27.03.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The run-up to the 2024 parliamentary elections in South Korea. Part nine: problems in identifying candidates

problems in identifying candidates

Preparations for the elections have reached the stage of determining the candidates who will represent a party in specific electoral districts. With factional infighting presenting a serious problem for both parties, this is an important point. First, the parties need to select candidates in such a way that “their” people are in the majority, and second, the selected candidates need to be nominated in the right electoral districts, depending on whether they are likely to get in or not. In simple terms, party officials may nominate a candidate from a rival faction in their party to an electoral district in which it is unlikely to win.

Many MPs have represented the same constituencies for several consecutive terms. These electoral districts are “electoral strongholds” in which the MP is certain to be voted in, and attempts by the party leadership to bar them from running there or to move them to a different electoral district where they have less chance of winning tend to be controversial and hotly contested.

The delay of several months in the adoption of the electoral district map caused confusion among potential candidates, but on February 29, 2024, before the vote, the map was approved by parliament and the allocation process began.

In South Korean politics it is not unusal for high-profile figures to appear as candidates, but it seems that an MP is seen a more prestigious position than a minister, in that a minister rarely stays in office for more than two or three years, while an MP will retain their position for a minimum of four years, and often for more than one term. In reality, it is more about attracting professionals from the world of business or from the civil service. For example the Conservative Party (or People Power Party) has recruited Koh Dong-jin, an adviser to Samsung Electronics, who is considered a key contributor to the design and development of the Galaxy series of smartphones, while the Democratic Party has been joined by Kong Young-woon, former president of Hyundai Motor and an expert in corporate planning and business strategy development. Also joining the Conservatives are retired national soccer player Lee Jong-soo (one of the stars of South Korea’s 2002 World Cup team), who previously supported the Democrats, and special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs Kim Gunn, who has tried to address issues related to the presence of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

Sometimes the choice of “recruits” is controversial. For example, the Democratic Party has been criticized for recruiting two former deputy directors of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), Kim Jun-hwan and Park Sun-won, who served in Moon Jae-in’s administration. Kim was allegedly involved in the controversial forced repatriation of two North Korean fishermen in November 2019, while in 2010 Park was the subject of an internal investigation on charges of spreading false information, for daring to claim that the South Korean Navy corvette ROK Cheonan was sunk not by a North Korean submarine but by technical problems.

On January 17, the NGO Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice said that, based on the number of legislative proposals, the frequent absence of MPs from parliamentary sessions, and ethical issues including MPs’ involvement in scandals and their excessive real estate or stock holdings, it has compiled a list of 34 current and former MPs who should be removed from the list of election candidates because of their poor parliamentary performance and in response to ethical concerns about their conduct.

On March 7, the same NGO noted that88% of MPs who had a criminal record or who were currently suspects in criminal proceedings nevertheless passed the screening process. Eight Democrat MPs (out of 49 with a criminal record or facing criminal proceedings) and just two Conservative MPs (out of 32 MPs with such issues) were deselected.

Another NGO, the Korea Manifesto Center, has analyzed the campaign pledges of 225 members of the current National Assembly and found that only 51.83% of their promises had been fulfilled.

As a result, each of the two parties publishes a kind of rating of how effectively their MPs work, allowing them to weed out those who ended up at the bottom of the rating. Then there are the primaries, and according to electoral law a candidate who loses at this stage has no right to run in the same constituency on the list of another party or as an independent.

In the Conservative Party, the selection of candidates was relatively calm and scandal-free: only two legislators were excluded from the list of candidates, and they were elected to the National Assembly by proportional representation.

Of course, there are still a number of disputes as Yoon Seok-yeol’s main opponents, led by Lee Joon-seok, have split off and the emergence of the Reform Party has somewhat strengthened the unity of the remaining Conservatives.

As a result, its opponents reproach the Conservatives for having largely failed to change its membership. Only 16% of its current legislators have been replaced by new faces, much less than in the 2020 and 2016 elections, when the dropout rates were 44% and 24%. Less than 13% of candidates are under 50 years of age, and the proportion of women is also below 10%.

Although its new leader Han Dong-hoon did not plan to run, “veterans” such as Kwon Young-se (a former Unification Minister) or Na Kyung-won (a former Conservative leader who defected to Yoon’s side) secured tickets to run in their home districts.  Other heavyweights from Yoon Seok-yeol’s team, such as Chung Jin-suk and Kwon Seong-dong (both of whom briefly led the party) were nominated as candidates even without holding a primary.

As for Yoon Suk-yeol’s main rivals in the primaries, former Conservative head Ahn Cheol-soo will run in Seongnam (the district is generally liberal, but Ahn has a better chance of passing there than a traditional Conservative), while former Governor of Jeju Island Province and Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Won Hee-ryong will run against opposition leader Lee Jae-myung in Incheon’s Gyeyang district.

On the other hand, Seok Dong-hyun, a former senior prosecutor considered a close friend of the president, failed to win the election for Seoul’s Songpa district. Instead, the committee nominated former TV presenter Park Jung-hoon for the district.

Let us now move on to the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). Lee Jae Myung himself is doing well, and is running for the seat in Gyeyang B district, Incheon, where the Democrats have won more often than not. However, he has a formidable opponent in former Jeju Island Governor Won Hee-ryong, who resigned from the post of Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, a post which he filled without attracting any particular criticism. Democratic Party General Secretary Cho Jong-sik and Parliamentary floor leader Hong Ik-pyo also won the right to run in suitable districts.

But members of other factions, including Moon Jae-in’s supporters, are having problems.

31 Party MPs have been penalized, and Party Chairman Lee had almost no prominent supporters while his opponents included a number of highly prominent politicians, many of whom were close associates of former President Moon.

Most of the 51 MPs who received party nominations without going through a primary are considered to be close to Lee. For example, a number of Lee’s former aides and the attorneys who defended him in lawsuits were given the chance to run in Democratic-dominated districts.

Among the nominated candidates wasformer YTN anchorwoman Ahn Gwi-ryeong, who is remembered for her answer to the question “Who is your ideal type?” on a TV show. When asked if she would rather date Lee Jae-myung or Cha Eun-woo, actor and member of the boyband Astro, she chose Lee.

In addition, the polling agency ResearchDNA was suspended from conducting party polls after it was revealed that it had conducted public opinion polls among Seongnam residents when Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung was mayor.

Lee’s actions have caused outrage, although each high-profile politician responded differently, and we will look at their individual reactions below.

Im Jong-seok. He served as chief of staff under Moon Jae-in. Formerly a progressive activist, he served a prison term for violating the National Security Act. He was denied nomination in “his” district, where he was replaced by the former chairman of the former chairperson of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission Jeon Hyun-heui. What is more, Im Hyug-baeg has hinted that the party might nominate Im Jong-seok for Seoul’s Songpa district, a traditional conservative stronghold where his chances of winning are slim. In response, Im Jong-seok appealed and continued his campaign in his home district of Wangsimni, but on February 27, after Im Hyug-baeg’s rejoinder, the Democratic Party rejected Im Jong-seok. However, on March 4, In Jong-seok wrote in a Facebook post that he “accepts the party’s decision.” Chairman Lee praised the decision, urging him join forces with the rest of the Party and support its bid to win the election.

Kim Young-joo, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly and four-term MP who served as Labor Minister under Moon Jae-in. She was ranked in the “bottom 20%” and was outraged because, in her words, “Over the past four years, I have been evaluated as among the best lawmakers by activists and the media… I demand the party reveal detailed information about the evaluation rubric.”

On February 19, 2024 Kim Young-joo announced her resignation from the Democratic Party. She cited a sense of humiliation at being ranked in the bottom 20% of MPs for legislative effectiveness as the main reason for her departure and demanded disclosure of the quantitative and qualitative criteria used as the basis for the ranking.

As a result Han Dong-hoon asked her to join the Conservative Party and after some deliberation, she accepted the offer. On March 3, Kim Young Joo announced that she will join the ruling party and is likely to run in the same district in which she ran for the Democrats.

Hong Young-pyo.  A four-term National Assembly member and close confidante of Moon Jae-in.  He was rated in the “bottom 20%.”   On March 6, he left the Democratic Party, saying that democracy no longer exists and “the chances are high that the Democrat Party will suffer a crushing defeat.” Hong is the sixth MP to quit the Democratic Party over the controversial nomination process.

Park Yong-jin, a fierce critic of Lee’s leadership and his rival in the party chairman election, was ranked in the “bottom 10%.” He has said that he will not leave the party but plans to apply for reassessment, although he has little hope that the outcome will change.

Yoon Young-chan, who served as the President’s senior secretary for communications under Moon, was also ranked in the “bottom 10 percent.” Together with Park Young-jin, they were among the first to declare that the results are “a massacre” of members from outside Lee’s faction.

Ko Min-jung, Moon Jae-in’s former press secretary. She resigned as a member of the Democratic Party’s Supreme Council to protest against the way the party nominates candidates.

Sul Hoon, a member of the National Assembly. Ranked in the “bottom 10%,”he described his low ranking as an act of political retribution and called on Lee to resign, claiming that he was unfit to lead the party because of his legal problems. On February 28, he resigned from the DPK, stating that “the party focused solely on flattering the leader and getting credit from him for nominating candidates, instead of engaging in productive debate on how to improve people’s lives.” He was the fourth member of the Democratic Party to leave in protest at the perceived unfairness of the nomination process.

Park Young-sun. Member of the National Assembly. Ranked in the “bottom 10%,” she announced she was leaving the Democratic Party for New Future.

Noh Woong-rae. A member of the National Assembly, known for his anti-Japanese stance, he went on hunger strike for nine days.

Lee Su-jin. A member of the National Assembly and a former judge. He announced his resignation from the Democratic party after his election bid in his home district primary was rejected.

Park Kwang On. A former parliamentary faction leader, he has served three terms as an MP. It was under him that the National Assembly passed a motion to remove the immunity of Chairman Lee by a narrow margin in late September 2023. He lost out in the primary nominations to a supporter of Lee Jae-myung.

On March 7, Sul Hoon, Hong Young-pyo, Park Young-sun,  and a number of other MPs who left the Democratic Party amid candidacy problems announced the formation of a “Democratic Alliance” to oppose the policies of both President Yoon Seok-yeol and Democratic Party Chairman Lee Jae-myung. They also announced plans to join forces with all political forces opposed to Yoon and Lee, including Lee Nak-yon’s New Future, which they plan to join.

Lee Jae-myung’s talks with other influential Democratic politicians have been rather unsuccessful, rarely going beyond impressive declarations.  On January 21, Lee Jae-myung held a face-to-face meeting with former Democratic Party leader and respected politician Lee Hae-chan. During their meeting, they discussed the upcoming parliamentary elections and preparations for them, as well as the need for a fair system for nominating candidates to participate in them in order to preserve the unity of the Toburo ranks and ensure victory in the elections.

On February 4, Lee Jae-myung met with former President Moon Jae-in, who called for Party unity in order to win the general election. Lee responded that the Democratic Party “will strive for unity by eliminating any differences and conflicts within the party, and will make every effort to win.”

Suspicions of a lack of objectivity and fairness in the selection of candidates were reinforced by a high-profile statement by two former prime ministers, Chung Sye-kyun and Kim Boo-kyum (neither of whom is among Lee’s supporters), who called on the party leadership to remedy the current controversial situation, uphold the principles of transparency and fairness, and act in accordance with voters’ expectations. Otherwise, they said, the Democratic Party could split, lose credibility and lose the election.

Lee Jae-myung failed to attend a general meeting of Democratic Party MPs called to try and resolve the conflicts, and on February 22 rejected charges that he was removing lawmakers who disagreed with him, saying the nominations were being conducted in a fair manner.

Lee Nak-yon predicts that a further exodus of MPs from the Democratic Party is inevitable and that “Lee will pay the price for his greed.” However, to what extent the “refugees” from Lee Jae-myung’s faction will  strengthen the other factions of the Democratic camp remains an open question, as the Democratic electorate continues to fracture and it is not always clear whether the Party is splitting or deliberately creating a satellite party.

Firstly, Cho Kuk is continuing to gather members for his “party” and if his former colleagues are not repelled by his odious reputation they will rush to join him.

Secondly, Song Young-gil, who is currently held in custody, has announced the formation of “his” party. Perhaps this is an attempt to create a satellite party, or perhaps it is a bid to boost his political capital before his sentencing.

Finally, there remains Lee Nak-yon’s New Future Party, which still has a loose and supportive electorate left. So the so-called Moonists have plenty of options to choose from.

All this makes the pre-election race very interesting, and we will publish our digest of the next round of political splits and mergers at the end of March. The next article will focus on the propaganda and campaigning strategies that the parties are using against each other.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of 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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