The People Power Party (PPP) has undergone a long and difficult journey to reach its current situation. Our story begins in August 2022 when Lee Jun-seok’s party membership was suspended for six months by the ethics committee. Later, Lee Jun-seok was suspended from the party for one year and six months for destroying evidence of receiving sexual favors.
Yoon’s team won this round, but none of the core members wanted to take first place. For instance, lawmaker Chang Jae-won, a key associate of the president, stated that he did not post as a conservative leader due to his “endless responsibility for the recent confusion in the party.” In the end, Jeong Jin-seok, a member of the Yoon’s ruling party’s interim committee, was appointed as the chairman.
The party leader was to be chosen by the congress. The People Power Party (PPP) decided to revise the current party rules. The rules stipulate that the party chairman be elected based on 30% of opinion poll results and 70% of ballots cast by party members. The reason for this is straightforward: the polls were significantly impacted by Democrats who voted for opponents that were more convenient for them.
However, critics, particularly Yoo Seung-min’s faction, protested against the revision, arguing that it would only benefit lawmakers who are close to the president and would not affect the public’s opinion of the party.
On February 23, the leader was elected at the party congress. The election was held amidst a fierce factional struggle between four factions: the traditional conservatives who led the party until 2020 (former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn), the center-right and supporters of Lee Jun-seok (lawyer Cheon Ha-ram), supporters of Ahn Cheol-soo, former head of the People Power Party, and supporters of Yoon Suk-yeol, led by Kim Gi-hyeon, a lawmaker and former Mayor of Ulsan, who won 50.1% of the vote. Yun Jae-ok, a member of the pro-presidential team, was appointed as the leader of the parliamentary faction.
In July 2023, Yoon’s team threw a devastating blow to the classical conservatives by claiming that their most prominent representative, Hong Joon-pyo, the Mayor of Daegu and Yoon’s main rival in the primaries, “played golf over the weekend as the country struggled to cope with the damage from heavy rains” that killed at least 41 people. It was inappropriate for a public servant to play golf at that time.
Initially, Hong claimed he had not committed any wrongdoing since there were no reports of damages in Daegu at the time, and he believed he had the freedom to do as he pleased during his personal time. However, on July 19, he apologized, saying he regretted not taking into account people’s feelings in explaining the situation “based on principles and facts.” On July 26, the ethics committee of the ruling party suspended the Daegu Mayor’s party membership for 10 months.
While this punishment did not affect Hong’s status as mayor, it did prevent him from running for the People Power Party in the April 2024 general election (the punishment does not expire until May). Therefore, neither Hong Joon Pyo nor Lee Jun-seok could compete with Yoon’s supporters.
However, the Democrats’ victory in Gangseo-gu County was perceived as a ‘crushing defeat’ for the ruling party, leading to a change in leadership and subsequent action. Therefore, on October 23, the People Power Party approved Ihn Yo-han, the first naturalized citizen of South Korea, also known by his American name, John Linton, as their chairman of the Innovation Committee. “As he deeply understands the need for political reform and has great determination, we expect Professor Ihn to provide us with the optimal diagnosis to reinvent the PPP into a party trusted by the people,” said Kim Gi-hyeon.
The choice was a very interesting one. Ihn is a fourth-generation grandson of American missionary Eugene Bell (1868–1925) was born and raised in South Jeolla Province, a traditional Democratic stronghold. It is worth noting that his family has been living in Korea for four generations, doing missionary and charitable work. The Democrats did not make this a political issue. In 2012, John Linton (Ihn Yo-han) was granted special naturalized citizenship in recognition of his contributions to the country’s medical system. These contributions include the development of the first Korean-made ambulance. Ihn Yo-han also visited North Korea 29 times to help fight tuberculosis when inter-Korean relations were less confrontational. Although he worked on former President Park Geun-hye’s transition team in 2012, Ihn Yo-han has largely stayed out of politics until now.
The Conservative opposition immediately called for radical reforms instead of gestures. It was observed that reviewing the party’s long-standing practices was more easily announced than accomplished. To achieve the goal and meet expectations, Ihn Yo-han requires significant power and a mandate for reforms that may not be well-received by some party members, including Kim Gi-hyeon.
Another article correctly pointed out that “whenever a political party loses a significant election, major officials often resign and establish a reform committee. They typically appoint an outsider to lead the organization on an interim basis and make cosmetic changes” – essentially to avoid accountability of those with real power.
The committee, led by John Linton, consisted of seven women and eight politicians under the age of 40. However, it was not possible to include prominent representatives from different factions. In late October, the Innovation Committee recommended lifting the membership suspensions imposed on Lee Jun-seok and Hong Joon-pyo, with their sentences set to expire in January and May 2024, as part of efforts to unite the factions. On November 2, the decision was made. However, Lee opposed the committee’s decision and suggested that the committee should instead focus on reflecting on the party’s past misdeeds. Hong also said he has severed ties with the current party leadership and will not run for or participate in the 2024 election.
Inh Yo-han took several centrist steps, including visiting the National Cemetery in Gwangju on May 18. He paid his respects to the residents who participated in the 1980 pro-democracy uprising against the Chun Doo-hwan government and said that the uprising “was an achievement of democracy in the country and still remains in our memory.” He also visited the memorial sites of the Jeju massacre.
However, the most significant action was his request for “star lawmakers from the Gyeongsang provinces, who are typically elected easily in the region, to contest challenging constituencies in Seoul and the Gyeonggi-do Province.” Apparently, they will be elected in their home districts, primarily North Gyeongsang Province and Daegu City. However, they can be moved to more challenging districts.
The Innovation Committee stated that the decision would be made by the committee based on the recommendation of the party’s candidates. However, Ihn Yo-han’s proposals received negative feedback from lawmakers in those regions who had already gained the trust of their constituents and did not want to risk losing their seats. Including the leader Kim Gi-hyeon or the former leader Joo Ho-young, who said it bluntly: “My political career began in Daegu, and it should end here. I’m not going to Seoul.”
On November 3, 2023, the Innovation Committee demanded that high-ranking officials close to the president either drop their reelection bids or run in more competitive districts.
Proposals to reform the system included reducing the number of legislators in the 300-member National Assembly by 10 percent and cutting their salaries. Additionally, it was suggested to waive legislators’ immunity from arrest during parliamentary sessions and to remove the bottom 20 percent of legislators from party lists in the next election based on their performance.
Meanwhile, there are rumors that Lee Jun-seok may collaborate with respected politician Yoo Seung-min, who is the head of the center-right and Lee’s teacher, to leave the party and establish a new political structure. This new structure has the potential to gain significant support in the ROK metropolitan area. Ihn Yo-han held a meeting with Yoo Seung-min, but no agreement was reached. Ihn Yo-han made inappropriate remarks about Lee’s parents. Lee responded rudely and spoke defiantly to John Linton in English instead of Korean. Linton commented that Lee Jun-seok’s English was even better than his own, yet this incident highlights that the talk of multiculturalism favored by Yoon Seok-yeol’s opponents is merely a facade that conceals a relatively close-minded traditionalism.
Thanks to Ihn’s energetic actions, the PPP’s approval rating has skyrocketed after a three-week stalemate. But that’s where it stops. Despite a poll conducted by the anti-Yoon press showing that 45% of respondents supported the committee’s proposals and only 28% were against them, the deputies’ position remained unchanged.
Amid concerns that reform efforts are losing momentum, Kim Gi-hyeon’s spokesman met with Ihn and urged him to “continue to bring up new ideas and opinions.” However, the spokesman did not provide a clear response to previous proposals. Furthermore, Kim Gi-hyeon sternly advised Inh Yo-han against mentioning the president and involving Yoon Seok-yeol in discussions regarding intra-party affairs.
Inh Yo-han issued an ultimatum to the leadership of the People Power Party (PPP) outlining the following conditions: 1) The upcoming election sees top politicians and party leaders either stepping down in favor of younger members or running in difficult precincts. 2) Ihn Yo-han personally has decided not to run, but has requested the position of head of the Candidate Selection Committee to ensure that reform principles are upheld and that the party’s membership is renewed during the election. 3)The party leadership has until December 4th to respond. After only two hours, Kim Gi-hyeon gave a negative response, despite thanking Ihn Yo-han for his efforts. The proposal by the committee for party leaders to contest in constituencies outside their home territory was not even presented at the party’s Supreme Council meeting.
Inh was left with only two options: quietly finish the rest of his two-month term or resign.
On December 6, Kim Gi-hyeon and Ihn Yo-han had a surprise meeting that lasted about 20 minutes. They announced the settlement of their previous disputes and misunderstandings. Kim asked Ihn Yo-han to understand that the party leadership cannot accept his proposed plan for innovation and renewal.
The Innovation Committee ended prematurely on December 7, before its scheduled deadline of December 24. “We were able to figure out what people want and achieved a 50 percent success,” said Ihn Yo-han. “It opened the doors for good candidates to run in the elections. I would also like to thank party leader Kim Gi-hyeon for this opportunity and letting me know how hard politics is. I’ve learned a lot.” The responsibility for achieving the remaining 50% now lies with the party itself.
The experts agreed that the Innovation Committee was terminated early due to its excessively revolutionary approach to transformation, according to the leadership of the PPP. And this result was declared a defeat by the anti-Yoon factions. “If this continues, the party will probably not even get 100 seats in the National Assembly” and will not even be able to prevent the opposition from filing a motion to impeach the president or a constitutional amendment bill! The pressure on Kim Gi-hyeon to resign began to mount.
On December 11, 2023, Chang Je-won, a third-term lawmaker from the PPP and a member of Yoon’s inner circle, announced that he would not run in the upcoming April parliamentary election. He stated that his decision was made to “support the ruling party’s victory and to pave the way for the success of the Yoon administration.”
On the same day, Kim Gi-hyeon met with Lee Jun-seok in an attempt to dissuade him from forming a new party and poaching valuable officials. After the events, it is evident from their Facebook posts that an agreement was not reached.
On December 13, 2023, Kim Gi-hyeon announced his decision to resign after spending in office nine month. Kim took responsibility for the situation and called for unity among the ranks in order for the Yoon Suk-yeol government to succeed and win the People Power Party in the upcoming elections. “I hope that all members of our party will gather strength with a spirit of unity and inclusiveness to gain the hearts of the people through self-discipline and compassion.”
Someone felt it wasn’t enough. Some lawmakers, including Ahn Cheol-soo, argued Kim should also give up running in the general elections, as he was too late to respond to calls for party reform.
Other political analysts believe that Kim may not be held responsible in case of further failures of the PPP, as they consider that he has lost his influence over time. In early December, the conservatives reportedly calculated their chances and discovered that they only had support in six districts in Seoul, compared to the eight they won in the 2020 election, which was a significant setback for them. This indicates a difficult start to the election race.
Following the resignation of its leader, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) transitioned to a leadership system through an emergency committee. Yun Jae-ok has been appointed as interim chief. Ihn Yo-han, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, and Kim Han-gil, head of the Presidential Committee for National Unification, are potential candidates for the post.
The Yoon faction endorsed Han. Further elaboration on their endorsement would require a separate text. The 50-year old non-drinker Han was a prosecutor in Yoon’s team and investigated all the high-profile cases with him. Despite being the target of slander by the Democrats, he performed well as justice minister, especially when compared to individuals like Cho Kuk or Choo Mi-ae. He turned out to be a competent manager. In addition, Han’s strong relationship with Yoon may enhance the party’s ties with the presidential administration.
However, some members of other factions objected to the appointment of a political novice to a position that could determine the party’s fate in the parliamentary elections. Democrats have also stated that Han is simply a representation of Yoon.
Initially, Han Dong-hoon denied receiving any inquiries on the matter but suggested that he might accept the position if he were to receive any. When asked about concerns regarding his lack of political experience, he replied that “often times a real crisis comes not from a lack of experience but when we are too calculative and try to play it safe.”
On December 21, 2023, the People Power Party (PPP) appointed Han Dong-hoon as its interim leader due to his popularity among younger and centrist voters. Later that day, Yoon accepted Han’s resignation as minister.
On December 26, Han Dong-hoon took office, promising at his inaugural press conference to do his best to win without seeking his own election: “Starting politics today, I will put people ahead of personal interests… I will not run either on district or proportional representation. Having only fellow citizens and the future of this country in mind, I will courageously devote myself to the victory.”
Han Dong-hoon also stated that he would only nominate candidates who pledge to waive arrest immunity for lawmakers during parliamentary elections.
On December 28, the PPP appointed ten members to its emergency committee. Han chose eight members of the committee, and two others were ex-officio members: the party’s floor leader Rep. Yun Jae-ok, and chief policymaker Rep. Yu Eui-dong. Most of the participants are between the ages of 40 and 50. Three of them are women, with the youngest being 21-year-old Yoon Do-hyun. The individuals’ backgrounds vary widely, including professionals such as lawyers, accountants, and doctors, as well as the CEO of a childcare platform startup and the head of a political organization advocating for change in the Honam region, a traditionally Democratic stronghold.
Party officials hope that Han will maintain Yoon’s trust while also being able to provide constructive criticism of the administration’s actions. This will help to foster a healthier relationship between the party and the government. But the ROK media thinks the conservatives are in trouble. The approval rating of the president is currently at 30-35%. Additionally, there are ongoing scandals being stirred up by the Democrats and a split caused by Lee Jun-seok. But the Democrats are in no less trouble, and as the author of the Telegram channel “Korea Light “ notes, “This looks like a very exciting start to an election race called “Everyone betrayed each other, and now they need to take six months to reconcile and pretend that it was right.” The election will be lost by the candidate who fails to reconvene. We’re not having a power race here, we’re having a cripple race.”
Konstantin ASMOLOV, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.