What’s behind the backbiting in S. Korea’s conservative movement?

Posted on : 2022-01-15 09:55 KST Modified on : 2022-01-15 09:55 KST
In the wake of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, conservatives were left scrambling to pick up the pieces
Yoon Suk-yeol, presidential candidate for the conservative People Power Party, speaks during a roundtable with young campaign aides at the party’s headquarters in Yeouido, Seoul. (pool photo)
Yoon Suk-yeol, presidential candidate for the conservative People Power Party, speaks during a roundtable with young campaign aides at the party’s headquarters in Yeouido, Seoul. (pool photo)

South Korea’s main conservative party, the People Power Party (PPP), has succumbed to infighting. With the presidential election two months away, the party’s nominee has disbanded his election committee and sent its chairperson packing. The candidate and members of the National Assembly made a push to drive the party leader out as well.

While they did scramble to patch up the wounds, there’s no way of knowing when things might erupt again. So what exactly happened?

Most PPP figures are laying the fault at party leader Lee Jun-seok’s doorstep, while others have been critical of former election committee chairperson Kim Chong-in.

But that’s not the real story. The problem is that the PPP picked the wrong nominee. This may seem like a harsh assessment, but it’s not.

Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential candidate, disbanded his election committee. He also invoked his overriding authority over party matters to have the secretary-general and deputy secretary-general replaced. This means that everyone but the candidate himself has been switched out.

Would it make any sense for this to translate a boost in support in the polls? Of course not. That’s because the problem doesn’t lie with the election committee — it lies with Yoon.

To understand precisely what the PPP’s recent difficulties are about, it’s first necessary to review the sequence of events to date. Who exactly was responsible for making Yoon the PPP’s presidential nominee?

It all started with ex-President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. That impeachment was followed by a prosecutors’ investigation into deep-rooted vices that amounted to bankruptcy proceedings for 10 years of conservative administrations under Park and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak.

When a company or group goes bankrupt, the recovery process inevitably entails some painful changes and trimming of fat. It also takes a fair amount of time.

In terms of rebuilding Korea’s conservative movement, it would have been better to dissolve the Liberty Korea Party after its defeat in the 2017 presidential election and start over from scratch. But the conservatives who depended upon voters aged 60 and above and the conservative bastions of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province didn’t have that much patience. They blamed all South Korea’s problems on President Moon Jae-in and on the Democratic Party as they sought victory in the presidential election scheduled for March 2022.

But there was one problem: the party didn’t have a frontrunner for the presidential election. Lawmaker Hong Joon-pyo’s steady stream of gaffes irritated conservatives and former lawmaker Yoo Seong-min was branded as a traitor for distancing himself from the pro-Park faction.

The genesis of Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign: A 2019 poll

When Gallup Korea conducted a poll about preferences for Korea’s next leader in December 2019, the results were as follows: Lee Nak-yon, 26%; Hwang Kyo-ahn, 13%; Lee Jae-myung, 9%; Ahn Cheol-soo, 6%; Sim Sang-jung, 5%; Yoo Seong-min, 5%; Park Won-soon, 5%; Oh Se-hoon, 4%; Cho Kuk, 4%; and Hong Joon-pyo, 4%. Conservative-leaning voters were so bewildered that they viewed Hwang, who served as acting president after Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, as their next presidential candidate.

That vacuum was filled by Yoon Suk-yeol, who rose to prominence during the Cho Kuk scandal. In a January 2020 poll conducted by the Segye Ilbo newspaper, Yoon Suk-yeol was preferred by 10.8% of respondents, brushing aside Hwang Kyo-ahn to reach second place. Yoon later admitted that it was this poll that had convinced him to run for president.

Kim Dae-jung, a columnist at the Chosun Ilbo, was one of the main people pushing Yoon to run for president. His efforts included a column in the Dec. 22, 2020, edition titled “Paying attention to Yoon Suk-yeol,” and another in the July 13, 2021, edition titled “A custodian to sweep away five years of Moon Jae-in.” Kim’s argument was that while Yoon might be lacking in the governance department, he was eminently qualified as a presidential candidate as long as he could roll back the legacy of the Moon administration.

Another factor was the overweening ambition of Kim Chong-in. When Yoon stepped down as prosecutor general and rose to the top of the polls in March 2021, Kim seized upon that as a fateful moment. After a little horse-trading, he accepted the responsibility of general chair of the People Power Party’s election committee.

Kim may have seen that as a moment of destiny not for Yoon but for himself. In March 2020, he published a book under the title, “No Power Lasts Forever,” at a time when he had retired from political life. In the epilogue, the examples he chose for the ideal relationship between ruler and advisor were Bismarck and Wilhelm I in Germany and Nixon and Kissinger in the US. In both examples, a capable advisor exercised full power over the government with the absolute trust of the supreme leader.

Indeed, that was the very method that Kim Chong-in had used in his previous assignments. Kim had helped introduce medical insurance and a savings program for workers during the presidency of Park Chung-hee and added a clause about economic democratization to constitutional revisions during the presidency of Chun Doo-hwan.

While Roh Tae-woo was president, Kim implemented a reform policy that required the family-run conglomerates known as chaebol to sell off real estate that was unrelated to business purposes. He was able to push through all those policies despite opposition because he enjoyed the trust of the supreme leader.

But problems arose when Kim Chong-in went from aiding Park Geun-hye, candidate for the Saenuri Party — the forerunner of the PPP — in the 2012 presidential election, to aiding Moon Jae-in, head of the Democratic Party, in the 2016 parliamentary election. When he asked for full authority, he provoked conflict with the powers that be within the party.

In the end, he parted ways with Park Geun-hye before the presidential election because of friction over how to resolve circular shareholding at chaebols. He also got into a spat with Moon Jae-in, and the two had a falling out shortly after the election.

Kim Chong-in’s hunger for full authority

Kim Chong-in’s recent departure from the Yoon camp occurred for similar reasons. When Kim asked for full authority, he was kicked out by Yoon Suk-yeol, who was worried about becoming a figurehead.

What was going on? Why had Kim Chong-in asked for full authority on all those occasions? Could it be because he was self-righteous? Or maybe it was because he was older than Park Geun-hye, Moon Jae-in, and Yoon Suk-yeol? It may have been because he regarded all of them as being his inferiors.

Whatever the cause, the consequences of the rupture between Yoon and Kim were even worse than Yoon not naming Kim general head of his election committee: it left egg on both their faces. It may be that Kim made a poor judgment of character once again, just as he did with Park Geun-hye. One such mistake is pardonable, but two mistakes suggest there’s something wrong with how he views other people.

To sum up, Yoon’s emergence as the PPP’s presidential candidate can be seen as the result of three factors: the confusion of conservative-leaning voters who were groping for an option after Park’s impeachment, the encouragement of conservative columnists such as Kim Dae-jung, and the personal ambition of Kim Chong-in.

Fundamentally, I think that the conservatives’ choice of Yoon as their presidential candidate represents an error in strategic judgment. Yoon remains untested, both morally and politically. At the risk of sounding too harsh, I think the entire conservative movement has taken the risk of propping up this political amateur. That’s an undeniable failure of conscience.

The conservatives had one last chance to correct their error. Lee Jun-seok was elected to lead the PPP at the party convention on June 11, 2021, backed by public demand for conservative reform. In the final days of the presidential primary, Hong Joon-pyo had the lead in public opinion polls, backed by support from voters in their 20s and 30s.

Nevertheless, PPP lawmakers and members rejected public opinion and selected Yoon Suk-yeol as their presidential candidate. In effect, party lawmakers and members are themselves to blame for Yoon’s declining support and the discord within the party. If the PPP had bitten the bullet and selected a party insider — someone such as Hong Joon-pyo, Yoo Seong-min or Won Hee-ryong — I think they’d be in a much better situation right now.

The big question now is what the future has in store for Yoon and the PPP.

Joining forces with Ahn Cheol-soo is now essential

Merging campaigns with Ahn Cheol-soo is no longer an option for Yoon — it has now become an essential task. Without such a merger, it won’t be easy for Yoon to defeat Lee Jae-myung, candidate for the Democratic Party. The entire conservative alignment will pressure Yoon and Ahn, head of the minor People’s Party, to join forces.

The first scenario — and the ideal one for the conservatives —is for Yoon to get the better of Ahn and ride that momentum to a victory over Lee in the general election. That’s what Roh Moo-hyun pulled off in 2002.

Second, Yoon might squash Ahn and advance to the general election, only to suffer defeat there. Yoon would be left to take full responsibility for losing the Blue House. That’s what happened to Moon Jae-in in the 2012 presidential election.

Third, Yoon might end up being defeated by Ahn fair and square in the competition to lead a single ticket. In that case, he would go down in the history books as a flash in the pan in Korea’s conservative movement.

Another possibility is that Yoon and Ahn will fail to agree on a single ticket and both run separately in the presidential election. Having an ideologically similar candidate on the ballot might eat into Yoon’s voter base, which was the problem faced by Hong Joon-pyo in 2017 and by Chung Dong-young in 2007. If Yoon ran a good campaign, he might come in a close second, as Lee Hoi-chang did in 1997 and 2002.

Even with another conservative candidate in the fray, it’s theoretically possible for Yoon to prevail over Lee Jae-myung. But practically speaking, we should acknowledge that the chances of that are extremely slim. That scenario would only be feasible if Lee were to make a fatal error or be brought down by fresh corruption allegations.

Prior to Yoon, another legal figure who entered politics was Lee Hoi-chang, former head of the Grand National Party (an earlier version of the PPP). As a graduate of the Seoul National University law school and a former judge, Lee was the creme de la creme of Korea’s elite, yet he wasn’t very successful as a politician.

Will Yoon be able to learn lessons from Lee Hoi-chang’s failure that will enable him to win the presidency? Will he basically follow in Lee’s footsteps? Or will he disappear from the stage of politics after the election on March 9?

Only time will reveal Yoon’s fate in the political realm. What are your thoughts on the matter?

By Seong Han-yong, senior editorial writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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