South Korea’s New Conservative Leader

On June 11, 2021, elections were held for the leading position of the most prominent opposition party of South Korea – the People Power Party, an outcome of which was both significant and interesting.

Now the party has a new leader, who is nothing like a classic conservative opposition candidate. Lee Jun-seok is 36 years old and has never been a member of parliament. Nevertheless, 43.8% of the party members and citizens who voted online and by phone between June 7 and 10 voted for him. The main rival of the “inexperienced boy” and the youngest political party leader in the modern history of the Republic of Korea was Na Kyung-won, a four-term National Assembly deputy, the former leader of the conservative parliamentary faction. This ultra-right-wing and highly odious politician garnered 37.1% of the vote. Another recent ex-party leader, Joo Ho-young, was third with 14.02%.

Lee himself is more of a center-right kind of guy. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in computer science, he became politically active in 2011 (age 26) as a member of the Interim Party Committee under the partial patronage of Park Geun-hye. However, Lee instead joined Yoo Seung-min, who in 2015 tried to stage a parliamentary coup limiting the president’s powers and then splitting the conservative camp by creating the Bareun Party and then run for president on its behalf in the 2017 elections. Lee Jun-seok joined this party too, already with a reputation of an unwavering critic of Park Geun-hye. Then, when an attempt to create a separate center-right party “failed to take off,” he returned to the basic conservative trend with Yoo.

Lee was considered an outsider. He tried to be elected to parliament three times, lost all three. Yet he did not shy away from speaking out on controversial issues, including gender. He advocated drafting women into the military and rejected the practice of luring women into politics to ensure gender balance at the expense of competence. He has actively staked on young people, “the latest by-elections clearly showed that securing the support of the (young) generations in their 20s and 30s … will be the first task in the path to a presidential election victory.”

According to the May 22 public opinion poll, 30.1% of respondents were willing to support Lee Jun-seok. He was well ahead of the other contenders, Na Kyung-won (17.4 percent) and former party leader Joo Ho-young (9.3 percent).  After that, Joo stated that the poll results did not correspond to reality, and on May 24, Na Kyung-won while stating that “The next chairman of the party should be a figure that doesn’t drive fancy sports cars but instead drives a truck and still can navigate narrow alleys.”  She also called Lee a puppet of Yoo Seung-min, publicly questioning whether the party could “unite the opposition front and nominate a single presidential candidate in the 2022 presidential election if a contender close to a certain politician became the party leader.” Joo echoed this criticism: “Yoo Seung-min’s faction, which used to be the victim of factional conflicts, is now causing them.”

The survey was conducted according to an interesting system: 70% of those who voted were party members and 30% were ordinary citizens.  The results are listed above. Lee Jun-seok’s two-year term as opposition leader began, and under his leadership, the party will prepare for the presidential election next March.

According to most experts, young conservatives, whose numbers have recently increased significantly, are behind Lee. Just as young people’s protest sentiments pushed them in the liberal-democratic direction under the military and conservative forces, the actions of Moon Jae-in’s administration have pushed the pendulum firmly in the opposite direction. The expectant youth reacted painfully to the dragon-slayer becoming a dragon himself and made a right turn in the absence of a sane third force. And then there’s Lee with quotes like:  “If we want the younger generation to continue to support us, we must prioritize the issues that matter to the younger generation.”  As a result, in the April by-election, most voters between the ages of 20 and 30, who were considered the main base of support for the Democrats, voted for Conservative Party candidates.

In addition, every year, about 700,000 young people become eligible to vote, while 500,000 members of the older generations die. This dynamic also spurs an appeal to the young.

On Lee’s side are those conservatives who “prefer reform to stability” or relative centrists like MP Ha Tae-keung.  The author has repeatedly quoted opinions that the People Power Party should “rethink itself to take a rational and centrist path instead of sticking to its right-wing ideology and relying on voters in the South and North Gyeongsang Provinces.”

Voting for Lee Jun-seok was also a kind of protest vote. As political commentator Choi Young-il has pointed out, Lee’s popularity reflects the people’s disappointment with the previous leadership because party heavyweights like Na or Joo did not meet the people’s expectations. People’s support for Lee was not because they think he is a great politician, but because they wanted to see change.

Finally, the ordinary citizens of the allotted 30% voted for Lee.  Among them, the score between Lee and Na was 58.7% versus 28.3%, and if only party members had voted, Na Kyung-won would have won with a score of 40.9% versus 37.4%.

President Moon Jae-in took the situation appropriately and immediately phoned Lee Jun-Seok, congratulating him on his election and celebrating his success. According to Moon, the victory of a young candidate is a sign of change in the political situation and, in general, a change in the country. Moon Jae-in noted the inevitable escalation of the political standoff as the presidential election approaches but immediately called on the new head of the People’s Power to cooperate with the government, given the continuing threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The other prominent Democrats also clapped loudly. Party leader Song Young-Gil praised Lee’s victory and expressed hope that it would serve as a turning point in the process of “crossing the river of impeachment” of former President Park Geun-hye and turn into a force of reasonable conservatism. Leading Democratic populist candidate and governor of Gyeonggi Province Lee Jae-myung said the decision was of great importance. Another prominent politician, Lee So-young, noted that the victory of a young politician in a party where 70 percent of members are over 50 would give a sense of new hope.

In his celebration speech, Lee emphasized his vision for party reform and ensuring the party’s victory in the upcoming presidential election. “Through change, we will be transformed and ultimately victorious. Please join us in changing the world and overcoming inertia (in the party) and prejudice. Then the world will change. I will work to create a party in which various presidential candidates and their supporters can coexist… From now on, each of you is asked to confront those who rely on old habits such as unnecessary slander, conspiracy, or framing.“  “To be able to pass judgment on Moon Jae-in’s administration, People Power Party must transform itself, expand its capabilities, and be reborn as a more attractive party.”

Lee plans to elect party speakers through competitive debates and to adopt qualifying tests for party members running for elected public office. He intends to bring back Kim Chong-in, an experienced economist and politician who previously led the party as head of the emergency committee and supported centrist reforms.

However, you have to understand that Lee Jun-seok’s prospects are pretty interesting. First, the conservative party demonstrates a relatively high level of factional struggle, as is clear even from the history of Park Geun-hye’s fall, in which Park’s opponents in her own party, not the Democrats, played a significant role. In this context, if Lee wants to promote change and bet on the youth, he will have to negotiate long and hard with representatives of other factions and, frankly, expect to be backstabbed at some point. And the main task is to ensure intra-party unity.

Secondly, although Lee Jun-seok is already in fourth place in the rankings of future presidential candidates, he has only 3%, and it will not be easy for him to catch up with the likes of Yoon Seok-youl, whom the conservatives are actively trying to get for themselves.

Thirdly, Lee will have to solve many problems, which the author has mentioned more than once. What to do with Park Geun-hye’s many and active supporters?  How do you promote a centrist agenda, given that it means a loss of identity for a significant portion of conservative voters? Should we unite with the People’s Party? Who to nominate for president – the controversial Yoon Seok-youl, the sly Ahn Cheol-soo, or Yoo Seung-min’s own mentor (which Na Kyung-won or Joo Ho-young accuse him of)? What to do with their competitors, whose influence within the party is excellent?

It is also unclear to what extent Lee will be an independent leader rather than an obedient little brother of his political mentors. In other words, it is not clear to what extent Lee would become the second Kim Jong-un in the sense of drawing his independent line.

According to the Korea Herald, Lee Jun-seok’s task is “to renew and reform his party, as he promised … unite the conservatives and unite the opposition parties in the run-up to the presidential election, which is nine months away. He must demonstrate an ability to fairly manage the process of electing the party’s presidential candidate. To propel the party to triumph in the presidential election, he must show leadership in communication and engagement, youthful passion, and an enterprising spirit. He must go beyond the role of speaking for those in their 20s and 30s and give responsible messages on national issues. Only if he does so can he dispel concerns that he is too young to lead a major party”.

Of course, Lee is not the first politician in Korean history who started this young.  Back in 1964, Kim Young-sam, who later went on to become President, was elected floor leader of the opposition at age 37. However, he had a more complicated and long political career.

In any case, the credit that is given to Lee Jun-seok says a lot about the hopes for a bright future in South Korean politics and that the political struggle before and during the 2021 presidential election promises to be interesting and exciting.

By Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D.
Source: New Eastern Outlook

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