Ahn’s donation roils political realm again

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Ahn’s donation roils political realm again


Ahn Cheol-soo, dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology of Seoul National University, announces yesterday that he will donate a large chunk of his fortune to public causes. [NEWSIS]

Software mogul and budding political superstar Ahn Cheol-soo announced he will give away a large chunk of his fortune, saying it was his longtime dream.

But he remained tight-lipped over whether he was laying the groundwork for a political career.

In an e-mail to executives and employees of Ahn Lab, Ahn announced Monday evening he would donate half of his 37.1 percent stake in the software development company. The shares, at the time of the announcement, were worth about 150 billion won ($133 million).

He didn’t specify where he would donate the money, but said it would be used to help educate children from low-income families.

“Healthy middle-class lives are collapsing in our society, and the youngsters in particular are in despair,” Ahn wrote in his e-mail. “In addition to the roles of the government and the civic community, it is important for each and every one of us to contemplate what we can do in our positions.”

Ahn also said there was a “most urgent” need for noblesse oblige in Korean society. In his e-mail, Ahn stressed he had no other motive behind the donation.

Ahn reiterated the statements in his e-mail to reporters yesterday on his way to his work at the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology of Seoul National University. Ahn is currently dean of the school.

“I just acted on what I had thought about for a long time,” Ahn told reporters. “In my lectures and books, I have talked many times about social responsibility and contribution, and I just acted on it.”

He didn’t answer reporters’ questions about whether this was a kickoff of an active career in politics.

Although Ahn has never officially declared the start of a political career, his actions in recent months have been perceived as highly political.

He stunned the political realm for the first time on Sept. 2 by hinting at a run in the October Seoul mayoral by-election during one of his lectures for students and other young people, which were called “Youth Concerts.” Four days later, Ahn held a press conference to announce that he would not run for mayor, but would support instead his friend, liberal activist Park Won-soon.

Within less than a week, the public had already registered him as a political force. In opinion polls about the 2012 presidential election, Ahn gained as much public support for a potential presidential run as longtime frontrunner Representative Park Geun-hye, former chairwoman of the ruling Grand National Party.

Ahn exerted his new influence again by showing up at Park Won-soon’s campaign headquarters on Oct. 24, on the eve of the mayoral election, to deliver a letter of support. Park’s race with Grand National candidate Na Kyung-won had been tough until then, but Ahn’s last-minute backing rallied liberals and other voters fed up with conventional, business-as-usual party politics. Neither Park nor Ahn are members of political parties. Park went on to win the Seoul mayoralty easily.

The major political parties showed muted reactions to Ahn’s latest move.

While the ruling Grand National Party had no official reaction, the main opposition Democratic Party issued a brief statement.

“We are now entering the season of politics, so various interpretations are possible,” said Representative Lee Yong-sup, DP spokesman. “But it is good for him to fulfill his sense of noblesse oblige.”

Whether he joins politics or not, Lee said, Ahn has already been involved in politics in a broader definition.

Park Geun-hye, the longtime presidential frontrunner, reacted calmly to Ahn’s move. “I think it is good,” Park said yesterday.

Some supporters of Park, however, reacted more sensitively.

GNP Representative Gu Sang-chan said the manner in which Ahn accumulated his wealth should be scrutinized later, according to Yonhap News Agency. Gu also said he sees a “political motive” in Ahn. “I think he will soon come out to the frontline of the politics,” Gu said.

“There is no sincerity in his action,” said a second-term lawmaker who asked to remain anonymous. “He should have said he would donate his wealth because it is a burden for him to join politics. It is more political for him to act as if he is a philanthropist.”

Ahn’s donation will immediately boost his popularity, political analysts said.

“It is a big event that will instantly pump up his popularity from its steady decline since the Seoul mayoral election,” said Lee Taek-soo, head of the polling company Realmeter. “By differentiating himself from the Grand National Party, which has the strong image of being the political party for the rich, young voters will increasingly support Ahn.”

Promising big donations for the public good is a tried-and-true way for presidential hopefuls to appeal to working-class voters. In December 2007, on the eve of the presidential election, current President Lee Myung-bak announced he would give away 33 billion won of his wealth. During his preparation for the 2002 presidential campaign, Representative Chung Mong-joon also announced that he would give up his position as the controlling shareholder of the Hyundai Heavy Industries Group, one of the largest corporations in Korea.

Following Ahn’s announcement, the stock price of Ahn Lab skyrocketed to the allowed trading limit after five minutes of the market opening yesterday, closing at 93,600 won per share, up by 12,200 won or 14.99 percent from the previous day. As of yesterday, Ahn Lab’s market capitalization reached 937.3 billion won, up by 170 percent since Sept. 1.

Over the last year, the price of Ahn Lab shares has skyrocketed thanks to Ahn’s activities outside business. The shares hit a low last March but jumped to 100,000 won on Oct. 24, on the eve of the Seoul mayoral election.

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