25.12.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Fuss inside the South Korean Conservative Party


Previously, we reported on how the new interim leader of the Conservative Party, Kim Chong-in, is trying to restore the influence of his party, and move away from its old framework.  However, today there is still a lack of unity in this game, largely due to a series of moves that the author considers strange.

Initially, the party’s image changed by attracting young blood, and abandoning its traditional color symbols. The usual color for conservatives is red or dark pink, but Kim proposed a palette with red, white, and blue, while blue is the traditional color of Democrats. Kim recently agreed on a set of new regulations for corporations that was pushed forward by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, and which runs against the conservative party’s earlier stance of supporting the autonomy and self-regulation of the market. And even then there were complaints that Kim was promoting his ideas without discussing them thoroughly with party members.

In December, Kim took an important step for the People Power Party, announcing that it was time for the party to apologize for the unlawful actions taken by its former presidents: “The public apology was something that I openly decided to do when I joined the party, but I could not do it until now because I had to take many things into consideration”.

Indeed, the last two conservative ex-presidents (Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye) are in prison: Lee was recently given a 17-year prison sentence, and went to jail for embezzlement and bribery; Park’s sentence for corruption and nepotism was reduced down to 20 years, but that is still a lot.  And, most important, political opponents constantly try to present the party as the legacy left by these people, and many party members left it because of these scandals.

The apology was originally planned for December 9, the fourth anniversary of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, but eventually it had to be postponed to the 15th. Speaking at a press conference, Kim Chong-in said that his party, which was the ruling party at that time, had not been able to properly fulfill its obligations when governing the country. “Two former presidents of South Korea are simultaneously in a state of imprisonment,” he stated, and that “I am here to give an earnest apology to the people with regard to this issue”. Because “Any wrongdoing by a president constitutes wrongdoing by the ruling party…Our party could not fully accomplish its duty, as the then ruling party, to lead the country in the right direction, and committed the grave mistake of failing to detect and prevent problems by the reigning power”.

He noted that even after the first impeachment in the country’s history, the president lacked the wisdom to admit his mistakes and reach the appropriate conclusions. Kim Chong-in apologized to the country’s citizens, and stressed that the party will get back on its feet by rejuvenating it while retrospecting on the mistakes committed in the past.

The reactions from among conservatives varied. Park Dae-chul, a member of the National Assembly of South Korea and supporter of former President Park, told Yonghap News Agency that the apology overlooks the political dynamics behind the former president’s denunciation: “It would have been better not to apologize… There are complex and varied reasons behind the president’s imprisonment, such as betraying his party, fake news, distortion or incitement, but (the apology) just reduced them all to mere misconduct”. Another deputy. Chung Jin-suk welcomed Kim’s apology, calling it the party’s promise to the people to be reborn through sincere remorse and introspection.

Nominally centrist newspapers like The Korea Times were more likely to welcome Kim’s move. The People Power Party must do whatever it takes to restore public confidence.  And transform itself into a new party through reform and innovation. To set a new course to restore its damaged credibility.

That being said, The Korea Times believes that the People Power Party needs to remember that its growing support is primarily due to declining support for Moon and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea amid a series of political setbacks, coupled with ongoing hostilities between Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. Therefore, it should “show more humility, and apologize for its past misdeeds. This is the only way for her to restore public confidence and become a healthy and strong opposition party”.

The more right-wing JoongAng Ilbo noted that Kim’s apology is the first of its kind. No president, or head of a former ruling party, has ever made this kind of apology in Korean political history. In this sense, its leader’s apology may serve as a timely proclamation that it is moving away from its tarnished past.

But despite being on its fourth name, the People Power Party (Saenuri – Free Korea – United Party of the Future – People Power Party) was unable to reemerge due to its inability to gain public support. After suffering crushing defeats in four consecutive elections at both local and national levels since 2017, the party is still being shunned by a majority of the public, and It is having trouble demonstrating a robust raison d’être in the face of the DP’s landslide victory in the April 15th 2020 parliamentary elections.

There was also criticism of the procedural aspect involved: an apology is fine, but Kim did not provide any specific plans for how to reform his party. In his capacity as an interim leader, he has seemingly split the party, sparking strong backlash from right-wing members who are still loyal to the convicted former heads of state.

Other critics pointed out that the apology for the crimes committed by the former presidents is nothing more than a political ploy to rally voters behind the conservative party ahead of mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan set for next April.

An apology may help the party attract some centrist or conservative voters who have turned their backs on the conservative bloc after Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, analysts say, but that is not enough to win over the public’s confidence. Further action, such as a personnel reshuffle within the party, or revisions to the party platform, is needed. Or at least constructive criticism of the Democrats’ failures, accompanied by putting forth alternative solutions.

Political commentator Park Byeong-seug has speculated that Kim’s apology will wind up being a one-man show, as it did when Kim knelt during his visit on May 18 to the national cemetery that is located in Gwangju. Kim’s apology, and kneeling on behalf of the party – whose far-right members made remarks distorting and degrading the city’s history – attracted the attention of political observers, but the move did not lead to reaping any significant political gains. Next, whatever the People Power Party may do, it does not have enough power to keep the ruling bloc in check. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea has an overwhelming majority of 173 seats, while the PPP has only 103 seats.

As far as the author’s opinion goes, it is not difficult for Kim, who has managed to work “for both reds and whites,” to apologize for Lee or Park, but he should take into account the fact that a) against the backdrop of the stunts that revolve around Moon, many of Park Geun-hye’s “crimes” pale in comparison, and b) the facts that are emerging about the backstory for the candle revolution threaten to call into question the very existence of the crimes that merited impeachment.

In addition, the dispute over the apology looks very intriguing against the background of Kim Chong-in’s other performance. On November 24, 2020, speaking at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club at the Korean Press Center in Seoul, he stated that South Korea may need to consider acquiring nuclear weapons if the North refuses to give up its own.

At the same time, Kim made one stipulation: this option should be considered only if the United States is no longer able to keep nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, or provide a “nuclear umbrella” under its alliance with South Korea.

That kind of rhetoric is nothing new. Almost a year ago, in November 2019, Song Min-soon, who is the former South Korean foreign minister and head of the Korean delegation to the six-party talks, wrote in the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo that instead of paying more to keep maintaining American troops, Seoul could have invested in creating own arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.

Not only people like the disreputable ex-deputy Won Yoo-chul – who spoke about this constantly – are coming out in favor of South Korea having its own nuclear weapons, but so are, for example, people like the former mayor of Seoul Oh Se-hoon.  But in general this kind of reasoning used to be the prerogative of extreme nationalists – more often for those on the ultra-right, for whom Park Geun-hye was too liberal, and far less often for those on the ultra-left, who saw this as independence from the United States.

The fact that the person who leads the country’s most prominent conservative party has grasped at this straw is extremely interesting. He is skating on very, very thin ice by trying to win the sympathy of completely different political groups at once. And we will attentively keep track of how that goes for him.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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