News on South Korea’s Domestic Policy: the Saenuri Party Split

20.01.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

34234123123The breaking news at the end of last year concerned the split in the conservative wing.

As a reminder, on December 20, 2016, former leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, Kim Moo-sung, and former leader of the parliamentary faction, Yoo Seong-min, agreed to withdraw from the Saenuri Party and started to urge deputies who opposed the Head of State to do the same if Yoo Seong-min was not elected Head of Interim Committee that would function as the Party’s executive board while it undergoes renewal and a change of leadership.

However, the leader of the parliamentary faction of the ruling party and supporter of the President, Jung Woo-taek, was tough enough to point out that “it is inadmissible that a person whose activities may cause internal contradictions and conflicts takes this position,” remembering his attempt at an anti-presidential constitutional coup. On December 27, 31 deputies left the Party, headed by Kim Moo-sung, who announced his intention to revive the “real conservative forces” and even defined the name for the new party as ‘New Conservative Party for Reform’ (Korean – Gaehyeok Bosu Sindang).

Kim Moo-sung announced that since 2012, he has made every effort to support Park Geun-hye’s government, but her policy had resulted in the violation of the Constitution and ultimately impeachment. Therefore, it was necessary to strive for “changes and renovation based on conservative principles.” The separatists intend to register their own parliamentary faction and choose their leader, completing the entire procedure of creating a new party by January 20, 2017.

Meanwhile, supporters of the President appointed Pastor In Myung-jin as Chair of the Interim Committee, while the opposition Toburo Democratic Party called the plan by Park Geun-hye’s opponents an attempt at deceiving people.

Well, the curious sounding name – New Conservative Party for Reform, speaks volumes to the fact that Kim and his group will try, on the one hand, to declare loyalty to the ideals of conservatism (fortunately, they were better right-wingers than Park Geun-hye in Saenuri). On the other hand, they will try to talk about an “upgrade” to get rid of “Park’s heritage.” Nevertheless, the entire split has worked in favour of the left-wingers, because as soon as the Parliament shall face the need to enact laws that are not related to the fight against Park Geun-hye, the coalition disputes shall start echoing more resoundingly.

Meanwhile, on December 20, at a meeting with South Korean journalists in New York, the former UNO Secretary General noted that he was thinking on ways in which he could be useful to the country, and promised to use all the experience he acquired during 10 years of work in the United Nations Organization for the country’s development, should the need arise. As usual, Bank Ki-moon did not say anything about a possible participation in the Presidential elections. Nevertheless, on December 16, at a press conference at the UN headquarters, the Secretary General stated that the citizens of the Republic of Korea needed a united leadership that would help overcome the current crisis. According to him, the situation with Choi Soon-sil is the greatest political crisis after the Korean War, and he understands people’s anxiety about their future. He noted the necessity to reach social integration and reconciliation. Speaking about plans on his further activities after returning to his native homeland, Ban Ki-moon said that he would meet with many people, including political leaders, heads of the public organizations and friends, in order to understand what he can contribute to the general development of his country.

According to him, the current situation in the Republic of Korea is temporary, and South Koreans who respect democracy will soon manage to overcome the crisis, while the scandal will serve as a lesson to the country’s political, economic, and public leaders.

Other things are more important in these speeches. Assuming the probability of joining forces with political circles, Ban Ki-moon has stressed that political leaders must stop thinking only about themselves, and he does not understand the meaning of political associations and other separation of interests. As for the question about the possibility of him joining the ruling Saenuri Party, Ban Ki-moon answered that the policy could not be conducted single-handed. On December 26, a representative of the Secretary General pointed out the unlikelihood of Ban Ki-moon accession to any particular political party. He will probably be engaged in the creation of a new policy on the basis of the different political forces.

Ban Ki-moon will return to the Republic of Korea on January 12, but some compromising material on him is already awaiting. According to the Korean weekly magazine, Sisa Journal, which refers to “various sources,” several years ago, Ban obtained a total of 230 thousand dollars from a Korean businessman. The case already made headlines during the time of Roh Moo-hyun, and included a “list of bribetakers” but the investigation in respect of Ban Ki-moon was not initiated for some reason.

The Secretary General called the allegations ridiculous, and promised to file a suit against the media. But the author finds other things to be more important: the fact that Ban has become a target of accusations demonstrates that his participation in the Presidential race is being perceived seriously. As the Korean faction struggle is being reduced to not only a competition of programs but to a duel of compromising information, the shooting has started. In fact, everything shall only be clear in the coming year. Moreover, the former Secretary General has four options in the Presidential race:

  • First, he may join it as a candidate from the classic Saenuri or its successor. In such a situation, a party usually changes its name.
  • Second – conservative reformists may draw him over, as their leaders have rather an odious reputation, and they are unable to succeed alone.
  • Third, some representatives of the People’s Party, for example Kim Don-min, have hinted that Ban Ki-moon will represent them. As a reminder, Moon became Secretary General due to his position as Foreign Affairs Minister of the Republic of Korea under Roh Moo-hyun, and officially, he can be regarded as an appointee of the left-wingers.
  • Finally, using the general factor of distrust by traditional politicians, he may act as an independent candidate and unite those dissatisfied with the current political troubles as a kind of neutral third party.

At the same time, the former opposition leader of the South-Korean Toburo Democratic Party, Moon Jae-in, and Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, also announced their participation in the race.

Who is considered leader so far? Opinion polls are conducted very often, but according to the results of an opinion poll conducted by KBS TV and Radio Company and Yonhap News Agency, in the period from December 28 to December 30, 2016, 21.6% were ready to vote for Moon, 17.2% for Ban Ki-moon, while the Mayor of Seongnam, Lee Jae-myung was ranked third with 11.4%.

On December 28, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Chung Sye-kyun (opposition member, does not support Moon), attracted attention to the issue on the possible opposition of Moon Jae-in and Ban Ki-moon, having criticized both of them. Ban Ki-moon has lived abroad for 10 years, and is not well acquainted with the current situation in the country. Therefore, he is a tricky candidate, despite the hopes of many people. Moon Jae-in is criticized for undue statements he made about the intent to start a revolution in case the Constitutional Court rejects Park Geun-hye impeachment.

In general, Chung pointed out that if the National Assembly of the 20th convocation adopts the amendments to the Constitution that limit the President’s powers, the Sixth Republic might become the Seventh. More than 2 million citizens have signed a petition on the need to do this, the same way as the debates at the Seoul Media Centre. According to the above-mentioned opinion poll, 65.4% of the respondents support the introduction of amendments to the Constitution. Moreover, 51.8% believe that the government should change the Constitution before the Presidential elections. 45.9% of the poll participants agreed that the President of the Republic of Korea should be elected for 4 years with the right to re-election. 29.2% supported the Semi-Presidential Republic, 16.1% – the Parliament and Cabinet system. In addition, 210 out of 300 deputies of the National Assembly support the amendments.

One more attractive step should be added to the changing of the game rules. The Toburo Democratic Party has proposed changing the election legislation by downgrading the age of voters from 19 to 18 years. Apart from compliance with European standards in legislation, this project significantly increases chances for the opposition parties that are more popular among the youth. It is believed that the reduction of the voting age will add them about 600,000 votes, which is a lot in terms of the average gap in the number of votes for the major candidates.

A curious remark can act as a conclusion of this series. According to an article published by a senior researcher at the US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Max Boot, in the Foreign Policy Magazine, if a left-wing government takes over the Republic of Korea, US positions in the Asia-Pacific region will be shattered. If Moon Jae-in or Lee Jae-myung becomes President of South Korea, American troops may be withdrawn from the Korean peninsula after Donald Trump demands to increase Seoul’s share of expenses for their maintenance is rebuffed. Max Boot considers Moon Jae-in to be a left-winger and calls Lee Jae-myung the South Korean Trump. Thus, he recommends the new US President to reconsider his attitude towards the allied relations with partner countries and free trade.

At the time of this article going to press, a new message has appeared. Kim Moo-sung and Co. have felt that the name ‘Conservatives for Reform’ is strange, and have renamed the party again. Their party is now called ‘Barun Party’, which can be roughly translated as “Proper” or “Real.” In general, it is “The Party as it should be.”

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook