This text marks the beginning of a series of stories dedicated to the preparation work for the presidential elections in South Korea. Historically, for South Korea this process resembles an action-packed TV series full of scheming, scandals, and the “fight of bulldogs under the carpet” – and now it is time to get ready to watch the first episode of the new season.
None of the camps has yet fully decided on who the official contender will be, or group of them, or their group, seeing as the factional struggle among both democrats and conservatives complicates this process. That is why we will list the main contenders from each camp, reiterate what is in their pasts, and talk about their peculiarities.
The top candidate from the Democratic Party in terms of rankings is 56-year-old Lee Jae-myung, who is the Governor of Gyeonggi Province, which has the country’s capital and is home to more than a quarter of its population. A left-wing populist (yes, even more left-leaning and more populist, than the current president), he was Moon’s rival in the 2017 intra-party elections, and after losing which he challenged Moon rather harshly – and for that the regime vigorously tried to knock him out of the game. The culmination of the story was a scandal when actress Kim Bong-soo accused him of adultery (meaning he promised to marry her but then left), pointing to “some intimate features” as evidence in the form of a mole on one area that was the reason.
Lee officially entered the race on July 1, 2021, and holds the leading position due to both his competent efforts to fight the pandemic and partially because almost all the leftists not associated with Moon prefer him. Since the hostilities between Moon and Lee are common knowledge, this means that the accusations of the incumbent president and his entourage cannot tarnish the Governor of Gyeonggi Province but, on the contrary, to a certain extent increase his chances of being that representative from the left-wing camp who could save the Democrats, along the same lines that Park Geun-hye saw her chances grow against the backdrop of the waning authority held by Lee Myung-bak.
One of Lee Jae-myung’s important promises is to provide youth with a universal “basic income”, and owing to this some have even called him a “Korean Bernie Sanders.”
The second person on the list is former prime minister and party leader 68-year-old Lee Nak-yon, a skilled administrator whom the author would classify as moderate. He is also not part of Moon Jae-in’s faction. A former journalist for The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper (with over 20 years of experience, including working as a correspondent in Japan), Lee served as Governor of South Jeolla Province from 2014-2017 before becoming the first prime minister in Moon Jae-in’s administration to hold the position of South Korean prime minister for such a long time ().
However, while Lee Jae-myung and the opposition Yoon Seok-youl are either in first or second place in the race, Lee Nak-yon consistently holds third place.
In next place – and by a significantly wide margin – is 70-year-old Chung Sye-kyun, another former prime minister. He represents one of Moon’s supporters, as is the former Minister of Justice, 63-year-old Choo Mi-ae, who used to chair the Democratic Party.
Lee Kwang-jae, a former aide close to Roh Moo-hyun, has emphatically announced that he will run for president in May. The 56-year-old politician, who is well known for having close ties to former President Roh Moo-hyun, said that “we need a political revolution in which the times, generations, and players will change.” Under Roh Moo-hyun, Lee was senior secretary, and became Governor of Gangwon Province in 2010, but was imprisoned for receiving illegal political funds, and was then stripped of his governorship. Apparently, because of this on July 5, Lee Kwang-jae announced that he was uniting with Chung Sye-kyun, and experts considered this a sign that contenders from the Moon Jae-in faction were consolidating their forces to be able to compete with the more popular representatives from other factions.
On July 11, 2021, in the first round of primary elections, the Democratic Party reduced its list of presidential candidates down to six. Ultimately, a single candidate from the ruling party was supposed to be determined by September 5, 2021, and after that curious bureaucratic games commenced between supporters and opponents of Lee Jae-myung. The former suggested holding the primaries as early as possible, while Governor Lee still held a significant advantage over the others. The latter were looking for a way to postpone the event in the hope that over this time the candidate who was inconvenient for Moon would, if not actually sink, then at least raise the position enjoyed by the president’s supporters. In the final analysis, due to the impact from the pandemic, a single candidate from the ruling party will not be determined in early September, as was planned, but in the middle of October.
If we look at the battle going on under the carpet, then once again “everyone is trying to sink Lee Jae-myung.” For example, some supporters of the ruling party have created a composite image that depicts only four of the six presidential candidates from the party – those who have completed their military service. Choo Mi-ae is a woman, and this should have raised suspicions about Governor Lee. In response, Lee Jae-myung posted a photo showing his arm disfigured up to the elbow, and explained that it became like that after a childhood injury when he was working in a factory due to poverty. Even the liberal media began to write about the danger of a split, and on August 8, at a hastily convened press conference, Lee Jae-myung promised to end all smear campaigns against his rivals.
But shortly after that, Lee Jae-myung made another risky move: even though in the wake of the pandemic the government was going to provide subsidies to 88% of the population, excluding the wealthiest layer, on August 13 the Governor of Gyeonggi Province announced his decision to provide money to help fight COVID-19 to all the province’s residents. This decision raised questions from everybody. First, that represents the overt use of administrative leverage. Second, the province with the country’s capital winds up in an advantageous position. Third, is the governor not treating taxpayer money a bit too frivolously? The media began to write that “Lee’s cocky actions during his term as governor seem quite dangerous”, and in general, although holding on to his position as a presidential candidate is, strictly speaking, not illegal, in the grand scheme of things Lee Jae-myung should leave his post for the sake of honest competition.
To end the conversation about the situation in the Democratic camp, the author notes that as president, Lee Jae-myung may be much more “one-of-a-kind” than Moon, and given that his views really are more leftist it will be interesting. But while Governor Lee is significantly outperforming his rivals, it is unclear whether he will be picked – there are too many powerful party bosses against him, including the Blue House.
If Lee is picked anyway, then he will still have to face the daunting task of enlisting the support of members from other factions, and his position as president may be reminiscent of the story of Park Geun-hye, whose own party (more precisely, other factions within it) threw a monkey wrench into the works no less than her political opponents did. If this does not happen, and Moon finds a way to blackball the governor, then there is the high probability of an internal party schism occurring – Lee Jae-myung and his supporters will leave for a separate party, which is something that often happens before elections. In this case, the threat arises that together Lee and another Democratic candidate will garner more votes than a representative from a united opposition, but in absolute numbers the conservative will win and become president – as Roh Tae-woo did against the backdrop of the conflict between Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung.
But can the conservatives field a single candidate? The internal struggle is powerful there as well, and this author’s next piece will be dedicated to “what the opposition has over there.”
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, 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”.