The wolves are circling to destroy South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. Can they, however, agree on a single “progressive” candidate in next year’s election – or will they fall into deadly wrangling?
While Park’s enemies are howling for the kill, she can only pray that they’re all salivating to chase off rivals before hounding her out of the Blue House, the presidential complex on a rise beyond the ancient palace of Korean kings. The major contenders have been on the broad avenue leading to the palace gates every Saturday night for weeks calling for her ouster before hundreds of thousands of protesters.
They’re eagerly identifying with a movement that would seem sure to result in a shift from conservative to liberal rule, but who’s leading the pack?
Whether Park is impeached or resigns on a date of her choosing depends in part on whether her foes can reconcile their lust for power and remain unified in their calls for impeachment.
If a motion to impeach passes by the requisite two-thirds majority in the 300-seat National Assembly, the prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will become “acting president” while the constitutional court has six months to deliberate on whether to approve the motion. If she resigns as late as next April, as she would like, the power-seekers won’t have to risk failure of the impeachment motion in the assembly or rejection by the court – and will have far more time to decide what progressive should carry the baton against the candidate of her conservative Saenuri party.
THE MINJOO ESTABLISHMENT CHOICE
One likely candidate is 63-year-old Moon Jae-in, a long-time human rights lawyer who lost to Park by a margin of 1.2 percent in the last presidential election in 2012 in which the Blue House was accused of using the National Intelligence Service to manipulate votes.
Moon has a broad following that at one stage appeared almost certain to ensure his nomination
There is a certain irony in Moon’s campaign to dislodge Park – he was arrested as a student activist 43 years ago for leading protests against the infamous Yushin constitution that Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, foisted on the country in 1972 to expand his powers.
Moon, a lawyer, served as chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun, the last liberal president before Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, a former Hyundai Construction chairman, was elected in a surge of conservative reaction to deepening economic problems and disillusionment with the “Sunshine” policy of reconciliation with North Korea.
Elected to the assembly from the southeastern port city of Busan, Moon has a broad following that at one stage appeared almost certain to ensure his nomination by the liberal Minjoo (Democratic) Party for a second Presidential campaign.
Moon, however, now faces strong competition from Lee Jae-myung, mayor of one of those fast-growing cities that have risen in recent years to accommodate the burgeoning population of the Seoul metropolitan region. The city is Seongnam, home of more than a million people housed mainly in high-rise apartment blocks soaring above office buildings and shopping centers.
Seen by some as a radical, by others as a social reformer, Lee outdoes Moon with promises of negotiations with North Korea, reform if not destruction of the infamous chaebol, and social welfare programs that appeal, in particular, to the growing numbers of jobless young people.
All the contenders to succeed Park would agree to much the same policies, but Lee strikes a populist chord in speeches and statements that appear more hard-edged than the others. Although out of the loop of politics inside the capital proper, he is seen as an outsider who might just overtake and defeat familiar faces.
Comparisons with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump or the Philippines’ President Rodriguez Duterte are frequent, though his reputation is that of neither a conservative in the style of Trump nor a bully like Duterte, who boasts of extra-judicial killings in his campaign against drugs. Instead, Lee has won popularity by social welfare programs, including medical assistance and financial aid for out-of-work youth.
Seen by some as a radical, by others as a social reformer, Lee outdoes Moon with promises of negotiations with North Korea
THE REST OF THE FIELD
At least two other would-be “progressive” candidates come to mind: Ahn Cheol Soo, the multi-millionaire entrepreneur who now leads the minor People’s Party, and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.
Ahn amassed a fortune from an anti-virus program and is by far the wealthiest man in the National Assembly. He has a record, however, of avoiding tough campaigns. He had said he would run for mayor in 2011 and then said he would go for the Democratic nomination in 2012 but backed out each time. Dramatically, he split his party away from the Minjoo early this year, forming the People’s Party as a moderately centrist force.
And then there’s Park Won-soon, a long-time social activist, who won a special election as Seoul mayor as an independent in 2011 after Ahn bowed out and then won again as the Minjoo Party candidate in 2014 against the conservative billionaire Chung Mong-joon.
Ahn amassed a fortune from an anti-virus program and is by far the wealthiest man in the National Assembly
Park has advocated social welfare programs, calls for talks on reconciling with the North and is all for reforming the chaebol in the interests of small and medium enterprise. He has indicated he would welcome the chance to run for president but is not regarded as a top contender – possibly because he lacks the dynamism of his rivals.
THE RULING PARTY’S CHOICE
The great mystery in the hunt for the presidency, though, is who will the Saenuri nominate. Right now the best bet – the only name mentioned – is that of Ban Ki-moon, who steps down after a decade as United Nations Secretary-General at the end of the year. Polls show Ban has almost as high an approval rating as Moon or Lee, and that could increase after he returns to Korea in the New Year.
The timing would seem perfect. Ban could slip right into a presidential campaign, offering moderation and reconciliation – not only with North Korea but with South Korea’s fractious electorate. He earned a reputation as a bland, soft-spoken foreign minister in Roh Moo-hyun’s cabinet, temporizing when possible with both North Korea and the U.S., put off by Roh’s seeming disdain for the alliance with the U.S.
If Ban, at 72, could be expected to calm tensions, would he really want the daunting task of navigating through storms of protests in the South and tensions with the North for the next five years – the single-term limit set by the constitution? What could he really do to curb the power of the chaebol in the South and Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions in the North?
In a contest in which anything could happen, there’s one other possibility. What if Ban, sensing the mood, decides he would rather run on the Minjoo ticket – and what if he were the “progressive” candidate around whom disparate opposition foes might gravitate?
Polls show Ban has almost as high an approval rating as Moon or Lee
The opposition, loud on the streets, still faces issues that show how precarious is the struggle to force Park out of her Blue House fortress.
Let’s do the math.
Yes, the progressives did well in last April’s assembly elections. Popular discontent with Park’s policies and outlook spelled disaster for the Saenuri. The Minjoo won 123 seats, a gain of 21. Ahn’s People’s Party fared surprisingly well, winning 38 seats, up from 20. The Saenuri picked up just 122 seats, down 24.
No, the impeachment motion won’t pass unless the Peoples Party supports it, along with the leftist Justice Party, with six seats, up from five, plus seven independents. Even then, impeachment forces need to persuade about 30 members of the Saenuri in order to be reasonably sure of the two-thirds vote needed for the motion to pass.
That’s going to be tough, but it could happen. Then look to a still tougher fight as Park stays in the Blue House while the constitutional court comes to its decision. And don’t count on her foes to agree on anything – aside from their desire to hound her out of office and bring her to trial for “complicity” in the corruption of her friend, Choi Sun-sil, and her aides.
There’s still a lot to play for.
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1501 words of this article.