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The men who would be South Korea’s next president

Presidential candidates Lee Jae-myung, left, of the ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party before a televised debate in Seoul on Feb. 3. (Yonhap/AP)
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SEOUL — South Korea will elect a new president for a single five-year term this Wednesday, amid growing challenges from North Korea and China and worries over soaring real estate prices.

The two leading contenders are the ruling liberal Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung and the conservative People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol, and they are running neck and neck in the polls despite having very different visions for the country. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s term ends in May.

In written interviews with The Washington Post, both shared their foreign and domestic policy goals. Meet the men who have a near-equal chance of becoming the next president, as well as plans to take the country in nearly opposite directions.

South Korea’s Bernie Sanders, Lee Jae-myung

Lee Jae-myung, 57, who aspires to be a “successful Bernie Sanders,” worked his way up from a child laborer to become the presidential candidate for South Korea’s ruling party. He presents himself as proof that success can be earned through hard work no matter the origins, and promises to become the president who can solve South Korea’s growing inequality and slowing economy.

While working at a factory as a teenager, Lee suffered an injury to his left arm, which he still lives with. He taught himself after work and made his way to college, later becoming a human rights lawyer.

Leveraging his working-class background, Lee has presented himself as an advocate for the underprivileged. In 2016, when he was mayor of Seongnam city, he rolled out a “youth dividend” of 250,000 won ($204) per quarter, to help young adults build a financial foundation. He later expanded the policy to South Korea’s most populous Gyeonggi province when he became a governor, and now a nationwide universal basic income has become the centerpiece of his campaign.

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Despite having been in the liberal camp for more than 15 years, this ruling party flag bearer calls himself a “party outsider” and has spoken against incumbent president Moon’s policies multiple times.

Calling Moon’s property market policy a “failure,” Lee promised to cool the sky-high property prices and expand public housing. Affordable housing is one of the biggest issues in the upcoming election as prices rose to all-time high during Moon’s term.

Lee’s approach to foreign policy, however, would have significant overlaps with the outgoing president’s. Lee said he will continue to pursue rapprochement with rival North Korea.

Despite North Korea’s ramped up weapons tests, “we cannot give up the fundamental principle that we solve the Korea Peninsula problem with dialogues and negotiations,” Lee said in his interview.

Lee proposes a “flexible approach” under which sanctions are partially eased with simultaneous denuclearization steps from Pyongyang on the condition they “snap back” if North Korea reverses the disarmament.

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Lee said he will “first convince the United States” of his approach. The Biden administration has not signaled it is willing to grant the sanctions relief that North Korea seeks.

Lee says South Korea will need to work with the United States as well as China, North Korea’s ally, to persuade Pyongyang to negotiate peace on the Korean Peninsula.

On diplomacy and also on the economic front, Lee says he will work with both the United States and China, saying South Korea “does not have to choose one side” between the two superpowers in their growing rivalry.

He said he wants to expand the alliance with the United States and work more closely with the other members of the Quad, India, Australia and Japan, which was formed to confront China.

The hard-nosed prosecutor, Yoon Suk-yeol

The conservative party nominee, Yoon Suk-yeol, 61, was formerly the country’s top prosecutor who helped convict former president Park Geun-hye in her impeachment trial and has built his brand as an aggressive anti-corruption prosecutor. The son of educators from an affluent family, Yoon studied law at South Korea’s prestigious Seoul National University and rose through the ranks of local and national prosecutor offices until Moon appointed him as prosecutor general in 2019.

The political novice has been criticized for his gaffes on the campaign trail, including standing in silence for two minutes at a candidate forum when the teleprompter went down. Last week, Yoon secured a major win: The endorsement of Ahn Cheol-soo, the nominee of the small People Party, who dropped out of the race to make way for Yoon.

A Yoon victory could have big ramifications for South Korea’s role in Northeast Asia and its relations with the United States, primarily by hardening its approach to China and North Korea.

After Moon, who made diplomacy with North Korea central to his foreign policy ambitions, a Yoon presidency would mark an about-face on inter-Korean relations. Yoon has called on greater cooperation with Washington to confront the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

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Yoon also wants to develop technology that would allow South Korea to launch a preemptive attack, in the case of an imminent North Korean nuclear threat.

Yoon has tried to balance his country’s conflicting security and economic interests on China issues. He has said South Korea would cooperate more with the Quad security alliance but has not suggested a formal membership in the grouping. He has spoken against “violations of liberal democratic norms and human rights,” but when asked to clarify how he would handle China’s human rights violations, he declined to discuss “a hypothetical question.”

He also wants to see South Korea play a greater role in its relationship with the United States by cooperating on “new frontier” issues that are key to the U.S.-China economic competition and would draw on South Korea’s advanced technology industry, such as supply chain resiliency through semiconductors and electric-vehicle batteries, space, and cybersecurity.

Another shift in South Korea’s foreign policy under Yoon would be in its relations with Japan after years of strained ties. Yoon plans to pursue improved working relationships between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul to respond to North Korean nuclear threats and other global challenges.

Yoon said he would meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and restore the “shuttle diplomacy” of the past, when the leaders would make regular reciprocal visits. Kishida, who helped broker a historic agreement with Seoul in 2015 over the issue of “comfort women,” those forced into sexual slavery during World War II, called for a more stable relationship between the two countries.

One domestic issue that is a lightning rod for controversy is over gender equality, and Yoon has been criticized for his campaign platforms that are considered unsupportive of women’s rights.

When asked whether he was a feminist, he said: “I think there are many different ways to interpret feminism.” He added: “Feminism is a form of humanism, recognizing that gender discrimination and inequality is a reality and it is a movement to correct that. In that sense, I consider myself a feminist.”

Protesters gathered at a rally in Seoul on Feb. 27 in support of feminism ahead of the country’s presidential election on March 9. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)