell and an arm in the process. With no money to get treatment, he grew up with a bent left arm, making him a person with physical impairment.

Struggling from harsh working conditions, Lee started to study even though he was unable to go to school during the day after learning that most of his factory managers at the time were high school graduates.

After passing middle school and high school via qualification exams, he decided to study more. He was eventually admitted to Chung-Ang University in Seoul on a scholarship and studied law.

Lee then went all-in to pass the state bar exam and achieved his goal in 1986 after two tries.

Though he was able to work as a judge or a prosecutor as his scores from the judicial training institute were high, he decided to become a human rights lawyer after being inspired by a lecture given by former President and liberal icon Roh Moo-hyun.

He then opened his office in Seongnam, south of Seoul, which has become his second hometown. In 1991, he tied the knot with Kim Hye-kyung, a piano major. The couple now has two sons.

Lee said he decided to enter politics after the Seongnam City Council rejected a bill to build a public medical institution in the city that was proposed by him and other citizens in 2004.

But his career as a politician did not take off well from the start.

In 2006, Lee ran for mayor of Seongnam but lost. Two years later he made an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the National Assembly.

He finally made a breakthrough in 2010 as he ran again for mayor of Seongnam and won. Four years later he was reelected.

During his mayoralty, Lee first improved the city's fiscal soundness as it was struggling from hefty debt. But at the same time, he also pushed a raft of welfare programs, including universal basic income for young people, free school uniforms and free postnatal care.

Lee's trademark of "cider" remarks, a reference to the imagined sensation of carbonated drinks unclogging one's digestive system, earned him a large following and catapulted him to political stardom in 2016, when the nation was hit by a political meddling scandal involving then President Park Geun-hye.

Lee stood at the forefront of the national campaign to impeach Park when his party was still undecided on what to do, and his straightforward remarks put him in the spotlight.

With expanded political presence, Lee competed in his party's 2017 primary but lost to now President Moon Jae-in, finishing third overall.

But he did not give up.

The following year, he was voted in as the first liberal governor of Gyeonggi, South Korea's most populous province, in 16 years.

During his time as a governor, Lee's aggressive style was well displayed when he forced a minor religious sect at the center of the first wave of COVID-19 to cooperate with the government investigation and removed illegal structures tainting the natural beauty of his province.

While the central government and other provinces weighed the scope of COVID-19 disaster relief payments, Lee gave all Gyeonggi residents 100,000 won (US$84) each, ignoring criticism that he was a populist.

Lee also pushed for universal COVID-19 relief grants after becoming the presidential candidate, though he stepped back later, citing that support for small merchants and the self-employed is more urgent.

Lee's outspoken character was often displayed during campaigning, sometimes even criticizing the current government's policies. He was especially critical of the government's extra budget size and social distancing measures.

Lee has dealt with a number of high-profile scandals in his political career.

Top among them is an alleged extramarital affair he had with a well-known actress. To prove the affair, the actress alleged that Lee had a birthmark on his genitals, and Lee underwent a medical exam to disprove her claim.

Another persistent source of embarrassment has been a recording of a 2012 phone call between Lee and his third eldest brother's wife in which he is heard unleashing a stream of profanities. Lee admitted to the violent cursing and apologized later.

Lee was accused of trying to force the same brother, who is now deceased, into a psychiatric ward, and a related trial nearly cost him his governorship before he was cleared of all charges in October 2020.

After becoming the DP presidential nominee, a massive corruption scandal surrounding a land development project that took place in Seongnam during Lee's time as mayor has become his Achilles' heel.

The main opposition People Power Party has been claiming that Lee is the mastermind behind the scandal that centers on how a little known private asset management company reaped 1,000 times the amount it invested in the project in profits.

Lee even had to deal with misconduct by his wife and son during campaigning.

Lee's wife apologized over misusing public servants and corporate cards during her husband's term as governor of Gyeonggi Province. Lee's son apologized over allegations of illegal gambling. (Yonhap)