After years of hard work, Lee Kang-won, a 31-year-old Korean who graduated from a U.S. law school, could have easily taken up a lucrative job in the legal industry.
But he has foregone the security and wealth that comes with law to enter the political world, with advisory firm Min Consulting.
The turning point came in 2010 when Lee, then a junior volunteer for the political consulting firm Government Insight Group, served as a telephone marketer seeking donations for Martha Coakley.
Coakley, then a client of GIG, was running as the Democratic Party candidate for the Massachusetts senate seat that was left vacant after the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy, the last surviving brother of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
“I felt alive,” Lee said as he recalled the experience. “Even though we lost (to Republican candidate Scott Brown), it reminded me of why I had gone to the U.S. in the first place.”
Lee transferred to a U.S. university in 2006 to study American politics, forfeiting his bioengineering studies at his original college, Korea University in Seoul. Eventually, he ended up working for a political consulting firm in Korea, marking a drastic shift in his career.
“I understand law firms pay much more, but this is what I wanted to do,” he said when asked why he had joined Min.
Political consultants mainly serve as strategists for politicians during elections and as image-makers helping design policies during non-election years. Their job is to understand the client and the opposing candidate, and develop specific strategies that will create a “comparative advantage” for the client.
“Imagine it as a fight match two UFC fighters,” said Heo Jin-Jae, director of research at Gallup Korea. “(Political consultants) are the guys who tell their fighter, ‘You’re better off fighting him standing up rather than lying down,’ or ‘You’ll probably fight better if you keep your opponent down instead of letting him get up.’”
Consultants cite Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s strategy of making “free meals” in Seoul’s secondary schools a key issue during the 2011 mayoral elections as a well-executed election drive.
Providing free school meals was the hot potato that led to the downfall of Park’s predecessor Oh Se-hoon. Rather than move to the tune set by the main opposition Democratic Party, which holds majority in the Seoul Metropolitan Council, Oh put the issue to a referendum, in which Seoul citizens supported the policy.
Making “free meals” the issue persuaded the “middle 20 percent” of voters to support the progressive Park.
“Korean politics is about who wins the moderate votes,” said Heo. “In 2011, Park’s strategy worked,” Heo said.
But in contrast with the long history of political consulting in the U.S. dating back to when Mark Hanna helped President William McKinley get elected in 1896, political consulting in Korea only began during the mid 1990s, after decades of rule by junta dictatorships.
Kim Younjae, a Korean American lawyer, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is one of the pioneers that initially brought political consulting to Korea. Kim served in the Kim Dae-jung presidential campaign team during the 1997 election. Yoon Hee-woong, Min Consulting’s head of public opinion research, calls him one of “the true founding fathers of Korean political consulting.”
“He differed from the PR firms of the early 90s that were simply mouthpieces for political candidates,” said Yoon.
Kim is in fact the only Korea-based consultant listed on The International Association of Political Consultants website.
But 20 years since, the Korean political consulting industry in 2014 remains a fledgling one. The reasons are many, but experts suspect the lack of expertise and specialization are the main culprits.
“I can think of a select few who have specialized in the field,” Heo said, “but not too many.”
Heo pointed out Park Sung-min, president of Min Consulting, and Yoon Yeo-joon, senior political advisor to independent lawmaker and presidential hopeful Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo.
An American Korea expert, however, had a different explanation.
“The focus on the leader has been an essential element of (Korea) party politics,” wrote David I. Steinberg, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, in a publication by the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
“Power thus became highly personalized, where loyalty was not institutionally based, but personally garnered.”
Yoon Yeo-joon for one, has been a journeyman in the world of political consulting, having served as advisers to the conservative Grand National Party (the forerunner of the current ruling Saenuri Party) and to Moon Jae-in, former main opposition Democratic Party and progressive candidate in the 2012 South Korean presidential elections.
He differs from the consulting firms of the U.S. and Europe who focus on a specific political parties or colors.
The difficulty in measuring the benefits of political consulting also dissuaded hesitant candidates, who often campaign on tight budgets, from spending money on such services, Bae Jong-chan, Director at Research & Research, Inc. told The Korea Herald.
The non-existence of professional lobbyists was another factor.
“The U.S. has a systematic lobbying environment in place for lobbyists to approach politicians in legally non-problematic ways,” Bae said. “Laws that govern lobbying are simply lacking (in Korea).”
The list of lawmakers accused of conducting backroom money dealings most likely won’t be helpful. Prosecutors indicted up to 30 incumbent lawmakers for violating election laws after the 2012 general elections, with at least seven having lost their seats at the National Assembly for under-the-table money scandals. Five members of parliament are still awaiting final court rulings.
But Yoon says the future of political consulting is “not as bad as it seems.”
South Korea’s experience with small and big elections would serve the country’s political consulting industry well, as other Asian nations seek such services in the future, he said.
“China and North Korea don’t have elections. Japan doesn’t have a presidential or prime ministerial election,” he said.
“I believe as the service industry grows in Northeast Asia, Korean political consulting firms will become exportable.”
“In fact, our company has received offers from Taiwan and Mongolia to help them with their elections.”
By Jeong Hunny (firstname.lastname@example.org)