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Rising S.Korean presidential hopeful argues for balanced diplomacy, dialogue with DPRK, fair society

Top Insights2016-12-15

Lee Jae-myung, mayor of Seongnam, a city to the southeast of South Korean capital Seoul, made a meteoric rise in recent presidential polls over his outspoken comments on a scandal involving impeached President Park Geun-hye.

Lee Jae-myung, mayor of Seongnam, a city to the southeast of South Korean capital Seoul, made a meteoric rise in recent presidential polls over his outspoken comments on a scandal involving impeached President Park Geun-hye. 

Since the bill to impeach the scandal-scarred president was passed through parliament last week, the Northeast Asian nation has entered an initial phase of presidential race given that potential presidential contenders started to be put in the local media spotlight. 

South Koreans began looking for their next leader early though uncertainties remain about the constitutional court's final ruling on the impeachment. 

Coming to the forefront was Mayor Lee, who moved up into a third place in recent presidential surveys while front-runner Moon Jae-in, former chairman of the main opposition Minjoo Party, and runner-up Ban Ki-moon, outgoing UN secretary general, stagnated or languished. 

Lee said in an interview with Xinhua on Monday night that his country must take "autonomous, balanced diplomacy" as a ground rule and launch a dialogue with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to clear the way for mutual interests between the two Koreas and with regional partners. 

The liberal mayor said he wants to create a fair society by expanding social welfare services, which he has successfully proven in his two-term mayorship, and preventing a fraction of political and business elites from getting rake-offs. 

Placing balance, dialogue over lopsidedness, pressure 

"In cross-border relations, siding with one party causes damages from another party. Diplomacy must be balanced while thoroughly adhering to national interests," said Lee, who portrayed it as an autonomous, balanced diplomacy. 

South Korea, Lee said, can open a broader path for its diplomacy by smoothly adjusting different interests in between. He said it would be right to pursue mutual interest and mutual respect as lopsided ties in which one country monopolizes all profits can bring about a devastating result. 

The Seongnam mayor stressed the importance of relations between South Korea and China, which he said can develop further in a way to mutually respect and mutually benefit. 

As the two neighbors showed cooperative relations historically, culturally and economically, he said, South Korea can deepen and broaden its partnership with China, which he described as a society having bright prospects and being agreeable and familiar to him. 

As for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, Lee said he does not worry much about his "impulsive and extemporary" words and actions, considering he is a successful real-estate businessman who is "very sensitive" to consequences. 

Lee expects Trump to reach a rational conclusion in diplomacy though there could be some fuss and noise found in the process, saying the president-elect will have to reasonably respect his counterpart to secure reasonable gains of his country. 

In addressing the inter-Korean ties, Lee also placed balance and dialogue over one-sided sanctions and pressure, saying it is not only a matter of the two Koreas, but of Northeast Asian countries. 

"When the South-North relations were enhanced based on mutual trust, diplomatic ties in Northeast Asia were very stable, and vice versa," said Lee who believes the inter-Korean relations are key to regional stability. 

Putting forth a thoroughly anti-DPRK policy through sanctions and pressure, which has been pushed by South Korea for almost a decade, proved unsuccessful and allowed Pyongyang more time to advance its nuclear and missile capabilities, Lee said. 

He added that the first step to defuse military tensions and stop an advance in Pyongyang's nuclear program can be taken by resuming an inter-Korean dialogue or the long-stalled six-party talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, which involves the two Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan. 

Expanding social safety net, restraining establishment 

Mayor Lee said at his office in the city hall that his proven social welfare programs for Seongnam, a city having a population of 1 million, can be expanded into the entire country of 50 million through inessential budget cutbacks and increased progressive taxation. 

"If our social welfare programs are expanded into the whole country, it would cost an additional 4.5 trillion won. That's below 1.2 percent of the central government's combined budget," said Lee who secured municipal budgets by reducing inessential and wasteful spending by 7 percent. 

After being elected as mayor in 2010, Lee declared a moratorium on repayments of over 570 billion won in debts both on and off balance sheet, which he had inherited from his conservative predecessor. All of the liabilities were paid back for three and a half years in his first four-year term. 

The mayor is known to have claimed the break-up of "chaebol" conglomerates, but Lee explained that his claim does not mean a verbatim "break-up." 

"Dismantling the structure of unfair competition where chaebols maintain unfair corporate governance, exploit small businesses and their technologies through unfair contracts and suppress workers to make unfair profits was the chaebol break-up that I mentioned," said Lee. 

"The bottom line is that we must go the way of a fair society where fair competition is ensured," Lee said, urging the need for higher taxes on the wealthy and the big businesses considering the taxation culture where the more they earn, the less corporate and income taxes they pay. 

He claimed that corporate taxes must be raised from the current 22 percent to 30 percent imposed on about 440 companies with an operating profit of over 50 billion won, or 0.07 percent of the country's total businesses. It would increase tax revenue by 15 trillion won. 

Income tax rates, Lee said, must be hiked from the present 38 percent to 50 percent for those who earn 1 billion won or more annually, the average ratio among the OECD member countries. It would expand budget revenue by 2.5 trillion won, according to his estimate. 

"The nature of politics is to restrain a small class of the established who makes unfair profits. That's what state power does. If it neglects its duty, that means throwing away the function of government," Lee added.

(APD)

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