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[Newsmaker] Kingmaker or safe choice, opposition hopes for ‘Kim Chong-in effect’

Kim Chong-in (center) and People Power Party`s presidential nominee Yoon Seok-youl (right) cut a congratulatory cake at a book event on Kim held Monday in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul. (Joint Press Corps)
Kim Chong-in (center) and People Power Party`s presidential nominee Yoon Seok-youl (right) cut a congratulatory cake at a book event on Kim held Monday in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul. (Joint Press Corps)
Kim Chong-in, a veteran election campaigner often referred to as "kingmaker," is once again at the center of attention in the political arena, with the conservatives betting on him to help them win next year’s presidential election.

In recent weeks, the main opposition People Power Party has been openly reaching out to Kim to head Yoon Seok-youl's election campaign and wrest power from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea in the March presidential election.

"We hope to have him lead and guide us well at this point where we strive for regime change, and look toward reforming the country," Yoon said Monday at a book event for Kim.

"Parties have always brought him in as a fireman when there was a need for reform on conservative and liberal parties going off course."

People Power Party Chairman Lee Jun-seok, who also attended the event, directly asked Kim to "play a major role in this presidential election," adding that he wishes "to assist in an earnest manner."

Kim, a seasoned election campaign expert in South Korean politics, is widely speculated for the head of Yoon's presidential campaign. Monday's comments reaffirmed the People Power Party’s interest in realizing that goal in the coming days.

Yoon and Lee have emphasized for weeks that recruiting Kim is essential in defeating Lee Jae-myung, the presidential nominee of the ruling Democratic Party.

"I could be involved and do that if that’s how the conversation goes," Kim said during the event in response to Yoon and Lee’s appeal.

Local experts say the main opposition party's call to have Kim take the driver's seat on the road to presidential election is strategic and timely, as evidenced from Kim's years of experience in winning elections and a history of appealing to politically neutral voters.

The 81-year-old politician has the unique perspective of having served as the leader of both the ruling and main opposition parties, with his political career spanning close to 60 years. He scored wins in difficult elections, resuscitating parties facing struggles and helping them gain majorities.

He served as the interim chairman for the Democratic Party from January to August 2016 during the Park Geun-hye administration and interim head of the People Power Party from June 2020 to April 2021.

Kim was one of the top officials for the presidential campaign of former President Park Geun-hye in 2012, drawing economic democratization as one of Park’s key agendas and helping her end the campaign successfully.

He moved to the Democratic Party in 2016 as head of the campaign and helped the party win a majority in the 20th parliamentary elections. The victory later helped President Moon Jae-in advance to Cheong Wa Dae.

The political veteran also successfully led campaigns for the 19th parliamentary elections in 2012 and this year’s mayoral by-elections. Major political figures of both sides have come to Kim for counsel in many cases, cementing his reputation as the kingmaker.

In every successful election he has led, Kim emphasized reform and breaking away from tradition, recruiting nontraditional figures and overturning the power structure of the involved parties.

"Kim Chong-in knows how to grab the attention of undecided, politically neutral voters and has been successful in appealing to the working class," said Eom Gyeong-yeong, director of the Zeitgeist Institute.

"Appealing to common people with a focus on economy and prosperity is what’s needed for the People Power Party, and that's what Kim can deliver if he takes the top post for Yoon Seok-youl’s presidential campaign."

Eom said Kim is expected to do the same if he leads Yoon's presidential campaign, adding that Kim’s presence will force traditionally powerful figures within the People Power Party to withdraw to the backstage.

"This move could be a threat to the ruling party, as, to my knowledge, there is no political veteran like Kim Chong-in on Lee Jae-myung’s campaign team," Eom added.

"And because Yoon Seok-youl is already leading in the polls, the People Power Party does not need to hurry. It's just a matter of Lee Jun-seok, Yoon Seok-youl and Kim Chong-in negotiating on personnel moves and policy decisions down to every detail."

Kim said in a radio interview Friday that he envisions assuming a great responsibility if appointed as the top campaign official, emphasizing that Yoon should be ready to clear out some of his aides instead of expanding his campaign team, he said.

He hinted that the campaign team under his lead would be structured for efficiency, as "size doesn’t matter in winning the election" and because "success is not guaranteed when we focus too much on the people (to be involved)."

Other experts voice caution in seeing Kim's possible return to the People Power Party, worrying the main opposition party might lose its vision of reform and appeal to swing voters by recruiting someone who has been in politics for too long.

"The People Power Party has been good with emphasizing reform and driving change, as we've seen from having Lee Jun-seok as its chairman," said Park Sung-min, head of local political consulting firm MIN Consulting.

"But I can’t be sure if recruiting Kim Chong-in is the best way to continue its track of emphasizing reform. The party may have been focusing too much on him, effectively missing out on its chance to find other election experts to lead Yoon Seok-youl’s campaign."

Park believes Kim should stay behind the scenes if handed the top campaign post, and relatively fresh and new figures should take center stage to continue the People Power Party's appeal to swing voters and those looking for change.

"Kim Chong-in has a tendency of standing out in the front for publicity, and that shouldn't be the case for this election," he added. "This election is complex, and the drive for reform is emphasized on both sides, so Kim Chong-in might not be the best one to make that appeal from the opposition bloc."

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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