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Sports and politics, not the most ideal mix in public's eyes

Beloved South Korean sports figures try their luck in politics, but few succeed

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Dec. 15, 2023 - 15:54

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Park Ji-sung (Herald DB) Park Ji-sung (Herald DB)

South Korean soccer hero Park Ji-sung recently denied speculations that he would join the ruling People Power Party, saying that he would "appreciate it if such propositions did not take place in the future."

"I never even imagined becoming a politician, and I don't even feel the slightest need to imagine such a thing. ... I was shocked that such speculation even exists," the former Manchester United midfielder said Thursday.

He was responding to a media report last month that the ruling party seeks to recruit the former soccer star as a candidate for next year's National Assembly election.

There have been several cases in the country's history where beloved sports figures made the jump to politics.

The most recent case was President Yoon Suk Yeol's appointment of a former weightlifting champion to the post of second vice minister of culture, sports and tourism in July. Jang is considered one of the best weightlifters in the country's history, winning the gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics with record-shattering performance in the heaviest weight class.

Jang's appointment was the third time a former athlete had been appointed as a vice-minister, following two former Asian Games gold medalists -- sports shooter Park Jong-kil and swimmer Choi Yoon-hui. Park served in the Park Geun-hye administration while Choi worked under ex-President Moon Jae-in.

Jang Mi-ran, the second vice minister of culture, sports and tourism. (Yonhap) Jang Mi-ran, the second vice minister of culture, sports and tourism. (Yonhap)

Rep. Lim O-kyung of the main opposition Democratic Party was a member of the women's national handball team that won the silver medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, a performance that defied the low expectations of the South Korean team.

Moon Dae-sung, who picked up a gold medal in taekwondo at the 2004 Athens Olympics, was elected as a lawmaker in 2012 for the Saenuri Party, then the major party for the country's conservative faction.

While several athletes have gone into politics, not many last a long time. Moon was never reelected to the Assembly, suffering a landslide defeat in the 2016 parliamentary election.

Choi Yun-hui, who was criticized for her lack of administrative experience, resigned in 2020 after just a year in office. Park Jong-kil, whose tenure as vice minister lasted just six months, lost in the 2016 parliamentary elections.

Kim Yeon-koung (Yonhap) Kim Yeon-koung (Yonhap)

Last year Kim Yeon-koung, one of the best volleyball players in South Korean history and a beloved sports star, was bombarded with hate comments after she took a photo with Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon of the ruling party. She later explained that she was not a supporter of Kim or his party.

The phenomenon partially derives from the public's overall disdain toward politics, particularly among younger South Koreans

Last year, a local survey platform Tillion Pro surveyed 1,008 people aged 19-29, asking their opinion of South Korean politics. About 55.2 percent said they were "not interested," as opposed to 5.3 percent who said they were "very interested."

Of those who said they were not into politics, 25.8 percent said it was because "they have no expectations that politicians will make changes," while 23 percent said it was because "they do not support any party or politician."

Due to the widespread disapproval of politicians, some sports stars keep their distance from political circles. Hyun Jung-hwa, a former table tennis player who won gold at the 1988 Olympics, said in an interview that she consistently is shooting down proposals from politicians to join their ranks.

"If politics undergoes changes, I think I could try it. Yet, I don't think the politicians have the will to change, and they just keep fighting each other. ... It doesn’t look like something I can do, and I think I can contribute to the society through Ping Pong,” she was quoted as saying.