The Koreas

Will Lee Jun-seok Be the Wild Card in South Korea’s General Election? 

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The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

Will Lee Jun-seok Be the Wild Card in South Korea’s General Election? 

The popular former party chair could rescue the ruling PPP’s chances next April – or he could torpedo the conservative party’s odds.

Will Lee Jun-seok Be the Wild Card in South Korea’s General Election? 

Lee Jun-seok speaks after being elected as new chairman of the People Power Party at the party headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, June 11, 2021.

Credit: Kim Min-hee/Pool Photo via AP

With South Korea’s general election less than five months away, the ruling conservative People Power Party (PPP) is gearing up for what is expected to be fierce competition.

The coming April election is crucial for President Yoon Suk-yeol and his PPP. Back in 2020, the Democratic Party (DP) triumphed in a landslide victory that gave it control of the National Assembly. If the PPP fails to secure a majority next year, the South Korean government and legislature will remain deadlocked, unable to pass essential bills ranging from shoring up public welfare to stabilizing prices. 

For the reformist Yoon, this is an undesirable predicament. Not only would his policies be stymied, but he could wind up as a lame duck for the remainder of his term. 

To stave off legislative dysfunction, the ruling PPP is accelerating its preparations. Earlier this month, Yoon’s party launched a general election planning team headed by Lee Man-hui, a pro-Yoon figure and two-term lawmaker from the conservative stronghold of the southeast. 

In October, the PPP made the bold move of appointing a political outsider, Ihn Yo-han, as innovation committee chairman, signaling a major restructuring. Borrowing the words of late Samsung chairman Lee Kung-hee, Ihn told the press: “We must change everything aside from our wives and children.”

The People Power Party is energized and focused, but its prospects appear bleak. 

While Yoon’s approval ratings have jumped in recent weeks, those numbers are hovering around the mid-30th percentile at best. On top of that, the ruling party is still licking its wounds after an all-out defeat in last month’s Gangseo District by-election against the rival DP. The loss by a whopping 17.15 point margin bodes ill for the much bigger election coming up next spring.

But here’s the twist: Yoon and the PPP’s real challenge may not be the president’s faltering popularity or the booming opposition. The wild card in the upcoming election may be disgruntled former PPP leader Lee Jun-seok. 

A Harvard-educated entrepreneur, Lee entered politics at age 27 after being recruited by then-President Park Geun-hye to serve on the Saenuri Party’s emergency response committee. Lee has never held public office, despite multiple bids to gain a seat in the National Assembly. And yet, his unflappable personality and disarming talking style have made him a star among young voters. In June 2021, the PPP selected Lee as party chair, a testament to his grassroots support.

Lee’s leverage over the ruling party has waned after being ousted from the leadership in 2022. However, the unwavering support that Lee enjoys from Gen Z and Millennial voters – a demographic base the PPP largely lacks – could be enough for him to swing the electoral landscape in April. 

This possibility is upsetting for Yoon and his party. For starters, Lee is considered a member of what’s known as the “anti-Yoon forces” – an informal grouping of those who have bad blood with the current president. 

Lee and Yoon’s feud dates back to the presidential primaries in August 2021. Lee, then the PPP chair, pressured Yoon to join the party before the “race bus” departed. Yoon, however, snubbed Lee’s call and joined the PPP behind his back through separate channels, publicly humiliating Lee.

Tensions intensified in July 2022, when Lee’s party membership was suspended for six months over allegations that he had accepted sexual services as a quid pro quo for political favors and buried the evidence. Lee lost his party chairmanship as a result. 

Adding fuel to the fire, the PPP’s ethics committee added an additional year to Lee’s suspension in October 2022, this time over contentious remarks Lee had made against Yoon. Lee has consistently denied the allegations of impropriety and believes he was deliberately hung out to dry by Yoon’s key allies within the party.

As the intra-party spat mounts, Yoon’s approval ratings continue to underwhelm. The beleaguered PPP needs all the help it can get, including from the disenchanted ex-party chief. Aware of Lee’s unfailingly strong influence, the PPP has attempted to entice him back to the team. As a token of goodwill, the PPP recently lifted Lee’s suspension and reached out for a rapprochement. Yet this move seems to have backfired. Instead of welcoming the reconciliation attempts, Lee has doubled down on the infighting.

Last week, Lee vowed to form a new party unless Yoon changed his political approach. “I don’t think Yoon is likely to change. Without any major changes by December 27, I will create a new party,” Lee said. 

Lee has also hinted at partnering with Yoo Seong-min, a heavyweight center-right PPP lawmaker and a staunch critic of the Yoon administration. This could prove disastrous for Yoon, who is already perceived by many conservatives in South Korea as ideologically compromised. A challenge from the high-profile Yoo and the wunderkind Lee could effectively upend Yoon’s political ambitions while he’s still in office.

Though Lee stresses that his aims are political reform, not vengeance, there’s a fine line between the two. On November 26, Lee took another jab at the president by visiting Daegu, a PPP stronghold, and criticizing the incumbent administration’s foreign and security policies. The timing of Lee’s visit is particularly uncomfortable for Yoon, because the president recently dispatched his right-hand man, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, to the same city to tighten their grip on the region.

All-in-all, then, the “Lee-Yoon squabble” seems hardly over.

Amid such a spectacle, we are reminded of a saying in South Korean politics: “The left falls from corruption, while the right falls from division.” This seems to be holding true yet again, as conservatives bicker over personal slights and clashing ambitions as electoral prospects slip away. 

The irony is that Lee and Yoon have as many similarities as differences. Both are still fringe figures in the conservative establishment with no faction of their own. Neither has a strong loyalty to the party. The two also owe their rise to prominence in the political sphere to Park Geun-hye – albeit for very distinct reasons. Yoon entered the national limelight by prosecuting and jailing Park, while Lee rode Park’s coattails into his first political job.

In any event, Lee Jun-seok is emerging as the wild card in South Korean politics. Whether Lee and Yoon can reach a dramatic détente, as they did in January 2022, ahead of the presidential election, remains to be seen. The young firebrand could rescue the PPP’s chances next April – or he could torpedo the conservative party’s odds and hand control of South Korea to the liberal DP.

Before Yoon and the ruling People Power Party can think about how to enter the fray against the left in April, they must first put out the fires of factionionalism within their own camp.