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[Editorial] Ailing party's best bet

Han to lead ruling party through hurdles including allegations against first lady

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 22, 2023 - 05:31

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Han Dong-hoon accepted his new post as interim leader of the ruling party and resigned as justice minister on Thursday. The daring and relatively articulate former prosecutor seems to be the torpid party’s best bet.

The ruling People Power Party has been powerless ever since the last general elections in 2020, and is terrified of another crushing defeat in the upcoming vote in April.

With the Democratic Party of Korea holding the majority in the National Assembly and thus, the power to pass bills, the ruling bloc has only President Yoon Suk Yeol’s veto rights to resort to, in order to abort thorny bills.

In a recent internal report, the ruling party expected to win in only six out of a total of 49 constituencies in Seoul, worse than the eight it won in the 2020 election.

The party's latest half-hearted gesture to reinvent itself by forming an “innovation committee” and then not acting upon its recommendations further demoralized voters. The committee was disbanded earlier than scheduled, and Kim Gi-hyeon quit as the party leader last week.

Now in comes Han, whom voters other than supporters of the Democratic Party are watching with a combination of curiosity, skepticism and anticipation or hope. Will the 50-year-old be an upgraded and safer version of Lee Jun-seok who was elected as the party’s youngest-ever chief at 36 in 2021? Could he lead the party through major hurdles including allegations against the first lady to win in April?

The ex-prosecutor, who worked with Yoon in investigations into high-profile cases including a 2016 corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, was demoted under the Moon Jae-in administration after leading a probe into former Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s family. Han ascended to political stardom among conservatives for his sharp retorts at Democratic Party lawmakers, starting from his confirmation hearing in May last year.

Some in the ruling party have been wary of Han as their leader as he lacks political experience and has gone a bit too far snapping at lawmakers.

In response to an opposition legislator’s question about his future path at the National Assembly’s judiciary committee meeting on Tuesday, Han said, “I think you can wonder about that yourself,” with an odd smirk.

To a reporter asking about his position on first lady Kim Keon Hee’s alleged acceptance of a designer handbag from a pastor caught on camera, Han said, “I heard the Democratic Party (told) reporters to ask me that question ... Do they think I would be the same as them, who are busy defending their leader, Lee Jae-myung?” He also said it had been a setup by a YouTube channel called Voice of Seoul using a hidden camera, and that a probe would be conducted accordingly.

Voice of Seoul claimed last month that Kim had received a Christian Dior bag worth about 3 million won ($2,302) from a Korean American pastor in September last year, and released a video recording of their meeting.

Voice of Seoul filed a complaint against both Yoon and Kim with the prosecution on charges that they violated the law on improper solicitation and graft, and the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office has recently begun looking into the case. The People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy also filed a complaint against the presidential couple with the nation’s anti-corruption watchdog on Tuesday.

And coming up next week is a special counsel bill to investigate Kim’s alleged involvement in a 2009-2012 stock manipulation scandal. The Democratic Party plans to pass it next Thursday, and the president is likely to veto it. Han, while noting that “no one is above the law,” said the bill was maliciously timed to benefit the opposition party ahead of the April vote. It is true that once the independent counsel’s probe begins, press briefings about it will dominate the news cycle. Investigating Kim now for something she allegedly did over a decade ago will likely affect the election, compared to doing it a few months later -- after the vote.

While keeping existing supporters content has always been important in elections, whoever appeals more to centrists and undecided voters will win. For Han, choosing his words more carefully may be a good start.