20.03.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the outcome of the ROK’s Conservative Party congress and the parliamentary vote against the arrest of Lee Jae-myung.

ROK’s Party

Perhaps the author’s articles focus too heavily on South Korean domestic politics, but even so, when he describes the lengthy planning for an event, he should at least briefly summarize how it went. Recently, there have been two such events that are crucial to the country’s future. Each would have merited a full-length film, but there are also a lot of intriguing things taking place in other parts of the world. Shall we?

Parliamentary voting on the Arrest of Democratic Party Chairman

The NEO has written extensively about how the prosecutor’s office is (in the author’s opinion, quite justifiably) getting close to the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, and the fact that the investigation eventually sought a warrant for his arrest on February 16, 2023 was not surprising. However, an MP’s arrest should be sanctioned by Parliament, so it was equally clear that the Democrats, who have 169 votes out of 300, would vote against it and Chairman Lee would remain free.

And so it happened, but there was no unanimous support among the democratic forces. First of all, the left-wing Justice Party did not go along with the Democrats and spoke out in favor of Lee’s arrest, and for two reasons.   The first is very simple: the law should be the same for everyone, and Lee Jae-myung has shown himself to be a master of double standards in this story. When Lee ran for president, he promised to abolish parliamentary immunity. But when the situation changed not in his favor, on February 24, he blatantly retracted his previous promises.

Another reason is that although Lee Jae-myung says in his press conferences that Prosecutor-turned-President Yoon Suk-yeol dreams of putting him in chains, as “judicial hunting under the mask of the rule of law has become part of everyday life. Politics has disappeared, and an era of barbarism where only domination reigns has started”, the charges against him are criminal, not political. They refer not to Lee’s activities as a Democrat leader, but to the old days, when he was still a city mayor and then a province governor. At the same time, the accusations are rather well-funded, more so than those once made against Park Geun-hye.

Second, within the Democratic Party itself there were enough opponents of Lee who said that the double standard had already caused the party to fail in the local elections of June 2022. And if the party constantly broke its promises, it would lose the trust of the people and become a “rescue club for Chairman Lee.” The fact that the vote was to be anonymous gave them courage.

And here was the result:  Lee Jae-myung was saved only miraculously, as there were 138 votes in favor of the arrest and 139 against.  This means that at least 30 Democratic Party members voted for the arrest, and some spoiled ballots that were then declared invalid.

Of course, the Democratic Party responded with a witch hunt, publishing lists of alleged traitors and harassing them on the Internet. This could lead to a situation where dissatisfied people would simply quit the party and, if there were enough of them, the Democrats could lose their parliamentary majority.

Moreover, even if Lee can avoid incarceration, he would still have to go to court and be interrogated, which would have a negative impact on the already low rating of the Democratic Party. And if another criminal case is opened against Lee (e.g., in the context of money transfers to North Korea), the prosecutor’s office could file another arrest warrant, which would be voted on in a very different political environment.

Elections of the chairman of the ruling party

As a reminder, those elections were held in an environment of fierce factional struggle and the four remaining candidates on the final list represented four factions: the traditional conservatives who led the party until 2020 (former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn), the center-right and supporters of ousted ex-chairman Lee Jun-seok (lawyer Chun Ha-ram), supporters of Ahn Cheol-soo, former head of the People’s Party, and supporters of Yoon Suk-yeol led by MP and former Ulsan mayor Kim Gi-hyeon.

Initially, Ahn had the advantage over Kim, but by February 23, Kim Gi-hyeon had already widened his lead over Ahn Cheol-soo, garnering 44% of the support against Ahn’s 22.6%, Chun Ha-ram’s 15.6%, and Hwang Kyo-ahn’s 14.6%. In a hypothetical two-way contest between Kim and Ahn, Kim earned 50.1% versus Ahn’s 37.6%.

Experts believe that Kim Gi-hyeon was supported by those in favor of inner-party stability. The likely support of the president, with whom the conservatives place their hopes for a return to prestige, also played a role.  As political analyst Bae Jong-chan noted in an interview with The Korea Times, “In the early stages of the election race, Kim’s approval rating was about 3%. His 53% vote, after all, should be interpreted as a vote for president.”

The party also elected five members to its High Council. MP Lee Chul-gyu was appointed the new general secretary of the ruling party on March 13. This is a key position that oversees the party’s budget and organizational affairs. As general secretary, Lee will also serve as vice chairman of the party committee responsible for nominating candidates for the 2024 parliamentary elections. Like his deputies Park Seong-min and Bae Hyun-jin, Lee Chul-gyu is from Yoon supporters.

At a meeting with the new leaders of the ruling party, Yoon Suk-yeol stressed the need for the People’s Power and the government to unite to work for the good of the people. After expressing his confidence in them, Yoon said, “From now on, I can concentrate on running the country.”

Now for two years, the chairman of the People’s Power will be Yoon Suk-yeol’s man (unless, of course, he repeats Lee Jun-seok’s fate and gets embroiled in another corruption or sex scandal).

But Kim Gi-hyeon faces a series of important tasks.

The first task is to strengthen the unity of the party. Winning with barely more than 50% on 55% turnout means that the majority of party members more likely do not support Kim, while the 15% for Chun Ha-ram indicates both that Lee Jun-seok’s support group is still intact and that they want change in general.  Bae Jong-chan reminds us that this is the first time Yoon Suk-yeol has secured a party leadership that largely shares his political vision, and “a devastating factor in terms of the president’s approval rating is criticism from his own party.”  He has been attacked by both traditional conservatives and supporters of Lee Jun-seok. Now that the situation is under control, Yoon’s popularity is expected to grow.

However, Kim must walk a fine line. On the one hand, he has to clamp down or negotiate with other factions so that they don’t stall the government’s course, and on the other hand, he has to avoid overtightening the screws by turning the party into a puppet of presidential power. Judging by Kim’s words, “I will run the system so that the president can concentrate on state affairs and not worry about parliamentary or party affairs,” there is a danger of bias in the second direction.

The second task is to ensure a Conservative victory in the 2024 parliamentary elections: it is vital for the ruling party to regain control of the majority in the National Assembly. So far, the Democrats have declined most of the president’s initiatives regardless of their usefulness – simply because they can.  At the same time, the head of the party is responsible for handing out the rights of a party member to run for office. And it is clear that those who are in the same faction with the leader have a better chance of being nominated.

The third task is to “restore dialogue and cooperation with the Democratic Party to overcome the economic crisis and improve people’s lives” in the current parliament.

In light of this, many believe that the Conservative Party will soon experience a significant change in its elites and overall composition, leading to the emergence of more and more securocrats within the party.  Only time will tell, but let’s for now record the outcomes of two significant occasions and stand still in anticipation of “future episodes.”

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

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