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29.08.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Lee Jae-myung is On his Way to Success, the Question is its Price


On August 28, 2022, the Democratic Party of Korea will hold a National Assembley to elect a new leader.  A heated debate is expected as key factions within the party seek to set the rules in their favor and intra-party infighting is not out of step with the Conservatives.

It should be recalled that the DPK has been operating without a chairperson since March 2022 after the previous leadership resigned en masse due to the party’s defeat in the presidential elections. The party has since been run by an emergency committee, but it also resigned after a crushing defeat in the local elections on June 1.

So far, fortunes have favored former presidential candidate and ex-mayor of Seongnam Lee Jae-myung, who announced his participation in the election for party chairman on July 17, 2022.  His main rival in the primaries, former prime minister Lee Nak-yon, was forced to step aside from party affairs, taking a break and move to the US for at least a year. Moon Jae-in’s influence is actively shrinking, and there is no alternative to the former governor of the capital province in terms of relevance among his supporters. The remaining politicians, such as former party leader Song Young-gil, have ritually drifted into at least temporary political oblivion after the party’s crushing defeat in the local elections.

Nevertheless, Lee Jae-myung is perceived by many as a toxic asset. The fact that he rushed back into big politics almost immediately after losing the election is perceived as a sign of bad manners, especially given that he ran out-of-district instead of testing his political fortunes on his home ground.

That said, it should not be forgotten that there are at least three proceedings surrounding Lee, NOT including the Seongnam Gate NEO has described repeatedly. First, there is the almost similar scandal of the Baekhyeong-dong development: on July 22, the Audit and Inspection Bureau explicitly said it had found irregularities in the land development, also in 2015, when Lee Jae-myung was mayor of Seongnam.

Then, Seongnam Football Club, which Lee patronized, is suspected of receiving dubious sponsorship in exchange for services for private companies, and Lee Jae-myung’s wife allegedly used government payment cards privately, passing off personal expenses as hospitality.

Lee declares his innocence and no direct charges have been brought against him, but this may be due to the fact that a fourth key witness has “by a strange coincidence” committed suicide. In this context, Lee’s opponents claim that Lee is fighting for power solely to avoid prosecution by obtaining immunity.

In another controversial development, in the run-up to the congress, the Democrats once again changed the party’s constitution. It should be recalled that earlier the constitution stated that if their elected official was caught up in a corruption or even sex scandal, or was to become the target of criminal prosecution, the Democrats would not nominate a replacement. However, when it came to sweet spots such as the Seoul and Busan mayoral posts in 2021, the clause was scrapped, with the Democrats losing anyway, and largely because of the reaction to the attempt to change the rules.

This time something similar happened. Article 80, paragraph 1, of the party’s constitution states: “The duties of a party member accused of violating the law or involved in corruption shall be suspended immediately upon his conviction.”  This meant that if the investigation did get to Lee Jae-myung, he would lose his chances of becoming party chairman and could be thrown out of the party altogether.

The following amendment was therefore made: “Ignoring paragraph 1, the party committee can take a different decision if it is found that the charge was made for unreasonable reasons, such as political pressure.” What counts as political pressure will be decided by the right people, and the extent to which the charge is backed up by facts is irrelevant.

Of course, the conservative media openly accuses Lee of having ties to the international mafia, and back in 2016 the movie Asura: The City of Madness was released in the ROK, where the main villain was almost entirely copied from Lee Jae-myung. The city is not called Seongnam, of course, but both the image of the criminal mayor and the descriptions of his criminal manipulations are very similar to those “leveled” against Lee.

But Lee does have some opposition. This is the so-called “97 group”, people born in the 1970s who entered political life in the 1990s, who got engaged in political activism during their student years. If Lee is 67, their leading representative Park Yong-jin is 51. His bid for the chairmanship, he says, reflects a growing expectation for the revival of the party: innovation must be led by someone who thinks and acts differently from the previous Democratic Party.

On July 28, the Democratic Party announced that it had short-listed three candidates – Lee Jae-myung, and MPs Park Yong-jin and Kang Hun-sik from the “97 group”.  However, few of them are known as politicians, so Lee is quietly overtaking them – data from a July poll by the Korea Society Opinion Institute (KSOI) shows that the democratic-minded public in the ROK gives Lee Jae-myung 35.7% as the most suitable candidate for the Democratic Party chairmanship.

And when the actual provincial voting began, Lee was getting 70%+ of the vote in each region. That said, his rivals were also unwilling to join forces. However, 4 days later (August 15), Kang must have realized that he could not get higher than third place and 6-7%. He withdrew but did not stipulate that he was doing so in favor of Park. So now it is not clear whether his votes will be counted. The Democrats have sometimes had such votes not added up in favor of the favorite, but not counted at all, which has worked in favor of the front-runner.

It is worth separately mentioning the fate of Park Ji-hyun, who resigned along with other members of the emergency steering committee after the DPK’s defeat in local elections on June 1, but has continued to express her desire to participate in politics. However, on July 4, 2022, the party gerontocracy rejected her on purely formal grounds, as she didn’t have six month of party membership under her belt and the emergency committee found “no unavoidable reason” to make an exception for her. After all, she joined the Democratic Party only on February 14.

Park, however, did not give up and came to the parliament building on July 15 to announce her bid for the party chairmanship.  The woman was then simply not allowed inside and made a formal declaration of her decision right in front of the gate. Alas, the demarche was perceived as an empty talk.

Thus, on the one hand, Lee Jae-myung’s victory and his capture of the party leadership seems predetermined. On the other hand, many experts, even those who hold democratic views, say that Lee Jae-myung’s personal victory does not mean victory and development for the entire Democratic Party.

Yes, the Democrats will maintain their majority in parliament until 2024, diligently stiring up controversy in the opposing camp, but what will the price be for the Democrats’ image is a very good question. The four witnesses who committed suicide on the eve of key testimony is not yet a death toll linked to the Hillary Clinton case but for South Korea it’s enough for questions to be raised, despite Democrats’ claims of this being only a coincidence.

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

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