22.03.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Runup to the 2024 Parliamentary Elections in South Korea. Part Eight: The Reform Party split and other factional news

Lee Nak-yeon

When the Reform Party was created, the author immediately noted that this bloc “in favor of everything good against everything bad” could be very short-lived because, other than the desire to defeat the existing two-party system, its leaders had nothing in common.

This was especially true of the “two Lee’s”: their disagreements were over both the political agenda and the target audience. Lee Nak-yeon stayed within the liberal trend and tried to reach out to all population groups, while Lee Jun-seok did not move much from his center-right position and remained focused on the predominantly male youth.

The first call came weeks after the party’s establishment, when a conflict between the elder and younger Lee occurred over the distribution of power and the acceptance of former Justice Party Vice Chairman Bae Bok-joo as a member. This left-wing politician is known for his active support of disabled people who regularly protest on the underground during rush hour, and while Lee Nak-yeon depended heavily on this group’s support, Lee Jun-seok sharply criticized those who, in the opinion of his target audience, only multiply chaos in the transportation system. As a result, the younger Lee demanded that Pae not be nominated, while the older Lee said that such bias violates the principle of democracy.

Formally, when the two Lee’s agreed, Lee Nak-yeon was supposed to be in charge of election preparations, but then Lee Jun-seok offered Lee Nak-yeon to run the election campaign while Lee Jun-seok a) would take over the advertising and PR campaign, and b) would head the Joint Political Committee, which decides whether to expel questionable party members or accept (or not) new members. In this way, through party bureaucracy intrigues, the younger Lee tried to shift the older Lee to a ceremonial post with little power, while also making him the one to blame should the election campaign fail.

And so, following a meeting of the party’s Supreme Council on February 19, it was decided to put Lee Jun-seok in charge of the election campaign and the formulation of party policy. Lee Nak-yeon and his faction were against this, but it seems that the younger Lee managed to exert pressure on the leaders of two other less important factions (New Choice and Grand Coalition, although they consisted predominantly of former democrats), after which he got his hands on the formation of the political line.

As a result, Lee Nak-yeon and New Future’s Kim Jong-min left the council meeting and immediately told the media that a truly Democratic Party cannot delegate all powers to one person. “Usurper” Lee Jun-seok was compared not only to Lee Jae-myung (turning the party into a “temple of self-love”) but also to Chun Doo-hwan (for seizing power and trying to strangle the opposition). Lee Jun-seok, for his part, said there are no problems in the party and urged Lee Nak-yeon to “accept the results of the polls.” “Surveys show that most of our supporters are younger generations, and Lee Nak-yon’s campaigns are effective for conventional supporters, while mine is targeting the participation of the younger generations. The vote was a reasonable adjustment between these two values,” he said.

The next day, February 20, 11 days after the Reform Party was established, it split. New Future announced the cancellation of the integration agreement and reverted to its former name. Both Lees offered “humble apologies” to the public.

The senior Lee repented for “causing considerable disappointment to everyone due to the failure of party integration”, blaming the incident on Lee Jun-seok’s faction, which “undermined the spirit of democracy” by “pulling the blanket over ourselves” in the run-up to the general parliamentary election. “Our hasty merger led to a shameful result”. As such, Lee and his supporters had no choice but to “roll it all back” and create a “real Democratic Party.”

The younger Lee apologized to the people who believed in the possibility of a unified ‘third force’, and said that he would carefully consider the situation and draw the appropriate conclusions to avoid making mistakes in the future. As for Lee Nak-yeon, “I don’t want to blame anyone. Though I have much to say, different claims and consequent interpretations will end up making the people raise their eyebrows.” In addition, Lee emphasized that the remaining factions from the “former Democrats” (New Choice and Grand Coalition, aka Principle and Common Sense) remain with him.

On 23 February, the new party’s nomination committee was headed by Kim Jung-in, an 83-year-old veteran politician nicknamed the “kingmaker” for his ability to achieve electoral victories and who is a sort of mentor to Lee Jun-seok. “He knows how to make election nominations in a way that leads to victory. We trust that and decided to entrust him with the big role of managing election nominations,” Lee said.

The conservative Chun’an Ilbo characterized the Reform Party split as ”the tragic finale of a reckless merger.” According to the article’s author, “[t]he two Lees most likely joined hands to confront the two major parties’ move to create their satellite parties to get more seats from the 47 proportional representatives in the 300-member legislature. The fear forced them to rush to the merger to get their fair share of the proportional seats. The two leaders seem to have been convinced of their ability to get along until election day despite their critical differences.” But, as they say in Russia, “it didn’t work out.”

The Korea Times, close to Lee Joong-seok’s position, notes that Lee’s split “is a disappointment to some 20 percent of swing voters — as indicated by various recent polls — who remain undecided over which party to pick and more inclined to go for an alternative.” “With less than 50 days to the general elections, the parties seem to all fight against something. But what exactly will these parties fight for remains still unclear. A small window remains open for those willing to present a clear vision of Korea’s future before April 10.” According to a Realmeter poll from February 15 -16, 2024, the Reform Party had support of 6.3% with 40.2% for the Democrats and 39.1% for the conservatives, but how much the senior and junior Lees will each gain personally is a good question.

In this author’s opinion, Lee Jun-seok is once again displaying the behavior that contributed greatly to his expulsion from the People’s Power: not he being for the party, but the party being for him. It’s not surprising that in the person of Lee Nak-yeon he has met his match, and as for the other two factions, either their leaders have succumbed to his pressure and charisma, or they realize that if they have a chance to push the younger Lee away from the leadership, it will definitely not work with the older Lee. But Jun-seok is an extraordinary politician, and we will watch with interest how this younger Lee continues to claw his way to the top.

In the meantime, the Democrats and Conservatives finalized the new electoral map, after which the nomination process began in all parties, but we will talk about that in subsequent pieces.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Research Fellow 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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