Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Korea's Presidential Election - Part III: Ahn Cheol-soo

Part III of this series will discuss Ahn Cheol-soo, an independent candidate.

Ahn Cheol-soo (Independent)

Ahn Cheol-soo [안철수]
Ahn Cheol-soo was born in 1962, which makes him around ten years younger than both Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in. That fact, coupled with Ahn's biography, puts Ahn in a fundamentally different position from both Park and Moon. Unlike Park and Moon, Ahn is not tethered to Korea's tortured past of the 1970s -- which is one of the reasons why he has enjoyed such massive popularity as an independent.

Ahn was born in Busan. Ahn's childhood was unremarkable, which is actually remarkable for a middle-aged Korean. In the tumultuous times of Korea in the 1960s and 70s, few in Korea had a normal childhood. Recall that Park Geun-hye lost both her parents to political assassination, or that Moon Jae-in grew up in dire poverty in a Korean War refugee camp. In contrast, Ahn's youth had no drama. Ahn's father was a doctor who had (and still has) a small medical office in Busan. Ahn grew up living a comfortable but not lavish life, as a bookish student.

Ahn began his career as a research doctor after having graduated from Seoul National University school of medicine in 1986. Only four years later, he would serve as a dean of Danguk University school of medicine at age 27, the youngest dean in Korean higher education history. Ahn's research focus was in irregular heartbeat.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

While attending college, Ahn began to develop what was then a rare hobby -- computer programming. Ahn saw a computer for the first time in 1982, and taught himself how to build computer programs. In 1986, Ahn encountered, for the first time, a program that was designed to destroy computers and floppy disks -- a new, deleterious program called "computer virus." Ahn read an article about computer virus in a magazine, and checked his own computer. And there it was -- a computer virus in his computer. First, Ahn manually removed the virus, and told those around him how to do the same. Later, in 1988, Ahn built a program that would automatically detect and remove computer virus, and named the program "V1", with "v" standing for "vaccine." V1 was one of the first anti-virus programs in the world, as the first documented case of anti-virus program was made in 1987.

What Ahn did next would warm the heart of every computer nerd. By day, Ahn continued his teaching career as a post-doctorate graduate student. By night, Ahn would update his antivirus program -- which gradually changed its name to V2, V2-Plus, etc. -- to fend off the latest wave of computer virus, and distributed the program for free. According to Ahn's wife, Ahn pulled an all-nighter updating the antivirus program on the night before he had to report to his military service, then barely made it to the training camp on time. He would continue this lifestyle for seven years.

In 1995, Ahn finally decided to abandon his career as a doctor and focus solely on programming by founding Ahnlab, Inc. his own company. Ahnlab continued to provide free antivirus programs for consumers, and only charged corporations for its programs. After struggling for the first few years, Ahnlab took off in 1999, as the age of high-speed Internet (and the attendant problems with computer virus) dawned upon Korea. Overnight, Ahn became a millionaire.

In 2005, Ahn resigned from his post as the CEO of Ahnlab, as he decided that he wanted to study further. He studied business for three years in Stanford and the Wharton School, and returned to Korea in 2008 as the professor of KAIST business school. In 2011, Ahn was appointed to be the dean of SNU's Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology.

Ahn's foray into politics began indirectly, and no one -- possibly, not even Ahn himself -- really knows whether Ahn intended to enter into politics. Ahn began to occupy Korea's public consciousness around 2009, thanks to a well-received television interview about his life. Beginning in mid-2011, Ahn began holding a series of "talk concerts," usually in a small, intimate theater in front of an audience of mostly 20- and 30-year-olds. In a "talk concert," Ahn would have a down-to-earth conversation with his friends on stage regarding the topics that are the most pressing for the audience. The audience came away impressed with Ahn's ability to simultaneously communicate with and inspire the people around him. His name was increasingly spoken with reverence.

Ahn's potential as a politician exploded onto Korea's political scene, when a person close to Ahn leaked to the press that Ahn was considering running for Seoul's mayoral seat in September 2011. The torrent of support for Ahn was unprecedented in its speed and scale in Korean political history, which is quite a statement considering its wild volatility. After the news leaked -- but before Ahn made any official statement -- every poll showed an overwhelming lead for Ahn as the favorite for the mayoral seat, with over 50% of those who were surveyed supporting Ahn.

But in a shocking move, Ahn declared that he would not run; instead, he would support an independent candidate named Park Won-soon, a former human rights lawyer who was barely polling at 5%. As it turned out, the Ahn Cheol-soo sensation was transferable; overnight, Park's support shot up to over 50% as well. Park Won-soon cruised to victory, winning 53.4% of all votes. The Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon would live on for the next year, gripping Koreans with will-he-or-won't-he questions about the upcoming presidential election. Finally, Ahn ended all suspense by declaring his candidacy for president in September of this year.

Although Ahn remained independent and did not join any party, he made quite clear from the beginning of his political career that he stands opposed to the conservative NFP, labeling them as the corrupt practitioners of the "old politics." Ahn had less disdain for the DUP, but only slightly. While Ahn broadly shared the stated policy goals of the progressives -- i.e. greater regulation of Korea's conglomerates, expansion of the welfare state, etc. -- Ahn also branded the 10-years of DUP's rule previous to the current presidents' as another variation of the old politics.

Ahn's candidacy had an immediate impact: it stopped dead the momentum of Park Geun-hye, who had been the front-runner in the polls for months. In polls after polls (assuming a head-to-head race between Park and Ahn,) Ahn would easily lead Park by double-digits. This result re-energized Korea's progressives, who were all but resigned to the coming Park Geun-hye presidency. Ahn's ascendancy also gave a new focal point for the factions within the DUP that did not wish to follow Moon Jae-in's lead.

However, Ahn could not simply run for the presidency alongside Moon Jae-in. Doing so would divide the progressive votes, which then would guarantee Park Geun-hye's victory. After some negotiation, Moon and Ahn agreed to unify their candidacy earlier this month. The result of that negotiation may well determine the outcome of this presidential election.

Next part will discuss the current lay of the land for the campaign, and what each campaign must do to emerge victorious.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. Although this guy seems like a decent candidate from what I've read, if I were Korean I'd definitely vote for 박근혜. Electing her would automatically give Korean women a sense of empowerment that they don't seem to have attained yet.

  2. uhh, in a same way that voting for Sarah Palin in 2008 would've given sense of empowerment to American women? NOT.

  3. I am not sure if you are aware of this but your blog has been deemed as "unsafe" or "spammy" on FB. I tried to share your description of all the three presidential candidates on my blog fanpage but in vain...

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Oh I really enjoyed this series! I think if I could vote I would vote for this guy! He seems very good ~~ Of course he also needs good support staff and I'd like for him to be a bit more clear about his stance on various issues but from this article alone, along with the blurbs about the others, he seems the best ^^
    I always enjoy your blog and writing style! Thanks so much ^^


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