During an open debate before he was elected chairman of the main opposition People Power Party last week, Lee Jun-seok said he made “several hundred million won (several hundred thousand dollars)” through cryptocurrency trading. Later he reported spending just 30 million won ($27,000), seemingly from these earnings, for his intraparty leadership campaign.
It is no surprise that the 36-year-old prodigy in Korean politics who majored in computer science and economics at Harvard University is so well versed in today’s digital culture and technology that he made a profitable investment in the virtual money market here where 3 million to 6 million people are known to be trading numerous kinds of “coins.”
Rather admirable was that he had time to check his desktop and handset to do the money game amidst the rigors of leadership contest, which immediately followed the People Power Party’s landslide victory in the mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan. Given two years to manage the party, the youngest-ever opposition leader is destined to leave huge marks in history including a possible takeover of power from leftist rulers.
An opposition surge continues after the vote in the two largest metropolises with the People Power Party outrunning the ruling Democratic Party of Korea in popularity polls for the first time in four years. But the outlook is still hazy about a candidate for the March 9, 2022 presidential election. Lee, barred from running because of the minimum age requirement of 40, has to do all he can to find a candidate able to win for his party, and for his own future.
Lee’s rise to opposition leadership has signaled the onslaught to the political stage of the younger “20-30” generation in Korea, a hierarchical society long controlled by seniority. They began asserting themselves as the main protesters in the candlelight demonstrations condemning Park Geun-hye’s misrule from late 2016 through the next spring. After four years, they have now become the core complainants against the present Moon Jae-in government.
It is unfortunate that the latter part of Moon’s five-year rule coincided with the raging coronavirus pandemic on top of poor results of his ineffective economic policies. Jobs disappeared across the board, more seriously in the youth’s domain of service work, and government handouts mainly benefitted the older population. Galloping apartment prices under short-sighted regulations put young wage earners into despair because housing ownership was farther away.
Worse still, Moon’s choice of former leftist activists for official appointments in recognition of their loyalty rather than qualifications accelerated the cooling of public trust in the government. Moon proved himself incapable of seeing the immense harm to his rule when successive justice ministers Cho Kuk and Choo Mi-ae exhibited moral destitution both in private lives and official business.
As political rifts deepened here between social strata, Korea’s younger generation traditionally tilted to the left while the rightists relied on the constant sympathy of the older populace. The Park Geun-hye turmoil that bolstered the younger reformist force stirred the balance, but Moon Jae-in’s failed administration again changed the direction of political dynamics in Korea. Generational stereotypes are no longer evident.
Lee Jun-seok seized this opportunity for his ambition. In the online vote of party members, Na Kyung-won, a former party head with four terms in the National Assembly, was slightly ahead, but the challenger who had recorded three consecutive losses in parliamentary elections in the same Seoul constituency had a double score in nonpartisan polls.
A new age is arriving and pundits are seeing the need for the traditional rightwing force to give up their regional and generational bases, traced to Gen. Park Chung-hee’s Republican Party and the military-led Democratic Justice Party. The conservatives have remained defensive following democratic reforms in the late 1980s as they have inevitably been regarded as reactionaries to political progress.
Winning and losing power alternately and undergoing divisions and mergers, the right-wing force kept changing their name time and again over the years – from the Democratic Liberty Party to Hannara (Grand National), Saenuri (New World) to Liberty Korea, United Future and other designations. They were once again renamed the People Power Party after the staggering defeat in Assembly elections last year.
The main opposition party is reviving itself, but it has to search for a presidential candidate from outside the party rather than inside, as its uneven history has depleted leadership assets. The first order of events for Chairman Lee Jun-seok is to invite former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and the centrist Ahn Cheol-su to join the People Power Party and stage a spectacular nomination race with insiders.
President Moon’s approval rate still hovers in the upper 30 percent range, which is relatively higher than figures recorded by his predecessors in their final year in office. It means there is a concrete layer of supporters who would never give up challenging the keepers of vested interests in our society, even if cracks are being shown lately.
As the stature of Yoon looms larger aided by the Lee Jun-seok phenomenon, warriors of the ruling camp are concentrating on exposing any dirty linen in the former top prosecutor’s personal life and impropriety in his role as the top hunter of the “past evil” during the early days of the Moon Jae-in rule. Yoon will have his first taste of politics while he defends himself against all forms of mudslinging.
In countering the leftist offensive which could use state apparatuses of surveillance, the People Power Party and supporting right-wingers should keep two principles: First, they should never compromise their moral high ground, and second, they should be flexible about their conservative values. Half of the reason for the Moon administration’s loss of the people’s trust was the moral degradation of its star figures and the other half was the miserable outcome of its ideology-dictated economic policies.
The coming year to the presidential poll in March and local elections in June 2022 will be an exciting time because parties will abandon traditional criteria in the nomination process and much emphasis will be given to the ability of communicating with younger voters. Those who know the language of the digital culture and are comfortable playing with its products are clearly advantaged.
Lee Jun-seok is opening a new chapter in Korean politics which drives people to seek power not just for power’s sake, but in pursuit of fresh ideals. The beautiful irony is that Lee represents not a progressive party, but a conservative one.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of The Korea Times in the 1990s. -- Ed.