The unending series of scandals involving Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung has emerged as a hot issue in the leadership contest of the ruling Democratic Party. It is good the suspicions which had not been dealt with properly have come to the fore at the party level finally.
The scandals involving Lee, a former presidential candidate who was elected Gyeonggi governor in the June 12 local elections on the ruling party’s ticket, have persistently raised ethical questions about the controversial politician.
One longstanding scandal is about the foul mouth Lee had in telephone conversations with his sister-in-law over family affairs. Another scandal about an alleged affair with an actress while he was serving as the mayor of Seongnam City in the south of Seoul also reemerged during the June local elections. Most recently, Lee was implicated in yet another scandal over his alleged ties with gangsters in Seongnam.
Kim Jin-pyo, a former deputy prime minister who is one of the three candidates running for the chief of the Democratic Party, raised the issue Monday.
Pointing to the series of ethical controversies involving Lee, Kim said that the governor “should make his own decision.” He did not explicitly demand that Lee should leave the party, but what he was implying was clear.
Kim said that Lee was causing “a big burden” to President Moon Jae-in and the ruling party. More specifically, he said the scandals were bringing down the approval ratings of the ruling party.
To be fair, the Lee scandals would have much less impact on the popularity of Moon and the ruling party than the Moon government’s mismanagement of the economy and other policy problems.
In any case, one latest public opinion survey showed that the president’s approval ratings went down for the six straight weeks to 61.1 percent, close to the low point of 60.8 percent registered in January this year. The approval rating for the Democratic Party held firm at around 44 percent after a steady drop.
While Kim’s virtual demand to leave the party must be more painful for Lee because the candidate hails from an electoral district in Gyeonggi Province, another lawmaker-candidate joined the fray against the governor.
At first, Song Young-gil seemed to be more cautious than Kim as the former Incheon mayor called for a fair and thorough investigation into the Lee scandals. He also said it was not desirable for the Lee scandals to become an election issue.
But he quickly added that if elected, he would make sure the case was dealt with fairly and strictly by the party’s ethics regulation mechanism.
He even said that the party should do something about Lee even if the investigation -- now being undertaken by the police -- finds no legal problems. Song suggested that the party’s ethics panel look into whether the Lee cases constitute misconduct even if he avoids criminal punishment.
Being candidates for an election, both Kim and Song may well have thought that the issue could help their campaigns. Kim and Song need votes from the party’s rank-and-file members who are loyal supporters of Moon. Some Moon supporters have kept their distance from Lee due to his competition with Moon during the 2017 presidential nomination race.
The presumption that Kim and Song made any such political calculations, however, does not detract from the legitimacy of their calls to deal with the Lee cases fairly. The matter concerns the ethical standards not only of the ruling party but also the political community as a whole.
During the local election, Lee ignored pressure to take responsibility for the scandals and drop out of the race, and the Democratic Party also shook off the pressure to withdraw its nomination of Lee.
Many of those who had listened to the recorded conversation in which Lee used utterly foul language against his sister-in-law alone would agree that the pressure against Lee and his party was legitimate and reasonable.
The case of the alleged affair with actress Kim Boo-sun and the latest allegation about Lee’s involvement with gangsters should also raise serious questions, all the more because they point at serious flaws in a man who represents the nation’s largest local administrative unit with a population of 12.94 million. The ruling party and the Korean political community as a whole should raise their ethical standards.