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Embattled Na drops out of race for ruling party leadership

Former four-term lawmaker Na Kyung-won speaks at a press conference held at People Power Party headquarters on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Former four-term lawmaker Na Kyung-won speaks at a press conference held at People Power Party headquarters on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Na Kyung-won, a former four-term conservative lawmaker, said Wednesday that she would not run for the party leadership for the sake of unity in the ruling party, ending weeks of friction with President Yoon Suk Yeol's office that put pressure on her to withdraw.

"I won't take part in the race for the People Power Party leadership at the upcoming national convention (in March)," Na told reporters at the headquarters of People Power Party in western Seoul.

The judge-turned-seasoned politician added the decision comes as she "put the party's future ahead of her personal affairs," stressing "patience to pursue harmony."

Maintaining the low-key stance, Na quoted the Bible, comparing herself with a mother who gave up her child to the other woman after King Solomon ruled the baby be cut in two so the two women could receive each half.

"As long as my decision to retire brings the light to (the People Power Party's) future path, I think we are poised for a next step forward," Na said.

Na did not elaborate on her next step in her political career, but pledged to "remain a devoted conservative party member for good."

The surprise announcement came weeks after open criticism from Yoon's faction within the party, including attacks over her proposal to tackle the nation's falling birthrate.

Earlier in January, Na proposed a system of loans to encourage childbirth as de facto chief of Korea's presidential population committee.

Citing a Hungarian model, she suggested the government dole out loans to young couples, the interest payments on which will be exempted for their first child, and the loan would be gradually forgiven as they have more children.

Na told The Korea Herald in an interview conducted late last year that the government should "start bitterly reflecting" on inefficient spending to tackle shrinking population.

But Yoon's office openly downplayed Na's costly proposal as "a personal opinion" that she had not consulted on with the parties involved, including Yoon. The dispute sparked speculation that Na had tried to use her position as a presidential birthrate policy adviser to establish a support base ahead of the party convention on March 8.

Na on Jan. 13 offered to step down from the vice chair of the population policymaking committee and ambassador for climate and environment. Na's resignation was not accepted by Yoon's office. Yoon instead sacked Na from both positions on the same day.

Na's withdrawal is turning the convention into a two-horse race. The two notable contenders are four-term lawmaker Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon and doctor-turned-lawmaker Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo. Only party members are eligible for the vote.

According to a poll of 784 People Power Party supporters released Wednesday, Kim was ahead of Ahn by a narrow margin.

Kim led Ahn 25.4 percent to 22.3 percent. They were followed by Na's 16.9 percent, former lawmaker Yoo Seong-min's 8.6 percent and former acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn's 4.2 percent. The poll by Embrain Public was commissioned by broadcaster YTN.

The People Power Party has been led by interim chief Rep. Chung Jin-suk since September 2022, as former party leader Lee Jun-seok was suspended from the party membership for a combined 1 1/2 years for ethics violations, effective until January 2024.

The party's internal ethics panel cited Lee's allegations to have received sexual services as a bribe.

Lee has openly voiced criticism of Yoon, inviting controversies over veteran party members classified as "pro-Yoon" and an internal feud of the ruling party. Lee was leader of the party when former prosecutor Yoon was running for president early in 2022.



By Son Ji-hyoung (consnow@heraldcorp.com)
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