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[Newsmaker] PM Lee Nak-yon’s return to parliament may signal changes to come

Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon’s imminent return to the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the path along which his political career progresses are likely to be deciding factors for the country’s political arena for the coming year and further down the road.

Lee served four National Assembly terms from 2000 to 2014 for the Hampyeong-Younggwang constituency in South Jeolla Province. In 2014, during his fourth term, he ran and won the race for South Jeolla Province governorship. From there, Lee was raised to the post of prime minister by President Moon Jae-in.

Lee’s stint as the prime minister of over 2 1/2 years -- the longest of any Korean prime minister -- nearing its end, he is once again gunning for a parliamentary seat. On Dec. 17, Moon nominated the ruling Democratic Party’s Rep. Chung Sye-kyun as Lee’s successor. 


Since before Chung was named as his replacement, it has been speculated that Lee would run for a high-profile parliamentary constituency in this year’s general elections, with Seoul’s Jongno being considered the most likely fit.

The speculations were confirmed by Lee during an interview with cable network JTBC on Monday. In the interview, Lee said that his running for the Jongno constituency appears to be “the flow” within the ruling party, while leaving open room for changes.

Despite his already long political career, Lee is said to differ from his peers in that he lacks his “own people” or group of close supporters within the political arena. His softer-than-usual approach to his ideologies also sets him apart from many of lawmakers of similar experience.

Lee described his political inclinations in the interview as “practical progressivism,” explaining that to mean seeking progressive values while addressing immediate problems.

“It’s good to seek progressive values, but do so while dealing with problems that arise,” Lee said.

“(Practical progressivism) means to seek values that help solve problems.”

Lee’s performance in the general election is likely to be a barometer for his political career from here on.

A survey conducted by local pollster Realmeter showed that Lee’s support rating remained the highest among 14 potential presidential contenders for a seventh consecutive month, rising to a new high.

The poll showed that Lee’s figure rose 1.9 percentage points from November to come in at 29.4 percent, widening the lead over Hwang Kyo-ahn, who was supported by 20.1 percent of the poll’s respondents.

Hwang, chairman of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and formerly prime minister of the Park Geun-hye administration, is currently the favorite among potential presidential candidates from the right.

In the poll, Lee had the highest support in Gwangju and the North and South Jeolla provinces, followed by Seoul as well as Gyeonggi Province and Incheon. By age group, the biggest support groups were those in their 30s and 40s.

As for Hwang, the former prime minister had lead in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, and among those aged 60 or over -- the country’s traditional conservative strong holds by region and age group.

Lee’s comments on Jongno have further fed speculations for a “main-event” showdown against the opposition Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn for the Jongno constituency.

While Hwang has yet to make his intentions known, it’s widely speculated that he will run for a constituency. According to reports citing persons close to Hwang, the main opposition leader has decided not to seek a proportional representative seat, and he is now weighing between running for a constituency considered difficult for the conservative party or staying out of the elections.

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