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Democratic Party again backtracks from its promise to shun 586 Generation

Woo Sang-ho merely a referee to oversee the internal feud, experts say

Rep. Woo Sang-ho, newly appointed interim leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, speaks at a forum in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Rep. Woo Sang-ho, newly appointed interim leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, speaks at a forum in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea is facing criticism over the appointment of Rep. Woo Sang-ho as the leader of the new emergency steering committee, as many denounce the party for essentially deciding to make no formidable changes, despite losing three elections in a row.

Even though many hoped for the party to steer away from the so-called “586 Generation” and let young politicians have a chance to lead, the party still decided to keep the traditional heavyweights on stage for the time being until electing the new chair in August.

The 586 Generation refers to people who are in their 50s, went to university in the 1980s and were born in the 1960s. The generation accounts for a large portion of the Democratic Party’s leadership and voter base.

Woo, a 59-year-old four-term lawmaker with the liberal party, is a core member of the 586 Generation and one of the oldest members of the group inside the Democratic Party. He is one of the many figures that have been called on to switch to a less prominent role to help usher fresh faces into the party.

Former Democratic Party Chairman Song Young-gil had said in a press conference in January that the party would encourage senior party members to leave the center stage and let their younger counterparts take key roles. The party later vowed that 30 percent of candidates put forward in the June local elections would be in their 20s and 30s. However, only 12.2 percent of the candidates they put forward for local councils were in their 20s and 30s.

Park Ji-hyun, former co-chair of the previous emergency steering committee of the liberal party, again vowed to have the 586 Generation leave the center stage after the local elections. Her comment started an internal feud among members of the emergency steering committee just before the local elections took place.

The local elections ended with crushing defeat for the Democratic Party, with the liberal party winning just five out of 17 metropolitan mayoral and provincial gubernatorial elections.

The fact that Woo was selected to steer the party, despite promises of generation change, indicates that the party is only looking to calm internal feuds rather than searching for ways to significantly overhaul and impress voters, experts say.

“The Democratic Party has made yet another disappointing decision, and this is going to cost them in support again,” political commentator Rhee Jong-hoon told The Korea Herald.

“Appointing Woo Sang-ho as the interim leader means legislators within the party still desire to retain power and that they will pretend to be pursuing changes by appointing young political novices as emergency steering committee members under Woo Sang-ho’s lead.”

Rep. Shin Hyun-young, a spokesperson for the main opposition party, told reporters Tuesday that Woo’s appointment had the unanimous support of the party’s lawmakers, citing his ability to exert impartial leadership in a time of crisis.

Even though the party is seeing an internal feud grow between supporters of Rep. Lee Jae-myung and those with close ties to former President Moon Jae-in, the unanimous decision implies the two groups were united in wishing to retain power for now however the feud ensues, Rhee added.

“It is likely that nothing will change within the Democratic Party, and we could see the them continuing to clash heavily with the ruling party and the Yoon Suk-yeol administration,” the commentator said.

Rep. Park Hong-keun, floor leader of the Democratic Party who serves as the acting leader of the party, told reporters Wednesday that he believes that legislators picked Woo so that the party could stay under the control of a legislator with experience, capable of impartially adhering to the opinions of all sides.

Woo is known in political circles as a legislator with no visible allegiances to a particular side, meaning he has no close ties to the pro-Lee group or the pro-Moon group.

Some experts believe Woo’s appointment emphasizes the party has only selected an arbiter to oversee the internal feud until the new chairman is elected, adding Woo will simply work as the chief official for the national convention preparation committee.

“Woo Sang-ho has not been given enough time or resources to make any formidable changes during his term as the chief of the emergency steering committee, and that means he is only going to sit there to be a referee for the internal feud,” political commentator Hwang Tae-soon told The Korea Herald.

“He is just there to make sure the national convention takes place without much hassle so that the party members and the general public can decide a new chairman fairly.”

Hwang predicted that, unless dramatic events unfold, Lee will be elected as the new chairman of the Democratic Party, as he foresees no influential figure from the pro-Moon group strongly competing against Lee in the race. That will help Lee again run for the presidency in 2027, he added.

“Even (former Democratic Party Chairman) Lee Nak-yon left, which means the pro-Moon Jae-in circle has no charismatic figures left,” Hwang said.

“Woo Sang-ho’s appointment really shows a roadmap for which path the Democratic Party will take moving forward.”

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