06.02.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Toward the 2024 Parliamentary Elections in South Korea. Part Five. Lee Nak-yon’s Different Future

Lee Nak-yon

South Korean politics has many individuals with the surname Lee. This includes Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), Lee Jun-seok, a former conservative leader who began his independent career at age 38, and Lee Nak-yon, who is on his way to become the leader of a breakaway faction.

The 71-year-old former DPK chairman, a four-term lawmaker, served as prime minister from 2017 to 2020 during the Moon Jae-in administration. As both premier and party leader, Lee demonstrated his competence as an administrator.

Lee Jae-myung and Lee Nak-yon were the main contenders to be the DPK’s presidential election candidate and party leader. Their relationship has been strained. In both cases, Lee Jae-myung emerged as the winner, but the largest alternative faction was led by former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon. It is speculated that some of former President Moon Jae-in’s supporters have aligned themselves with Lee, rather than Moon himself being involved, as there is no evidence of communication between Moon and Lee.

During the primaries and beyond, Lee Jae-myung’s supporters criticized him for the mistakes of Moon Jae-in’s government, rather than for his role as the leader of the inner-party opposition to Moon. Some of his supporters were called “watermelons” due to their less leftist and more conservative stance. Kim Oh-joon, “a democratic journalist” and the main propaganda mouthpiece, who supports Lee Jae-myung, accused Lee Nak-yon of being a secret adherent of the Shincheonji cult. However, in the primaries, Lee Nak-yon only managed to beat Lee Jae-myung in his home Jeolla Province and among ROK citizens permanently residing abroad.

After the defeat, Lee followed tradition and went to the United States for a year as a visiting scholar at the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. In that role, Lee proposed some reasonable ideas. For instance, on February 21, 2023, he stated that the United States should take measures to secure North Korea: “It is not possible to succeed in denuclearization talks with North Korea without addressing its perception of security threat and desire for survival.” According to him, the North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric “shows North Korea’s strong victim mentality and perception of security threat.”

Lee argued that after the end of the Cold War, North Korea sought to normalize relations with the USA and Japan but failed to do so “as South Korea obstructed it and the US ignored the call.” Mutual distrust is high, and “to increase the chance of successful negotiations, the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization should be addressed in parallel with mutually reducing threats and improving relations between the US and North Korea… Washington and Pyongyang must act towards denuclearization and diplomatic normalization in an incremental, simultaneous, and reciprocal manner to overcome their entrenched mutual mistrust.”

Meanwhile, criticism from the “Lee Jae-myung fan club” continues to be directed towards the former DPK chairman and members of his faction, holding them responsible for the Democratic Party’s defeat in the presidential election.

On June 24, 2023, Lee Nak-yon returned to South Korea and expressed his intention to contribute to the country’s reconstruction. “It’s been a year and 17 days. I apologize for being away from you when all of you have been struggling. I am well aware that I am as much responsible for the situation that the Republic of Korea is in, and I intend to fulfill my responsibilities,” Lee told the press upon his arrival.

The actions of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration on the economy and diplomacy were immediately criticized. “The whole world is worried about Korea,” he said. “The Republic of Korea is crumbling, exports are dwindling and the economy is reeling, not to mention that national pride is collapsing with democracy and welfare getting left behind.”

However, sources indicate that upon Lee’s return, he is unlikely to engage in active politics and will instead focus on lecturing.

In July 2023, Lee Nak-yon visited the National Cemetery in his hometown of Gwangju. He stated that “the people of this region seem to be disappointed about not only the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol government but also the DPK.” He emphasized that “the DPK should renovate itself to regain public trust and serve its role.” Lee went on to say that the party’s renewal should focus on “recovering morality and democracy within the party.”

The leadership of the DPK responded strongly to the comments made by the former chairman. One of them asked in an interview whether the former chairman intends to apologize for the failed policies of the previous government, in other words, the housing price policy, suggesting that instead of fighting the current party leadership, it seems more appropriate for him to consider the Yoon Suk-yeol administration as the main opponent. Others claimed that Lee Jae Myung called him and asked for support, so many people are wondering when they will meet… The longer it takes, the more negative feelings the public will have about their relationship.

Former Justice, Minister Moon Jae-in’s favorite and one-time DPK leader, Choo Mi-ae, also spoke out against the former chairman. It was revealed that he forced her to resign in 2021 to prevent her conflict with President Yoon, who was then attorney general, from affecting the by-election. However, the Democrats lost the by-election anyway.

On July 28, 2023, Lee Jae Myung and Lee Nak-yon held a private meeting that lasted approximately two hours. It was officially announced that cooperation agreements have been reached to ensure the party’s victory in the April 2024 general election, with Lee Jae-myung emphasizing the need for party unity for victory, while Lee Nak-yon pointed out the importance of reform and transformation of the party in the new environment. The DPK stated that the discussion did not include sensitive issues such as the prosecutor’s office’s attempts to arrest Lee Jae-myung.

In August 2023, Lee Nak-yon criticized the modernization plan developed by the Innovation Committee, headed by Kim Eun-kyung, for the country’s leading opposition party. He stressed the need for the emergence of a leader who could be compared to Kim Dae-jung. According to him, the key to DPK’s renewal should be to restore the morale and trust of the people and revitalize democracy within the party itself. However, the renewal plan that has been drawn up has been criticized for moving in the wrong direction and down the wrong path. Regarding foreign policy, Lee Nak-yon advocates for a neutral approach that avoids hostility, conflicts, and disputes with neighboring countries such as the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. He also aims to maintain positive relations with the DPRK, as was the case during Kim Dae-jung’s presidency.

On November 28, 2023, Lee Nak-yon stated that the DPK, under the leadership of Lee Jae-myung, had lost its values and dignity and had become his private party, where democracy was being suppressed and destroyed. The politician briefly mentioned the legal claims against Lee Jae-myung, who is currently facing several criminal cases. It was noted that these claims pose a serious obstacle to the party’s political course. To address the current crisis, Lee Nak-yon did not rule out the possibility of forming a new political party that may incorporate certain factions from the DPK.

A few days later, Lee reiterated his statements after the court announced its verdict on the scandal of interference in the Ulsan mayoral election process by the presidential administration during the Moon Jae-in administration. He also commented on the conviction of another Lee Jae-myung aide, hinting at the possibility of forming his own party and emphasizing differences in views with Lee Jae-myung.

Lee also lashed out at President Yoon Suk-yeol, whose administration, in his opinion, had a good chance of going down in history as the worst since South Korea’s democratization in 1987. The former Democratic leader noted that while Park Geun-hye’s administration was marked by stagnation, Yoon’s tenure is considered regressive.

On December 3, a number of Democratic Party members released a petition calling for the politician’s expulsion from the DPK following his sharply critical remarks against current party leader Lee Jae-myung.

On December 10, 2023, Lee Nak-yon stated that he would meet with Lee Jun-seok “in an appropriate time” to discuss a possible alliance, but that it was not a matter of the near future. The issue of consolidation has been resolved with Yoo Seong-min and Song Young-gil so far.

On December 13, Lee Nak-yon announced his intention to establish a new political party in 2024. During an interview on SBS television, he confirmed that he was involved in the formation of a new political party and that work on this had already begun. The politician plans to announce the exact date of the party’s establishment at the beginning of the year. “We will try to give hope, albeit small, to people in despair.”

Lee Nak-yon also announced his intention to join forces with independent lawmaker Yang Hyang-ja, who had already founded the New Korea Party of Hope, and former opposition lawmaker Keum Tae-sup. However, when asked about the possibility of joining forces with former ruling People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok, he stated that he had not yet considered it.

On December 30, 2023, Lee Jae-myung declined Lee Nak-yon’s call to resign before the general election and instead agreed to establish a joint interim steering committee. Chairman Lee rejected both demands and urged the former premier to remain in the party, stating that “leaving the party is not the path to go.” Lee Nak Yon stated to reporters that he would pursue his own course of action.

On January 11, 2024, Lee Nak-yon announced his resignation from the DPK in a press conference at the National Assembly, saying that it had “lost the proud spirit, value, and decency of (late former Presidents) Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and turned into a one-person party” that was rife with violent and vulgar behavior and had become bulletproofed for its chairman, Lee Jae-min. “After leaving the Democratic Party that I have been with for the past 24 years, I will take a new path of serving the Republic of Korea in a new way from a new position… It is truly painful to leave the Democratic Party, which was the home of my heart,” he said.

On January 12, it was announced that the preliminary name of the new party being created is “New Future.”

On January 15, a group of former lawmakers and mayors resigned from the Democratic Party, stating that they would be joining the new party being created by Lee Nak-yon. The individuals mentioned are Shin Kyoung-min and Choi Woon-youl, both former lawmakers, as well as former Goyang Mayor Choi Sung, former Bucheon Mayor Jang Deog-cheon, and former Jecheon Mayor Lee Keun-kyu. The Democratic Party leadership responded by stating that “some incumbent lawmakers who expect to lose the party nominations could leave the party, but they won’t have much of an impact.” In fact, these representatives were either not accepted as candidates or placed in districts that were clearly unwinnable or “someone else’s” districts.

By that time (practically for three days), more than 20,000 people had registered with Lee Nak-yon’s party, more than 100 times the 200 required by the Political Parties Act, according to Lee. The attendees included Shin Jung-eun, a former lawmaker, and 1,000 individuals aged between 20 and 30 years old. Shin, who supports Lee Nak-yon, stated that “the DPK has lost the proud spirit, value and decency of (late former Presidents) Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, and turned into a “one-man party” and a “bulletproof party” rampant with violent and vulgar behavior and remarks… We are beginning a new endeavor to shape a better future.”

Note that Lee Nak-yon does not view his new party as an alternative to the DPK. Instead, he aims to create the largest party in the country and change the existing model. “We need to put an end to the two-party system of hatred and start a multiparty system where compromises and adjustments are present.” And when asked about how many seats his party intends to win in the upcoming election, Lee said it would be “at least 50-60.” A serious bid for victory.

According to experts who share the author’s perspective, Lee Nak-yon has promising prospects.

According to Kim Hyung-joon, a professor at Pai Chai University and former president of the Korean Association of Electoral Studies, Lee Nak-yon’s party has three factors that contribute to its success as an alternative party: leadership by a prominent political figure, a strong regional support base, and a political legacy. Lee will shape his party as upholding the legacies of former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun as if they were “true democrats” as opposed to Lee Jae Myung’s fan club. “If he manages to gather former President Moon’s close aides, such as former prime ministers Chung Se-kyun and Kim Boo-kyum, his team could have a substantial effect on changing the election landscape.”

Shin Yul, a professor of political science at Myongji University, stated: “Recent polls show that the DPK, under Lee Jae-myung’s leadership, is not enjoying as much support in its homeground Honam region (Gwangju and the Jeolla provinces), which means people are looking for an alternative party. Lee Nak-yon’s new party can take advantage of this.”

What other allies can the former prime minister count on? He is waiting for other Democrats who are unhappy with Chairman Lee to come to him. “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.”

Many expect a coalition between the two Lees, Lee Nak-yon and Lee Jun-seok, who met on January 14. However, the Reform Party leader’s phrase about a “a mix of different flavors that go well with one another without allowing one flavor to dominate or cover up other flavors” suggests that the younger Lee does not intend to be completely overshadowed by the older one.

Political analysts also believe that the possibility of the two Lees working together is unlikely. According to Park Chang-hwan, a political commentator and professor at Jangan University, Lee Nak-yon’s ultimate goal is to become the presidential candidate of the liberal bloc, and at some point in his political career he should leave room for a return to the DPK. Teaming up with Lee Jun-seok indicates that he is permanently separating from the DPK.

According to Shin Yul, a professor of political science at Myongji University, the younger Lee aims to align himself with the older Lee, even without his support base, which the older Lee does not require. Thus, the previous leader of the PDK’s comments regarding the potential formation of an alliance with the youthful conservative politician appear to be political rhetoric and an attempt to demonstrate that his new party will represent a diverse political spectrum.

Lee Nak-yon requires more than just Democratic votes to form a majority in the new National Assembly. Otherwise, the DPK and New Future will split the votes of liberals, causing difficulties in forming a majority-holding party at the new National Assembly. But, as Kim Hyung-joon notes, “it’s not the first time we’ve seen party fragmentation just months ahead of the general elections. We’ll have to see how it goes.” In this context, this author’s next article will be devoted to various contenders for the role of the third-party force that is truly lacking in ROK domestic politics.


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

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