05.02.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Toward the 2024 Parliamentary Elections in South Korea. Part Four. Lee Jun-seok’s Game

Lee Jun-seok’s Game

After discussing the issues surrounding conservatives, some members of the audience criticized me for not showing support towards Lee Jun-seok, who took a more impartial stance compared to other conservatives.

In response, we can recall precisely what Lee was warned for by the ethics committee, including his more significant tendency to solidarity with Ukraine. However, a detailed account of the ex-People Power Party (PPP) chairman’s recent activities is necessary.

Indeed, the 37-year-old Harvard-educated politician has managed to attract young male voters and has quickly become a symbol of change in the conservative bloc. In June 2021, Lee became the youngest chairman of the party with the support of young members, bypassing veteran candidates. Lee has never held public office or served as an MP.

At some point, Lee realized that it was not he who was for the party, but the party that was for him. A familiar moment for the author was a trip to Ukraine that was not coordinated with anyone and was designed to strengthen not the image of the country, but Lee Jun-seok’s personal PR. Additionally, it is worth noting that if a politician, particularly a party leader, is involved in a sex scandal, they are expected to resign as a matter of honor, as the media has reported. However, Lee did not take responsibility for the action, nor did he apologize for it, nor did he mention it.

Amid Lee Jun-seok’s conflict with classical conservatives, the far-right YouTube channel Hover Lab, whose owner Kang Young-seok was once expelled from the party and whom Lee refused to reinstate, has revealed information that in 2013, when Lee was close to Park Geun-hye, he was involved in a typical corruption scheme for a South Korean politician. In exchange for Lee mentioning him to Park, a certain businessman paid for favors, including sexual ones. In early July, the party’s ethics committee suspended his membership for six months due to a compromise that gained popularity.

This has led to a certain amount of conflict. Lee’s supporters suggested that the decision did not result in the final dismissal of the chairman, while Yoon’s supporters insisted that it did. The majority has won and Kweon Seong-dong, one of Yoon Suk-yeol’s closest associates, has become the leader of the party.

But on July 26, 2022, Kweon became the subject of an interesting scandal: a reporter photographed Kweon’s correspondence with Yoon Suk-yeol, in which the latter writes to the president that the situation has improved after Lee Jun-seok’s impeachment and “no one is stabbing us in the back anymore”.

From this passage, the society drew two conclusions. First, it’s “not good to slander,” and second, it turns out that Yoon is, as the Democrats immediately noted, “deeply involved in the ruling party’s power struggle,” even though the first person is supposed to be above party politics. Therefore,            on July 31, 2022, Keon Seong-dong took over and resigned as acting party chairman after only 20 days in office, prompting Lee’s opponents to move to “Plan B.”

On August 9, 2022, at the National Committee meeting, the party completed the process of amending the constitution to transition to the leadership with the help of the Emergency Committee. Joo Ho-young, a representative of the “classical” conservatives and a five-term lawmaker, took over the post of chairman and became the new interim leader of the party. Kweon Seong-dong, along with other supporters of Yoon, also joined the committee. The court ruling resulted in the ’automatic resignation’ of Lee Jun-seok, who had previously gone to court on August 10th to challenge the legality of the emergency committee.

On August 13, Lee Jun-seok held a special press conference where he said, “President Yoon’s entourage is just like Park Geun-hye’s entourage and the PPP should be burned to the ground.

On August 18, Lee Jun-seok filed another lawsuit against the party’s leadership change and again harshly criticized Yoon Suk-yeol and his closest aides, comparing the president to a military junta led by Chung Doo-hwan. Here the author can’t help but recall how Lee actually sabotaged Yoon’s election campaign, even then saying he would leave the party if the former attorney general was in charge.

On August 26, the Seoul South District Court ruled in favor of Lee Jun-seok and suspended Joo Ho-young until Lee’s main lawsuit is decided. According to the court, if Joo is not removed from office, Lee could suffer irreparable harm because Joo could call a party congress to elect a new leader.

On August 29, 2022, Kwon Seong-dong assumed temporary leadership of the party once again to revise the party’s charter and establish a new emergency committee. However, this proposal was met with resistance from other factions, including supporters of Ahn Cheol-soo and classical conservatives. As a result, Lee Jun-seok filed another lawsuit.

On September 1, the police summoned Lee Jun-seok for questioning on charges of receiving sexual favors, and on September 2, the revision of the party’s constitution to form a new Emergency Steering Committee was unanimously approved.

  On September 18, 2022, the Ethics Committee initiated another disciplinary case against its former leader Lee Jun-seok used “insulting, reprehensive” expressions against party members and lawmakers “without objective grounds,” and undermined unity and the party’s prestige.

On September 21, 2022, in a survey conducted by Hangil Research. 35.9 percent said they would support Lee if he formed a new party after the People Power Party expelled him from its ranks.

On October 6, the Seoul South District Court recognized the effectiveness of the ruling party’s emergency steering committee, confirming the ouster of Lee Jun-seok. The court determined that the appointment of a new emergency committee was free from material or procedural errors. The decision was made in accordance with the previously adopted changes to the People Power Party Charter.

The next day, on October 7, 2022, the Ethics Committee decided to impose additional disciplinary sanctions on Lee Jun-seok: the period of Lee’s suspension from party membership was further increased. “Lee Jun-seok engaged in harmful acts against the party, breached the party’s regulations he should have kept as a party member and drove out the public’s support,” stated committee chief Lee Yang-hee. As a result, Lee lost his membership for a year and a half, and thus the opportunity to participate in the 2024 general election (at least as a representative of the PPP).

On October 13, the police referred Lee Jun-seok’s case to the prosecution, but the statute of limitations had expired on the actual “sexual bribery” case. Thus, the investigation indirectly confirms that influence peddling and the purchase of sexual favors did occur. The allegations that Lee was involved are not defamatory.

Once outside the doorstep, Lee gave provocative interviews stating that ’the ruling party that is not loyal to the people should be burned down right now.’ The Conservative Party should avoid embracing a fascist ideology that promotes nationalism, totalitarianism, and a planned economy. He stated that our country served the king a century ago and not much has changed since then. He believes that we still serve the king, only now it is an elected one. He attributed all reform initiatives of the government to his favorite, including attempts to abolish HTTP blocking, which controls what Internet sites people access, and to get rid of censorship in messengers, which watches, blocks, and searches what content people exchange there. Even the unsuccessful attempt to access DPRK websites, which we will discuss separately at a later time, is attributed to him. Only by revealing the true nature of North Korea can we make them aware of their closed-mindedness and shortcomings.

On December 16, 2023, after the defeat of the People Power Party in Gangseo County, Lee declared that President Yoon Suk-yeol should admit his mistakes in managing public affairs and that “the party is no longer an organization subordinate to the president”.

It is noteworthy that the head of a separate faction, Ahn Cheol-soo, was more furious than the members of Yoon Suk-yeol’s team, announcing that he would demand Lee’s expulsion from the party because his actions were doing more harm than good, especially in the run-up to the general election. Ahn launched an online petition calling for Lee’s expulsion, citing his alleged dissemination of false information. Lee Jun-seok stated that he “does not deal with sick people”.

On November 6, Ihn Yo-han said that he was very disappointed that former party chairman Lee Jun-seok had treated him like a foreigner by speaking to him in English during an event in Busan that Ihn had specially attended. Critics have accused Lee of racist behavior due to his speaking English to him and calling him “Mr Linton” instead of Ihn.

Moreover, when Lee Jun-seok was asked about this behavior, he bluntly said that he was speaking in English because Ihn Yo-han had “become one of us, but you don’t look like one of us.” There were also criticisms of the President’s health, implying that he requires medication.

On November 7, 2023, Lee Jun-seok hinted at the possibility of forming a new party by joining forces with Yoo Seong-min, his political mentor and Yoon’s chief critic in the ruling party. The new alliance is anticipated to include some Democrats, such as Lee Sang-min, who criticizes the DPK’s state of affairs.

On November 19, 2023, Lee Jung-seok said that he would form a new party to promote political reform if President Yoon Suk-yeol did not change his approach to politics by the end of this year. He once again hinted at joining forces with Yoo Seung-min.

On December 27, Lee Jung-seok announced his resignation from the People Power Party, saying that he had already submitted an application to the National Election Commission to register a proposed new party. He stated that the new party will not merge with the PPP before or after the upcoming elections. The possibility of a merger is unlikely.

On January 14, Lee Jun-seok and former DPK chairman Lee Nak-yon met over coffee to discuss a possible joint effort to create a third political force in the country that could challenge both DPK and the PPP. After the conversation, Lee Nak-yon described the meeting as the start of a significant change in ROK politics. Lee Jun-seok suggested that a coalition of former political adversaries should reflect diverse political views and experiences. He emphasized that it should be a “a mix of different flavors that go well with one another without allowing one flavor to dominate or cover up other flavors.”

To summarize. Lee was once highly regarded among conservatives, but lost his political standing after being suspended from the party leadership in 2022 due to a scandal involving bribery and prostitution.

Lee’s resignation from the party was anticipated to impact the ruling party’s election campaign and potentially cause a division within the PPP. However, this occurred after Han Dong-hoon assumed the position of PPP leader.

During the election campaign, Lee Jun-seok may attempt to emulate the Bareun Mirae Party’s success from 2018 to 2020. During the impeachment scandal involving Park Geun-hye, his political mentor Yoo Seung-min and Lee left the mainstream conservative party to form their own party, the Baraeun Party[1]. This party included opponents of Park’s center-right views. This party merged with some ex-Democrats, including Ahn Cheol-soo. As a result, the party was labeled as the “right” future. However, despite having approximately 30 seats in the National Assembly, the idea of a ‘coexistence of conservative reformers and reasonable progressives’ was short-lived. It was not possible to create a serious third force in the form of a centrist party. As a result, the conservatives quickly returned to their original positions, and the party disbanded, breaking up into several smaller parties.

But right now, Lee’s chances are slim. Not even all of his associates followed him, let alone heavyweights such as Yoo Seung-min. In a radio interview with CBS Television, Kim Yong-dae, a former member of the PPP’s Supreme Council and one of Lee Jung-seok’s four closest aides, said that it was his duty to carry out reforms within the party and that he would remain in the PPP. Among the remaining three, only lawmaker Her Eun-a, head of the party’s regional office in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, Chun Ha-ram, and Gyeonggi Provincial Council member Lee Ki-in, only Lee have declared their intention to follow the former chairman and join the breakaway party. Lawmaker Her Eun-a, a proportional representative, would lose her status as a legislator if she leaves the party. Similarly, Chun Ha-ram would also lose her position if she leaves the party. They would be trading their good status for political obscurity.

Yoo Seung-min stated in an interview with MBC television that it is challenging to succeed with a new party. He has not yet decided whether to leave the party or form a new one.

Given Korean demographics, relying on youth may not be as important as having a strong regional support base. Many have pointed out that Lee Jun-seok lacks such a base. During a radio interview with YTN television, conservative lawmaker Sung Il-jong stated that establishing a new party is not an easy task, and Lee should be aware of this. No new political party has ever succeeded in Korea’s competitive party hegemony without a superstar or a strong home base.

Will Lee Jun-seok ally with politicians outside the conservative camp to form a broad coalition? Probably not. He is highly ambitious and unwilling to yield, even to politicians like Yoo Seong-min, who were his teachers. Teaming up with Lee Nak-yon, the former prime minister with extensive experience and merit, would quickly overshadow Lee Jun-seok, and he would not be the main star. New colleagues will also be mindful of the habit of kicking in the back and pulling the blanket on oneself to the detriment of the common cause.

That leaves the option of a tenuous tactical alliance that will not last long after the elections, regardless of how many mandates the new bloc receives. According to Park Sang-byeong’s advice, it may be better to forego the idea of forming a new party, as it has not yet been registered, and instead run as a candidate in the upcoming general election, as authorized by the innovation committee. Lee will represent a district in Gyeongsang Province as a lawmaker, and his impact on the campaign will be minimal.

However, the young politician is capable of making unconventional moves, and it is premature to end his career. Let’s focus on Lee Nak-yon in the next article, instead of discussing his problems.


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

[1] This term translates as ’right’ and, similar to Russian, has two meanings.

Related articles: