Korea's Next President: "Monster" or "Vegetable"?

Korea's Next President: "Monster" or "Vegetable"?

South Korea goes to the presidential poll in two weeks. The mood in the country is less than enthusiastic.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

On Monday a senior figure from South Korea's ruling Minjoo Party made a shock announcement that he was supporting the opposition People Power Party candidate Yoon Seok-youl's bid for presidency.

Since then, Jeong Woon-hyeon, a leftist journalist and once chief of staff to a prime minister in outgoing president Moon Jae-in's government, has received no small amount of flak for switching sides.

But Jeong's characterization of the Minjoo candidate Lee Jae-myung as an "unpredictable monster president" in waiting has resonated with the public.

"I have decided to choose instead a vegetable president [Yoon]," he said in a widely shared and liked Facebook post.

A monster vs. a vegetable. It doesn't exactly sound like an endorsement of Yoon, but that's an apt description of the conundrum facing South Korean voters as they gear up for the poll on Mar. 9. This election has been widely dubbed the act of "choosing a lesser evil". Among the four major candidates, only Lee and Yoon enjoy approval ratings high enough to clinch a victory.

And both entered the race with many skeletons in their metaphorical closets.

Lee, 57, rose from abject poverty to work as a human rights lawyer and activist before entering politics. He was a two-term mayor of Seongnam, a booming city southeast of Seoul, and built his reputation by calling for a massively expanded welfare system. Popular with the Minjoo party base, he won the governorship of Gyeonggi Province in 2018 and has been seen as a presidential contender since 2016.

Yoon, 61, was a career prosecutor until he resigned his post last spring. When Moon's predecessor Park Geun-hye was president, he became a household name for investigating the National Intelligence Service (NIS)—the nation's spy agency—which had been implicated in Park's 2012 electoral victory. Effectively exiled by the Park administration for that deed, Yoon returned to prominence after Moon won the presidency in 2017, becoming the nation's prosecutor-general in 2019.

But the following year Yoon ended up the Minjoo's enemy no. 1 for going after Moon's close aide and justice minister Cho Kuk—who happened to be Yoon's direct boss—over corruption allegations.

It all sounds quite respectable when summarized like that, but the devil is in the details. Lee has been convicted of crime four times, albeit all on minor charges. His very public feud with his late brother attained a legendary status in South Korea; a recording of him hurling unmentionable invectives at his sister-in-law on the phone is notorious (Lee contends this was in response to his brother and sister-in-law's physical and verbal abuse of his elderly mother).

More troubling is the whiff of sleaze trailing him, his wife and a host of aides going back years. The most infamous example involves a 2015 public-private land development project in the Daejang-dong area of Seongnam while Lee was mayor. It allowed an obscure firm called Hwacheon Daeyu 화천대유—founded by a former journalist with connections in the highest echelon of the South Korean legal profession (as well as to at least one conservative lawmaker)—to make a profit amounting to more than 1,000 times its initial investment.

Although no direct link has been established between Lee and the scandal, a key suspect in the case was appointed head of the Gyeonggi Tourism Organization after Lee became Gyeonggi governor, and two Seongnam city officials connected to the project have since committed suicide.

On top of it, Lee's son was found in December to have engaged in online gambling (illegal in South Korea). Lee apologized on the son's behalf. Three weeks ago Lee's wife Kim Hye-kyung came under fire of misusing the Gyeonggi Province government's corporate credit card and making a mid-ranking bureaucrat run her person errands. She held a press conference on Feb. 9 to say sorry.

Then came the revelation over the weekend, that a tax-funded company owned by the Gyeonggi Province was renting the apartment next to Lee's home as "employee housing". The opposition People Power Party asserts that it was used by a close aide of Lee's, and Lee and the company in question have yet to issue a satisfying explanation.

Compared to all that, Yoon Seok-youl comes across as a saint, until one looks at his significant other and mother-in-law. Kim Keon-hee, whom Yoon married in 2012, has been dogged by allegations that she had plagiarized her doctoral dissertation and faked much of her professional career as CEO of an event-planning firm (in short, she doesn't appear to have planned some of the events she claimed she did).

Her many phone conversations last year with a left-leaning journalist, who recorded the calls, were made public a month ago by the broadcaster MBC; she could be heard disparaging a victim of sexual violence and expressing her fondness for spiritual gurus.

The MBC show Straight aired excerpts from Kim Keon-hee's calls with a reporter from Voice of Seoul, a left-leaning online outlet

Kim's also under investigation for manipulating the stock price of a company called Deutsch Motors, which sells BMW vehicles in South Korea. Late December her mother was convicted of forging a document in a real estate transaction and sentenced to one year in prison, and is undergoing a separate criminal trial for profiting from illegally establishing a senior care home without the required medical license. After being found guilty by a lower court last July, she was pronounced innocent on appeal just a month ago; the case now heads to the supreme court.

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It isn't only family dragging Yoon down; he himself courted trouble by sporting a Chinese character for "king" on his palm at three televised debates last fall to determine the People Power Party's presidential candidate; it was seen as some kind of shamanistic talisman. One of his opponents has accused him of receiving 'anal acupuncture' (don't ask me to explain what this is, please). And his grasp of policymaking and current affairs has left even some supporters wanting.

The most recent presidential debate, on Monday, was dominated by Yoon and Lee bickering, and so dismal the two have come to seem that one recent parody poster in support of Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist candidate, joked: "No criminal record, no corruption, no forged CV, no family problems, no problematic aides [...]: the only normal person [in the election]". (The fourth candidate on the top tier—Sim Sang-jung of the leftist Justice Party—isn't 'abnormal' by any means, so this is an exaggeration, but a funny one at that.)

A parody poster touting the 'normalcy' of centrist candidate Ahn Cheol-soo of the People Party (not to be confused with Yoon's People Power Party) makes the round online in a jab at Lee and Yoon.

Ahn (and Sim) trails Lee and Yoon by a wide margin, but the picture reflected a widespread sentiment: neither of the two main parties' candidates is palatable to many South Korean citizens: in a poll published by South Korea's biggest newspaper Chosun Ilbo early this month, they both had unfavorability ratings of 58 percent.

In a rare display of unity, various media outlets across the ideological spectrum have characterized the battle as a choice between two undesirables, with newspaper Hankook Ilbo going so far as to say voters could abstain.

The real beneficiary of all this is incumbent president Moon Jae-in, who scored a 41 percent approval rating in a Gallup Korea poll two weeks ago. It's an unusually high number for someone nearing his political retirement (a South Korean president serves only one five-year term), and speaks to the dissatisfaction many voters feel with regard to his potential replacements.

Five years after the famous candlelight protests ousted president Park Geun-hye, known for being controlled by her friend Choi Soon-sil, the South Korean democracy faces an uncertain future. The government managed to keep the Covid pandemic under control for two years, but infections are now skyrocketing. Inflation is high, threatening living standards.

The next president, whoever it ends up being, has tall orders to fill, if they are even qualified for the job. There is skepticism that either the monster or the vegetable is up to the task.

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Cover: a composite of Lee Jae-myung (L) and Yoon Seok-youl (R) at the televised election debate on Feb. 22, broadcast by MBC

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