16.09.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Moon Jae-in vs. Lee Nak-yon


On August 29, 2020, former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea Lee Nak-yon was elected chairman of the ruling Democratic Party Toburo. He received 60.77% of the delegates’ votes. His rivals for the leadership of the ruling party were former Interior Minister Kim Boo-kyum and National Assembly MP Park Chul Min.

In the author’s opinion, this is another, albeit an imperceptible, political loss for President Moon Jae-in, and here’s why.  The author closely follows the factional struggle in the ruling party, where an interesting picture is emerging.  On the one hand, the Democrats have an almost absolute majority in the party, and President Moon has set a sort of record: no president before him ever enjoyed such a high approval rating in their 3rd or 4th year in office, as usually by that time they all turn into a lame duck. On the other hand, Moon’s problem is connected to the fact that he does not yet have the opportunity to insure himself against the classic fate of the South Korean president and transfer power to a person from his inner circle, who, replacing him in office, will not open a high-profile corruption case against his predecessor.

Yes, Moon has a group of associates whom he has strategically placed in key positions. However, the figures from his entourage who could compete for the presidency either do not have enough strength and resources, or are in one way or another compromised by scandals that, in the event of presidential ambitions, could easily be brought to light again.

Therefore, the two main Democratic candidates are not Moon’s people: the second on the list is the governor of the Gyeonggi Province Lee Jae-myung, no less of a populist than Moon, a slightly more left-leaning politician who, moreover, has successfully gained his footing in the media over the entire story with the coronavirus pandemic. Moon took measures to neutralize him, but all attempts to find incriminating evidence that might put him down have ended in failure. The reader will remember the very loud story full of accusations from a certain actress, as a result of which a special council of journalists and doctors examined the governor’s private parts for the birthmark she mentioned.

However, Moon’s main competitor and main contender for the presidency, Lee Nak-yon, is much more interesting.

Unlike many populist politicians who have pursued their careers solely as party officials, Lee has a wealth of administrative experience that has made him popular. As an official, he served five terms as Governor of the South Jeolla Province.

After Moon’s election, Lee was named prime minister and spent over 900 days in office, which is the longest tenure in the last 30 years, proving to be a good crisis manager.  This is important, since in a presidential republic, the prime minister is largely a symbolic post.

Lee Nak-yon was known for his scrupulous work ethic, as well as strict control of cabinet members. He enjoyed the confidence of the president, and at the beginning of the working day they often had breakfast together, discussing matters.

In December 2019, Lee was removed from his post as Prime Minister. “The party wants Lee to deal with the KDP’s general electoral strategy”, Korean media reported. According to one version, Moon decided to get rid of a rival who gained too much influence, held back outright populists and positively influenced decisions that were reached. Another version is that Moon put him forward as the lesser of all evils since he doesn’t belong to the obvious opponents, and when a more loyal successor comes along, he can be moved.

After his resignation, Lee Nak-yon led the party’s campaign strategy and ran for himself, winning a landmark victory on April 15, 2020 election against Hwang Kyo-ahn, the then leader of the Conservatives. In addition, Lee headed the KDP’s special committee to deal with the Covid-19 situation.

On July 7, 2020, Lee Nak-yon announced his bid for party chairman: “I listened to varying opinions inside and outside the party about my application for the post of party chairman and came to the conclusion that I must do everything possible to take up the mantle of overcoming the national crisis that history has placed on our party,” he said in his first speech to the National Assembly.

There were no new or unobvious ideas in Lee’s program: economic revival, the need to address growing social inequality, legislative reform, and support for President Moon’s aspirations to resume negotiations with North Korea. However, Lee’s program lacked key points for Moon and his entourage, namely the idea of an unconditional minimal income, prosecutorial reform and other populist solutions.

In this context, Moon tossed Lee out with the bathwater, but he did it very carefully. First, in the election of the party chairman, a representative of Moon’s inner circle, ex-Minister of Internal Affairs Kim Boo-kyum, was nominated against Lee Nak-yon. 4 years ago, he was able to get the mandate of MP from the conservative Daegu, and this victory made him a political icon on the political scene of South Korea, based on high regionalism.    In addition, Kim Boo-kyum had a large support base within the party as a longtime ally of former President Roh Moo-Hyun. Although Kim ran for Daegu again in the April 15 elections and lost, he was still viewed as a possible presidential candidate.

Unlike Lee, Kim positioned himself as a party official with no ambitions, ready to serve as chairman for two years. “I will become a party leader who takes responsibility… that toils to row (his boat), not just one who is along for a joy ride”.

Second, a media campaign began against Lee. He was not directly accused of anything, but it was noted that he “has yet to prove himself to the party’s mainstream pro-Moon school” (), and that, if Lee runs for the presidency, he will only hold the desired post for seven months. This is due to the fact that the party charter states that a party leader who wants to run for president must leave office one year before the election date. The next presidential elections will take place on March 9, 2022, which means Lee must step down by March 9, 2021 if he intends to continue his presidency.

Media outlets have also began writing that Lee has failed to meet expectations not only because he is turning into a symbol of the administration and is responsible for all mistakes, but also because he is not strict enough, as in situations where putting his foot down would be the appropriate response, he opts to look into it first, and only then return with a verdict. It was also noted that as an ex-prime minister, he cannot criticize the actions of the president and his course, and that most of his popularity is associated with the popularity of Moon Jae-in’s government.

And on the eve of the convention, Lee Nak-yon was quarantined after indirect contact with a carrier of the Covid-19 virus. It turned out he used the same microphone as a person with a confirmed case of Covid-19. Lee Nak-yon’s own test results were negative, but until August 21 he had to be in self-isolation, which undermined his campaign activity and did not give him the opportunity to personally attend the convention scheduled for August 29.

Finally, right before the convention, it was revealed that Lee Jae-myung had surpassed Lee Nak-yon in a poll conducted by Gallup Korea between August 11 and 13 in the ranking of future presidents. Still, according to another recent poll from Gallup Korea, conducted on August 18-20 on the question of who should be the chairman of the KDP, 48% of people surveyed supported Lee. Kim Boo-kyum was supported by 15%.

However, as the Russian proverb says: “he who digs a hole is the one who falls into it”.  Although congress on August 29 was organized as a mass event with the participation of hundreds of party members, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus and under pressure from ordinary party members, it had to be held online. Party chairman Lee Hae-chan and parliamentary faction leader Kim Tae Nyon also attended virtually. It turned out that the photographer who shot them had tested positive for the virus, and the law applies to all.

Proving his skill in the game of thrones, Moon put a good face on a game with a poor outcome. On September 3, like in the good old days, he again had breakfast with Lee, which is why it seems to less attentive experts that there was no undercover struggle. Lee said that, as the party leader, he will focus all efforts on overcoming the national crisis and will strive for a policy of “principled cooperation” with opposition parties. Moon responded by saying, “Feel free to talk to me at any time. You can even call me on the weekends.”

What’s next? One can only hope that the course for a healthier society in 2022 will continue with a new Democratic president. In this author’s opinion, the so dubbed “healthy forces” of the Democratic Party are grouping around Lee Nak-yon, which, on the one hand, honestly profess liberal democracy, on the other hand, are not populists and / or corrupt. Among the palette of candidates from different directions, Lee Nak-yon seems to be the most sane and adequate. Moon’s example displays just what a populist in power looks like. Attorney General Yoon Seok-yeol, whom conservatives are eyeing, is not bad, but the question arises: how well he understands things outside of his professional activities, and whether this will not be fraught with mistakes in economics and foreign policy. Besides, it is not very clear who will form his team.  The extent of the chances of the conservatives themselves is not clear, but lately they have been winning back positions. However, this will be discussed in the next article on South Korean domestic policy.

Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, leading science associate of the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East of the RAS, specially for the internet magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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