The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

South Korean Conservatives, Seeking a Rebrand, Look to Media Mogul

Former lawmaker Hong Jung-wook was seen as an attractive potential leader, but then a drug scandal ensnared his family.

Tae-jun Kang
South Korean Conservatives, Seeking a Rebrand, Look to Media Mogul
Credit: Flickr/ Times Asi

The latest poll in South Korea showed that approval rates for President Moon Jae-in stood at 46.9 percent, down 0.9 percentage points from the previous survey.

Moon was once widely popular across the country, with astonishing approval rates of over 80 percent soon after his election in May 2017. Now he is struggling to win back public support. His approval rate first fell below 50 percent a few weeks ago and shows no sign of bouncing back so far.

The recent slide is largely due to a recent corruption scandal involving Cho Kuk, the former justice minister and close aide to Moon. It was a huge disappointment for the many Koreans who supported Moon and his administration due to their efforts to eradicate unfair social practices and promote justice.

Now analysts say this is an opportunity for the country’s conservatives to step up and regain public support.

The question is who can lead such a move. The main opposition, the conservative Liberty Korea Party, has struggled, especially after the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye.

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One name now being prominently mentioned as a possible savior for conservatives is Hong Jung-wook, a South Korean entrepreneur, businessman, and politician.

Hong led Herald Media Corporation, owner of one of the most influential English dailies in the country, The Korea Herald, and served as a lawmaker between 2008 and 2012.

During his time as a politician, he focused on narrowing gaps between the two main political parties. Hong actively encouraged his colleagues not to engage in any physical brawls at the National Assembly, which was somewhat common in Korean politics. He was also not reluctant to approach lawmakers from the opposite for open discussions when there was an issue.

Hong even ended up resigning from his post to protest against his own party’s move to pass bills without seeking agreement from the opposition. His actions earned him the nickname of a “gentleman in the National Assembly.”

After his resignation, Hong went back to lead his business, but there are those who wish him to come back to the political stage.

Hong didn’t seem to be interested in such a return until recently, when he sold his stake in the Herald Group. In May, he offloaded 47.8 percent of shares of the group, which was seen by observers a sign that he was gearing up for a return to politics.

The signs became clearer when he posted on his social media account to criticize the current status of South Korean politics.

Accordingly, political parties have also reportedly been busy seeking to recruit him, with an eye toward the legislative elections scheduled to be held in April next year.

Even the market has reacted to speculation about Hong’s next move. KNN, a Busan city-based broadcaster, saw its share price soar by 18.25 percent after Hong made political comments. KNN is 50 percent owned by Hong’s older sister.

In September, however, the outlook for Hong’s political rebirth took a hit when his daughter was caught smuggling various illegal drugs. The customs authority at Incheon International Airport apprehended the 19-year-old with marijuana, LSD, and Adderall in her pockets and luggage.

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At that time, the prosecution said it would investigate whether she was involved in other drug-related crimes. She is currently under trial.

Hong made a public apology immediately and said he was willing to take any criticism, but it cast instant doubt over Hong’s prospects as a potential political candidate.

After all, former justice minister Cho Kuk’s corruption scandal all began after his daughter was implicated in unfair practices to boost her own academic success.

Local media reports say that Hong’s daughter is likely to face severe punishment. The result of the first trial sentenced her to up to five years in prison.

That will make it more difficult for Hong’s supporters to keep pushing for him to return to the political stage, although some say it is ironically a good opportunity to see Hong’s crisis-management ability in action. But it’s still unclear whether or not Hong himself ever really intended to come back to politics.