The first presidential debate Tuesday was supposed to be a duel between Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in, trying to sap each other’s momentum in the closely-fought election.
Presidential candidates Park Geun-hye (right), Moon Jae-in (center) and Lee Jung-hee engage in their first television debate Tuesday. (National Assembly photo pool)
Instead it was Lee Jung-hee of the minor opposition United Progressive Party who stole the show.
The 42-year-old former human rights lawyer emerged early in the debate as an attack dog looking to drag down Park Geun-hye, the candidate of the ruling conservative Saenuri Party, who is leading the polls.
“I am here to take down candidate Park Geun-hye,” Lee said midway through the debate, as Park struggled to keep a straight face.
“The Saenuri Party must cease to exist.”
Moon Jae-in may have been the nominee of the main opposition Democratic United Party, but his rhetorical power paled in comparison that of Lee, who made her name as a lawmaker representing labor unions and temporary workers.
“The leadership Park showed is not that of open communication,” Lee said in response to a question by the moderator asking the candidates for their ideals about leadership.
“It is full of arrogance and self-righteousness. She will become a dictatorial queen who lacks open communication.”
In envisioning her own leadership, Lee said that she would begin by learning to “get wet in the rain together with the common people.”
No audience was allowed in at the auditorium of the broadcaster MBC where the debate was held, but popular internet portals such as Naver and Nate buzzed with comments mostly about the sparring between Lee and Park.
Roughly half of the comments praised her ability to “snipe” at Park, while an equal number of comments accused her of being a communist loyal to North Korea.
The debate agenda had been set beforehand by the National Election Commission, which oversaw the debate. The selected debate topics ranged from political reform, anti-corruption measures, and foreign policy.
But it was Lee who shaped the narrative of the debate as she connected each topic to the weaknesses of Park. After Park provided an outline of how she would pursue reforms in the prosecution service in order to put an end to corruption, Lee directly questioned her eligibility.
Lee pointed out that Park received 600 million won ($550,000) from former President Chun Doo-hwan after her father was assassinated in 1979. At the time, she added, that sum was large enough to buy several apartments in the now-affluent southern Seoul.
“Where did that money come from? Her dictator father had forcefully taken it from businesses and had stored in a safe box,” said Lee. When Park returned fire by accusing Lee and her party of not singing the national anthem at official events, and implied that her patriotism was suspect, Lee replied that Park had gotten her facts wrong.
“You should come better prepared for debate next time,” she said. “Please keep your manners on board.”
By Samuel Songhoon Lee