The zero-sum game of S. Korea’s most distasteful presidential election to date

Posted on : 2021-12-20 17:25 KST Modified on : 2021-12-20 22:48 KST
Rather than mudslinging, experts say candidates and their parties would present a vision for how they want to lead Korea
People Power Party presidential nominee Yoon Seok-youl (left) and Democratic Party presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung (right) take part in a ceremony commemorating the 89th anniversary of the martyrdom of Yun Bong-gil, held at Hyochang Park in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Sunday. (Kang Chang-kwang/The Hankyoreh)
People Power Party presidential nominee Yoon Seok-youl (left) and Democratic Party presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung (right) take part in a ceremony commemorating the 89th anniversary of the martyrdom of Yun Bong-gil, held at Hyochang Park in Seoul’s Yongsan District on Sunday. (Kang Chang-kwang/The Hankyoreh)

As accusations against the family members of presidential candidates Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Seok-youl are brought under the microscope, South Korea’s two biggest parties are seeking to stir up hostility and hatred against each other in a negative campaign that’s muddying the waters of the upcoming presidential election. While unethical and illegal behavior by the families of presidential candidates ought to be vetted, experts argue that instead of exploiting this news to pick up support at the other side’s expense, the parties should be waging a “positive-sum” campaign in which they win over voters by offering a vision for the future.

This presidential election is being called the most distasteful in Korean history, mainly because of the disappointment over the ethical controversies surrounding the two main candidates and their family members. But more than those controversies themselves, analysts say that distaste for this election is being driven by both sides’ negative campaigns as they focus on stirring up conflict and provoking hatred of the other side rather than attempting to tackle the controversies themselves.

“Even in the US, Biden and Trump’s children were considered fair game for vetting. It wouldn’t be right to ask people not to vet candidates’ family members,” said Lee Jun-han, professor of political science at Incheon National University.

“The most distasteful presidential election in history is being driven by the candidates’ seeming inability to adequately account for various allegations, and, on top of that, the two major parties’ launching of all-out offensives, exploiting allegations against the other side in the election,” Lee said.

A prime example of this was seen when Kim Keon-hee, wife of Yoon Seok-youl, came under fire for including false information on her resume. The People Power Party (PPP) immediately launched a counteroffensive by bringing up an incident in which Lee Jae-myung cursed at his sister-in-law.

On Saturday, the PPP election committee’s publicity team distributed an infographic that read, “Lee Jae-myung does it! Cussing out his sister-in-law.” The phrase “Lee Jae-myung does it” is a slogan used by Lee’s campaign.

Then on Sunday, the PPP released a poster that read: “The 10-10-10 Campaign with the People Power Party: telling people the truth about Lee Jae-myung.” The poster urged supporters to join in on the party’s negative campaign: “Let’s show people Lee Jae-myung’s true face with 10 comments a day, 10 times a day, 10 minutes a day.”

The PPP has also bashed Lee as being part of a “family of criminals,” roping together allegations about illegal gambling by Lee’s eldest son and Lee’s own criminal record.

Several lawmakers with the Democratic Party have also made jabs at Kim Keon-hee’s physical appearance and history of plastic surgery despite it having nothing to do with the allegations against her. Some have even suggested that she used to work as a hostess at a nightclub.

The Democratic Party had been slamming Yoon and the PPP for dabbling in conspiracy theories for their baseless claim that reports on allegations about Kim Keon-hee were part of a ruling party scheme. But then the Democratic Party resorted to its own conspiracy theories by claiming that the PPP had cooked up allegations that Lee’s son had engaged in gambling and prostitution.

Park Won-ho, a professor of political science and international relations at Seoul National University, offered the following thoughts about the attitudes adopted by the two major parties.

“In this presidential election, the question of which candidate people don’t like is having a bigger impact than which candidate they do like. Voters are divided in this way because the two camps are so polarized right now,” Park said.

“Politicians seem to feel they don’t have anything to lose since even if they’re defeated in the election, they’ll still come away with 40% of support,” Park said, referring to support acquired through those divisive tactics.

Park said that as the two parties seek to draw in voters who are divided into two sides, they’ve adopted a no-holds-barred approach to mudslinging that’s kindling political hatred, with little sense of the consequences.

But experts point out that the attitudes candidates adopt when dealing with problems they face, including their honesty, have a big impact on voters’ political trust.

“Refusing to acknowledge one’s mistakes is a serious moral flaw that reveals arrogance. The way that people respond to allegations about themselves provides us with important criteria for assessing them,” said Jhee Byong-kuen, a professor of political science and international relations at Chosun University.

That means that Yoon’s refusal to provide a detailed explanation when he reluctantly apologized three days after the false information in Kim Keon-hee’s resume came to light could turn out to be even more dangerous than the falsified resume itself.

“Trust in politics is ultimately tied to the question of responsibility. Politicians have a duty to adequately explain and provide information about allegations that have aroused public curiosity,” said Seo Bok-kyung, head of The Possibility Lab.

Experts agree that in order to turn this distasteful election back into a normal race, the candidates will need to compete on their vision about how to overcome the crises facing Korean society, including the COVID-19 pandemic, and about the direction to lead Korean society going forward.

“In turbulent times, the ability of leaders is prioritized over their morality for the sake of the survival of the community,” said Seo.

“When the majority of society feels very anxious, they look for someone who can make the community safe. Presidential candidates ought to compete by offering clear policy proposals that set them apart from one another,” she advised.

That viewpoint was echoed by Jhee. “While voters value candidates’ morality, their assessment of which candidate to vote for will ultimately be focused on the outcome of the changes that those candidates would bring to Korean society if elected.”

By Song Chae Kyung-hwa and Jang Na-rye, staff reporters

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