Prime Minister and acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn meets US Secretary of Defense James Mattis
As the unprecedented scenario of an early presidential election resulting from the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye becomes a distinct possibility, South Korean politics are day after day facing unfamiliar and never before encountered situations.
Not only is this the first time that there has not been a viable conservative candidate in a political arena that has long worked to the advantage of conservative parties, but we have also witnessed the bizarre spectacle of the triumphal return of the former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who came back to South Korea after 10 years abroad to be fêted as the “conservative messiah.” And then he left the stage after just three weeks, fuming about politics and throwing the conservatives into a catatonic stupor.
But these unfamiliar scenes are likely to be just the beginning. Pull out your popcorn, because a sensational show put on by the conservatives is about to go on air. The casting is in the hands of the Saenuri Party, which is in full panic mode. According to the preposterous plot now unfolding, the party that is most responsible for the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye wants her replacement to be her own number-two man, who himself shares some of the blame for her impeachment.
On Feb. 2, the day after Ban Ki-moon left the race, the Saenuri Party moved to focus its energies on recruiting Prime Minister and acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn. During a press conference on Feb. 2, Saenuri Party Emergency Committee Chair In Myung-jin explained that the Saenuri Party would be happy for Hwang to be its candidate if he so chose, but that it was not trying to woo or recruit him. “You can’t deny the reality that more than 10% of the public consider Hwang Kyo-ahn to be presidential material,” he said.
In did not back down even when asked whether it was appropriate for a person who bore moral responsibility for the impeachment to run as a candidate for the ruling party. “That’s a question that will be discussed and dealt with based on what party members decide during the primary,” he said.
“If [Hwang] says that running for president would be better for the country, that will be a decision motivated by his concern for the future of the country, and no one ought to tell him otherwise,” In said on the previous day, one of several comments that throw weight behind Hwang’s potential candidacy.
“In the countryside, there is an enthusiastic response to Hwang. The Hwang Kyo-ahn phenomenon is about people concerned about the future of the country and disappointed with politics today who are looking for a clean politician, and that phenomenon will continue,” said Park Wan-su, a member of the Saenuri Party supreme council, on the same day.
But the Saenuri Party’s courting of Hwang Kyo-ahn is being criticized for lacking political conscience and decency not only from leftists and liberals but also from the right-leaning Righteous Party and even from inside the Saenuri Party itself.
“[Hwang Kyo-ahn running for president] is not practically possible because it would inevitably lead to chaos in the affairs of government. [If Hwang stepped down,] Yoo Il-ho would be acting President, acting Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Strategy and Finance, all at the same time. We would be an international laughingstock,” said Jang Je-won, a spokesperson for the Righteous Party, during an appearance on SBS radio.
“The party’s attempts to clean house and to show contrition have not been endorsed by the public, and the impeachment trial that the party opposed is still underway. If the party nevertheless courts Hwang Kyo-ahn, it will come across as being outdated, unprincipled and afraid of giving up power,” said one frustrated official in the Saenuri Party.
“The Choi Sun-sil scandal has already caused too many positions to be filled by substitutes. We hope people won’t forget the fact that Hwang was at the heart of the influence-peddling scandal,” said Park Gyeong-mi, a spokesperson for the Minjoo Party.
Indeed, Hwang is thought to have played a role in blocking the prosecutors’ investigation of the 2012 National Intelligence Service election interference scandal after his appointment as the first Justice Minister in the Park administration. He was appointed to be Prime Minister in June 2015, making him the longest-serving and the most senior figure in the current administration.
Despite being inundated with demands to explain his intentions to everyone’s satisfaction, Hwang has stayed mum. On Feb. 2, he declined a request to attend the February interpellation session before the National Assembly on the grounds of “concerns about a vacancy in the affairs of government.” This is presumed to be an attempt to dodge an onslaught of requests to reveal whether or not he will run for president. While some members of the government view his silence favorably as signifying his intention to increase his control of the government, it’s likely that his main motivation is to buy time while he tracks trends in public opinion.
“Hwang Kyo-ahn has already entered the center of politics and is standing by as the situation becomes more chaotic. Since this could send the wrong signal to public servants, he needs to make clear that he will not run for president and get back to work,” said Yu Chang-seon, a political commentator.
“The opposition parties seem to be assuming they have nothing to lose from Hwang’s candidacy, but they shouldn’t be negligent about these developments,” Yu added. Indeed, it’s widely believed by the opposition parties that Hwang as presidential candidate might be able to galvanize hardline conservatives but that he would have less bipartisan appeal than Ban Ki-moon.
By Seok Jin-hwan, staff reporter
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