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[KH Explains] Inside main opposition Democratic Party of Korea’s bitter faction war

By Kim Arin

Published : Feb. 29, 2024 - 17:16

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Democratic Party of Korea chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung (third from right) speaks with fellow party lawmakers during a plenary session at the main hall of the National Assembly on Thursday. (Yonhap) Democratic Party of Korea chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung (third from right) speaks with fellow party lawmakers during a plenary session at the main hall of the National Assembly on Thursday. (Yonhap)

The Democratic Party of Korea’s primary race for the April 10 legislative election is being tainted by a furious faction fight.

As the party begins to select candidates to run for the upcoming election, nearly a dozen have left the main opposition party. Among them are long-time loyalists who have stuck with the party through thick and thin for several decades.

The faction to suffer the biggest blow was a group of lawmakers who were collectively deemed as the “pro-Moon faction” and had tackled important roles within the former President Moon Jae-in’s office or Cabinet.

“This party is trying to eliminate Moon allies,” Rep. Hong Young-pyo, a prominent pro-Moon, told reporters Thursday. He said the party chair, Rep. Lee Jae-myung, was driving the divide.

“On top of fighting President Yoon Suk Yeol’s dictatorship, we will fight Lee Jae-myung’s tyranny, both of which are subverting and shrinking democracy. Politics should not be about protecting an individual politician,” he said, accusing the opposition leader of using the party to save himself from legal troubles.

Lee faces multiple criminal cases against him, having to attend court almost every week. The court asked for the National Assembly’s permission to review an arrest warrant for him twice in the past year. As a sitting lawmaker, he has immunity from arrests without a majority consent from the Assembly.

Citing Lee’s court battles, some Democratic Party lawmakers outside the party leader’s circles have suggested he was handing nominations to those who have proven loyal to him, to strike down the next arrest warrant request from the court possibly coming his way.

Sul Hoon, a pro-Moon lawmaker who abandoned the party Wednesday, said Lee was “only invested in not going to prison” and that “like a tyrant, he makes all the decisions with those who are close to him, which is not democratic at all.”

“The Democratic Party as we know it is in the process of removing those branded as pro-Moon,” said Sul, the five-time lawmaker who stood with the party for about 40 years. “If we end up losing the general election, Moon will not be silent then.”

The candidates unveiled by the Democratic Party so far to run in the April general election are mainly those known to be closely aligned with or have publicly rallied behind the party leader. They ended up snagging the “easy” districts that are traditionally liberal-friendly.

The lawmakers who worked closely with Lee on the Democratic Party leadership -- including Reps. Seo Young-kyo, Ko Min-jung, Jung Chung-rae, Park Chan-dae and Jang Kyung-tae -- had all won nominations for Seoul’s left-leaning districts without ever entering primaries.

Among the pro-Moon faction that did receive a nomination are lawmakers who served crucial roles. One of them is Ko, who was on the party’s supreme council until Tuesday.

Ko, who was a spokesperson for the Moon presidential office, said she was resigning from the party leadership in a surprise announcement. The reason she was stepping down, she said, was the way candidates for the election were being “unfairly screened.”

“I don’t see how we can lead the party to victory without addressing the mistrust in the approach to nominations,” she said. She said she tried to communicate her opposition to the nomination process with the rest of the leadership, but to little avail.

The factional battle reached its peak when the party’s committee that handles nominations said Tuesday it would rule out Im Jong-seok, a former chief of staff for Moon. He was dropped as a candidate for Jung-gu, a central Seoul district largely regarded as his home turf.

“I want to ask Lee and the supreme council if they really think we can win the general election by hurting unity and coalition among us,” said Im, in a press conference Thursday. Asked if he spoke with Moon about his exclusion from nomination, he declined an immediate answer, saying “there would be another opportunity to share things.”

A rally of pro-Moon Democratic Party lawmakers and supporters was held late Thursday near a subway station in Jung-gu. “We should be nominating those who can win, not those who are pro-Lee Jae-myung,” pro-Moon Rep. Song Gab-seok told the rally.

So far Lee has remained silent on the growing protests and resistance within his party.

Appearing for the Assembly plenary session on Thursday, he did not respond to questions from reporters asking if he was willing to speak with lawmakers challenging the primaries.