21.02.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Towards the 2024 Parliamentary Elections in South Korea. Han Dong-hoon’s affairs

Han Dong-hoon’s affairs

Before describing the third force combinations, the attention should be paid to a man with a potentially very big political future, as former Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon deserves a special mention for several reasons.

  • A former prosecutor (21 years on the job), Han worked with Yoon on investigations into high-profile cases, including the 2016 corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, was demoted under the Moon Jae-in administration after leading an investigation into the family of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. Han was Yoon Suk-yeol’s first aide in most of the high-profile corruption cases, including the sale of the now-defunct Korea Exchange Bank to US private equity firm Lone Star Funds, that built Yoon’s reputation and eventually propelled him to the presidency. Han has since been widely recognized as one of the figures who best understands Yoon’s thinking.
  • In this context, during the war between the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Korea, Han was constantly being “dug up on” in an attempt to break him and take him out of the game. But no serious dirt was found, and the fabricated accusations fell apart.
  • When Han took over as Justice Minister, many expected that, like Cho Kuk or Choo Mi-ae, he would quickly get a taste of power or at least take revenge on those who had wronged him. That didn’t happen, but Han gained popularity with conservative voters because of his careful style, smart rhetoric and unyielding stance during arguments with opposition lawmakers.
  • The 50-year-old Han is quite young for a politician and is known for not drinking alcohol. Or rather, for drinking almost no alcohol. An important detail.

 On December 21, 2023, President Yoon Suk-yeol accepted his resignation letter, submitted after the Conservatives approached Han about becoming their interim leader for the upcoming parliamentary elections in April 2024.

On December 26, Han officially took office and formed the Party’s Emergency Committee. Political experts noted that the leadership included relatively few professional politicians, but mainly scientists (primarily university professors) and specialists, as well as some of Han’s former colleagues from his work in the Prosecutor General’s Office.

In his first speeches in office, Han Dong-hoon immediately outlined several important theses.

  • He was quite aggressive towards his main political opponents, the opposition Democratic Party and its leader Lee Jae-myung. Asked by a Democratic MP about his political future, the Justice Minister succinctly replied, “If you really want to know the answer, just ask yourself.
  • He said that he would not participate in parliamentary elections either by constituency or by the proportional representation system, and all those who would seek parliamentary seats should immediately abandon attempts to use the mechanism of immunity from investigation. He intends to “root out the privilege-based politics by activist-turned-politicians who have been living off such a party and ruling over the people for decades.
  • He denied the popular belief that he is Yoon Suk-yeol’s protégé, stating that he has never blindly followed anyone, nor does he intend to do so in the future. In his actions in the civil service he has always been guided by the pursuit of public good, and as party leader he will be guided by public, national and party interests.

After taking over as Chairman of the Emergency Committee, Han Dong-hoon has been active in mobilizing supporters and raising the party’s ratings in the regions. Particular attention was paid to regions that are considered swing ones and on which the outcome of elections often depends to a large extent. Han also proposed reducing the number of lawmakers from 300 to 250 by cutting proportional representation or merging constituencies, and on January 18, he promised to seek a ban on lawmakers receiving political funds through book publishing events. The thing is that in the run-up to elections, candidates for the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea often hold book publishing events where they meet with supporters and sell books written under their names. Such events have been effectively used as a conduit for donations, since book purchases are usually made in cash and legislators are not required to report profits. There are no laws explicitly regulating such events, with the exception of a clause in the Public Official Election Act that prohibits candidates from holding book publishing events 90 days prior to an election. “Someone, at some point, has to put a decisive end to this,” Han said.

On February 1, 2024, Han Dong-hoon proposed the idea of tying the salaries of MPs to the average income in the country. A 2018 poll conducted by polling company RnSearch showed that 73.1 per cent of respondents thought the salaries of lawmakers were too high, while only 17.17 per cent said they disagreed.

Han also held a meeting with former Toburo opposition Democratic Party member Lee Sang-min, who eventually joined the ruling party on January 8, from which he will run in the 2024 election.

At the same time, opinion polls showed that Han Dong-hoon had almost caught up with opposition figure Lee Jae-myung in terms of popularity. According to a Gallup Korea poll dated December 8, 2023, Han ranked second (16%), only slightly behind Lee (19%). In a different poll from late December released by Korea Public Reputation Analysis, 45% of respondents said they preferred Han as the next president, ahead of the DPK chairman with 41%. Of course, three years before an election, such ratings are speculative, but they speak volumes about popularity at the moment.

However, there was still plenty of criticism, including in the Conservative camp. Optimists (mostly Yoon supporters) praise Han’s public reputation and sensible attitude, while pessimists (from other factions) raise concerns about Han’s political inexperience and possible negative public reaction to former prosecutors holding key positions in Yoon’s administration. According to MP Ha Tae-keung, one of the presidential candidates, “the position of the interim leader, who must weather all kinds of criticisms, may be premature for Han, whose political capability has not yet been fully validated. Exhausting him prematurely may not be beneficial for the upcoming general elections either.”

The Democrats became divided. While some criticized Han for being harsh, others believed that, as former National Intelligence Service director Park Ji-won said, Han’s acceptance of the interim leadership is “the best Christmas gift from President Yoon” because “Han has many nicknames such as Yoon’s avatar, heir apparent and younger twin brother. This younger brother seeks to control the PPP and create a republic of prosecutors, but the people will not allow that.”

Others hoped that the overly principled Han would become a source of internal discord, especially on the sensitive issue of another scandal surrounding first lady Kim Keon-hee, whom the Democratic Party wants to make into a second Choi Soon-sil. According to Hong Ik-pyo, leader of the Democrats’ parliamentary faction, “Han’s stance on the first lady’s special counsel bill will be the barometer that will determine (his) interim leadership.”

The crux of another scandal is that in November 2023, the liberal YouTube news channel Voice of Seoul reported that in 2022, the President’s wife “fell for” what the Russian Federation calls a bribe provocation on camera and accepted an expensive handbag worth about 3 million won (US$2,200) as a gift from a Korean-American pastor. Democrats are demanding an official apology and a special prosecutor (appointed by them, or rather by the parliament, where they have a majority), but reform-minded Conservatives also want some kind of reaction.

When Han was asked about this, he responded by asking whether the majority party really thought he would be embarrassed by such a question. “Do you really believe I would act in the same way as the DP defending its own boss?” Later, Han said that “there are things that the public can be concerned about” and “it’s an issue that needs to be thought about in terms of community standards,” even though the incident happened thanks to deliberate filming on a hidden camera.

As a result, it is believed that “the former Justice Minister could make or break the remaining years of Yoon’s presidency.” If the ruling party wins a majority in the April elections, they will both get a boost to their political careers. Yoon will be able to push his reform agenda without major obstacles in parliament, and Han, thanks to his crucial role in achieving the election result, will find it easier to position himself early on as the standard-bearer of the Conservative camp for the next presidential election. But if the ruling party is defeated, his political career could be in jeopardy.

In late January, according to media reports, there was a discord between Han and the ROK President’s administration. On January 21, its chief Lee Kwan-sup met with Han and delivered a request for him to step down as Chairman of the Emergency Committee. In response, Han Dong-hoon said he would “do his job,” dismissing the request.

Formally, the Presidential Chief of Staff allegedly called for Han’s resignation, citing his violation of the principle of fair nomination of candidates in the parliamentary election after the interim party leader supported the nomination of Kim Gyeong-ryul, a member of the Emergency Committee, in Mapo District in western Seoul against the incumbent opposition heavyweight lawmaker. The President’s objection stems from the fact that the rule for recommending party candidates has not been finalized, and Han’s public endorsement of a particular individual could be perceived as “rigging the bargaining process.” Moreover, the next day, Kim Kyung-yul appeared on cable TV station JTBC’s YouTube channel and compared the first lady to Marie Antoinette, demanding that she apologize for accepting the bag. Because of this, analysts believed that it was Han’s stance on Kim Keon-hee’s bag that truly upset the President; allegedly, the President became furious after Han asked the first lady to apologize.

Yoon’s office, however, immediately said that “the issue of Han’s resignation is not one in which the President’s administration will intervene.”

On January 23, at a traditional market in Seocheon County, South Chungcheong Province, where a fire broke out during the night, Yoon and Han warmly greeted each other as if nothing had happened. After visiting the scene, they boarded the presidential train back to Seoul together and, after arriving at Seoul Station, Han told reporters that he has “deep respect and trust for President Yoon and that remains unchanged… The president and I have traveled this journey together with the shared goal of improving the country and the lives of its people… I am committed to giving my best efforts to ensure that the PPP represents the people’s choice and contributes to the betterment of the country.”

The impromptu meeting was seen as a conciliatory gesture to resolve the ongoing feud between Yoon and Han. However, Park Sang-byung, a professor at Inha University’s Graduate School of Policy Science, believes that although Yoon and Han are trying to somehow end their conflict and reconcile, the potential for future clashes remains high.

Park Chang-hwan, a political commentator and professor at Jangan University, notes that “people want the governing party to offer candid advice to the president, rather than defending him at all costs.” This also could bring discord between the Party and the President.

Park Sang-byung also notes some discord in the pro-Yoon faction and that some lawmakers and politicians who previously uploaded their photo with the President as an avatar are now taking selfies with Han, whose influence on party affairs has clearly risen. The party leader is also more popular than the President, who has a 30±5% approval rating. “If the current trend continues, it might be more advantageous for the governing party if Yoon reduces his presence in the election, allowing Han Dong-hoon to take a more prominent role,” Park said.

On the other hand, former Conservative leader Lee Jun-seok said that the incident demanding Han Dong-hoon’s resignation was staged, “If President Yoon wants to scold a committee member with some harsh words or say something he doesn’t like, he can call or text him. There’s no reason to send the Chief of Staff to say: ‘Do this or do that’.” The author also notes that with the close relationship between Yoon and Han, the President would have written to the minister in Telegram rather than sending an official.

The bottom line is that Han has raised his personal profile a lot, but the ruling party still lacks widespread approval and its ratings remain at the same level as before the former Justice Minister became its leader.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Researcher at 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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