Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, left, greets supporters during a campaign to limit… (Lee Jin-man / Associated…)
Reporting from Seoul — Call it astute politicking or a career-damaging blunder, a case of bad acting and brinkmanship rarely seen even in a nation known for its emotional roundhouse-punch politics.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon wants to limit free school lunches to poor children and take students from wealthy families out of the gratis cafeteria line. And he warns that if voters don't back his agenda in a Wednesday referendum, he's going to quit his post.
Or, as critics put it, collect his marbles in a huff and stalk off the playground.
In an emotional news conference Sunday, Oh wiped away tears, calling the issue so important to the nation that if his plan failed, or if too few voters cast ballots to decide the issue, he was prepared to suffer the consequence.
"If my decision today can sow the seeds to bear the fruits of sustainable welfare and true democracy in the country, I have no regret even if I fade into the mists of history."
Then he dropped to his knees and solemnly bowed his head, in what critics term a shameless theatrical appeal to voters. Oh needs a third of Seoul's 8 million voters to cast ballots or the referendum is void.
The 50-year-old Oh, a charismatic second-term mayor tagged as a future presidential hopeful, denied that his gambit was cheap politics: He said he would not run for president in 2012, regardless of the referendum's outcome, and that his challenge to voters was not a publicity stunt to boost his profile.
His opponents aren't buying it. "I've seen children crying, whining that they will not eat, but I've never seen an adult crying to not feed the children," Kim Sung-soon, an opposition party legislator, told South Korean reporters.
Even fellow members of the ruling Grand National Party advised him against the risk, but Oh waved them aside, insisting that there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially for rich kids.
He calls the free-meal plan "welfare populism" that will unduly cost taxpayers while South Korea struggles amid a worldwide financial downturn. This week, President Lee Myung-bak, a fellow party member, said such expensive, populist programs could drag the nation into a fiscal mess similar to those troubling several European nations.
"The Greek financial crisis was sparked by two major rival parties' competition for populism," Lee said during a weekly radio address broadcast nationwide. "Once the government implements a policy, it's difficult to wind it back."
But many voters say they smell a slick political maneuver at play.
"People may know it was a performance," one man told the South Korean media, "but whatever [Oh's] purpose, what he should offer … is sincerity, not a political show."
Jung-yoon Choi of The Times' Seoul bureau contributed to this report.