In October, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) was routed by the opposition Democratic Party (DP) in a by-election for the head of Gangseo-gu, Seoul’s westernmost district. It was a bitter pill for the PPP. The gaping margin of defeat – more than 17 points – caused an existential crisis among the PPP leadership. It was humiliating, but more important, the by-election had been considered by many to be the bellwether for the 2024 general election.
In the countryside, voters’ partisan allegiances hardly budge – the southwest is the DP’s stronghold, and the southeast the PPP’s. Yet Seoulites waver from party to party depending on the government’s performance, and their verdict this time was loud and clear.
On October 23, the PPP’s first attempt at an intra-party overhaul was to elect Ihn Yo-han, a professor of family medicine, as chief of the party’s innovation committee. It was a bold yet smart move.
Ihn was born to an American family in Jeolla province, a staunch DP bastion. His grandparents provided medical aid to Koreans suffering under Japan’s colonial rule. His father fought in the Korean War. Ihn participated in pro-democracy movements and helped North Korea battle tuberculosis. The PPP’s reckoning was shrewd: the stories of Ihn and his family have warmed many hearts and minds, including among liberals.
The flip-side of the calculation, however, is that the party is desperate for fresh blood – Ihn is a career physician. Shortly after his appointment, Ihn said, “I was asked this stupid question whether I’m the DP or the PPP, but I’m just a naturalized Korean citizen who was raised in Jeolla province and who loves Jeolla province so much.”
The party tactic seems to be to wield Ihn to say and do things that President Yoon Suk-yeol and the PPP bigwigs are too reluctant to do themselves – but are important to pacify the voters. To many, it is indeed refreshing to see a “blue-eyed Korean” without an accent addressing the press in terms not constrained and dictated by the party bosses. Regarding the personnel shuffling Ihn wanted, for example, he said that “we need to change everyone except our wives and kids.”
For a start, Ihn took a salutary jab at Yoon by saying that he wished to see more women on his innovation committee, then made good on his talk when filling out his committee. It was a move meant to atone for Yoon’s anti-feminist policies, which scrapped female quotas in his cabinet and will soon kibosh the Ministry of Gender Equality. Women make up less than 10 percent of senior government positions in the Yoon administration.
He trained his fire on Yoon’s close aides, as well. Ihn suggested they refrain from running for seats in the 2024 general election, or run in Seoul where campaigns are fierce and where it’s less certain for them to win than in historically conservative regions. Ihn is signaling a need to shake Yoon’s coterie out of their complacency. He also proposed other “sacrifices” that the PPP legislators would loathe to make but should, such as reducing their activity expenses and denying party tickets to those with poor ratings in performance surveys. His solution is plain and simple: seek competence, not rewards for loyalty to Yoon.
Ihn is also trying to patch things up with Lee Jun-seok, the former head of the PPP who clashed with Yoon over campaign policies and Yoon’s stuffing of the party with his stooges. Last July, Lee had his PPP membership along with his party chairmanship suspended over a graft allegation. Evidence came to light that he received sexual services from a businessman for political favors. Lee denies the charge.
Lee revealed back then that the party cajoled him to step down from the helm in return for ending the police investigation of his scandal and sending him off abroad as a presidential envoy. Lee compared Yoon’s control of the party to a secret military organization that monopolized political powers in the 1980s. For this remark, his suspension was extended to January 2024.
The power struggle may be over, but the PPP is still suffering from the spat. Lee and his popularity among young men helped the PPP win a few elections, including the presidential one last March. Following Lee’s suspension, young men deserted the PPP en masse. And Lee’s sober critique of Yoon’s domineering within the party has enlarged his support base, now encompassing those disillusioned by Yoon’s fumbling.
During a press conference in the National Assembly on October 16, his undiluted remarks were all the more chilling coming from an insider. Lee lamented that the Yoon administration had been consumed by skewed ideologies and was bent on consolidating Yoon’s party control. “Is it so hard to say that the party isn’t an organization subordinate to the president?” Lee said.
He pointed out a few points that churned “the public anger”: Yoon’s failure to vet his acquaintances before appointing them to the government’s top jobs, the military’s tarring of a colonel who tried to indict the top brass for causing a marine’s death, the administration’s distortion of history to advance conservative ideologies at the expense of South Korea’s legacy of anti-colonialism, and the government’s madcap approaches to issues of education and science. Although not mentioned, the government’s ham-handed and callous response to the Itaewon tragedy and repression of press freedom have also added to South Koreans’ fatigue.
“Yoon’s PPP has failed,” Lee concluded.
He has of late trumpeted his wish to create a new party. This is the worst-case scenario for the PPP. Should Lee form a new party and compete with the PPP in the 2024 general election, conservative votes could be split, spelling a landslide victory for the DP, which already enjoys the parliamentary majority. Even if Lee’s new party manages to inch closer to center-right on the political spectrum and peels away moderate DP members and voters disappointed by Lee Jae-myung, the DP chairman, it is the PPP that will be most crippled by the departure of Lee’s core constituency.
The PPP is now on edge. Ihn has taken up the mantle of extending an olive branch to Lee. On November 2, Ihn revoked the suspension of Lee’s PPP membership. He then initiated an open courtship of Lee, imploring him to impart political lessons as a “teacher.”
That Ihn is striving to lure Lee back into the fold demonstrates how much the PPP regrets having snubbed him. The party leadership, however, has not made similar overtures, only going only so far as to say that the spirit of concord “should be respected.”
Lee remains skeptical. On November 4, Ihn made a surprise appearance at a gabfest in Busan convened by Lee, only to receive a dressing-down. Lee started addressing him in English, in a sly acknowledgement of his non-Korean physiognomy. Although not in reference to his ethnicity, Lee mentioned that “you don’t look like one of us” and urged him to “speak in the same language of democracy with us.” He then shot a question that cut to the core of the PPP’s quandary: “Am I the patient here? I got to say this, the real patient is in Seoul. You got to go talk to him. He needs some help.”
Lee has long maintained that the culprit behind all the flubs is Yoon, not the PPP. And he protested against Ihn’s measure to “make the party swallow a bitter pill” as if the PPP itself was to blame, not Yoon (who, it should be remembered, only joined the party to run for the presidency).
“People have grievances not against the party but against somewhere else,” Lee said in early November.
The past 18 months has been a vortex of botches and catastrophes for the ruling party, both literally and figuratively. Intra-party nitpicking and finger-pointing aside, Lee’s accusation that Yoon has been aloof from people’s livelihoods and oblivious to their pressure points rings true for most.
For now, the party seems eager to take whichever pills Dr. Ihn prescribes. But brain surgery is not his specialty.