An Interview With Song Young-gil, South Korea’s Other Opposition Leader

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An Interview With Song Young-gil, South Korea’s Other Opposition Leader

“If I end up creating a new party, the objective will be to oust President Yoon,” says the former Democratic Party head.

An Interview With Song Young-gil, South Korea’s Other Opposition Leader
Credit: Kenji Yoshida

As South Korea’s 2024 general election nears, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and the leading opposition Democratic Party (DP) are bracing for a bitter race. 

For now, the prospects favor the liberal DP, headed by Lee Jae-myung, which currently holds enough seats in the legislature to stymie any moves by President Yoon Suk-yeol of the PPP. The DP’s landslide victory against the PPP in October’s Gangseo District by-election puts them in an advantageous position heading into the April 2024 election.

However, the opposition party has its own hurdles. Lee still faces a criminal investigation over graft and several other charges. Likewise, while Yoon’s approval rating continues to falter, the DP has largely failed to build a unified front against the president. As such, some are questioning whether Lee could lead his team to victory in April and, more crucially, in the 2027 presidential election.  

Amid uncertainties, political outcasts that were once high-profile members of the DP are attempting comebacks. One such figure is Song Young-gil, former head of the DP, mayor of Incheon, and a five-time elected lawmaker. 

Song recently vowed to form a new party to bring down Yoon and his clique. Despite the paucity of concrete actions, his willingness to fight seems to have caught the attention of DP voters. Whether Song’s talk will manifest in action is unclear, but it certainly carries the potential to shake up the DP’s electoral landscape and Lee’s calculus come April. 

Earlier this month, Song spoke to The Diplomat about his election strategies and why he believes Yoon is not fit to run the country.

During the last presidential election, you said you won’t run in the 2024 general election. But you seem to have changed your mind lately. Can you explain? 

To clarify, I said that I had no intention of running in my Gyeyang District in Incheon. Of course, this was contingent on Lee Jae-myung, then-presidential candidate from the Democratic Party (DP), coming out victorious in the race. But Lee lost to Yoon – albeit by a razor-thin 0.7 point margin – so my plans have changed since. Gyeyang District is still off the list of possibilities, but I might run as a proportional representation candidate. 

While the DP currently holds a majority in the legislature, it has lost momentum and largely abandoned its duty to check the ruling PPP and the executive branch. If I could help the DP maintain its dominance in the National Assembly and form a stronger coalition against the president, I’m prepared to do so in whatever capacity. 

Former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk seems to be vying for a seat in the legislature. So is Lee Jun-seok, former chief of the PPP. You spoke to the press about potentially forming a new party and partnering with Cho and Lee if need be. Can you elaborate? 

If I end up creating a new party, the objective will be to oust President Yoon. I think the president has exemplified time and again his incompetence in leading the nation, not to mention the recent failure to host the 2030 Expo and his ruinous economic policies. This is on top of myriad allegations of criminal activities by the president and his family. The incumbent administration, I believe, has run its course. 

A partnership doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be working hand-in-hand with Cho or Lee. If their views align with mine, say, in building a coalition against the incumbent leader, we can compartmentalize and work towards a common goal. 

Why do you think President Yoon is not fit to run the country?  

By filling government agencies, his ruling party, and the presidential office with a “pro-Yoon prosecutorial clique,” the president has effectively built a “republic of prosecutors.” The latest example is the appointment of Kim Hong-il, former chief of the anti-corruption agency, as chairperson of the Korea Communications Commission.

This clique, working under the auspices of President Yoon, has debilitated South Korea’s democratic norms by wielding their authority to shield the president and his family from criminal liabilities, suppress press freedom, and shut down opponents and dissenters. 

Take, for instance, some of the accusations leveled against President Yoon and the first lady. When Yoon was the prosecutor-general, he is said to have colluded with and ordered the pro-Yoon prosecutorial clique to sue ranking member politicians and journalists right before the 2020 general election. Meanwhile, the first lady is accused of gaining outsized profits through manipulating Deutsche Motors stock prices. These are all indictable offenses, but the investigation has completely ceased due to the president’s systematic obstruction. It will now require a special counsel to resume the case.

The Yoon administration is also intensifying media crackdowns, especially against those investigating the president’s delinquencies. In September, prosecutors raided and confiscated evidence from the offices of the online outlet News Tapa and cable network JTBC for investigating President Yoon’s potential involvement in a real estate corruption scheme. More recently, the prosecutors sought to re-arrest an independent journalist probing Yoon’s alleged misconduct involving manipulating evidence during [former President] Park Geun-hye’s impeachment investigation.

Forming a new party might be seen as stirring division within the liberal camp heading into the election. What do you say to those who criticize you for it? 

If our proportional representation system reverts to the old “parallel” system, there’s no reason for me to enter the race or create a new party. But with the current “interlocking” system, my initiatives, if anything, will help expand liberal forces and maintain dominance in the legislature. 

My new party would be a proportional representation party, largely composed of proportional representation candidates. Thus, it’s unlikely that these candidates would compete with the DP for a seat in the district race. Even if they decide to run in the district race, we will encourage them to unify their candidacy with DP candidates. So, we’re not “robbing” any seats from the DP or, in a larger sense, the left. 

You are currently under investigation for an alleged “cash-for-vote scandal.” Would you like to comment? 

The gist of the allegation is that, during the Democratic Party convention in May 2021, my acquaintances and party affiliates funneled money (about 60 million won or $45,000) to some two dozen lawmakers to get me elected as party chief. 

Cases concerning public elections usually have a six-month statute of limitation and are often resolved within that time frame. But this was an intra-party convention, so election laws don’t apply. Therefore, the prosecution deemed the incident, which allegedly occurred more than two years ago at a political convention that permits far more leeway than an election, to be “corruption.”  

While the whole event transpired without my knowledge, I take full political responsibility. So immediately after such a report came out, I quit my professorship in France, returned to Korea, and withdrew my party membership. But legally speaking, I should be absolved of all charges

Nevertheless, the Seoul Central Prosecution Office has dragged out the investigation for seven months without any reasonable suspicion. They went as far as to issue a subpoena for questioning and filed a motion for my arrest warrant on December 13. 

[Editor’s note: Song was arrested on December 18 after the Seoul Central District Court issued his arrest warrant.]   

You claim that the pending investigation is unjust. How so? Will it influence your bid next April? 

Fundamentally, the prosecutors are less concerned about scrutinizing my case but are instead focusing on peripheral matters, such as summoning people around me and raiding a civic group I’m affiliated with. They are alleging that funds tied to civic groups were illicitly funneled to support my political activities. In South Korea, we call this tactic a “pretextual investigation,” whereby the prosecutors pressure and probe my surroundings to induce damaging testimonies against me.  

Given the timeline of the investigation that overlaps with the election period, I cannot rule out the negative impact of the investigation entirely. If the prosecution decides to strategically wield its authority, and if the media paints a grim picture as a result, it will certainly hurt my campaign.