Behind fast rise, a disabled child is her inspiration

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Behind fast rise, a disabled child is her inspiration

The official campaign for the Oct. 26 by-elections began yesterday, and 162 candidates in 42 electoral districts nationwide started their races. Many are races for district county heads and other local posts.

The key contest is the Seoul mayoral election because it will be a litmus test of public sentiment ahead of the next year’s legislative and presidential elections.

As Na Kyung-won of the ruling Grand National Party and Park Won-soon, an independent liberal candidate, began their campaigns on the streets of the capital to meet working-class voters, the Korea JoongAng Daily examined their highly contrasting lives.



Refined, eloquent and photogenic, former Grand National Representative Na Kyung-won, 47, can give off the image of an ambitious, elitist politician.

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Na Kyung-won

Born to a wealthy Seoul family in 1963, she breezed through school and graduated from Seoul National University Law School, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation’s most prestigious university.

When pro-democracy protests roiled the country and eventually brought to an end the authoritarian governments, Na stayed away.

“There were some undemocratic parts in the student activists’ decision-making,” Na explained last month to the Chosun Ilbo. “I thought it would be better to contribute to society through other means.”

But scratch the surface and the mother of two is driven by a more basic instinct that many voters may find admirable: helping her older daughter, who has Down syndrome.

“After experiencing difficulties in sending her to school, I realized that the law and system should be changed to make a society where the weak can live happily and with dignity,” Na explained in her autobiography.

Na has been in politics for less than a decade, but the former judge, who was her party’s face as its spokeswoman from 2006 to 2008, is a political celebrity today, a key reason behind the ruling party’s decision to anoint her as its nominee in this month’s Seoul mayoral by-election.

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As she campaigns around Seoul ahead of Oct. 26, Na has begun the task of reintroducing herself to the city’s voters and dispelling what she believes are misconceptions of her as just a pretty face who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth.

“My life can be seen as a sleepy, unexciting movie,” she wrote in her autobiography. “But the people don’t know the blood and sweat I have put in to make this dull movie.”

After graduating from law school in 1986, Na married Kim Jae-ho, a judge, two years later before passing the bar in 1992. At a debate this month against her opponent, Park Won-soon, Na joked that it took her a while to sit down for the bar because of her and her future husband’s courtship.

She finished judicial training in 1995 and took the bench later that year on the Busan District Court before serving on the Seoul Administrative Court.

Na’s first foray into politics would come in 2002, when she left the bench to join Lee Hoi-chang’s presidential campaign as a policy adviser. After Lee’s defeat, Na went into private practice, but by then, she had found her calling.

In 2004, she became a proportional representative for the Grand National Party. As a first-term lawmaker, Na became chairwoman of the party’s special committee on welfare of the disabled - a cause she would come to champion in her political career.

When she later became the GNP’s spokeswoman, she garnered attention for her beauty and eloquence, able to explain her party’s positions in a logical, methodical way, and fight back against political opponents without resorting to harsh language. As her party’s face, she would also become a household name.

Na became a close aide to Kang Jae-sup, then-chairman of the GNP, and distanced herself from the factional strife between Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye loyalists. After Lee won the party’s presidential primary, Na joined the campaign to serve as his spokeswoman.

Faced with criticism that she lacked substance - never having held a management position - and merely followed those with power, Na would go on to win a seat in the National Assembly in her own right in 2008.

While many proportional representatives choose to run in party strongholds, Na ran in Jung District in central Seoul, a traditionally working-class battleground constituency, and won.

Since then, Na has continued her fast rise inside the GNP. She made her first bid for Seoul mayor last year, jumping into the GNP primary before losing to Oh Se-hoon as the party’s nominee.

At the GNP’s leadership convention in June, Na finished third in the race for party chairmanship. Her popularity with the public helped her win the opinion poll portion of the contest, defeating eventual winner Hong Joon-pyo, though she garnered fewer party votes than her rivals, who had stronger ties to the party’s faithful.

As a lawmaker, Na has drawn criticism for leading the drive for the media reform law in 2009, which allowed newspaper-affiliated media companies to operate broadcasting networks. While the law was popular among conservatives, it was fiercely opposed by liberals.

In her first term, her opposition to liberals’ attempt to reform private schools drew accusations of a conflict of interest because her father operated a private school foundation. She dismissed the attacks, saying that her opposition was based on her party’s platform.

Her wealth has also raised some eyebrows. When she registered her candidacy, Na reported nearly 4.1 billion won ($3.5 million) in assets, more than double from her first filing in 2004 as a first-term lawmaker. Na explained that the increase came from selling real estate and changed appraised values of her holdings.


By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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