SEOUL – South Korea’s conservative opposition got a fresh-faced young leader to lead it into battle in next March’s presidential election with Lee Jun-seok’s victory at the People’s Power Party convention vote today.

The well-tailored, good-looking 36-year-old, who will serve as party head for the next two years, is, according to local media, the youngest-ever leader of a major South Korean political party since the advent of statehood in 1948.

However, as party chief, Lee will be navigating the party but not standing as its presidential candidate.

That means the PPP – itself a November 2020 brand, driven by the party’s desire to delink itself from the varied past misdeeds of Korea’s political right – needs to find a credible, voter-friendly figure to make a run at the presidential Blue House.

Given the party’s dearth of hopefuls, that looks like an uphill struggle. And the timing of the election looks tilted toward the incumbents. Firstly, as a slow vaccination drive accelerates, the country is expected to achieve herd immunity by November, favoring the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.

Moreover, this year’s economic performance is expected to be sterling, with related institutes upgrading their gross domestic product (GDP) growth outlooks beyond 3%, adding further gloss to the DPK.

Whoever he or she may be, the next president will need to be a skilled navigator, helming South Korea through waters churning with both promise and risk.

Lee Jun-seok (C), newly elected chairman of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) holds up a bunch of flowers with new executive committee members at the party’s headquarters in Seoul on June 11, 2021. Photo: Kim Min-Hee / AFP / Pool

The nation is currently being torn between the lure offered by Western democratic partners, notably key ally the United States, and the gravitational pull of China’s surging economy. Question marks hang over engagement with North Korea, and policy toward neighbor Japan.

At home, the economy needs to continue its rebalancing act between tiny startups and the mighty chaebol, or family-run conglomerates. And industrial policy will demand acutely sensitive stewardship.

Currently, a range of key products in the national industrial portfolio – chips, displays, devices, electric batteries – are centrally positioned in the supply chain serving high-potential futuristic sectors like AI, 5G, Internet of things, cloud computing, autonomous driving and electric vehicles. These sectors all face potential global bifurcation if Beijing-Washington ties fray further.

In the currently mercurial political circumstances, Lee’s PPP have everything to play for.

President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party of Korea won a landslide in the last general election in April 2020, granting it an absolute majority in the National Assembly. That victory cast the conservatives out of all power silos.

Customarily, the check-balance dynamic in Korean politics is between the presidential Blue House and the unicameral assembly. But since last April, the presidency, the house and the ministries – which fall under cabinet control – have all been in the political left’s hands.

But the conservatives have since been rejuvenated. A year after its general election wipeout, the PPP swept by-elections in April 2021, recapturing city halls in both Seoul and national second city Busan.

The DPK’s by-election disaster was put down to late-term fatigue with Moon and a flaccid national vaccination drive. Above all, the finger was pointed at shambolic real estate policies in the Seoul metropolitan area, which have infuriated both rich and poor by respectively taxing landlords who own more than one property while driving rents northward.

All current indications are that the DPK’s presidential candidate – Moon is constitutionally restricted to a single term – will be Lee Jae-myung, arguably the most radical senior politician on the scene.

Lee – assuming he wins the DPK nomination – may test the limits of the Korean polity’s liberal tendencies, in the same way that Bernie Sanders did in the US and Jeremy Corbyn did in the UK.

Lee Jae-myung, a potential presidential candidate for the Democratic Party of Korea, speaks ahead the counting of the votes for the chapter primary in Gwangju in Jeolla Province, South Korea on March 27, 2017. Photo: AFP via The Yomiuri Shimbun

That is a potential opening for the right – but at present, the PPP lacks any candidate capable of jousting with Lee.

However, massive speculation is hovering over a figure who has won national awe for standing up to Moon and forcing the resignation of not one, but two high-profile ministers.

Yet Yoon Seok-youl, a combative former prosecutor general, has no political background, and has, as yet, declared no party affiliation.

Young blood

The PPP’s Lee won 43.8% percent of votes cast at this week’s convention, granting him a comfortable victory over four long-term party warhorses.  

Though Lee has never won an elected seat, he has spent some 10 years in politics. He holds a degree from Harvard in computer science and economics, and prior to politics, worked in the educational software industry.

On the downside, criticism has been aimed at his elitism – notably, his Harvard degree – and some ill-advised anti-feminist comments.

But his age looks like a key asset to the PPP. It was discovered after the recent by-elections that Moon had lost ground among young, particularly male, adults.

“Age is important because the Moon administration gave the idea that they would put an end to ‘old politics,’” said David Tizzard, a professor of Korean Studies at Seoul Women’s University. “But what has transpired seems to have been continuity – sexual abuse scandals, corruption, lots of undesirable things. It seems establishment figures are incapable of change.”

Watching this, “young people are saying ‘Perhaps it’s time to give young people the chance,’” Tizzard continued, adding that Moon, who is dubbed a liberal, but who is publicly against homosexuality, is out of touch with the values of youth.

This could explain youth voting patterns in April’s by-elections. “I hear from students that support for the conservative party was a way to show dissatisfaction with the ruling party,” he said.

President Moon Jae-in is approaching lame-duck territory. Credit: Handout.

Lee’s smooth features also put a bright new face on a creaky political machine many see as backward looking.

“Age matters a lot in the Korean electorate – but especially for the conservative party, age has been a blockade of new political developments,” said Yang Sun-mook, a former chair of the DPK’s international relations committee, who is no longer aligned with the party. “So, it is a kind of revolutionary change at this point.”

The PPP and its predecessors has been associated with both the authoritarian governance of pre-democratic Korea and a brace of jailed ex-presidents.

Adroitly, Lee has distanced himself from the roundly despised former-president Park Geun-hye, currently serving a 33-year compound jail term for corruption and abuse of power.

He spoke out against Park – who had originally headhunted him to join the party’s brain trust – in her hometown of Daegu, the country’s most conservative stronghold.

Lee’s key task in the months ahead will be ensuring that the party gets a winning presidential candidate.

Socialist warrior

On the left of the spectrum, polls currently suggest Lee Jae-myung, the governor of Gyeonggi, the province which surrounds the capital Seoul, will enter the hustings for the DPK in March 2022.

Lee, who has been compared to Bernie Sanders, is widely noted for his redistribution policies. He is praised for his record in social welfare development and favors universal basic income, but has been criticized for enforcing discriminatory Covid-19 testing of foreigners in his province.

“He is definitely the front runner in the DPK: he is radical, and has been popular for that reason,” said Yang. “But he lacks systematic support from the general public and is giving off some warning signals that he could be very populist.”

These signals could boomerang.

“There is a feeling that he is trying to win over people by buying them, rather than with something that makes sense in the real world,” said academic Tizzard.

Even so, Hanjin Lew, a columnist who is associated with South Korea’s alternative, rather than parliamentary right wing, concedes that Lee is electable.

“He has been running Gyeonggi Province for a long time and has proven himself a competent governor,” Lew said. “He has a strong faction within the left, and people tend to like him quite a bit.”

A clear trend has been established in Korean politics over recent presidencies: two back-to-back liberal presidencies, followed by two back-to-back conservative presidencies. With the liberal Moon government in office at present, this logic suggests a liberal occupant remaining in the Blue House next spring.

Yet there is a very dark horse currently stalking the political backwoods who could feasibly turn the tables on the DPK.

Giant killer

In his youth, Yoon Seok-youl protested against the military government running Korea. After entering the legal profession, he won high renown as a prosecutor, working on high-profile investigations into the National Intelligence Service, Hyundai Motor, Samsung Electronics and even the Park Geun-hye presidency.

In 2019, he was appointed prosecutor general by Moon. However after Moon unleashed a reform drive in that body, aimed at removing some of its widespread investigative powers and handing them over to the police while emplacing a new, supra-investigative body, Yoon struck back.

In a bruising battle inside the Ministry of Justice, two ministers – Cho Kuk, a personal favorite of Moon, and Choo Mi-ae, one of the DPK’s toughest street fighters – fell at Yoon’s feet, before he finally resigned this March.

This formidable – albeit, politically inexperienced – giant killer is now the great hope of the right. But Yoon is playing a wary game, sparking fizzing political commentary in local media.

Yoon Seok-youl is playing a wary game. Image: Twitter

“He is the hope not just of Korean conservatives, but also of the center-left, who are critical of the current administration,” said Yang.

Yoon is believed to have gathered a team and has been testing political waters; for example, he appeared at the dedication of a museum honoring independence fighters – sound popularity politics. And from early June, he has met, informally, with a handful of PPP lawmakers,

One of the latter revealed that Yoon was open to running in the presidential race – but had not committed to a party. Indeed, Yoon’s political weathervane may swing right or left.

“His staff may be weighing the right time to declare a third party and there is speculation that he might be invited by the conservatives,” Yang said. “He is in the eye of the tornado.”

Lew is less impressed by Yoon.

“I think he is going to go over to the conservatives, but I have mixed feelings about him,” he said. “He has never taken a really clear stance on what he stands for, and politics is different from being a prosecutor.”

Old school

Lew notes that there is another grouping in Korea’s right wing that is unrepresented by the PPP.

After Park was impeached, booted and jailed in 2017, predominantly elderly conservatives flooded the streets. Many of them not only supported Park, but also her father, Park Chung-hee.

The latter, an authoritarian ex-general who ruled Korea with an iron fist from 1961-1979, is also credited with the zero-to-hero creation of Korea’s modern economy.

This flag-waving demographic, which includes Christian evangelists, is rabidly anti-North Korea, anti-China, pro-US – and is convinced that Moon is a communist traitor.

Covid-19 took the wind out of their sails, as street protests became a thing of the past. But the alternative right also encompasses some savvy political commentators who have taken their message onto YouTube, where they dominate Korean-language political discourse in viewership terms.

Lew admits that this fiery force is unrepresented in mainstream politics, but hopes it will have not just its say, but also its day. “Korean politics changes drastically, it is very dynamic,” he said. “We are doing what we can to preserve South Korean conservatism. We think the wind will shift.”