The enduring struggle between establishment and reformist conservatives in S. Korea

Posted on : 2021-12-06 17:47 KST Modified on : 2021-12-21 10:55 KST
Yoon seems to have patched things up with party leadership for now, but conflicts along the struggle for power and the direction of the party are bound to resurface
People Power Party presidential nominee Yoon Seok-youl (center) puts his arms around the shoulders of People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok (left) and floor leader Kim Gi-hyeon (right) after meeting at a restaurant in Ulsan’s Ulju County on Friday. (Yonhap News)
People Power Party presidential nominee Yoon Seok-youl (center) puts his arms around the shoulders of People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok (left) and floor leader Kim Gi-hyeon (right) after meeting at a restaurant in Ulsan’s Ulju County on Friday. (Yonhap News)

Infighting within the People Power Party (PPP) has come to a halt. The party’s presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl raised the white flag to former interim head of the party Kim Chong-in and current party leader Lee Jun-seok, after polls indicated declining support for his candidacy.

But is the conflict really over? Is ousting the Democratic Party from the presidency the only task left for the PPP, as Yoon Seok-youl stated? Could politics be that easy?

There are two factors that led to the recent infighting within the PPP.

The first factor is the struggle for power.

PPP politicians are fighting over how to share power once it is obtained in the future. Where there is power, there is struggle. Even the most closely bonded father and son are subject to power struggles.

The upcoming presidential election will decide not just who will wield the power of the president but also who will have the power to nominate candidates for next year’s local elections, to be held on June 1. The bigger the pie, the bloodier the struggle.

The second factor is the struggle over the party’s political line.

The three-party merger of 1990 was a merger between establishment conservatives and conservative reformists. Roh Tae-woo’s Democratic Justice Party represented the establishment conservatives, while Kim Young-sam’s Reunification and Democracy Party represented conservative reformists. Since then, the two forces have been in a constant struggle to gain the upper hand within the conservative movement in South Korean politics. Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye struggled as potential presidential candidates, and Park Geun-hye and Yoo Seong-min struggled, the former as president and the latter as floor leader. These struggles, though disparate, were of the same essence.

Establishment conservatives speak for the interests of those who want the Korean Peninsula to remain divided, big corporations, and bureaucrats, with liberalism and the free market as their cause. On the other hand, conservative reformists are thinking hard about the sustainability of the conservative movement. Former floor leader Yoo Seong-min’s “medium welfare for medium tax burden” policy was one of the best-known slogans of the conservative reformists.

Now, with the presidential election fast approaching, the struggle between establishment conservatives and conservative reformists has resurfaced.

Yoon Seok-youl and his entourage composed of lawmakers like Kwon Seong-dong and Chang Je-won are at the vanguard of establishment conservatives. Their strategy for winning the election, you ask? The establishment of a coalition against President Moon Jae-in and the ruling Democratic Party, through which they will bring about an all-powerful change of which party holds the presidency.

Kim Chong-in and Lee Jun-seok represent the conservative reformist line. Their strategy for this election is to form generational alliances with voters in their 20s and 30s, thus opening up a new future for the conservative movement.

This brings to mind the French concept of deja vu — the phenomenon of experiencing something new as if you’ve already experienced it before.

Before the 2012 presidential election, then-presidential candidate Park Geun-hye and Kim Chong-in, who oversaw Park’s campaign promises as then-chairman of the Saenuri Party’s Special Committee to Promote People’s Happiness, butted heads. The issue was economic democratization. 

The original campaign promise was to undo past cross-shareholding by Korea’s large-scale conglomerates known as chaebol. Park went back on the promise, saying that past cross-shareholding would be allowed to stay in place, and only new circular investment would be prohibited. Kim responded by saying that Park “must have been swayed by lobbyists.”

That year, on Nov. 11, Park summoned Kim to a meeting. There, she yelled at him in front of nine senior officials from her party and her campaign’s election committee that she had brought to the meeting. Like that, Park and Kim parted ways.

Once elected president, Park pushed for the development of a “creative economy” instead of calling for economic democratization. Later, Kim apologized, “It seems I was too greedy at the time. I feel very sorry towards the South Korean people.”

That’s why the internal conflict within the PPP can resurface at any time — precisely because it only came to a halt. Because fundamentally, it is about the struggle for power and the struggle over political lines.

What’s difficult to understand is Kim’s conduct. He previously attempted to accomplish economic democratization via Park but failed. This time, he’s putting his weight behind Yoon Seok-youl for president. What could his endgame be?

His plan may be to get Yoon elected as president and then to amend the Constitution during Yoon’s term to introduce a semi-presidential system to South Korean politics. But will things go as planned? Yoon will not stand to be Kim’s puppet. How long will their partnership last? To borrow a phrase from Lee Jun-seok, I wish them no luck.

By Seong Han-yong, senior staff writer

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