Sunday, April 23, 2017

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: III. The Candidates

Here we are, the grand conclusion of the viewer's guide for South Korean politics. Part III of this series will cover everyone's favorite event in politics--the horse-racing takes on the presidential election. 

This election features the total of 15 candidates, but we will only cover the five presidential candidates who are polling over 1 percent. In order of polling numbers, the candidates are: Moon Jae-in, Ahn Cheol-soo, Hong Joon-pyo, Shim Sang-jeong and Yoo Seung-min. These five candidates represent the presidential candidates for the five largest political parties in Korea. 

Under Korea's election regulations, each candidate is assigned a number in accordance with the number of National Assembly seats belonging to the candidate's party. This post will discuss the candidates in that order also, although Moon Jae-in (number 1) and Ahn Cheol-soo (number 3) are the two front runners. All the pictures of the candidates are the official campaign posters for this election, the very same posters are plastered all over Korea right now.

Full disclosure: although I am not eligible to vote in South Korea, I generally support Moon Jae-in. 

1.  MOON JAE-IN [문재인]

Slogan:  "Restoring the Country; the Dependable President"

Born:  January 24, 1953 (64 years old) in Geoje, a southeastern island near Busan, to North Korean parents who escaped the war.

Party Affiliation:  Democratic Party [더불어민주당]

Ideological Position:  Mainstream liberal / center-left

Current Polling:  Around 40-44 percent in a five-way race.

Before Politics:  Moon Jae-in was a law student and activist who fought against the Park Chung-hee dictatorship. He learned that he passed the bar while being in prison for protesting. As an attorney, Moon litigated against the dictatorship along with his law firm partner Roh Moo-hyun.

As a Politician:  When his former law firm partner Roh Moo-hyun became the president, Moon entered politics and became Roh's chief of staff. Because of this beginning, Moon Jae-in has been strongly associated with Roh Moo-hyun's legacy, for better or for worse. Although Moon returned to his law practice after the Roh administration ended in 2007, he came back to politics after Roh committed suicide in 2009 amid a bribery investigation. Since then, Moon served as a National Assembly Member and the Chair of the Democratic United Party, which later became New Politics Alliance for Democracy and then again became the Democratic Party.

Moon Jae-in is considered level-headed and cerebral. Although he is not exactly a charismatic speaker, he has a passionate following of liberal voters who are galvanized by memories of Roh Moo-hyun, whom they consider to be driven to suicide because of the witch hunt conducted by the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration. Moon is also a relentless inside baseball-type politician who either transformed the Democratic Party into a party of professional expertise and meritocracy while repudiating patronage and machine politics (if you take the kindly view,) or into a party of pro-Moon Jae-in loyalists who would faithfully execute his goals (if you take the cynical view.)

Major Campaign Promises:  810,000 new jobs in public sector, such as police, healthcare and other health and safety personnel; transparent presidency and government; chaebol reform for anti-corruption.

He Will Win If:  ... he hangs on. Moon Jae-in has always led the polls for the presidential race, sometimes by an overwhelming margin. He lost in a close race in the 2012 election, whose final margin was 51.6 percent to 48 percent. Moon still retains most of that 48 percent of the voters who are eager for a do-over. Meanwhile, his conservative/centrist opponents are divided, and pose no realistic threat unless they find a way to join forces. 

He Will Lose If:  ... he suffers a combination of self-inflicted wounds and conservative consolidation. In polls that ask for a head-to-head choice between Moon and Ahn Cheol-soo, the two candidates are essentially tied. Roh Moo-hyun administration, where Moon Jae-in began his political career, was highly polarizing. In a head-to-head situation where the opposing candidate attacks Moon based on the faults of Roh administration (and there really were many faults,) Moon Jae-in faces a real risk of defeat.

Trivia:  Moon Jae-in likes climbing high mountains. He has visited the Himalayas four times and climbed up the Everest and Annapurna.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

2.  HONG JOON-PYO [홍준표]

Slogan: "Protect the Free Korea; the Proud, Everyman President"
Born:  December 5, 1954 (62 years old) in Changnyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do, a rural village in southeastern Korea. His parents were dirt-poor sharecroppers.

Party Affiliation:  Liberty Korea Party [자유한국당]

Ideological Position:  Mainstream conservative / right-wing

Current Polling:  Around 8.5-10 percent in a five-way race.

Before Politics:  Hong Joon-pyo overcame abject poverty to major in law at the prestigious Korea University. (He was the first person ever from his local high school to attend KU.) Hong became a public prosecutor, and made a name for fearlessly indicting and arresting organized criminals and cronies of dictators, including the older brother of the dictator Chun Doo-hwan and brother-in-law of Roh Tae-woo. His exploits were turned into a 1995 Korean drama The Hourglass [모래시계], one of the greatest Korean dramas of all time. The ratings for the series finale of the Hourglass was mind-blowing 64.5 percent, third-highest ratings in the history of Korean dramas. (For perspective: the ratings for Super Bowl XVI in 1982, the highest rated game in NFL history, was 49.1 percent.)

As a Politician:  Hong entered politics in the mid-1990s, partially because the organized criminals that he prosecuted threatened to kill him and his family. He joined the conservative party led by Kim Young-sam, the second president of the Democratic era., and became a National Assembly Member. 

Hong's political career unfolded in two phases. In the first phase, during the Lee Myung-bak administration, Hong was the head of the main conservative party. He was a competent leader, but eventually lost his position as the Lee administration tanked in popularity. Ousted from the politics in Seoul, Hong began his second phase as a politician by running, and winning, the governorship for Gyeongsangnam-do Province. Hong was also largely successful as a provincial governor, erasing the budget deficit and attracting major industrial project to his province. Hong's relentless conservatism was what garnered headlines, however. Even in the early 2010s when the cri de coeur of Korean politics was an expanded welfare state, Hong Joon-pyo received criticism for ending free school lunches and closing a major public health clinic in the city of Jinju.

Major Campaign Promises:  Stronger national security through deployment of tactical nuclear weapon and terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD); de-regulation and support for entrepreneurship; selective expansion of the welfare state to cover the lowest income household.

He Will Win If:  ... he manages to push out Ahn Cheol-soo and force a face-off against Moon Jae-in, who self-destructs through a series of massive blunders. Because this is highly unlikely, Hong is mostly seeking a moral victory. A moral victory for Hong is to win around 30 percent of the votes, which would save Korea's conservatives from total devastation while establishing him as the future leader of one-half of Korea's politics. In either case--actual victory or moral victory--Hong Joon-pyo must continuously attack Ahn in order to siphon off the conservative voters who are strategically supporting the centrist. Knowing this, Hong's main tactic has been to smear Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo as communist sympathizers.

He Will Lose If:  ... if he fails to win 10 percent of the votes. This would be moral defeat that stands opposite of Hong's moral victory. To understand why, a quick explanation of South Korea's campaign finance system is necessary.

In order to minimize the influence of money in politics, Korea has an elaborate, publicly-funded system of presidential election. For each election, the National Elections Commission (NEC) sets the upper limit of the money that may be spent. (For this election, the limit is around KRW 51 billion, or a little less than US $50 million per candidate.) During the campaign season, each candidate may raise and spend up to the limit. Now, this is the important part: after the election, if the candidate wins more than 15 percent of the total votes, the NEC gives the refund of the total amount of money spent for the campaign. If the candidate wins between 10 percent and 15 percent, the NEC refunds half of the money spent. If the candidate wins less 10 percent, there is no refund.

Because Hong Joon-pyo is not independently wealthy, the Liberty Korea Party had to mortgage their offices around the country to get a loan to begin the campaigning process. If Hong cannot improve his current polling numbers--which is right around 10 percent--he is in danger of literally bankrupting his party. Even winning less than 15 percent would put the LKP in a precarious financial position from which it would be difficult to recover.

Trivia:  In keeping with his image as a fearless prosecutor, Hong Joon-pyo is notorious for his brash speaking style. (Think Chris Christie, 200 pounds lighter and with a soul that is not yet sold to the devil.) Hong's loose lips create the biggest row when they reveal his casual sexism. Right now, he is in hot water because he wrote in his 2005 autobiography that he helped his friend getting a date rape drug in his college years. (Fortunately, the date rape ended as an attempt.)

3.  AHN CHEOL-SOO [안철수]

[Read this blog's coverage of Ahn Cheol-soo for 2012 election here]

Slogan:  "The People Triumph"

Born:  February 26, 1962 (55 years old) in Milyang, a small southeastern city, and grew up in Busan. His father is a doctor.

Party Affiliation:  People's Party [국민의당]

Ideological Position:  Centrist / mainstream liberal in domestic issues, mainstream conservative in foreign policy (including North Korea policy)

Current Polling:  Around 30-33 percent in a five-way race.

Before Politics:  Ahn Cheol-soo began his career as a doctor, but during his residency, became interested in a new kind of disease: computer virus. Based on self-taught knowledge, Ahn developed one of the world's first anti-virus programs in 1988. He then established Ahnlab, a software company focusing on anti-virus programs, and became significantly wealthy.

As a Politician:  As a successful start-up founder long before the word "start-up" even existed, Ahn Cheol-soo gained significant popularity in pop culture generally. When the whispers began that Ahn may be interested in politics, those who wanted a fresh alternative to the tired two party system welcomed him. When there was a special election for Seoul mayoralty in 2011, Ahn led the polls although he never indicated that he would run. Ahn then ran for president as an independent in 2012, and bowed out at the last minute while endorsing Moon Jae-in when third place finish seemed assured.

After the 2012 election, Ahn joined the main liberal party, but left to form his own party after a year and a half. The newly formed People's Party, mostly made up of the former Kim Dae-jung faction that was losing ground to the Roh Moo-hyun faction within the Democratic Party, won a surprisingly good victory in the National Assembly election in 2016. For better or for worse, the populist newcomer in 2012 has transformed himself into a skilled political operator.

Major Campaign Promises:  Self-reliant national defense through major expansion in naval and air force capabilities; strong anti-corruption measures in the government; chaebol reform, with harsher punishment for bribe givers.

He Will Win If:  ... he manages to push out other conservative candidates (most notably Hong Joon-pyo) to create a head-to-head race. A large chunk of Korea's conservatives--around 30 percent of the total electorate--will not vote for a liberal under any circumstance. A significant portion of Korea's swing voters also would not vote for Moon Jae-in if they are convinced that the Moon administration would be a reprise of the Roh Moo-hyun administration. If Ahn can pull off the delicate balancing act of attracting the conservative voters without turning off the centrists, he could pull out a victory.

He Will Lose If:  ... he falls off the tightrope. Ahn has been on a tightrope for the past five years already. He began his political career as a fresh-faced outsider, but in order to extend his political life, he joined forces with the oldest dreck within the Democratic Party. Although the result, i.e. the People's Party, was a rousing success, it is also exceedingly fragile. Each day Ahn spends with the People's Party, he gradually loses his luster as an outsider. It is no coincidence that Ahn's campaign poster, pictured above, does not show the name "People's Party" anywhere. Although Ahn Cheol-soo is one of the founders of the People's Party, he cannot afford to be the party to serve as his brand.

As a presidential candidate, Ahn's poll numbers are dependent on two, mostly mutually exclusive, groups:  ideological conservatives who would rather vote for a dictator than to vote for a liberal, and centrist voters who are tired of acrimonious bipartisanship. Ahn is not a natural fit for the conservatives, especially when his People's Party is mostly made up of former Kim Dae-jung faction that conservatives loathe. This means Ahn must actively court the conservatives, likely by the tried-and-true red scare tactic that a Democratic candidate would sell out national security to North Korea. But if Ahn woos the conservatives too much, his centrist supporters may decide that Ahn Cheol-soo no longer represents a fresh alternative. No other candidate has as delicate a balancing act as Ahn.

Trivia:  Ahn Cheol-soo is quite proud of the fact that he earned an MBA degree from the Wharton School of Business. In one of the televised debates, Ahn said he would be able to communicate well with Donald Trump, as they are Wharton alumni.

4.  YOO SEUNG-MIN [유승민]

Slogan: "Show Your Ability!; A New Hope for Conservatives"

Born:  January 7, 1958 (59 years old) in Daegu, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province. Father was Yoo Su-ho, a prominent conservative politician of the 1980s.

[Aside: four of the five candidates are from the southeastern part of Korea. This is not a coincidence--it speaks to the discrimination that the people from Korea's southwest (Jeolla-do) have faced. See Part I for the discussion about the southeast-southwest disparity in Korean politics.]

Party Affiliation:  Bareun Party [바른정당]

Ideological Position:  Conservative / Center-Right

Current Polling:  Around 2.5 to 4 percent in a five-way race.

Before Politics:  After graduating from Seoul National University, Yoo Seung-min obtained a Ph.D. in economics from University of Wisconsin and began working as a researcher for Korea Development Institute, the government-funded think tank for economic policies. There, Yoo made a name for proposing aggressive reforms for Korea's large corporations and advocating for greater de-regulation.

As a Politician:  Yoo Seung-min entered politics as an economics advisor for Lee Hoi-chang, the conservative presidential candidate who lost to Roh Moo-hyun. Yoo became a National Assembly Member in 2004, and served as the chief of staff for Park Geun-hye, who was then one of the leaders of the main conservative party. 

[Aside: it is highly ironic that Hong Joon-pyo remained with the pro-Park Geun-hye faction of the conservatives while Yoo Seung-min led the revolt. Hong lost his party leadership position to Park Geun-hye, whose chief of staff at the time was Yoo Seung-min. In Korea, as it is the case everywhere throughout history, politics is a strange game.]

Under the Park Geun-hye administration, however, Yoo Seung-min spoke out against Park's policies that, in his view, became increasingly more absurd. As Park Geun-hye administration sought to punish the traitor in their eyes, Yoo left the conservative party to run as an independent in the National Assembly election. Yoo Seung-min won, and victoriously re-joined the party. Then finally, when Park Geun-hye was impeached, Yoo Seung-min led the conservative Assembly Members who were repulsed by Park's damage to Korea's conservatism.

Major Campaign Promises:  Major expansion in maternity leave and public daycare to improve birth rate; reduced work hours and higher minimum wage; higher level of national pension and elderly care.

He Will Win If:  ... pigs fly. Theoretically speaking, Yoo Seung-min represents the "reasonable" conservatives who care more about ideological conservatism without resorting to retrograde smear campaign of calling liberals communists. Yoo's terrible poll numbers show that in Korean politics, the number of such "reasonable" conservatives is negligible. Major newspapers are openly doubting whether he will actually finish the race, considering there is pretty much no chance that he would recoup the money spent for the campaign. A moral victory for Yoo might be no more than merging Bareun Party into either the People's Party or Liberty Korea Party in a way that allows him to retain his "equity" as a major politician.

He Will Lose If:  ... he fails to leave an impression. At this point, Yoo Seung-min only has two things that he can "win":  visibility as a major national politician, and a share of power in whichever major party that may emerge after the current, highly unstable four-party configuration ends. (See Part II for reasons why this current configuration will not last.) There is a decent chance that he will fail to win either. Yoo Seung-min will be considered irrelevant if he cannot even crack 4 percent. Assembly Members of the Bareun Party may revolt against Yoo if he cannot show them a viable path forward for the party.

Trivia:  Among Korean young men who are not particularly interested in politics, Yoo Seung-min is known as "that politician with a randomly hot daughter." Her name is Yoo Dahm [유담]. If you're curious, here's a Google image search of her.


Slogan: "Country where Labor can be Proud; President that Changes My Life"

Born:  February 20, 1959 (58 years old) in Paju, Gyeonggi-do Province, a northern ex-burb of Seoul. 

Party Affiliation:  Justice Party [정의당]

Ideological Position:  Progressive / Far-Left

Current Polling:  Around 3.5 to 5 percent in a five-way race.

Before Politics:  Shim Sang-jeong attended the prestigious Seoul National University and began her career there as a student activist, establishing SNU's first Women Students' Association. As a labor activist, she would get hired into factories by submitting an application that significantly understated her education level, and lead the organization of labor unions within those factories. As labor unions were a major source of opposition against the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship, Shim spent many years as a fugitive while leading the labor movement from underground. She was eventually arrested in 1993 and received a suspended sentence. Thereafter, she served as one of the highest ranking leaders of Korea's labor movement. 

As a Politician:  Shim became a National Assembly Member in 2004, as one of the leaders for the progressive Democratic Labor Party. The progressive party gradually gained strength, reaching its peak in the 2012 Assembly election, when it won 13 Assembly seats under the name of United Progressive Party. However, it was revealed that there was a voting fraud in the UPP primary elections, which caused a massive internal dispute that led to a split of the party. Shim Sang-jeong led a splinter group to establish the Progressive Justice Party, which later became the Justice Party.

[Aside: in 2014, Park Geun-hye administration disbanded the remaining UPP on the tendentious allegation that its leadership were North Korean agents, which left the Justice Party as the only far-left / progressive party remaining in the National Assembly.]

Major Campaign Promises:  Expansion of direct democracy, including legislation by referendum and popular recall of elected officials; higher, progressive taxes that would be earmarked for welfare programs; chaebol reform through greater shareholder democracy; expansion of public daycare and greater benefits from the national health insurance.

She Will Win If:  ... hell freezes over. There is no realistic path for her to win the presidency. Cracking 5 percent in the final tally of the votes would be a moral victory that Shim Sang-jeong will gladly take.

She Will Lose If:  ... Moon Jae-in loses narrowly, and she wins a greater number of votes than Moon's margin of loss. Korea's liberals already treat progressives as their petulant cousins. If it appears that Shim Sang-jeong caused the loss of Moon Jae-in, the most beloved figure in liberal politics, the backlash will be severe.

Trivia:  Shim Sang-jeong says she joined student activism because she wanted to date and found that activist boys were good-looking.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. How exactly did the Park administration disband the UPP when the decision was made by the Constitutional Court?

    1. This is same as asking "how did the people impeach Park when the decision was made by the Constitutional Court?"
      The Government brought the case to be heard on the courts. It would be likely that a left leaning government would not have done that even after conviction of Lee Suk-Gi

  2. I know you mentioned this in your disclaimer but by comparing the trivia, it's quite obvious you're trying to pushing for Moon.

    1. By only reading the trivia, I would vote for YOO SEUNG-MIN ^^
      Anyway, very useful and informative again.
      And by the way: "Cri de coeur" (in French "Cri du coeur")

  3. If the elections are held in May and Korea has a 5-year presidency term limit, does that mean from here on out that elections will always be held in May instead of December?

    Thanks for the recap! And here I thought that American politics was confusing haha Though the whole capping election campaign budgets is a genius idea one which America should look into.

  4. Nice summary. I was rooting for Moon as well but that semi-homophobic comment he made today was enough to make me vote for Shim instead.He's also been vague in regards of anti discrimination laws. Any thoughts on that?
    It was rather disappointing to see how decidedly un-progressive Korean liberals can be.

  5. I appreciate the write up. It's hard to find a good English source of Korean related topics.

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  7. Thanks for the recap! And here I thought that American politics was confusing haha Though the whole capping election campaign budgets is a genius idea one which America should look into.

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