[Column] A rift in Korea’s ruling camp, made wider by its first lady

Posted on : 2024-07-08 17:10 KST Modified on : 2024-07-08 17:15 KST
Just over two years into his administration, the race to lead the ruling party has gone from a competition between candidates to a blood feud between the likely victor and the president
Han Dong-hoon and President Yoon Suk-yeol attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korea Freedom Federation on July 4, 2024. (Yonhap)
Han Dong-hoon and President Yoon Suk-yeol attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korea Freedom Federation on July 4, 2024. (Yonhap)


By Son Won-je, editorial writer

The power struggle between President Yoon Suk-yeol and Han Dong-hoon is becoming quite the spectacle. Internal power struggles are known for being vicious, but the Yoon-Han rivalry is setting a new bar. 

The presidential office has sought to plant its own candidate for People Power Party leadership to run against Han, and has openly declared Han to be a traitor who has “turned his back” on Yoon. Regarding the controversy over first lady Kim Keon-hee’s acceptance of a luxury handbag ahead of the general election, Kim apparently sent a text to Han vowing to “apologize to the public” and to “accept whatever measures the party deems necessary,” but Han reportedly left the message on “read.” The running theory is that Han refused Kim’s apology, causing his party to lose in the general election. 

PPP circles and supporters are viewing the scenario as the first lady’s active participation in the Yoon-Han rivalry. If Yoon is No. 1, then the first lady is No. 0 rather than No. 2 — at least that’s what the people are likely to conclude after observing how this administration operates. The first lady joining the fight against Han means that the feud has passed the point of no return. Kim putting the gloves on effectively means that diplomacy is out the window. Once inseparable, Yoon, Kim and Han have come to realize that when it comes down to “you or me,” it’s always “me.” 

Just over two years into his administration, the race to lead the ruling party has gone from a competition between candidates to a blood feud between the likely victor and the president that will seal the fates of their political careers. This is a rare situation, with almost no precedent. Each is in a situation where it’s become all or nothing. 

Yoon seems to have concluded that if Han grabs the reins of PPP, he won’t be able to finish his presidential term. Public distrust and anger over the president’s incompetence and abuse of power passed the critical threshold a long time ago. Moderates, and even some conservatives, are afraid that three more years of this administration will lead to the country’s collapse. Yoon is on the brink, just one step away from freefall. The Constitution of the Republic of Korea permits the National Assembly to impeach an incumbent president if a grave violation of the Constitution or the law is committed while carrying out presidential duties. The Yoon administration’s alleged interference in the investigation into the death of a Marine corporal would constitute such a violation. It was Han himself who pushed Yoon to such a brink. 

The moment Han proposed allowing the Supreme Court chief justice to appoint a special counsel to investigate the possible cover-up of the Marine’s death, he made it that much more likely that a special prosecutor probe would come to fruition, essentially bypassing the president’s veto power. The president would have undoubtedly vetoed a bill that would allow his political opponents to appoint the special prosecutor. But if a third party is allowed to appoint the prosecutor, it will be politically difficult for Yoon to oppose the bill. 

The Reform Party has proposed allowing the Korean Bar Association to appoint the special prosecutor, and the Rebuilding Korea Party has already expressed willingness to revise the bill to allow a third party to appoint the prosecutor. If Han becomes the PPP leader, then a bipartisan consensus on a special counsel bill becomes dramatically more likely. 

Even if conservative hard-liners band against Han, Yoon will have lost the political grounds for a veto. To save political face, more PPP lawmakers could waver and vote in favor of the bill, and the minimum blockade of eight National Assembly seats could very well fall. 

If the bill is passed, there’s no telling what will come next. The president faces suspicions of abuse of public authority. The most recent suspicions come in the form of the first lady fielding lobbying for the president. Yoon could face charges of wide-scale corruption and influence-peddling. The majority of the public has already turned their back on the president. It’s likely only a matter of time before the pot boils over. 

The special prosecutor bill could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is why the pro-Yoon faction is yelling, “If a special prosecution bill passes, then impeachment will follow,” to borrow the words of John Linton, a contender for a PPP Supreme Council seat. 

Han has denied that the push for a special counsel has anything to do with impeachment, saying that he will “unequivocally block Yoon from impeachment.” But it’s difficult to imagine that Han, who himself provided the direct justification and legitimacy for the approval of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment as part of the special counsel team investigating the former president for influence-peddling, would fail to see that a special counsel appointment could trigger Yoon’s impeachment. 

In fact, perhaps he knows better than anyone, and this is simply the ace up his sleeve. 

In the three remaining years of the Yoon regime, the greatest question for Han will be whether he can survive the roadblocks and blackmail hurled at him by those closest to Yoon. Impeachment could be the clutch move that clears doubt and uncertainty and turns a risk into an opportunity by setting himself apart from his competitors. He needn’t be Dr. Strange to run through at least a few scenarios. It would only be fitting for a fastidious politically minded prosecutor like Han to pursue such a course.  

Public disgruntlement, heightened political anger, and a schism among the ruling elite are all among the indicators of crisis for a given regime. All three have reached their boiling point. 

Perhaps we should find the silver lining of this all: finally, after two and a half years, some warning bells are ringing. It’s time for justice to be served and the country put back in order, before things deteriorate even further.  

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

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