The Korea Herald


[Newsmaker] Hype builds for Yoon’s ‘wingman’ to helm ruling party

Former star prosecutor, self-proclaimed “nobody’s man” makes surprise debut in politics

By Kim Arin

Published : Dec. 22, 2023 - 17:58

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Han Dong-hoon salutes the national flag during a ceremony held at the Justice Ministry headquarters in Gwacheon near Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap) Han Dong-hoon salutes the national flag during a ceremony held at the Justice Ministry headquarters in Gwacheon near Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)

Han Dong-hoon, the star prosecutor who was President Yoon Suk Yeol’s first justice minister, is about to make his official debut in politics as the leader of the ruling party.

One of the best-known figures in Yoon’s Cabinet, Han surprised Seoul’s political capital Yeouido on Thursday when he accepted an offer to lead the People Power Party, the top seat of which had been left vacant for over a week. Previous party leader Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon stepped down amid an open power struggle following the party’s devastating loss to the rival Democratic Party of Korea in a Seoul district election in October.

Polls have already showed wide approval of Han, a newcomer to Yeouido, as a political leader compared to potential rivals.

Among 1,006 eligible voters aged 18 and older surveyed on Wednesday and Thursday, some 45 percent said they preferred Han to be the country’s president compared to 41 percent who picked Rep. Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the Democratic Party of Korea who was defeated by Yoon in last year’s presidential election.

As for favorability, Han led Lee by five percentage points, 47 percent to 42 percent.

Han, whose resignation as justice minister was approved by the president on Friday, is taking control of the ruling party at a crucial time, with the 2024 general election just months away.

His soon-to-be colleagues in the People Power Party say he is the right person to help the party win over independent and crossover voters.

The ruling party’s Floor Leader Rep. Yun Jae-ok commented that Han has the “potential to escape bigotry and fandom politics” to reach a wider range of voters beyond the traditional base. “The decision to make Han the interim leader is a reflection of our will to make our party younger, and more diverse,” he said.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, called Han “the president’s wingman” and accused the ruling party of “filling the party with Yoon cronies” in a statement, taking aim at the prosecutor-turned-justice minister’s reputation of being close to the president.

Rep. Jung Sung-ho, considered a key man in the opposition party’s “pro-Lee Jae-myung faction,” said on the other hand his party should take the ruling party’s latest move more seriously.

“Han has never touched alcohol in his life. He is unlike the president, who is a known drinker. He has the ability to change the ruling party with sober judgment,” he said in a statement Friday. “He might just turn out to be the ruling party’s winning card.”

Han was a celebrated prosecutor who earned fame for leading investigations -- alongside then-top prosecutor Yoon -- into corruption allegations surrounding the two previous conservative administrations of Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak.

His role in the high-profile investigations that jailed the two ex-presidents helps make his case of being “nobody’s man,” as he has often claimed.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, he said that he has not known blind loyalty over his time as a public servant, seemingly conscious of public perception of his close ties to the president.

“Throughout my life in public office I have never been blindly loyal to anybody. My one guiding principle has been to pursue public good,” he said.