Following its defeat in the 20th presidential election, the liberal Democratic Party of Korea is experiencing an extreme leadership divide as it struggles to reform ahead of another election in June.
Since its narrow defeat in the presidential election, the Democratic Party has gone into emergency mode, starting with a leadership overhaul.
Rep. Song Young-gil stepped down as chairman of the party, and its Floor Leader Rep. Yun Ho-jung took the helm, heading the emergency steering committee, which will run until the local elections in June.
The Democratic Party is seemingly fixed on the idea of bringing young politicians to the fore to emphasize its desire for reform. If the People Power Party won the election by focusing on men in their 20s and 30s, the liberal party believes it can do the same by focusing on women in the same age group.
Yun on Sunday appointed Park Ji-hyun, vice chief of the liberal party’s women affairs committee, to head the emergency steering committee with him, and appointed people in their 20s and 30s to half of the committee positions. Park, 26, is known for fighting digital sex crimes by shedding light on the famous "Nth room" scandal, and the liberal party recruited her in January.
But a dark age looms for the party for the time being, as the Democratic Party is seemingly divided over who should be steering the party for now, and what strategies must be used to win back voters. Lee's close defeat has created uncertainty over what path the party should take.
The party leadership's decision to let Yun take the wheel until the local elections has already attracted criticism, with some claiming Lee should be heading the party as its new leader. The fact that Yun is heading the emergency steering committee is not enough to show the party’s will to bring reform and innovate, they say.
"I can’t help but speculate that the party is trying to avoid overhauling its leadership and bringing reforms by appointing Yun Ho-jung, with great responsibility for the defeat in the presidential election, to head the committee and appointing those in specific factions to join the committee," Rep. Kim Du-kwan of the Democratic Party said in a Facebook post Monday.
"Especially, floor leader Yun Ho-jung is not qualified to serve as the head of the committee for letting party members maliciously and consistently denouncing our party’s presidential candidate and even expressing support for candidate Yoon Suk-yeol."
Kim, a notable pro-Lee figure within the party, said in the Facebook post that 19,151 party members expressed the need to bring Lee as the new head of the emergency steering committee and appoint new committee members who can be of help in engineering a comeback for the party in the June elections.
The legislator added the party will suffer a major defeat in June like in the 2006 local elections if the direction remains unchanged and Yun stays in the leadership post.
Kim is not the only figure to oppose Yun's leadership in the runup to the local elections. Dozens of Democratic Party legislators and members have openly expressed dissatisfaction on the decisions made after Song’s resignation.
"The party did not even ask anything to its lawmakers and appointed Floor Leader Yun as the emergency steering committee leader, even though he is comprehensively responsible for failing to complete reform efforts," Rep. Lee Soo-jin of the liberal party said in a social media post Sunday.
"The solution to this current state is launching an emergency steering committee headed by Lee Jae-myung."
In most cases, candidates who have lost the presidential election spent a few months in the shadows to take responsibility for the disappointing outcome on behalf of the parties and factions that backed their campaigns. Power usually shifts away from losing candidates and their close figures.
Requesting a losing candidate to immediately come back and take the wheel is quite unusual in South Korean politics.
But the fact that Lee lost the election by such a small margin helps pro-Lee figures raise their voices in preparing for the next election and possibly take key party posts moving forward.
Unlike presidential elections where campaigns are staged to have voters focus on candidates before their associated parties, local elections have voters focus on the image of each political party, letting them decide on their picks by calculating how approachable, clean and considerate a party looks.
The Democratic Party is pressured to reform in a way that satisfies its party members and average voters, and pro-Lee figures and others are fiercely arguing their case. Lee himself has not made any public comments on the calls for him to head the emergency steering committee.
The only thing that the party seems united on is the need to consolidate the votes of young women in their 20s and 30s. But emphasizing this message has already been made more difficult by President Moon Jae-in and members of the liberal party sending wreaths of condolence to the funeral for the father of former South Chungcheong Province Gov. An Hee-jung.
An, a former member of the Democratic Party, was sentenced 3 1/2 years in prison in 2019 for sexually assaulting his secretary.
Moon and other party members have faced criticism for expressing their condolences to a sex offender at a time when the party is focused on appealing women in their 20s and 30s.
"There are a lot of ways for them to privately send their condolences without making them public," Park said in a Facebook post Saturday before taking the co-chair position for the emergency steering committee.
"Although the party lost the election by a fine margin, the Democratic Party, regardless of the result, must look to reform and change."
Meanwhile, Moon's approval rating has started to fall as voters wait for a transfer of power after five years of the Moon administration.
A Realmeter survey of 1,018 adults conducted last Thursday and Friday, Moon’s approval rating reached 38.1 percent, down 5.8 percentage points from last week. His disapproval rating rose 7.3 percentage points to 58.8 percent.
By Ko Jun-tae (firstname.lastname@example.org