The outcome of South Korea’s local election that took place on June 1, 2022 could be described as an unmitigated disaster for the Democratic Party of Korea. Whereas 4 years ago it won 14 out of 17 metropolitan mayor and governor posts in direct-administered cities and even chipped away at the Conservatives’ territory, the party now only held onto 5 seats while in the Gyeonggi Province it outpaced the Conservatives only by a slight margin of 0.3%.
When the Democrats lost the presidential election by a margin of 0.73%, they didn’t see it as a total debacle. Their candidate gained support of a larger number of votes than election-winning Moon Jae-in did 5 years ago, while fears over a possible Conservative wave even boosted the numbers of the party supporters, most notably among young women wary about the pledge to ditch The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, a move that would spell the death for gender equality agenda. For that reason, the Democrats could believe that Yoon Seok-yeol’s victory is just a one-off, with the masses and parliamentary majority still on their side, and the local election would show to the Conservatives who is the country’s boss once and for all.
However, the party saw a traditional change in leadership, a move that has come to typify South Korea’s political culture — if the leadership suffers a defeat, it takes responsibility and quits the political stage for a while. As a rule, this means that another faction takes a lead.
Besides Lee Jae-myung who lost the elections (ex-mayor of Seongnam who later became the mayor of the capital Gyeonggi Province), party leader Song Young-gil also resigned. While not the faction leader, Song was considered as a fairly self-sufficient political figure; two co-chairs replaced him at the helm of the party. The first one was Yoon Ho-joong, a classic Moon loyalist. Park Ji-hyun, 26, was the second, with her dizzying ascension hinging on several factors. Firstly, in 2020, while not yet a party member, Park got the spotlight as a person who exposed one of the most serious sex scandals in South Korea known as “Nth Room case.” She exposed an entire system of Telegram chats where women were sexually preyed on: dozens of girls and women were blackmailed into filming various sex tapes. Although not all of the perpetrators were busted, group administrators and the main content providers were deanonymized and, eventually, put behind bars. Secondly, Park was seen as a figure able to counter-balance the leader of the Conservative Party, Lee Jung-seok, who is considered to be a person speaking for conservative men aged 20-30+. As for Park, she secured the women’s support for the democrats.
It is possible that all this was perceived as a nice move to attract female voters but it only aggravated internal party strife associated with the so-called generation 586.
20 years ago, another term was in use: generation 386, and it didn’t refer to a type of computer. Those were the people who were then in their mid-30s (50+ now) and took active part in democratization movement as they professed leftist views. In the Democratic party, this group centered around Roh Moo-hyun and stood against the old guard of Kim Dae-jung. Although this struggle was echoed by a botched 2004 impeachment attempt, it was in Roh’s entourage where a group of relatively young politicians, including Moon Jae-in, emerged.
Moon Jae-in & Co. were battling for power for 10 years but when they eventually prevailed, it suddenly became clear: he who vanquished the dragon turned into a dragon himself with as many (if not more) heads. A flurry of controversies regarding party leadership members’ harassment turned out to be the most painful.
The Democratic Party started to lose ground, first and foremost among the youth, a trend that revealed itself during Seoul mayoral by-election when young people turned away from Democrats due to their hypocrisy. Since there is no third power on the South Korean political stage, the so-called Idaenam has become a force to be reckoned with in the conservative camp. Its adherents include conservative-minded young people that have pretty racist and sexist views, but at the same time take a more liberal stance in other matters compared to classical conservatives.
As for Park, she was raised to prominence to neutralize them. In January 2022, she entered politics as the head of a select committee on the eradication of digital sex crimes while in March she became co-chair of the emergency steering committee of the Democratic Party as she tried to serve as a politician that represents the “voices of social minorities” while working hard to revamp the party’s image.
This coincided with sexual harassment controversies that involved the party heavyweights: in May, at Park’s initiative, the DP’s emergency committee expelled Park Wan-joo over an allegations that he harassed a female assistant in 2021.
The real overhaul, however, never took place. Both Lee Jae-myung, who had suffered a defeat at the election, and Song Young-gil, who had resigned, came back to politics before time, with the former aiming at National Assembly deputy seat and the latter seeking to become Seoul’s mayor. Moreover, Lee Jae-myung was considered to be a campaign manager and ran not as a candidate from a province where he was governor, but from an obviously winning district in Incheon.
On May 25, Park Ji-hyun told the meeting of the party’s election committee a “terrible thing”: “We should discuss the resignation of Generation 586 politicians in order to restore people’s trust in the party.” During yet another press conference she said that the members of that generation, who led the country’s democratic movement in the 1980s, have “fulfilled their historic calling” and that some of them should deliver on their promise to retire after the presidential election.
These remarks sparked fiery internal debates, with some of the Democrats being ready to apologize together with Park while others couldn’t understand why a “child” (26 years old is a VERY young age for a South Korean politician) is repenting for the sins of veteran party members. Some even lambasted Park for undermining the party’s unity. The party’s leadership and veteran politicians were outraged even more: some criticized Park for not consulting with the party before talking publicly about the party reform. Even those who sympathized with her to a degree, virtually disowned the co-chair’s remarks portraying them as her personal opinion.
In other words, this was a “bold juvenile statement,” so on May 27 Park apologized “to all DP candidates running in the elections” for arranging a press conference without consulting enough with the party leadership ), saying that she did not mean all generation 586 party members should retire.
Five hours later, however, she refused to join party leaders at a campaign rally, saying in her Facebook that co-head Yun Ho-jung rejected her proposal to announce a joint campaign address proclaiming a resolve for reforms. In response, party officials close to Yun said that Park offered an impossible deal, demanding she be appointed to chair a new reform body.
And here comes the election… Having held onto their traditional domain, the Democrats lost everything else. In some cases, including Seoul, the gap was as large as in Daegu, for instance, where the Conservatives always emerge triumphant. At a lower level, the picture was the same — The People Power Party won 145 seats, while the Democratic Party — 63. Another 18 seats were taken by independent candidates and a representative of the Progressive Party. The ruling party now accounts for a larger number of seats among the heads of education departments: previously, the People Power Party had only three representatives on these posts, but now this figure has soared to eight.
In the wake of this, the new leadership of the Democratic Party resigned. On June 2, Yun Ho-jung and Park Ji-hyun announced that all eight emergency steering committee members would resign to assume responsibility for the defeat.
On June 10, four-term lawmaker Woo Sang-ho was elected as new interim leader of the Democratic Party.
He is considered one of the Generation 586 representatives, but more neutral than others and enjoys trust from a wide spectrum of party members. Woo Sang-ho will lead the party until the National convention planned to take place in August when the party elects a new chairperson. At the same time, Woo has said that he does not plan to seek re-election.
Woo’s appointment comes as the party embarked on internal debates and blamestorming, a process that diverged along two main lines: “Lee Jae-myung vs. other factions (including Moon supporters)” and “the old guard vs. the youth (with an emphasis on Park Ji-hyun).”
The reservations about Lee revolve around him allegedly returning to politics only to seek parliamentary immunity amidst some dark stories about his tenure as Seongnam mayor in 2015. This move was way too obvious, and, as Korea Herald pointed out, “Lee won, but his party lost. He was chair of the election committee in charge of supporting all of its candidates’ campaigns. He cannot but take responsibility for losses in other election districts.”
It was mostly Moon’s supporters who lashed out at Lee. Thus, Kim Jong-min, MP, said that losing the presidential election but running for a new office so soon is contrary to the democratic common sense. Another Moon loyalist, Hong Young-pyo, said during a radio interview with KBS that Lee should not have led the election campaign, which came only three months after he lost in the presidential election.
At the same time, politicians supporting Lee said that he is not at fault alone.
In brief, the generational conflict amounts to the youth repeating Park’s talking point that “generation 586 has to go” while the representatives of this generation come down on Park, recalling all her minor errors and slips of the tongue the same way they used to find fault with every controversial remark by Yoon Seok-yeol. And here comes the main point: Park “revealed to the public the shortcomings of the DPK at a time when many voters were still undecided”.
But Park won’t go down without a fight. As Park resigned from her co-chair seat, she not only thanked those who supported the DPK, especially the women in their 20s and 30s, but also blamed the main opposition camp’s “resistance to change”.
Only few, including Choi Jae-sung, a former senior presidential aide and four-time lawmaker, said that the DPK would be an “epic failure” if it continues to split up into factions. Lee Nak-yon, former party leader and Lee Jae-myung’s main rival at the presidential primaries, also castigated the party for its “strange reaction” to the election saying that “voter turnout of 37.7% in Gwangju is a political impeachment.”
However, on June 7 Lee Nak-yon left for the United States to study for one year as a visiting researcher at the George Washington Institute for Korean Studies. Lee Jae-myung, responding to the question about whether he will run for the party’s chairmanship, has been overly and demonstratively modest: “I am listening hard to opinions from the public, DP members and our supporters.”
The author believes that Lee has good chances: he is a well-known heavyweight who wields the greatest authority among politicians, and, as many democrats think, should be the party’s next leader. As one of party bosses told media on the condition of anonymity, “the basic consensus is that a person with the greatest power to win the public vote should lead the party as a general (parliamentary) election is coming in two years.”
At the same time, if Lee becomes the party’s leader, it will be all too clear to everyone that DPK that used to look after the interest of democratic population is turning into a 586-party. Amid the efforts to modernize the People Power Party and nab the “democratization movement” agenda, this is fraught with losing the youth’s support altogether as well as the support of female voters aged 20-30. The latter, having witnessed what happened to Park Ji-hyun, saw that feminist agenda is just for showing off, and the democrats are not in the mood for change.
As for Park, it is doubtful that she would switch allegiances as it is unlikely that Lee Jung-seok & Co. would embrace her. However, like in the case of Yoon Seok-yeol, the Democrats “brought up” a young and up-and-coming political leader who is in theory capable of embarking on an independent voyage with his support group.
That’s why August will be especially hot for the Democrats, and the most pessimistic (and likely) scenario is a party schism.
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”.