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26-year-old co-leader throws Democratic Party hand grenade in drive for reform

Park Ji-hyun, co-head of the Democratic Party of Korea’s interim leadership committee, speaks during a press conference at the National Assembly in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Park Ji-hyun, co-head of the Democratic Party of Korea’s interim leadership committee, speaks during a press conference at the National Assembly in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)


With just a few days left until the June 1 local elections, 26-year-old rookie politician Park Ji-hyun dropped a bombshell on the liberal opposition Democratic Party of Korea on Wednesday, openly calling on the party’s old guard to retire.

Park, who is only four months into partisan politics yet leads the main opposition party’s interim leadership as its co-head, said the party is in need of drastic reforms, attributing its failure to win over voters to a culture of tolerance toward the misdeeds of its own members.

“We will not be locked in blind support. We will make the Democratic Party of Korea a party for the public, not a party for fandom,” Park said at a press conference at the National Assembly on Tuesday.

Saying she apologizes and would apologize for the aforementioned failure a hundred or a thousand times more, Park said: “Trust me. I will take the responsibility for this party’s change. I will make the party young.”

The desperate message, apparently not coordinated with other members of the party leadership, came as the opposition party looks set for another defeat at the polls.

Recent pre-election surveys project a comfortable win for the ruling People Power Party in the June local elections, including the vote for the next mayor of Seoul.

She followed up on her pledge for party reform by calling for the “withdrawal of the 586 generation” on Wednesday morning.

By the “586 generation,” she was referring to those who are in their 50s, entered university in the 80s and were born in 60s, which basically accounts for most of the party’s leadership and legislators.

“In order to regain public trust, retirement of 586 generation politicians should be discussed,” she said during the party’s election committee meeting.

“The 586’s mission was to restore democracy and safeguard it for it to take root in the country. They have almost fulfilled their role,” she said, adding that seeking a fourth term in a same constituency should be prohibited.

Prior to joining the party in January this year, Park had worked as an activist and journalist making efforts to root out digital sex crimes.

Park is widely credited with mobilizing young female voters for Lee Jae-myung, the party’s candidate for the March 9 presidential election. Despite Lee’s defeat, her presence in the political scene has grown, with her being appointed as a co- chair of the Democratic Party’s interim leadership committee.

Since then she has not shied away from speaking up on matters regarding the fate of party bigwigs such as Lee and former party Chairman Song Young-gil.

She led the party to give the highest level of disciplinary action -- expulsion from the party -- to three-term Rep. Park Wan-joo, who was recently embroiled in controversy over the sexual harassment.

Park Ji-hyun, however, is not the first young politician to have risen to the forefront of South Korean party politics. In the conservative People Power Party, 37-year-old Lee Jun-seok holds the highest office of party chairman. He became the nation’s youngest-ever main opposition leader when he won the People Power Party’s leadership race last year.

Other than being relatively young, the two have very little in common.

While Park is a vocal campaigner for gender equality, Lee’s support base comprises mostly young male voters who disagree with what Park represents. Lee denies the existence of sexual discrimination in society and supports the abolishment of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, a highly controversial issue in South Korea right now.

By Park Han-na (hnpark@heraldcorp.com)
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