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W13tr cash handout likely top agenda for Yoon's 1st meeting with Lee

Former presidential rivals may talk about Marine's death, medical standoff, PM nomination

April 21, 2024 - 15:27 By Son Ji-hyoung
President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) and Democratic Party of Korea Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung (Yonhap)

Democratic Party of Korea Chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung's proposal to dole out 250,000 won ($182) to every South Korean appears to be the top agenda item in a highly anticipated meeting between Lee and President Yoon Suk Yeol, likely to take place this week after the opposition party's sweeping victory in the general election.

Lee said Friday in a live streamed meeting with his party members that he "spoke briefly with President Yoon over the phone and accepted his offer to hold a meeting." This meeting will mark the first summit between the president and the opposition leader since Yoon's narrow victory in the presidential election over the then-opposition candidate Lee two years ago.

When asked by a fellow party member about the fate of his cash handout plan, Lee added that he could discuss the proposal and other matters to improve the citizens' livelihoods in his meeting with Yoon.

However, Yoon and Lee have been at odds over the unconditional cash transfer plan that would cost 13 trillion won, based on the South Korean population of 50 million.

Lee has called for "emergency measures" to restore people's livelihoods in the wake of continued inflation. Lee also seeks to alleviate people's borrowing costs partly through a separate 1-trillion-won plan and raised the need for parliament to approve a batch of supplementary budget plans to make up for state spending.

But Yoon, a conservative President who has constantly touted his focus on people's livelihoods, described the proposal as "populism" and as "druglike" measures, in a Cabinet meeting Tuesday. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo echoed Yoon's remarks at a press conference Wednesday, saying the state spending on cash transfers unconditionally for the sake of an individual’s pleasure “must be cautioned against.”

Attention is also being paid to the main opposition's renewed proposal to pass a bill aimed at mandating the government to buy excess grain when supply outpaces demand to stabilize the price of grain. The revision bill concerning the Grain Management Act was vetoed in April 2023, but the bill was again tabled to the National Assembly's plenary session on Thursday.

Lee is also likely to propose the launch of a special council to look into the cause of the death of a Marine soldier who was swept away due to a lack of safety equipment during a rescue mission last year, and whether there were any interventions in investigating the case on the part of the Defense Ministry.

The lingering standoff between the government and doctors against the former's plan to increase the number of doctors nationwide is also likely to be included in the meeting agenda. Following his party's victory in the April election, Lee said Yoon's conservative bloc "made matters worse by taking coercive action instead of playing a mediating role" in addressing the nation's chronic doctor shortage.

Earlier Friday, Lee Do-woon, senior presidential secretary for public relations, confirmed that Yoon invited the main opposition party leader to the presidential office in the coming week, without elaborating on the timeframe for the meeting.

Friday's announcement heralded a U-turn from Yoon's previous stance. In an apparent reference to Lee, the president was quoted as saying by Prime Minister Han in September that his meeting with a figure currently on criminal trial "could be seen as unfair." Lee is facing multiple criminal allegations, including one regarding a high-profile land corruption scandal in southern Gyeonggi Province.

Following his party's crushing defeat in the April 10 general election, Yoon has been under constant pressure to stop ostracizing Lee. The Democratic Party and its satellite party claimed 175 seats combined out of 300 at the National Assembly in the recent election.

Lee is also expected to offer his perspective on Yoon's nomination of a new prime minister and presidential aides during the meeting. Reports suggest that the conservative leader might contemplate appointing liberal politicians or bureaucrats who served under his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, to establish a potential "coalition government."

Separately, Yoon's office has invited the ruling People Power Party's former leader Han Dong-hoon to the presidential office, according to the party on Sunday. But Han, Yoon's political lieutenant who left the post following the election loss, reportedly declined, citing health issues.

Yoon is the only South Korean President since the country's transition to democracy in 1988 who has failed to hold talks with the main opposition leader within the first 112 days or more in office. Except for Yoon, the late President Kim Young-sam spent the longest time without holding any discussion with the opposition leader following his inauguration.

Over the last two years, Yoon and Lee have briefly encountered one another a few times and shook hands at public engagements.

Lee has constantly called for a one-on-one with Yoon since Lee took the leadership post in the main opposition party in August 2022. Yoon claimed a narrow victory against Lee in the 2022 presidential election and took the oath of office in May 2022.