The author has followed the career of 36-year-old conservative party leader Lee Jun-seok with great attention, and not just to the uneasy relationship between him, the classical conservatives and supporters of Yoon Suk-yeol.
Since his election as party leader, Lee Jun-seok has committed himself to pushing for a change in the norms of political culture, and has done quite a lot to achieve this. He came to work at the National Assembly on a bicycle, not in a massive chauffeur-driven car, as politicians of his rank usually do. He suggested selecting candidates for election by means of a qualifying examination in computer skills, reading comprehension and presentation skills, so that talented and young people with little experience in politics could compete with older heavyweights. He hosted a live debate for those wishing to take up the position of press secretary, in contrast to the usual selection of spokespersons by the party leader.
Combined with harsh language on gender and other issues, the 36-year-old Harvard-educated politician with no experience as an MP attracted many new members aged 20-30, generally young men, to the party who liked his anti-feminist rhetoric.
Lee was already criticized in the summer of 2021 for acting as an imperial leader despite promising to run the party in a democratic way, and amid the 2022 election race, he was nearly impeached after he withdrew from the campaign in another spat with Yoon Suk-yeol.
As Lee was more of a center-rightist in his beliefs, he was actively “drowned” by the far-right, especially by the far-right YouTube channel Hover Lab, run by lawyer and former MP Kang Yong-suk. The extent to which he was “right” is evident from the fact that when, after being expelled, he asked to join the People Power party again, the party leadership refused. He eventually ran as an independent candidate for the Gyeonggi-do provincial gubernatorial election, garnering some 54,000 votes and indirectly contributing to the Democrats’ victory by splitting the conservative electorate.
But that’s not the point – since December 2021, the channel has begun accusing Lee Jun-seok of receiving sexual favors paid for by businessman Kim Sung-jin, CEO of technology company I-kaist, in 2013. At the time, Lee was considered close to then-President Park Geun-hye because Park had personally selected him for a seat in the party’s collective leadership two years earlier. The businessman, on the other hand, was looking for a link to Park and, in the best tradition of Korean corruption, was “bribing” Lee by paying for dinners at the restaurant and the entertainment that followed.
A few months later, the channel made new accusations that Lee had sent an assistant to the man accusing him of sexual bribery to get a statement saying the allegations were false and thus contributed to the destruction of evidence in the case. According to the businessman’s lawyer, Kim Sung-jin, who is currently in jail on another case, claimed that Lee pressured him to remain silent during the police investigation in exchange for later parole assistance.
The channel also accused Lee of promising an investment of 700 million won (USD 537,000) to an unidentified informant in exchange for testifying that no sexual favors had taken place. The police are currently investigating the case.
Lee has continuously maintained his innocence, stating that there was nothing to hide and he has already filed a criminal complaint against the channel. However, in April 2022, the ethics committee decided to initiate disciplinary proceedings, citing “Lee’s breach of his duty to preserve his dignity in connection with accusations of inciting the destruction of evidence”. This is the first time a party chairman has come under such a process.
A new round of controversy began in June 2022, when Lee tried to create a new apparatus to overhaul the existing nomination system ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections. The media noted that lawmakers close to the president were trying to form their own faction, disguised as a government relations and policy study group, in order to seize the right to recommend candidates for the 2024 parliamentary elections. It was originally led by Chang Je-won, Yoon’s chief of staff during the election race, but it should be noted that the group was also opposed by Kweon Seong-dong, head of the conservative parliamentary faction, also a Yoon supporter.
For his part, Lee has set up a reform committee, a move aimed at bringing tight control against pro-Yoon lawmakers. In response, MP Chung Jin-suk (the same one who harshly criticized Lee for his trip to Ukraine as “self-politics”) and other senior lawmakers, mostly supporters of Yoon Suk-yeol, attacked Lee, calling his actions part of a policy aimed to increase his political gains and expand his influence in the lead up to the general election. Lee counterattacked, using harsh language and accusing them of trying to undermine his leadership.
On June 12, Lee Jun-seok made a rather ambitious speech at a press conference marking the 1st anniversary of his tenure as leader of the conservative political forces. In particular, he said that he had already achieved a lot, despite all the criticism. Furthermore, Lee noted that while he had previously done everything possible to ensure the party’s electoral victory, from now on he intends to focus on himself: to act in a way that creates the world as he sees it, to implement policies that he believes are right, and to restructure the party based on his own considerations.
Around the same time, Next Research conducted a poll on a possible leadership change at the People Power: 31.2% of respondents indicated a change in power and the arrival of new figures, including Ahn Cheol-soo, as their preferred choice. 30.1% expressed support for incumbent chairman Lee Jun-seok. The faction close to President Yoon Suk-yeol (Kweon Seong-dong, Chang Je-won and others) was favored by 22.8% of those surveyed. 15.9% found it difficult to give a definite answer. However, among the People Power members themselves, 35.6% support Yoon, 29.3% the incumbent party leadership, and 28% the new forces. 51% of respondents blamed the conflict within the Conservative camp on President Yoon Suk-yeol and party leaders close to him. 32% consider Lee Jun-seok guilty.
On July 1, Lee Jun-seok appeared at the airport to greet President Yoon Suk-yeol as he returned from a trip to the NATO summit, prompting speculation that he might try to seek help from the president, but then a rumor spread that the request for a joint dinner had been rejected.
Officially, however, Yoon declined to comment on the situation around Lee, saying party problems were something the president could not mention. On the evening of the same day, July 1, 2022, I-KAIST CEO Kim Sung-jin, who is under investigation, stated during a police interrogation “under the record” that he paid for over 20 instances of leisure and sexual favors provided to Lee Jun-seok between 2013 and 2016. In exchange, according to the lawyer, Lee promised that he would contact two people close to Park Geun-hye to arrange a meeting between Kim and the president. The names of these two people have not been made public.
For their part, Lee’s supporters have advocated the sensible idea of not making any decision until the facts of the bribe have been proven by something other than the statements of the businessman who may be under pressure.
On July 7, an aide to Lee, Kim Cheol-geun, claimed his innocence.The Ethics Committee met in the evening and after a meeting of nearly eight hours said Lee Jun-seok’s membership of the party would be suspended for the next 6 months. The Committee said its decision to suspend Lee’s membership was due to damage to the party’s reputation, adding that suspicions that he had received sexual favors were not considered. This is an important point as the Committee was not so much concerned about whether there was a fact, but how the scandal affects the ratings and therefore the “toxic asset” should be removed.
President Yoon Suk-yeol expressed regret, saying he was ashamed as one of the party members.
The author is now concerned with two questions. The first one is about the fate of Lee himself. A suspended membership is the second lowest penalty in the ruling party’s four-tiered disciplinary system, but a suspended membership theoretically means Lee Jun-seok will not be able to serve as party chairman.
According to Lee’s supporters and according to the party’s constitution, Lee can appeal against the Ethics Committee’s decision within 10 days and during this period he can still be considered chairman. If one considers that suspended membership = loss of the chairmanship, then the role of acting chair will be played by Kweon Seong-dong, head of the faction in parliament (remember, from Yoon’s team), in whose opinion the decision of the Ethics Committee took effect immediately, and therefore Lee’s membership has already been suspended. A party congress may have to be called or an emergency steering committee may have to be formed, along the lines of the Democrats.
The second question is what will happen to People Power, since “outwardly” Lee’s resignation is perceived not so much as a fight against corruption but as an outcome of factional infighting, which beats the image of the party. While the overall situation is not ideal – two months after Yoon took office his disapproval ratings exceeded his approval ratings on the back of skyrocketing inflation and controversial personnel appointments, about which we will write separately at some point.
As one of the author’s colleagues said, there has been a coup with Lee not going to give up. Lee has been dealt a serious blow but can either drift towards political oblivion or (especially if it turns out that there is no other evidence apart from Kim’s testimony) cut loose and chart his own course up to a split in the Conservatives (while dragging away some of the youth that make up his electorate). Anyway, we will keep an eye on this young politician.
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”.