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[Newsmaker] Hwang at a loss

Liberty Korea Party Hwang’s indecision about where to stage hunger strike hints at directionless leadership

“Pray for me,” Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn said softly, audible only to people near him. 

Chairman Hwang (right in black jacket) shaking hands with supporters on Nov. 21, 2019 (Choi Si-young/The Korea Herald)
Chairman Hwang (right in black jacket) shaking hands with supporters on Nov. 21, 2019 (Choi Si-young/The Korea Herald)

He was addressing a line of supporters one by one -- most appeared to be in their 50s and beyond -- at the site of his hunger strike in front of Cheong Wa Dae on Thursday.

Hwang continued his hunger strike for a second day near the presidential office to protest President Moon Jae-in’s foreign and domestic policies.

The party leader demands that Moon extend the military intel-sharing pact with Japan, due to expire Friday at midnight, and scrap his income-led growth initiative.

He says Moon should also withdraw several disputed fast-tracked bills, including election and anti-corruption body proposals that Hwang claims serve the ruling party’s interests.

But the hunger strike is more than an act of protest.

“Hwang’s grip on his own party, his leadership is in a crisis, and he’s trying to overcome that with the hunger strike,” said a spokesperson for the minor conservative Bareunmirae Party.

A ruling Democratic Party of Korea spokesperson concurred, saying, “He’s got no cause here whatever. The fasting does only harm.”

But some political experts believe Hwang’s hunger strike is not totally random, as the opposition makes it out to be.

“His protest against Moon’s decision not to extend the military intelligence pact with Japan, at least, seems sound to me,” said Shin Yul, a professor of politics at Myongji University. “Terminating that agreement has far more ramifications that what the ruling Democratic Party says.”

Shin said the agreement embodies a shift in US foreign policy that has now embraced countries as far away as India as part of its broader security strategy in the Pacific region.

Even so, political parties other than the Liberty Korea Party do not connect with Hwang’s cause.

“People are just too tired of this political wrangling,” Lee Jeong-mi, another Justice Party member, wrote on Facebook.

Park Jie-won, a longtime liberal representative who is now an independent, leveled harsher criticism at Hwang, saying, “Among shaving (one’s) head, fasting and stepping down, next in line would be resignation.”

Some experts say even if Hwang does have a cause, he needs to adopt a more coherent, inclusive approach to win people over.

“Look at him, going back and forth between Cheong Wa Dae and the National Assembly, unsure of where to stage a hunger strike in the first place. And his befriending a far right-wing priest at Wednesday night’s hunger strike,” said Rhee Jong-hoon, a political commentator.

“He’s trying to mobilize the conservatives. But what he does is he’s actually inviting the far right, given the absence of coherency or communication in his approach to his fellow party members and to people,” the commentator said. Hwang is unlikely to solidify a united conservative front, he added.

“Thank you, I will do more to bring a change,” Hwang repeatedly said Thursday while shaking hands with his supporters. Nearly all remembered to tell him that they would pray for him.

Hwang, however, did not elaborate on what change he meant.

By Choi Si-young (