Behind the armor and the goatee
Leader of the Democratic Labor Party and a representative in the National Assembly, Kang began his public career as the voice of farmers across the nation.
He’s moved on to bigger responsibilities now, but people still do a double take when they see him with his signature unkempt goatee, traditional Korean overcoat and rubber shoes.
First elected to the National Assembly in 2004, Kang was one of few liberal lawmakers who survived the conservative steamroller in the general elections in April, defeating Lee Bang-ho, then the Grand National Party secretary-general, by 182 votes in his hometown of Sacheon, South Gyeongsang. Building on this win, Kang gained further popularity during the candlelight vigils earlier this year and was elected DLP chairman in July.
But things appear to be taking a downturn.
It has been over a hundred days since he took office as his party’s leader and support from the public has yet to meet expectations. Embarrassingly, Kang was excluded from the special investigation team that oversaw the recent rice farm subsidies scandal.
He has also been making frequent trips to Jinju, South Gyeongsang, to attend hearings. Kang has been accused of campaigning ahead of the official campaign period for the general elections.
“Yes, Geum-pil? Daddy’s gonna be home tomorrow. Let’s have some playtime tomorrow. I miss you too,” said Kang to his son during a phone conversation from his office at the National Assembly.
The manner in which Kang speaks to his 5-year-old son is in stark contrast to his stern public image, which he maintained during the late night interview with this reporter.
When Kang first became an Assembly member, his little boy Geum-pil was only a year old. But since his days are taken up by frequent hunger strikes, sit-ins and busy legislative responsibilities, he’s lucky to manage to visit his family once a month.
It got so bad Geum-pil would avoid him whenever he was home, sometimes even running away from him. Through counseling, Kang discovered a year ago that Geum-pil was acting out of longing and resentment.
This is why Kang has been going all out to make time for his little boy. One of their favorite games is when Kang pretends he’s a tiger and growls while Geum-pil rides on his back. Eventually, Geum-pil opened up and accepted his father.
While Nov. 5, for Geum-pil, was when his father was coming to visit, it was also the day for Kang’s second public hearing on his campaign case.
He is being investigated on suspicion of hosting a meeting for party members a day before the official start of the election campaign, with a large number of non-party members in attendance.
Kang was willing to admit his shortcomings as a politician.
Kang was quick to dismiss the idea that he was chosen as the party leader because of his popularity.
“It’s not good to focus on mere popularity and votes. When a political party is swayed by the popular vote, party politics can also get swayed,” he said.
While humble on the topic of his role as party leader, Kang did not hold back expressing his displeasure about being excluded from the rice farm subsidy investigation that started on Nov. 10, despite being a farmer.
“I was heartbroken, to be honest with you. The DLP was included in the investigation about American beef, so it was Pro-Park United’s turn this time. But they don’t have any Assembly members with extensive experience in agriculture. Our opinion has been totally excluded. The democratic political process involves the opinion of the majority but I still think it’s important to pay attention to what the minority has to offer.”
The DLP’s approval ratings are hovering at around 5 percent, and it currently has half the number of seats it held in the 17th National Assembly. Park acknowledges the need for changes.
“Although we lack the power to make political policies, we are trying to show support by being on the side of the public during tough times. We need to change our image from that of protesters to a party that cares about the needs of the public. I intend to approach it that way in the future,” said Kang.
Kang went on to speak about his image as an uncompromising hardliner.
“I honestly feel that image is unjustified. My name conjures up images of armored units [the Ki-kap in Kang’s name means armor in Korean] and due to my goatee and appearance, I may come across as a hard man but in fact, I am a delicate and fragile person. I only respond with extreme measures against hardliners. The only tough person that I have a soft spot for is my wife.”
People in Kang’s hometown, Sacheon, have varied opinions about the man.
Bookshop owner Cho Jung-guk, 37, likes Kang but sees room for improvement. “I voted for Kang because I decided to ignore the image of the DLP and focus on Kang as a man. I think he has poured a lot of energy into the anti-American beef protests but I think it’s time for him to speak up for the people of regional cities.”
Lee Yoon-hee, a 32-year-old housewife, was more direct. “I do not like him because he’s involved in so many protests and movements. I just can’t warm to the idea of him leading a party.”
Lee Chang-hoon, 24, who works as a cashier at a convenience store, said, “I like his determination and moral values. I will definitely vote for him again next time.”
But Choi Min-gap, 74, doubted he DLP’s abilities to change farmers’ lives. “I’m a farmer but I think we need a political party with power like the GNP to bring about development in rural areas.”
Before he ran for the regional elections, the only person against the idea was Kang’s wife, Park Young-ok, 42.
“I told him I wanted a divorce. I heard being voted into the Assembly can bring about favors but two years after my husband became an Assemblyman, we were close to bankruptcy.”
Before his foray into the political arena, Kang maintained a sizeable dairy farm with 100 heads of cattle. During the Kim Young-sam administration, government policy supported sizeable farms. Kang took out loans to expand his ranch but due to the won’s drop in the foreign exchange market, the family has a 450 million won ($338,353) debt on the ranch.
When Kang left for the National Assembly, his wife, who previously had a minor role on the ranch, had to oversee the entire operation and the care of their four children.
It was a near impossible task.
“I didn’t know anything about veterinary medicine and no matter how hard I tried, the cows kept dying,” said Park.
Milk production steadily decreased and eventually it didn’t make economic sense to use any machinery. The family ended up selling off the remaining cows.
Kang receives a monthly salary of 10 million won. DLP Assembly members can only keep 2.3 million won and the rest goes to the party. It seems a pittance, but it’s slightly more than the 1.8 million won Kang was allowed to take home up to last March.
When Park asked for a divorce, Kang said he knelt before her and begged her to understand that he needed to help other farmers. She relented, and lost 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) due to stress.
Kang returned from his hearing in Jinju at 7:30 p.m. that night. After playing with his little boy for 30 minutes, he took the last flight to Seoul. Kang’s children, in all likelihood, will not see their father until his next hearing. That night, So-hwa, his third child, told him something she’d never said before: “I would like my father to become a farmer again,” she said.
Whatever armor Kang wears, he’s going to need more to see him through the next few months.
By Koo Hui-lyung JoongAng Sunday [firstname.lastname@example.org]
More in Features
[Shifting the Paradigm] With one epidemic under control, another is threatening Korean society
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it