Will Ahn step into the ring?

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Will Ahn step into the ring?

The two likely biggest rivals in the December presidential election - Park Geun-hye of the ruling party and Ahn Cheol-soo, the not-yet-official candidate from the civilian front - flexed their muscles through an exchange of smear campaigns between proxies.

Keum Tae-sup, a legal adviser serving as de facto spokesman for Ahn, blew the whistle accusing Jeong June-guil, a public relations officer from Park’s election camp, of trying to blackmail the software mogul with false accusations to prevent him from running in the presidential race.

What could have turned explosive and even fatal to one side quickly subsided after the ruling party played down the incident as a “friendly chat” between two schoolmates.

Voters, or the audience to the sideline tit-for-tat, should now decide whether the conversation had been intended as blackmail or overblown as a misunderstanding of friendly advice.

The funny thing about the fiasco is the nature of the relationship between so-called friends.

Keum claims Jeong is someone he knows from university campus while Jeong insists they are close.

In any relationship, whoever clings becomes the weaker party. In this round, Keum comes off as the winner aside from the fact that he sold off a friend for publicity.

To advocate the genuineness of its case, the Saenuri Party even showed the press casual everyday text messages between the two to underscore how close the two were.

It is quite pitiful. It does not take a genius to figure out that if they were real friends. If so, they wouldn’t sling mud at one another in public.

The Park camp remains intact despite the blackmail accusation, mainly because her devout conservative voters hardly care how she gets elected.

Victims arose elsewhere. The first were women in their 30s with music degrees living in Mok-dong, after the word on the cyberspace grapevine was that Ahn’s so-called “other woman” fit that description. Anyone in her 30s living in Mok-dong who studied music was jokingly asked if she was “the one.”

Seoul National University also got some dirt. A sense of fellowship can hardly be detected in the way graduates from the same law school class go at each other publicly. SNU alumni complain they cannot raise their faces when people ridicule the callousness and shallowness of the elite school’s spirit of camaraderie.

Apple also received a blow. Keum told reporters that he could not tape the unpleasant conversation with his schoolmate because his “iPhone does not have such a function.”

All iPhones have a built-in voice recording function. Perhaps Keum needs to read his owner’s manual.

Keum contributed an article to the Hankyoreh newspaper on April 16 soon after the Saenuri Party released a controversial video depicting popular Internet podcast host Kim Yong-min, who was running in the legislative election, in a foul-mouthed tirade ridiculing the conservatives and the government.

Keum claimed that the ruling party obtained the problematic video clip in mid-February but waited until the right time to go public. “The Saenuri Party finally released it to help turn the tide in favor of the ruling party on April 2,” - nine days before the legislative election - he said in his article subtitled “A well-timed exposure.”

Keum apparently knows how to campaign negatively and prepare scrupulously to show his hand at the right time.

The day he called upon the press was last Monday after Park Geun-hye devoted her weekend to the typhoon-hit villages in South Jeolla, a politically modest move compared to her earlier visits to the tombs of presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun or a memorial foundation for labor activist Jeon Tae-il, who was sacrificed under oppression of her father, President Park Chung Hee.

Keum’s reason for picking Thursday for whistle-blowing may have come from Ahn himself or the camp of the rival opposition Democratic United Party. Ahn’s clean and honest entrepreneur image has been tainted by allegations of receiving a premium price for redevelopment land and perks as an outside director.

Meanwhile DUP was hosting a primary race in the Jeolla constituencies. If the DUP’s leading candidate Moon Jae-in wins support in the party’s traditional voting base in Jeolla, it would come at the expense of Ahn’s supporters and votes. Coincidentally, that was when Keum played his card.

Strictly speaking, Ahn’s biggest rival right now would be a candidate who wins the primary races from the DUP. Ahn’s supporters are largely based in the Jeolla province that traditionally seeks opposition and liberal leadership.

They, however, remain fluid and can quickly return back to their original DUP roots of Kim Dae-jung. To protect the pillars he built with his appealing and enigmatic image, Ahn must step over the DUP candidate first to move onto the next round for a real contest with the ruling party candidate.

The move this time may have feigned to attack Park but actually aimed to demonstrate Ahn’s muscles to Moon’s followers and liberal voters.

It is not so difficult to verify the true nature of the so-called friendship between the two law school peers. Their friends back Keum’s side of the story that the two had never been that close and that they both had been rather “extraordinary” during university days.

They did actually help raise the curtain on the competition on a sensational note and got the audience’s attention. Ahn’s side may be pleased by the result. But the facts are left hanging in the air.

Ahn should answer these allegations around him. Can the contender step forward and let the real games begin?

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho
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