Change or continuation: Presidential race heats up

Change or continuation: Presidential race heats up
From top left to bottom right are Lee Jae-myung, Lee Nak-yon, Yoon Seok-youl, Hong Joon-pyo, Ahn Cheol-soo and Sim Sang-jung. (Yonhap)

The election is still nearly half a year away, but the race for the South Korean presidency is already heating up. Despite the two largest parties — the ruling Democratic Party and the main opposition People Power Party — having already shed several hopefuls, the number of those vying for nation’s top job still stands at 30.

This is a quick rundown of some of the main candidates.

Ruling party heavies 

Lee Jae-myung

Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung is a quintessential rags-to-riches tale in South Korea, a backstory which has given him a unique appeal to the working class and young voters who are in search for fairness and justice.

Gov. Lee was born as the fifth of seven children in a poor famer’s family, and spent most of his school years working in factories. He took GED tests to earn his middle and high school diplomas, and later passed the Korean bar exam and worked as a labor rights lawyer.

As a politician, Lee has shown a strong will and good execution. He has been able to spread his message by taking a stand at the right time, giving him nationwide fame even since early on.

While he has also gone against his party at times, his support ratings have held steady.

The governor has stayed consistent with his political beliefs and core values, which has helped him build a concrete support base since he first joined politics with the defunct liberal Uri Party in 2005.

Yet Gov. Lee certainly has weaknesses, one of them being his past brushes with the law. He was fined 1.5 million won ($1,270) for driving under the influence in 2004, 5 million won in 2004 for damaging public property and 1.5 million won in 2002 for helping someone impersonate a public prosecutor.

Lee Nak-yon

Former Democratic Party Chairman Lee Nak-yon is the other major contender for the ruling party’s ticket. He has a strong appeal to supporters of President Moon Jae-in, especially after former Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, also a close aide of Moon, dropped out of the primary.

Lee Nak-yon, who spent nearly 20 years as a journalist before entering politics, has a proven track record of success in leadership as a lawmaker and prime minister. He comes from South Jeolla Province, one of the two main strongholds for the Democratic Party, which guarantees some level of support from party members and liberal voters.

However, the Democratic Party’s crushing defeat against the main opposition People Power Party during April mayoral by-elections has left a significant dent in Lee Nak-yon’s standing.

His disadvantage is that his support and campaign success is largely dependent on that of his party. Overall discontent with the ruling party has grown over time, and support for Lee Nak-yon, one of the closest aides to the Moon administration and key member of the dominant faction within the Democratic Party, has fallen accordingly.

Conservative contenders

Yoon Seok-youl

South Korea’s former top prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl has emerged as the leading candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, vying to unseat the incumbent liberal government.

The 60-year-old is a political novice whose showdown with the Moon administration stirred the political landscape and made him popular among conservatives and those seeking for change at Cheong Wa Dae.

A career prosecutor, Yoon oversaw an investigation into the corruption scandal that ousted conservative President Park Geun-hye in 2016, which ultimately put Moon in power. With Moon taking office, Yoon climbed up the rankings and was appointed as the prosecutor general in 2019, tasked to lead Moon’s mandate to root out corruption.

Yoon, however, later clashed with the president over probing Moon’s close aides, as well as for pushing back against the administration’s drive for prosecution reform. He stepped down in March and kicked off his presidential campaign.

Yoon’s popularity could be attributed to his hard-hitting rhetoric and fearless fight against authorities and Korea Inc. during his legal career, a breath of fresh air to the public who grew tired of old-school politics.

But questions about his political competence, series of corruption allegations, scandals involving his family and a weak political base could get in the way before the election in March.

Hong Joon-pyo

Five-term lawmaker Hong Joon-pyo is no stranger in South Korea’s political landscape.

Spanning more than two decades in politics, Hong, a former prosecutor, served as the leader of the Liberty Korea Party — predecessor to the current main conservative party — and the governor of South Gyeongsang Province. He previously ran in the 2017 presidential election against President Moon Jae-in, but was defeated.

The tough-talking politician was often compared to Donald Trump for his outspoken, uncompromising rhetoric and political attacks.

It is his candid remarks that appeal to the younger generation, especially his controversial pledges, such as the reinstatement of the death penalty, revival of state-run exams for lawyers and replacement of the military draft with a volunteer military system. Hong is especially garnering support from men in their 20s and 30s.

With Hong quickly closing the gap with opposition front-runner Yoon Seok-youl in some opinion polls, his shot at winning the party’s ticket could be a real possibility.

But he is still regarded as a risky figure to carry the conservative flag, considering his ultra hard-line stance on major issues and past controversial and sexist remarks. 

Minor parties

Ahn Cheol-soo

Ahn Cheol-soo, the leader of minor opposition People’s Party, has yet to announce his bid, but he is widely expected to try for presidency for the third consecutive time.

He has listed robust security, new economic growth engines, education, labor and pension reforms and better protection of the people as key areas the country should address.

Ahn says his strength lies in his expertise he cultivated as a physician, scientist, CEO and philanthropist, calling himself a pragmatist who will solve problems. He has claimed that he is different to what he calls “old politics,” which he believes has failed the country for too long.

Ahn has a number of weaknesses, including his views on major issues, such as his lack of clarity over his stances on North Korea, minimum wage and labor rules. He has painted himself as part of the anti-Moon administration faction, but has fallen short of revealing a concrete agenda of his own.

Ahn has appaered indecisive at times. In one notable example, just before the 2012 presidential election, he withdrew his candidacy and threw support behind the liberal block, whose front-runner was Moon.

Sim Sang-jeung

Rep. Sim Sang-jeung of the minor Justice Party is a progressive icon. A four-term lawmaker, Sim is a vocal supporter of labor unions, and has pledged to put chaebol families under greater scrutiny. She has also said she intends to aggressively tackle climate change as president.

The public response to Sim’s suggestion that the country introduce a four-day workweek has been mixed. Sim says reduced working hours is a right all Koreans should enjoy as citizens of a developed country. More people would have jobs and job seekers would see more opportunities for employment.

Meanwhile, Sim supports curbing the power of the country’s family-owned conglomerates.

The 62-year-old liberal leader believes major tech companies such as Naver and Kakao should be kept in check to ensure workers get fair treatment. Sim has proposed rolling out stronger anti-monopoly rules for the tech giants that have been accused of unfair trade practices.

Reducing carbon emissions is one of two key promises Sim makes on her foreign policy. She argues the country should go “coal-free” by 2030, though experts doubt the viability of any plans to do so given the limited time to overhaul the economy that heavily relies on fossil fuels.

Floating a grand proposal that North Korea cannot rebuff is the other initiative Sim is backing. She contends Seoul should assure Pyongyang that it will not face a regime change and bring the reclusive state to take part in the global economy, though she has yet to offer details on how that could be achieved.

By Ahn Sung-mi (, Choi Si-young ( and Ko Jun-tae (

By Korea Herald (

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