Busan — Ten days before South Korea’s presidential election, candidates Yoo Seong-min and Hong Joon-pyo were both campaigning in Busan, scrounging for any available votes in the traditional conservative bastion. They did the typical rounds in marketplaces and bustling downtown areas, trying to appeal to the voters that South Korean lawmakers so fondly call “common folk.”
Busan, which is part of the southeast region collectively called “Yeongnam,” is important for both candidates as a stronghold of conservative support. In the 2012 presidential election, out of the 2.2 million Busan residents that voted, nearly 60 percent voted for Park Geun-hye, the leading conservative candidate at the time, who ended up winning the race.
Five years later, Park is gone, prematurely ousted from office because of a dramatic corruption scandal involving a shady confidante, the country’s biggest conglomerates, dressage horses and rumors of shamanism.
Beneath the veneer of a busy, smiling campaign in Busan, both candidates were desperate, beset by low support ratings and running out of time. Each claims to be the authentic conservative, and neither has a good shot at winning the presidency.
According to various polls, Hong’s support rate is around 15 to 20 percent, a whopping 20 to 30 percent behind front-runner Moon Jae-in. Voter support for Yoo is dismal, between three and five percent.
In reality, Yoo Seong-min isn’t a threatening competitor to Hong Joon-pyo. But he is a useful foil, a comparative tool that helps brand Hong’s image as a strong, down-to-earth “common folk.”
Hong likes to call Yoo a “Gangnam leftist” (even though they’re both from Daegu, another city in the Yeongnam region). That basically means, Yoo is a hypocritical elite. He was raised in a well-to-do family, went to Seoul National University, and according to Hong, is now cosplaying as a fake liberal and fake conservative.
As a direct contrast, Hong calls himself a real “dirt spoon,” someone who rose from abject poverty — at times having nothing more than water at mealtimes — to eventually become a hotshot, ostensibly justice-loving prosecutor. “My father was a security guard. My mother was illiterate,” Hong advertises in his campaign posters. “Let’s show South Korea that even the son of [these people] can become the next president!”
“For me, it’s not a matter of Hong or Yoo,” said Kang Yeon-gu, an 84-year-old voter in Busan who says he has always supported the right. “Conservative is conservative. We should all go beyond the Park Geun-hye scandal. Conservatives should unite.”
Unfortunately for Kang, it’s highly unlikely that the right-leaning candidates will unite, at least not before the election day on May 9. Political wounds and acrimony run too deep.
In the aftermath of Park’s ouster, her formerly dominant conservative Saenuri Party splintered into three blocs. Two of the larger chunks are represented by Hong Joon-pyo (of the rebranded Saenuri, now called the Liberty Korea Party) and Yoo Seong-min (of the Bareun Party). The third, the new Saenuri Party, is represented in this race by Cho Won-jin. Cho, unlike Hong and Yoo, claims that Park Geun-hye is innocent and demands that the ex-president be freed from her current detainment (Cho currently has around one percent of voter support).
Meanwhile, both Hong and Yoo have declared their distaste for the other, reaffirming their mutual unwillingness to unite.
“The obsolete conservative,” Yoo calls Hong.
“A traitor,” Hong has said about Yoo on numerous occasions, referring to Yoo leaving the old Saenuri Party during Park’s impeachment scandal and forming his own Bareun Party in January with 30 or so other former Saenuri lawmakers.
“If I thought the party was Park Geun-hye’s private party, I would have left a long time ago,” Hong said on SBS. “But the Liberty Korea Party is South Korea’s main conservative faction. That’s why it’s hard for me to leave.”
Loyalty plays an important role in South Korean politics, especially for the traditionally more unified conservative camp (whereas factionalism and defection are the norm for liberal politics). Politicians who change party affiliation are branded derogatorily as “migratory birds,” unprincipled creatures who flutter about seeking the greenest pasture. Loyalty to the party is associated with upstanding character; being perceived as a turncoat is a huge political gamble.
“Politicians who keep looking left to right never make it big,” said Choi Kyung-hwan in 2016. Choi is a Liberty Korea lawmaker and a former finance minister under Park Geun-hye. “One must dig into one well. Politicians must be loyal to the relationships they forge.”
Yoo Seong-min at a rally in March: “People call the Bareun Party the party of betrayal. People call me a traitor. Have we betrayed the South Korean people? Is it betrayal to speak our minds? Is it betrayal to call out a wrong for being wrong?”
This “traitor” monicker has a longer history for Yoo Seong-min. A few years ago, then-president Park Geun-hye labelled him as pursuing a “politics of betrayal” for supporting policies she did not agree with.
Park has had a reputation for shunning aides with different views and keeping her cronies closer. Long before the conservatives actually split during Park’s impeachment scandal, fissures were already widening between the “pro-Park” and “fringe-Park” factions. The idea of “conservative unity” was an illusion even then.
But at least back then — before Park’s corruption scandal intensified in October 2016, and even after the parliamentary elections in April 2016 which lost the ruling conservatives the majority in the National Assembly — the unity illusion was preserved under the umbrella of one Saenuri Party. Now, no such illusion exists.
“Conservative politics in South Korea is facing an unprecedented crisis,” Yoo said at a press conference in February. “Conservative politics has never been divided like this.”
At least here, Hong agrees with Yoo. “After former president Park’s impeachment, the right hasn’t been able to unfurl its true energy,” he said in Hong Joon-pyo Answers, published exactly three weeks after the Constitutional Court removed Park from office. “Now that everything [negative] has been laid bare, there’s nothing to hide, nothing to preserve. This is the perfect time to create a new conservatism.”
The issue is, everyone has a different idea about what this “new conservative” might entail.
Hong Joon-pyo is sticking with the not-so-new tune that’s worked with conservative voters in the past. He’s hardline on North Korea and anybody who doesn’t take such a hardline approach (“leftist Commie,” Hong frequently calls his opponents). He’s soft on the chaebols, or family-run conglomerates, that dominate South Korea’s economy. He demonizes “the elite labor unions,” which he claims are at the root of everything wrong with the country. He claims that the elite unions, which constitute less than three percent of the entire labor force, severely limit companies from operating free of red tape.
Of course, this familiar tune is a source of comfort for some — especially voters like 84-year-old Kang — but an irritatingly broken record for others. “I get so damn tired every time Hong talks about those labor unions,” said Jeong Jin-guk, a 31-year-old office worker from Yangsan, a city near Busan that’s also part of the conservative Yeongnam region.
“Hong Joon-pyo reeks too much of extremism,” Jeong said. “Yoo Seong-min, on the other hand, seems sharper and more conscious.”
Compared to Hong Joon-pyo, Yoo Seong-min’s approach does come across as a less extreme conservatism, even more liberal (though not enough to attract liberal voters). He wants to fuse the redistributive economic policies of the left with the hardline national security policies of the right. He wants better welfare, higher minimum wage, stricter regulations and higher corporate taxes on chaebols.
“I really don’t think that every crisis, every problem in our economy has been caused by elite labor unions,” Yoo told Hong in a televised live debate on Apr. 28. “I do think that there’s a problem with the labor union hierarchy in this country…. But chaebols and their chairmen are responsible, too. For the past twenty years, the chaebols have failed to innovate because they were so obsessed with hereditary succession.”
Yoo is measured and articulate in debate settings. He consistently ranks as one of the best performing candidates in live TV debates — Hong, by contrast, is usually seen as one of the worst. Compared to Hong, Yoo seems well-informed and articulate. When debating economic policies with Hong (or any other candidate for that matter), Yoo comes off the stronger. Of course, his education puts him at an advantage, since he has a PhD in economics from the University of Wisconsin.
But Yoo’s reputation as a “traitor” to the original conservative bloc is holding him back.
Hong is currently the conservatives’ most viable candidate, rising in the polls even after the infamous “pig stimulant” scandal, an old story in which Hong sought to facilitate a date rape. Many conservative voters are apparently more comfortable with a loud-mouthed and vulgar Hong Joon-pyo than a supposed traitor, who also has liberal leanings they find unnerving.
In some ways, Hong’s persona is similar to that of Donald Trump — a persona that Hong himself consciously tries to imitate, by branding himself as “Hong Trump.” Like Trump, Hong brands himself as new while glorifying nostalgia for an idealized vision of the past.
Also like Trump, he makes frequent headlines for outrageous remarks. Among many, my personal favorite is from 2011, when Hong told a female reporter “I may just beat you for this,” for asking a question about his party’s political corruption.
The problem is, because Hong Joon-pyo is so frequently depicted as a scandalous personality, his controversial behavior has been, to a degree, normalized. And this normalization shields him from blowback, to an extent. Most of his supporters seem unfazed by Hong’s dubious track record as an accomplice in attempted date rape, and a criminal suspect in the notorious Sung Wan-jong List, a massive, ongoing corruption case that broke in 2015.
It doesn’t hurt that Ahn Cheol-soo is doing so poorly in the televised debates. Early in the race Ahn positioned himself as a centrist who could gobble up swing conservative voters, who would maybe see Ahn as a more likeable evil than liberal front-runner Moon Jae-in. But those voters seem to be flocking back to Hong. Since the live debates have begun to air, Ahn’s support rate has been falling in tandem with rising support for Hong. Hong is slowly closing the gap, threatening Ahn’s position as the closest competitor to Moon.
The global political environment is helping Hong, too. Provocations from North Korea and the uncertainty of the Trump administration are aiding his hawkish stance on national security.
Good news for Hong is dismal news for Yoo Seong-min, who is facing increasing pressure to resign from inside and outside his own party.
On May 2, 13 lawmakers left Bareun Party. “With just a week to go until the election, conservatives must unite for Hong Joon-pyo’s great triumph,” the lawmakers said at a press conference. “There is no future for this country if we leave its fate to the pro-North Korea, leftist factions who go on and on about the annihilation of the conservatives.”
“The Bareun Party lawmakers returning to Liberty Korea shows the rotten nature of politics,” a Twitter user criticized. By the way, Liberty Korea said it hasn’t accepted these lawmakers yet. “They jumped out to do new conservative politics, and now that the situation is disadvantageous for them, they return to square one.”
Just a day before this mass defection, Yoo had posted a handwritten letter on his Facebook. “It was a very cold January. Amid uncertainties…34 fellow lawmakers took a step into the new. The conservatives will be born again, we declared. Just a few months later, some are saying we should go back down the road we abandoned…. If this was something that would have discouraged me after a mere couple of months, I would not have taken this road.”
He adamantly refused to danilhwa, which literally means “to unify,” a euphemism that forces weaker candidates to resign and merge with the stronger factions.
“It’s hard. It’s lonely,” Yoo wrote in the letter. “The path of the reforming conservative is not on any map. It’s possible that nobody will be on our side. But conservatives can change, too. Now is the time. I believe that if the conservatives change, South Korea will change…. I, Yoo Seong-min, am going to go the whole way.”
On the same day the 13 lawmakers left — or betrayed — Yoo Seong-min, Hong Joon-pyo wrote triumphantly on his Facebook: “[We] can forgive everyone in Bareun Party, but never Yoo Seong-min…. Now the current is turning towards the win.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Hong Joon-pyo went to Seoul National University. He went to Korea University, also a top-tier school in South Korea.
Cover Image: Hong Joon-pyo campaigning in Busan. (Source: Liberty Korea Party)
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