19.05.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

South Korea- a concession?

Meeting of Yoon Seok Yeol and Lee Jae Myung

In the last article in this series we mentioned that after the parliamentary elections on April 10, 2024, which preserved the existing level of confrontation between president and National Assembly, preparations began for a meeting between President Yoon Suk-yeol and opposition leader Lee Jae-myung. This is significant, as the leaders of the two blocs have not met since Yoon became president.

On April 26, following the third working meeting between representatives of the two parties, it was announced that Yoon Suk-yeol and Lee Jae-myung would meet at 2 p.m. on April 29. They had been unable to agree on a date for this meeting for a long time. Progress was made possible when the Opposition Leader made concessions, abandoning his earlier insistence on the need for the prior approval of the agenda for the meeting.

This issue was actually quite important, since Democratic Party hardliners had demanded that the agenda include draft laws on the appointment of special prosecutors, selected from among the Democrats, who would not be subordinate to the normal structures and would investigate cases involving associates or family members of the president with the same “objectivity and impartiality” with which the activities of Park Geun-hye were investigated under Moon Jae-in.

Originally the Democratic Party demanded that the agenda for the meeting include the government’s acceptance of Lee’s pre-election promise to distribute 250,000 won (US$182) to every citizen, agreement to an investigation by a special prosecutor into a number of sensitive incidents (which, if properly investigated, could provide grounds for impeachment), and an apology from Yoon for vetoing bills proposed by the Democrats.

For their part, the Conservatives asked why Yoon should apologize for exercising his legal right to veto or ask the parliament to reconsider problematic bills that he thinks should not be enacted, while, in the words of a relatively neutral commentator, “as long as they both have the top priority as the nation’s future, they [Yoon and Lee] will be able to find common ground.”

On April 29 the two party leaders met over tea – a meeting which lasted 135 minutes. Yoon and Lee were each accompanied by three aides. Yoon was joined by his chief of staff Chung Jin-suk, senior political secretary Hong Chul-ho and senior public relations secretary Lee Do-woon. Lee was joined by his chief of staff Cheon Jun-ho, DP chief policymaker Jin Sung-joon and senior DP spokesperson Park Sung-joon. It was the first talks between the head of state and the opposition leader since Yoon Suk-yeol took over as president in May 2022.

During his opening remarks to reporters, Yoon gave a brief but heartfelt welcome while Lee delivered a lengthy 10-page address calling on the president to change his approach to governance and accept several of the opposition’s demands.

Lee then insisted that Yoon apologize his for previous rejections of a number of bills, especially those dealing with critical incidents such as the Itaewon tragedy in October 2022, in which 159 people were killed, and promise that he will honor and respect the decisions made by the National Assembly.

Next Lee presented the president with a group of previously announced demands:

  • that he resolves various allegations against people around him, including his family”(a reference to the Democrats’ attempts to stir up a scandal relating to First Lady Kim Keon-hee),
  • that he supports a bill for a special investigation into the death of Marine Chae (the Democrats are making a corruption scandal out of an accident that occurred during flood relief efforts, alleging government interference in the investigation),
  • and that he accepts Lee’s pre-election promise to pay 250,000 won in cash to each citizen. Lee Jae Myung is not referred to as “South Korea’s Bernie Sanders” for nothing. According to Lee, “providing subsidies in the form of local business vouchers will greatly benefit local small businesses and their owners and help to strengthen the economy at the grassroots level.”

“I would like you to respect the National Assembly and acknowledge the opposition party as a partner in state affairs,” Lee’s continued in his address. “If you try to make the National Assembly and the opposition party surrender with your executive power, it will not be easy to succeed in state affairs.”

The meeting ended without the two sides reaching an agreement or adopting a joint statement, and the essence of the dialogue was summarized by the South Korean media as follows:

  • While the issues of special investigations into Marine Chae Su-geun and Kim Keon-hee were announced before the meeting, these issues were not discussed in the closed-door talks themselves. For the present author, this suggests that Lee Jae-myung does not see these issues as opportunities to pursue truth and justice, but rather as convenient political cards to play in a bid to challenge the government.
  • According to the Democratic Party, the closed-door part of the meeting was dominated by the president’s “lengthy responses”, prompting criticism that his characteristic ”unilateral” style of communication still dominates the political discourse. According to the opposition chief’s entourage, Yoon said that he “appreciated” Lee’s remarks, but did not directly respond to his demands.
  • Lee Jae-myung reiterated the importance of the special draft law on the response to the Itaewon Disaster, but Yoon said the document has “legal flaws, including the ability of the special committee to apply for search warrants.” In fact, the rejected version of the law would have given the Investigative Committee unchecked extraordinary powers to conduct investigations.
  • Lee urged the president to reconsider his diplomatic approach in relation to the alliance between South Korea and the US: “I understand that you are making efforts to strengthen our country’s national security, and I ask you to pay more attention to negotiations and cooperation in order to advance peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula… We cannot protect our national interests and the nation itself solely by forming diplomatic blocs. I call for a shift to pragmatic diplomacy based on the national interest.”
  • In other areas, Lee also calls on Yoon will consider moving towards a “practical diplomacy centered on our national interests” and make active efforts to ensure that “the nation’s pride is not hurt in relations with Japan,” citing Tokyo’s territorial claims to the Dokdo Islands, various unresolved historical issues, and the release of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
  • The parties reached agreement on a number of issues: Lee said that the Democratic Party would cooperate with the government’s medical reforms, including the increasing of enrollment in medical schools, because this is “an important task that needs to be achieved.” The parties share the view that medical reform is necessary and that an increase in student enrollment in medical schools is inevitable, despite vigorous protests by professional bodies representing doctors. Lee Jae-myung expressed his willingness to cooperate on this issue, and stressed the need for medical professionals to be involved in the discussions.
  • Regarding Lee’s request for a handout of 250,000 won for each South Korean citizen, the president said it would be desirable to provide effective support for those in need of additional help. Yoon talked about the government’s policies to support small business owners, the expansion of subsidized loans for low-income people and a special bill to help victims of rental fraud.
  • Yoon and Lee agreed to meet periodically, and said that once the ruling party has a new leader, they can hold talks at that level as well.

The ruling party assessed the outcome of the meeting positively. According to Conservative Party spokesman Jeong Hee-yong, the meeting is of great significance as a starting point for dialog between the two political forces. He expressed hope that the president and the ruling and opposition parties will continue to liaise in various formats from now on.

Lee Jae-myung characterized the meeting as “disappointing and regrettable” but noted that it had “opened up the first stage of communications.” Democratic lawmaker Sung-joon emphasized that “the Yoon-Lee meeting should be practical, not merely a grandstanding photo opportunity. However, the outcome was disappointing… Next time, it should be a practical meeting, where both sides can fulfill their promises.”

Jin Sung-joon, who accompanied Lee to the meeting, also criticized the president, saying he had been deaf to Lee’s requests. “The Democratic Party will therefore continue to reason with persuade the president and the government and raise its voice… We will not rest on our laurels. We will move steadily forward with our legislative and policy plans aimed at restoring society’s means of subsistence and creating a fairer country, in accordance with our plans.

In response, some conservative pundits condemned Lee’s behavior. As Im Ken-yong, director of the Spirit of the Times Institute, a private political think tank, puts it, “Lee used the meeting as a podium, from which he stated the demands of the Democratic Party as if he were president.”

The small opposition parties rated the meeting as fruitless. Justice Party leader Kim Jun-woo said no concrete agreements had been reached. Choi Seong of the New Future Party gave a similar assessment.

Let us offer some conclusions. Unfortunately, factionalism, with its slogan “the key thing is to be different from the other parties” remains the dominant feature of South Korea’s domestic politics. The opposition leader defiantly made a number of demands, some more unconstructive than others, the president said he had heard them, and the media took the line “It took the ruling bloc 720 days and a crushing electoral defeat to set up a meeting for negotiations between the two 2022 presidential candidates.”

Whether words will be followed up with deeds, only time will tell. But it seems that along with the regular updates on tensions between North and South Korea, which the present author publishes every month and a half, readers are interested in reports on the internal political contest. After all, foreign policy is largely built on the foundations of domestic policy.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” 

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