13.02.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

South Korea’s Future Domestic Policy: The Ahn Cheol-soo Factor

345345A lot has been written about the “Korean Kaspersky”, or rather, the head of anti-virus lab AhnLab Co., entering into politics. Coming from a very prestigious and wealthy family, Ahn has positioned himself as a new man, without ties to the politicians of the past, and relatively free of past blunders in comparison with other candidates for the presidency.

In his day, he was seen as a promising candidate for Seoul mayor, but refused to enter into the ring, giving his votes to the left-wing representative and, in doing so, gaining enough points to qualify for the presidency. However, even then he was not strong enough, and ended up “standing down in favour of” the leading left-wing candidate, Moon Jae In, and joining the New Politics Alliance for Democracy led by Moon Jae In as a co-chair.

Apparently, Ahn believed that he could gain strength within a single party, by taking advantage of Moon’s setbacks, gradually ousting him from the leadership position. As soon as the opposition lost the midterm parliamentary elections in April 2015, he began to demand intra-party reforms and blame Moon, who was popular with everyone.

Moon, however, did not give up his position, and on 13 December during a press conference in the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, Ahn Cheol-soo announced that he was leaving the party owing to the fact that his warnings that the Opposition’s current course would lead to its downfall had fallen on deaf ears. Therefore, he intends to create a new political power, but in the meantime apologizes to members of the Party and the people for not being able to make good on their hopes for the appearance of a fair and strong opposition that they could be proud of.

Following Ahn’s departure, several other disgruntled members of the National Assembly left the party, and as a result, its members in the 300-member parliament fell to 123.

On December 16, Moon apologized for the split, and promised more transparency and less factionalism. However, according to public opinion polls conducted in mid-December, Ahn was leading over Moon as opposition leader (41% vs. 33%), although in general, 40% of respondents supported the incumbent Saenuri party, while only 21% supported the opposition coalition. Therefore, on December 21, in a meeting with journalists, Ahn Cheol-soo has stated that he did not even consider the possibility of joining forces with those who refused to carry out reforms and modernisation. In response, Moon made a point of changing the name of the party, which is now called the Minjoo Party of Korea ( which can be roughly translated as “All Together”) and announced that he would step down from the position of party leader (as was demanded by his opponents), when the line-up of the new managing committee had been confirmed.

On January 10 the first meeting of the organisational committee of a new party, called the People’s Party was held. Its motto proclaimed “Bold changes for the future,” and its aims declared as “a departure from the era of ideological confrontation, regional disputes and civil divides, opening up an era of alternative, people’s and vital politics that combines meaningful progress and reformist conservatism.”

January 25 Ahn Cheol-soo joined forces with the deputy Cheon Jeong-bae, who is also left his party: Ahn and Chong explained their decisions as the desire to create a counterbalance to the growing political power of the incumbent president of the South Korea, Park Geun-hye, although in the author’s opinion this move will likely provoke competition between the Minjoo Party of Korea and the new opposition power.

On February 2, Daejeon hosted the first congress of the new party, which so far includes 17 deputies. This is not enough, because in order to negotiate with the other factions, there is a minimum requirement of 20 deputies. The new party’s ratings are not rising either, because of the ongoing internal conflict between the deputies.

What can be said about the “Ahn Cheol-soo project” so far? He claims to be a third power, BUT it is not wise to perceive him as another left-winger. In previous elections Ahn was in good graces of the right-wing representatives, who, for one reason or another, would not like to see Park Geun-hye as President and therefore were willing to get behind a populist. So, Ahn was implicitly, but actively promoted by the late Kim Young-sam, who wanted to see him as the country’s leader, not the classical left politics, but not Park Geun-hye either. Let us not forget the story of Kim’s relationship with his father, which caused a lot of trouble to both sides.

However, at the end of 2015, Kim Young-sam died and his faction inside Saenuri are now set to look for a new leader. If Ahn is aiming at that, he needs to be given a free hand, and it is not a coincidence that the new party has proclaimed its fundamental values to be such key concepts as conservatism and progress, potentially gaining both the Left and Conservatives in its ranks.

The emergence of a new party will probably harm the Left – the struggle between the Minjoo Party of Korea and the People’s Party will mainly unfold in the opposition-minded provinces of Jeollabuk-do and Jeollanam-do, splitting the electorate to the right-wing’s benefit.

Then, in contrast to the Lee Myung-bak and Roh Moo-hyun, Ahn Cheol-soo has got neither a prepared team and administrative experience, nor a philosophy, also known as vision. He has the support of the people (or rather, those who are 20-40 years old), which sees him a decent candidate with a good reputation, linked with the creation of the anti-virus programs. But he does not understand just how difficult politics is, he thinks like a technician, an engineer, without realising that in the world of politics, giving an order does not guarantee results, far from it in fact. In addition, his management methods are good for a small group, where everyone knows everyone. A small club of like-minded people, an internet provider company: this is usually a small group of motivated people and team management techniques for this team differ greatly from that in government.

Furthermore, any populism leads to a situation where the politician who rises into power has to track the mood of the masses and a great deal depends on their emotions.

So, to summarise: In South Korea there is currently a situation where voters need new politicians. This factor may contribute to the success of the Ahn Cheol-soo’s party. However, if the voters do not feel the declared “bold changes for the future”, their expectations can easily turn into disappointment.

Finally, Ahn is not the only politician whose appearance can significantly affect the balance of power, but more on this other player will follow in the next part.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), Chief Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies, Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the on-line magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”


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