‘Korea’s Trump’ Rises in Polls as Voter Anger Fuels Populism

  • Lee wants to meet North Korean leader, break up conglomerates
  • City mayor moves up to third in polls for next president

Lee Jae-myung.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

He respects Donald Trump and enjoys being compared to Bernie Sanders.

Lee Jae-myung, mayor of a city near Seoul, is rising in opinion polls with about a year to go until South Korea’s next presidential election. He wants to break up the country’s biggest companies, meet unconditionally with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and throw President Park Geun-hye in jail over an influence-peddling scandal.

“Americans impeached their establishment by electing Trump,” Lee, 52, said in an interview Wednesday at his office in Seongnam city. “Our own elections will mirror that.”

With populist movements gaining traction globally, Lee is tapping into anger in South Korea over corruption and a lack of jobs. In recent weeks, Seoul has seen some of the biggest protests since the 1980s as ordinary Koreans decry the links between politicians and big business that have stifled competition in Asia’s fourth-biggest economy. Park’s approval dropped to a record low of 4 percent this week, Gallup Korea said Friday.

Read more: South Korea’s unfolding political scandal

Lee -- nicknamed “Korea’s Trump” by some of his supporters -- moved into third place in presidential polls released in the past week, behind United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and front-runner Moon Jae-in, the runner-up to Park in 2012. While Lee has declared his candidacy, neither Ban nor Moon have committed to running. Lee expects to compete with Moon to be the candidate for the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

While an election is currently a year off, the timetable could quickly accelerate. If Park were to resign or be removed from office, an election would be held within 60 days.

“Lee’s fast rise does seem to suggest that his supporters are sick of business as usual in the Blue House,” said Steven Ward, who teaches political science at South Korea’s Chosun University. “Voter discontent with the establishment very well might be high enough to propel a populist into office on the protest vote, and Lee could be that person.”

Working-Class

Unlike U.S. President-elect Trump, Lee, a former lawyer, comes from a working-class family. His left arm remains twisted after it was pressed under a machine in a factory accident when he was a teenager.

He entered politics a decade ago after working as a human rights lawyer in Seongnam -- a city that grew with an influx of workers unable to afford homes in Seoul during the country’s high-growth years. With a population of one million, the city now generates some of the highest tax revenue in the country and houses technology companies such as Naver Corp., the nation’s biggest portal website.

Lee and Trump both use social media to harangue critics and communicate with supporters. During a public speech in September, Lee told a woman her son would die as tragically as the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, after she complained about a yellow-ribbon pin he wore in memory of the catastrophe.

In 2004, when he was working as a lawyer, Lee got into a scuffle in the city council chamber when he was protesting a decision not to build a hospital. He went into hiding in a cramped church basement room, where he said he decided to seek office. He received a fine after turning himself in.

After running unsuccessfully for mayor in 2006, Lee was elected in 2010.

‘Revolutionary’ Change

Lee said growing income disparities offered him a chance and that South Koreans shouldn’t repeat the mistake of American voters, who chose Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the Democratic primary.

Lee invoked Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in saying that, if he became president, he’d eliminate an “establishment cartel” that had catered to dictators including Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, and which survived the country’s shift to democracy.

His proposal for a “revolutionary” change includes dividing up family-run conglomerates, known as chaebol, and expanding welfare payments for workers. He blames slowing growth on the chaebol-led economy, likening the nation to a man whose heart has grown so big that other parts of the body die from a lack of blood.

Northern Neighbor

Lee said he wouldn’t hesitate to seek a summit with North Korea if he became president, and would be able to work with Trump should he open negotiations with the isolated nation.

“I’m hopeful about Trump,” Lee said. “He sounds brash, but I expect him to be a rational man sensitive to his interests at the end of the day, and he will know America’s interests lie in talking North Korea out of advancing its nuclear arms and selling them to others.”

While the U.S.-South Korea alliance should strengthen, he said, Japan should be dubbed a security foe because it hasn’t shown enough contrition for its aggression against Korea in the early 20th century.

He called Park a “haughty” criminal who belongs to the establishment. Park has denied she coaxed conglomerates into donating tens of millions of dollars to foundations controlled by her friend, Choi Soon-sil. She has admitted to allowing Choi to interfere in government affairs and apologized twice to the nation.

Read more: Details on how Park’s supporters are turning against her

While there’s no sign Park is considering resigning, parliament has agreed to appoint a special prosecutor and is moving to impeach her. She has about 15 months left in her single, five-year term.

“We need to make sure people see Park handcuffed and jailed the moment she leaves the Blue House,” Lee said. “We need to show graphically that all men are equal under law and must be prosecuted for wrongdoing.”

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