06.03.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

In the lead-up to the Congress of the Conservative Party of South Korea

On March 8, 2023, the Conservative Party of South Korea will elect its chairman. Because the political parties of the Republic of Korea (ROK) are in many ways an amalgamation of factions, who will be in office is critical.

First, the chairman nominates candidates for the April 2024 parliamentary elections, in which People Power Party intends to take revenge for its devastating loss in 2020. and change the current situation whereby the Democrats hold a majority in parliament which allows them to approve or reject any legislative initiative that does not require a 2/3 vote.

Second, the party chairman should be in charge of carrying out government policy. In recent Korean history, the party chairman was not Park Geun-hye’s protégé but one of her main political opponents (from the right, not the left), Kim Moo-sung, which resulted in Park’s impeachment by a large extent.

In the run-up to the congress, the party changed the voting rules to eliminate the possibility of outside interference in the election, stating that because the party’s election is its business, only the People Power Party (PPP) members would vote. This is in contrast to previous practice, whereby between 30 and 50% of ordinary citizens, in addition to party members, voted. Of course, political opponents took advantage of this opportunity, taking part in voting for opponents more convenient for them.

There were several applicants, but on February 10, 2023, the congress chose four main candidates who represent the four main factions within the party.

The first faction can be called the “classical right-wing” conservatives, who led the party until 2020 before being soundly beaten in the parliamentary elections. This group is now represented by Hwang Kyo-ahn, the former prime minister at the head of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and then the head of the party, who is legitimately in last place in the ranking.

The conservatives, on the other hand, stood a better chance. Another candidate from this group was Na Kyung-won, the former head of the Conservative parliamentary faction and no less odious than Hwang. She was more popular than Hwang at one point, coming in first or second in the ratings when she lost the election for party chairman to Lee Jeong-seok. Na Kyung-won was a leading candidate, but a number of her statements on social support for young families were deemed too populist and contradictory to the government line, and she was even removed from her post as vice chair of a presidential committee on population policy.  To avoid exacerbating the party’s internal strife, Na Kyung-won dropped out of the race on January 25, wishing Yoon Suk-yeol success in uniting the party.

The second group is comprised of the conventional center-rightists, who constitute the majority of the “anti-Yoon side.” They included former party chairman Lee Jun-seok and his spiritual advisor, MP Yoo Seong-min. This group once formed a separate party, “Bareun,” from which Yoo Seong-min ran for president in 2017, and it has a stronger position, but Lee Jun-seok left party politics after the scandal, and Yoo Seong-min, after considering the ratings (less than 10%) and the chances, decided not to take the risk. Yoo Seong-min announced on January 31 that he would not run for party leadership and would instead patiently wait for better times.  In addition, Yoon did not try to hide his attitude toward the current government and said directly that he would do everything in his power to prevent tyranny.

Nevertheless, this group has its representatives among the candidates. This is young candidate Chun Ha-ram, who did not officially announce his bid for the presidency until February 3, 2023, but has consistently ranked third.  The vice president of the Bar Association of the Republic of Korea and head of the conservative party branch in the heart of the democratic opposition, Jeolla province, gathers Yoon’s opponents around him and criticizes his entourage for what he sees as undermining public confidence in the government and the ruling party.

The third group is composed of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s supporters, friends of the president’s youth and childhood among the conservatives. Their political opponents like to use the term “yoonhagwon,” which can be conventionally translated as “Yoon’s inner circle,” to imply that this faction is based on loyalty to a specific individual rather than ideology.  According to reports, the president dislikes the term.

However, the most prominent members of the “inner circle,” such as Kwon Sung-dong and Chang Je-won, chose not to stand out for the same reasons: some have a scandalous reputation, others are too close to Yoon, and the latter would appear to be blatantly trying to promote his crony. Therefore, the president’s supporters are represented by former Ulsan Mayor Kim Gi-hyeon.

The fourth group means Ahn Cheol-soo and his team. Ahn had once claimed to be a “third force,” but withdrew in favor of Moon and did the same in the ’22 election in favor of Yoon Suk-yeol, after which he chaired the transition committee. However, Ahn did not subsequently receive any serious positions in the government.

So far, unfortunately, neither candidate has presented a detailed program. For the most part, they attack each other.

What is more interesting is how the three main contenders exploit the image of Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon’s supporters do not openly state that the president backs them, but instead emphasize the importance of collaboration between the party and the government, claiming that the center-right and Ahn’s team “share a common ground on negative sentiment toward the president”. In this context, they plan to make Yoon honorary chairman, claiming that “a closer relationship between the president and the party means more responsibility in politics” and that separating the party and the government is unnecessary.

However, the general reaction to this has been mixed, with representatives of other factions claiming that it would turn the party into a “liaison bureau for the presidential administration.” Chun Ha-ram was the first to say that an honorary chairman’s authority is difficult to define and understand, and that among the 800,000 party members, “some critical opinions about the president’s policies are natural”.

Ahn Cheol-soo is trying to claim that he is a better partner to the president than “yoonhagwon,” and it wasn’t Yoon Suk-yeol himself who won the presidential election, but the coalition of Ahn Cheol-soo and Yoon Suk-yeol: Ahn withdrawing in favor of Yoon brought him extra votes that ensured victory.  The presidential administration responded to such sentiments by remarking that Ahn’s use of the phrase “yoonhagwon” exacerbated the party’s split, after which Ahn “toned it down”.

It is clear that the competition is unfolding between Kim and Ahn, to whom all those who are not for Kim and Yoon are flocking. As of early February, and after Na Kyung-won and Yoo Seong-Min had withdrawn from the race, Ahn was significantly ahead of Kim, but now Kim is leading, albeit by a very slim margin.

However, we know that in Korean elections many things are decided at the last minute, and in general, factional wrestling in Korea is a national sport, much more popular than taekwondo.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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