Back in the summer of 2022, factional infighting in the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) had gotten so out of hand that interim party chief Woo Sang-ho suggested getting rid of insults such as the word “watermelon.” In South Korea, this is considered a significant insult, despite its seemingly minor nature. For instance, the term ’banana’ is sometimes used as an insult towards American or overly Westernized South Koreans, implying that they are “yellow on the outside but white on the inside.” The term ‘watermelon’ was originally used to refer to a ‘crypto-communist’ who appears to be one thing on the outside but is actually red on the inside. Later, it came to be applied to those who seem to be members of the DPK but are actually traitors. Note that this derogatory term was first introduced by some supporters of Lee Jae-myung against former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon for his relatively conservative stance.
On July 17, 2022, Lee Jae-myung announced his candidacy for the party chairmanship, pledging to implement radical reforms. Although Lee admitted responsibility for the party’s electoral defeat, he promised to overhaul the DPK into a pragmatic party focused on improving people’s lives, avoiding factional politics, and not discriminating against anti-liberal party members when selecting candidates for the general election.
Lee’s opponents were members of the 97s group, also known as students of the 1990s, who advocated for a generational change in politics. They were Park Yong-jin and Kang Hyung-sik. However, neither of them wanted to show favoritism towards the other, and they also lacked Lee’s charisma. Therefore, despite having to apologize for the scandal involving his wife’s misuse of a corporate card during his time as governor, Lee Jae-myung won the election with ease, receiving 77.77% of the vote on August 28 and becoming the new chairman.
During the congress, the DPK elected five new members to the supreme council of representatives. Jung Jeong Rae, Ko Min-jung, Park Chan Dae, Jang Gen Tae, and So Yeon Ke. Except for Ko, who was Moon’s former spokesman, the other four were Lee supporters.
As of early September, 27% of respondents expressed their preference for Lee Jae-myung as the country’s next leader. It should be noted that the author considers such polls speculative. In comparison, Han Dong-hoon, who was the Justice Minister at the time and is now the conservative leader, received 9%. Hong Joon-pyo and Ahn Cheol-soo each received 4%, Lee Joon-seok received 3%, and Yoo Sung-min and Lee Nak-yeon received 2%. Over 40% of respondents chose not to answer.
During Lee’s administration, the Democratic Party utilized its parliamentary majority to reject Conservative-proposed legislation and pass its own bills. Some of the bills were written in a provocative manner, such as “I’ll freeze ears to spite my grandmother’ or ’tease the president, he’ll veto it, and we’ll say there’s tyranny in the country.” It would take a long time to discuss each of the measures, including attempts to impeach this or that minister or similar state figure merely “because we can,” but the article has a limited length. As of November 2022, none of the 77 bills proposed by the government have been passed by the National Assembly. The Democratic Party of Korea, which holds a majority of 169 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, halted them.
The authorities attempted to incarcerate Lee, but were unsuccessful in their attempts. It should be noted that we have previously covered this topic. Rather, what is important is that, against the backdrop of Chairman Lee’s policies, the opposition has begun to resurface.
On April 28, 2023, Park Kwang-on was elected as the new floor leader of the Democratic Party. Park is known to be a representative of a faction close to former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and in opposition to incumbent DPK Leader Lee Jae-myung. However, by autumn, the post was already held by Hong Ihk-pyo, a supporter of Lee Jae-myung.
A survey conducted by Korea Research on behalf of Korean Broadcasting System from May 6 to 8 showed that 49.7% of respondents believe that supporting the opposition is necessary to contain the current government in the 2024 general election. 41.3% of respondents chose the option “it is necessary to vote for the ruling party.” When asked about the need to create a new political party in addition to the two main parties, 56.8% responded positively, while just over 38% answered negatively.
Former DPK chairman Lee Nak-yon returned to South Korea on June 24 after spending a year in the United States as a visiting scholar at the GW Institute for Korean Studies (GWIKS) at the George Washington University.
The victory of the DPK in Gangseo County on October 11 confirmed Lee Jae-myung’s leadership. He made a definitive return to politics and, taking advantage of a pause in the prosecutor’s office, began actively building political capital in the run-up to the election. He did this by lobbying for populist bills, opposing Yoon Suk-yeol’s attempts to nullify Moon Jae-in’s legacy, and demanding the impeachment of regime figures, including Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon. On November 22, 2023, the Democratic Party suspended former lawmaker Choi Kang-wook’s party membership for six months. Choi Kang-wook, a member of Moon’s ’favorite children’ group, used a word meaning ’female’ animal to refer to the First Lady. The use of the word has caused anger among members of the DPK as well as the general public. Lee Jae-myung has reportedly called for tougher measures against Choi.
On November 17, the party presented its campaign banners for the upcoming elections. Another scandal emerged in addition to this. However, some banners received negative reactions due to their seemingly derogatory portrayal of young voters, with texts such as “I don’t know politics, but I want to be affluent.” Finally, the DPK had to apologize.
On November 28, Lee Nak-yon issued a statement in which he criticized Lee Jae Myung. He stated that under Lee’s leadership, DPK has lost its values and dignity and has become his personal party. Democracy is suppressed and destroyed within the party. In passing, the politician briefly mentioned the legal claims against Lee Jae-myung, who is currently facing several criminal cases. He noted that this is a serious obstacle to DPK’s political advancement.
Lee Nak-yon did not deny the possibility of creating a new political party to overcome the current crisis situation. He was also critical of Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration, which he believes has the potential to be the worst since South Korea’s democratization in 1987.
On December 3rd, Lee Sang-min, a five-term lawmaker, resigned from the Democratic Party. He stated that the party had become a personal party of its leader, Lee Jae-myung, and that his radical supporters were exerting too much influence. These supporters were committing senseless and shameless acts, such as online attacks on anyone who criticized the leader. Following Lee Nak-yon’s statement, fans of the chairman launched a petition demanding that the former prime minister be expelled from the DPK for his previous criticism of Lee Jae-myung.
On December 5, Lee Nak-yon responded that he would have no choice but to leave the Democrats if the petition to revoke his membership was granted. Then, on December 13, he officially announced his intention to establish a new political party in 2024.
On December 18, a group of party members believed to be close to Chairman Lee harshly criticized Lee Nak-yon’s desire to resign from the Democratic Party, accusing him of sacrificing the DPK and saying that he “has dragged his career and the DP’s name through the mud and inflicted a huge wound to our seniors, proteges, and comrades.” “The former leader is trying to create a political party without any cause, just for his useless political desires.”
Meanwhile, the process of nominating candidates for parliamentary constituencies has begun in the DPK, and scandals have already arisen. First, the party leadership refused to nominate members who were not loyal to Lee Jae-myung, even if they were mayors of several cities who would have likely made it into parliament from “their” territory. After their unsuccessful nomination bid was rejected, the mayors requested that the party reconsider the decision. However, their request was denied. Secondly, supporters of the leader were admitted, regardless of any negative history, unless they were clearly marked as having a questionable past.
Chairman Lee became the head of the DPK’s talent selection committee, responsible for studying potential candidates for the general election and assigning existing members to run for office. Two days later, Kim Yoon-dok, one of Lee’s staunchest supporters, was named vice chairman of the party’s candidate selection committee. The recent appointments have been seen as potentially weakening the position of anti-Lee Jae-myung factions within the DPK. Lawmaker Cho Eung-cheon, a vocal critic of Lee, described the party atmosphere as ’stifling.’
Against this background, on December 23, 2023, two prominent Democratic Party officials, Chung Se-kyun and Kim Boo-kyum, who previously served as prime ministers in the Moon Jae-in administration, met for breakfast to discuss the current domestic political situation in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections. During the discussion, they covered various topics such as the consolidation of democratic forces and DPK reform. They also addressed the risk of DPK splitting due to former prime minister and former chairman Lee Nak-yon’s desire to create a new party. Additionally, criticism of current leader Lee Jae-myung was expressed. Jung and Kim are members of the ’Moonies’, and their revitalization was a clear indication.
December 30, 2023 Lee Jae-myung and Lee Nak-yon attempted to reconcile, but their conversation was unsuccessful. Lee Nak-yon requested that Lee Jae-myung resign and agree to form a joint interim steering committee. He also stated that he would form a new party next year if Lee rejected his offer by the end of the year. Lee Jae-myung disagreed with the approach and advised against leaving the party. He stated, “This is not the way to do things.”
In early 2024, Lee began mobilizing supporters. Lee Jae-myung paid his respects at the graves of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, visiting Seoul National Cemetery and South Gyeongsang Province, respectively. Lee Nak-yon held a meeting with approximately 500 supporters at Haengju Fortress in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province. During the meeting, he expressed his intention to leave the DPK and form a new political party. “I should give a new option to the people other than the existing two-party system,” he stated. “I will change incompetent politics to competent politics, and corrupt politics to clean politics.”
On January 8, Lee Sang-min, who left the DPK, joined the ruling People Power Party and will run in the April 2024 general parliamentary election. Lee has been elected five times consecutively in the central city of Daejeon, making him an attractive candidate for conservatives. It is also an indication that, without a rational third party, a politician can be swayed either by the People Power Party or the DPK
On January 9, a group of Democratic lawmakers, who are not affiliated with either Lee Jae-myung or Lee Nak-yon and are members of the main opposition Democratic Party, warned that they would leave the party if Lee Jae-myung did not accept their demands for reform. The group, named Principle and Common Sense, consisted of Yu Young-chan, Cho Eung-cheon, Kim Jong-min, and Lee Won-wook.
Cho Eung-cheon reports that Chairman Lee has only one day remaining. “If we don’t get an answer, we have no choice.”
On January 10th, Cho Eung-cheon, Kim Jong-min, and Lee Won-wook announced their withdrawal from the Democratic Party. They stated that the party could not win the upcoming general election under the leadership of Lee Jae-myung. In a joint farewell address, the three MPs emphasized that they decided to leave the party because its leader refused to accept their insistence on a significant transformation of the Liberal Party after he cleaned up its image as a political party focused solely on protecting the party chief from his own litigation risks and supporting his unique fandom-driven policies.
However, Yoon Young-chan decided to stay.
The departing lawmakers suggested the potential for collaboration with emerging political parties. In response, Lee Nak-yon stated: “Those who are in the same boat should work together, but I know that incumbent lawmakers have a lot to consider before making a decision. It is appropriate to wait for them and support what they want.”
On January 11, Lee Nak-yon announced his resignation from the DPK. The politician advocated for a multi-party system because the Democratic Party had become an impenetrable one-man party, losing the spirit, values, and dignity of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun that it once boasted. Lee intends to move beyond factional rivalries and create a new political force to address public issues and improve people’s lives.
Simultaneously, another scandal erupted within the Democratic Party. Hyun Geun-taek, a deputy spokesperson of the DP and a supporter of Lee, made controversial remarks that bordered on sexual harassment. Following this, reporters filmed text messages between Chairman Lee and his aide Jeong Seong-ho. Lee reports that Jeong suggests punishing Hyun by suspending his party membership. “Isn’t that too harsh?” Chon replies: “It’s a warning that is strong enough.” Even so, Jeong passed the party’s nomination process with a good chance, even though the Democratic Party announced in 2023 that sexual harassment would disqualify candidates from running unless they received special favors from the leadership.
However, Lee’s opponents have faced unrelenting repression from the government, resulting in a flood of conservative media articles with titles such as “Lee Jae-myung must stop privitizing the DPK” or “Critical bias prevails in election nominations.”
Currently, the Democrats are losing members at a faster rate than the conservatives. However, it remains to be seen how far they can agree among themselves and present an alternative to Lee Jae-myung. There are several third-party candidates. The question is whether they can a) unite before the election and b) avoid falling apart afterwards.
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.”