Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung said Thursday that he would pursue a pragmatic approach toward North Korea that favors economic cooperation and targeted sanctions relief. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
SEOUL, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- Lee Jae-myung, the liberal party candidate in March's South Korean presidential election, said Thursday that Seoul should take the lead in inter-Korean affairs and reset relations with the nuclear-armed North around engagement and economic cooperation.
Lee, the nominee for the incumbent Democratic Party, echoed many of the positions of current President Moon Jae-in, but said that he would bring Seoul, rather than Washington, into the driver's seat on North Korea policy.
"In succeeding the Moon Jae-in administration, the Lee Jae-myung government should act as a more independent and active mediator and problem-solver," Lee told international reporters at a briefing in downtown Seoul.
Lee, 56, said that while inter-Korean security is one of many topics on Washington's foreign policy agenda, it is an existential issue for those living in North and South Korea.
"For the people living on the Korean Peninsula, it's a matter directly related to our future and our very lives," he said.
Lee pledged to actively work with North Korea on humanitarian, health and environmental issues as president.
He also said he would try to drum up international support for targeted sanctions relief, questioning the effectiveness of the hardline stance that has been a cornerstone of Washington's approach towards Pyongyang.
"Have strong policies of continued sanctions and pressure had the results that the Western countries have wanted and intended?" he asked. "I think it's difficult to say with 100% conviction that it has worked."
Lee added that he would take a practical approach when navigating the growing strategic competition between the United States and China.
"I will pursue pragmatic diplomacy that goes beyond the logic of ideology and forced choices, putting [South Korea's] national interests first," he said.
Lee's foreign policy positions offer a contrast to his opponent, conservative People Power Party candidate Yoon Seok-youl, who has said that he would work to strengthen defense ties with the United States and has vowed to take a no-compromise approach towards denuclearizing Pyongyang.
For voters in South Korea, domestic issues look to dominate the upcoming election, with soaring real estate prices, growing income inequality and the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic weighing down the incumbent Democratic Party.
Lee rose to national fame as a progressive firebrand, first as the mayor of Seongnam, a satellite city of Seoul, and then as governor of Gyeonggi Province, building a reputation as a hard-charging populist who was able to implement some of the country's most ambitious social welfare programs.
In Gyeonggi, South Korea's largest province, Lee launched a pilot basic income program for young adults that he was able to expand to all citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The candidate has said he will implement universal basic income in South Korea as president and will use other large-scale government programs and reforms to tackle inequality.
A former human rights lawyer, Lee grew up in poverty and rose through the political ranks as an outsider, a status that might help him maintain distance from the anti-incumbent sentiment many voters have expressed.
At the same time, Lee continues to be dogged by allegations that he was connected to a corrupt real-estate development project in Seongnam while he was mayor. Yoon, the former prosecutor-general, is facing his own corruption probe over abuse of power and election-meddling charges.
Yoon surged to a large lead in opinion polls earlier this month after winning his party's nomination, but Lee has closed the gap over the past week.
In a recent Gallup Korea poll, Yoon led Lee by a margin of 38.4% to 37.1%. Another survey by local pollster Korea Society Opinion Institute found 40% of respondents supporting Yoon and 39.5% backing Lee.