At the end of February, quite an important event took place in South Korea as the largest conservative opposition party, Liberty Korea Party (LKP), held a national convention where its new leader was elected and a future strategy adopted.
To start with, we would like to remind our readers about the developments that have taken place within the party in recent years. In 2015, the former President Kim Young-sam, who headed one of the most influential factions, died. This unleashed a whole group of “young führers” onto the political arena. They craved power and rushed to attack Park Geun-hye, even as far back as 2015-2016, in an attempt to curb her authority. At the time, the former President managed to suppress the rebellion, but when the scandal involving Choi Soon-sil erupted, her detractors and media outlets under their control joined the witch hunt for Park Geun-hye. Their aim was to remove her from power and leave the Prime Minister as the acting President after her impeachment.
Clearly, they misjudged the situation as, firstly, the struggle for power among them began too early, and secondly, the Candlelight Revolution substantially boosted the opposition’s credibility. As a result, the conservatives, at first, spectacularly lost the presidential elections in 2017, then the 2018 local elections as well as their grip on power in several regions, which used to be their traditional strongholds. For example, Kim Kyoung-soo, favored by Moon Jae-in, won (even if by a small margin) in the South Gyeongsang Province.
At the time, it seemed that nothing could save the conservatives from their downward spiral, and even the acting head of the party turned out to be a former leftist, who was contemplating re-branding the party. However, on account of a number of scandals and the fairly difficult economic conditions, which are, in large part, the result of Moon Jae-in’s policies, the conservatives began to improve their standing. For instance, Kim Kyoung-soo was convicted for his involvement in the online comment-rigging scandal, and if the conviction is upheld by higher authorities, he will lose his Governor post. There is a similar situation in the South Chungcheong Province, whose Governor Ahn Hee-jung was sentenced to prison for sexual misconduct involving a secretary. Perhaps, the governor of the Gyeonggi Province (which surrounds the capital), Lee Jae-myung, is next. In the current political climate, some conservative voters have started to believe that things were not that bad under Park Geun-hye.
Two note-worthy trends have, therefore, emerged. On the one hand, those who had earlier left the party have begun to return to its ranks. On the other hand, some politicians have started promoting themselves as Park Geun-hye’s supporters although at the time she was President, they were not among her followers.
In fact, people calling themselves Park Geun-hye supporters are not fighting for her. Out of approximately 330,000 members of the conservative party, nearly 100,000 live in Daegu and other areas of the North Gyeongsang Province, thus making this region of vital importance for consolidating power within the party. And Park Geun-hye is originally from Daegu.
This mood first manifested itself with the appointment of Madam Na Kyung-won to the position of the faction’s floor leader at the National Assembly on December 12, 2018. She portrays herself as politically neutral, but, in reality, she is a true Park Geun-hye supporter. Elections of the party’s floor leader at the National Assembly involved a confrontation between Park Geun-hye’s supporters and her opponents, and it was the former who ensured Na Kyung-won’s victory. In her “inauguration” speech, Na Kyung-won stressed the importance of party unity and promised to protect conservative values by reining in Moon Jae-in’s government. However, analysts were quick to point out that Na Kyung-won’s key goal in her new post is to end infighting between party factions and their leaders, who are worth saying some things about.
The first contender is the former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who was the acting President until 11 May 2017, after Park Geun-hye had been impeached at the end of 2016. The author of this article remembers quite clearly that when Hwang Kyo-ahn served as the Justice Minister, he played a key role in the dissolution of the Unified Progressive Party. His appointment to the post of Prime Minister in 2016 marked the beginning of the conservative attack. And while Park Geun-hye’s appointees to this position had been put under the microscope by both the left and the right, Hwang Kyo-ahn managed to avoid such scrutiny. And recently, he submitted his application to join the LKP. Hwang Kyo-ahn portrays himself as Park Geun-hye’s supporter and someone who intends to unify the party on more or less such a platform.
Hwang Kyo-ahn’s speeches have focused on criticizing Moon Jae-in’s economic policies and on his intentions to unify the conservatives. According to one party bureaucrat, Hwang Kyo-ahn aims to broaden his political base in the whole country, and to focus on gaining support among party members who are unhappy with the government’s economic policies.
The ruling and smaller opposition parties immediately started to criticize his return, and stated that the LKP was returning to the times of Park Geun-hye. Hwang Kyo-ahn responded by saying that it was wrong to view all the government officials, who had served under the previous administration, as part of the scandal, and that it was essential to evaluate what was done well and what was not. However, the democrat Kim Tae-nyeon, a member of the National Assembly, noted that as the former Justice Minister and Prime Minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn bears a great deal of responsibility for the political scandal that involved Park Geun-hye. According to critics, Hwang Kyo-ahn returned to politics as a triumphant general, but he is yet to apologize for the past.
They also say that Hwang Kyo-ahn’s political comeback will cause infighting between the party factions, but Park Geun-hye followers would probably support him. Shim Jae-kwon, another member of the National Assembly, said that he would like to ask Hwang Kyo-ahn whether the latter had considered the possibility that his application would have a negative effect on the efforts, made by the conservative, to resurrect their party.
In reality, even the extent of Hwang Kyo-ahn’s support for Park Geun-hye is under question. The attorney Yoo Yeong-ha, Park Geun-hye’s legal representative and the only person who, at present, has any contact with the imprisoned ex-President, communicated Park Geun-hye’s disappointment at the former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn’s intention to head the key opposition party, the LKP. The lawyer said that Hwang Kyo-ahn had told the prison authorities he wished to meet with Park Geun-hye, but she refused to see him.
The second candidate, in terms of political clout, is Seoul’s former mayor Oh Se-hoon (from 2006 to 2011), who returned to politics in 2018 after an eight-year break. He left his post and politics altogether after the unsuccessful Seoul Free Lunch Referendum. The referendum was deemed invalid due to a low turnout. Just as Hwang Kyo-ahn, the former mayor joined the LKP recently. He left the conservatives in January 2017 and then became affiliated with the center-right. However, after the Righteous Future Political Party was established via a merger with more leftist circles, he returned to his conservative base.
Among conservatives, Oh Se-hoon had a reputation as a moderate politician untouched by current political scandals. He has experience in governance, and from a political standpoint, he intended to bank on moderate conservatives.
And finally there is Hong Jun-pyo, Moon Jae-in’s rival in the presidential election and Park Geun-hye’s chief opponent. Famous for his harsh rhetoric bordering on insolence, Hong Jun-pyo retired from politics after losing in the 2018 local elections. But he chose to return in order to prevent Park Geun-hye’s supporters from taking control over the party, as, in his eyes, the national convention was to become an opportunity to create a new party, founded on principles of fair play. And the return of Hwang Kyo-ahn would only damage the party’s image by linking it with the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.
In truth, Hong Jun-pyo’s candidacy turned out to be short-lived. Together with other even less popular contenders, he demanded that the national convention be rescheduled, because it coincided with Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un, planned for February 27-28, 2019. The event would, therefore, not feature on the front pages of media outlets. Hong Jun-pyo received a reasonable response saying that such important events, as a rule, were not rescheduled. And on February 11, he withdrew his candidacy.
Still, Hong Jun-pyo was not the most odious candidate, as there was also Kim Jin-tae. He is a former prosecutor, who recently gained notoriety because of the comments, he and two other National Assembly members representing the LKP, made about the 1980 events in Gwangju during a parliamentary hearing on February 8, 2019. According to Kim Jin-tae, the uprising against the military regime was, in fact, a revolt organized by North Korean intelligence and security services. And money collected from taxes, paid by South Koreans, was wasted on the monsters who dub themselves as the veterans of the Democratization Movement.
In reality, several investigations were conducted to establish a link between the incident in Gwangju and Pyongyang, but each time no connection of this nature was found.
When the public began to criticize the previously mentioned statements, the Liberty Korea Party took disciplinary measures against the National Assembly members associated with the outrageous comments. The party also stressed that opinions expressed by those National Assembly members did not reflect the party’s official position. However, the disciplinary measures against Kim Jin-tae were postponed since he was taking part in the leadership elections.
In the end, out of this hodgepodge of candidates, conservatives chose the former Prime Minister and not the moderate Oh Se-hoon. Hwang Kyo-ahn won 50 % of the votes, Oh Se-hoon and Kim Jin-tae received 31.1 % and 18.9 % of the votes, respectively.
In his acceptance speech, Hwang Kyo-ahn stated that he would lead the party to victory at the legislative elections the following year and to the Presidency by 2022. He promised that Liberty Korea would become a party associated with communal well-being and a bright future. He also said that he would raise the flag in support of innovations even higher and would unite the right-wing camp.
Unfortunately, the author of this article believes such a leader is the best present that Moon Jae-in could have. Still, LKP’s approval ratings stand at approximately 26.7 to 26.8 %, and have been growing over the last 27 months. Nonetheless, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (Deobureominjudang) enjoys more support, which stands at 40.4%.
Firstly, the infighting between supporters and opponents of Hwang Kyo-ahn will only intensify. Secondly, Hwang Kyo-ahn is not a leader or a real follower of Park Geun-hye, and once this comes to light, he will lose some of his support. Thirdly, he is an easy target for the left, who can remind him of his questionable deeds.
Having deposed Park Geun-hye at the time, the current leaders of the right have not been able to find a leader from their midst, who will be able to compete against Moon Jae-in on equal terms in the current environment. It is possible that by 2020, one of these individuals will have gained minimal traction, but in order to reach this minimum, real deeds are required and not just infighting or big words. With such conservative rivals, Moon Jae-in can simply enjoy the rest of his presidential term without having to resort to any excesses.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.