After the apology
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Political critic Chin Joong-kwon compared it to a show trial in a communist society. A disciplinary committee orchestrated by the Justice Ministry with four panelists bypassed cross-questioning or testimony from the accused and delivered a two-month suspension of Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, finding him guilty of wrongdoings. Such oppression can only exist under a dictatorship.
Still, the approval rating of the liberal Moon Jae-in administration is decent. Although the approval rating of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) fell below 30 percent, it can match that of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP). Core DP supporters in their 30s and 40s still abhor the PPP. Even in Busan, where the conservatives have prevailed over the liberals, that age group prefers Moon Jae-in. They may loathe the DP and the government’s real estate policy flops and the purge of Yoon, but cannot forgive the conservative party for the suicide of their beloved former president Roh Moo-hyun.
Forty-something doctors and lawyers living in the affluent Gangnam District located in southern Seoul have been bombarded with new taxes by the Moon administration. But they would prefer to abstain or vote for the far-left Justice Party instead of the PPP as they hate the conservative party more than the DP. Unless the PPP goes under a complete makeover, it is bound to lose the critical by-election for Seoul mayor in April.
There were heydays for the conservative party. Centrists voted for conservative candidate Lee Myung-bak 12 years ago. After reform-minded lawmakers from the capital region were pushed out by the old school forces led by Lee Sang-deuk, brother of Lee Myung-bak, the conservative party lost its appeal among centrists and especially young voters. The trend accelerated under the Park Geun-hye administration. Even traditional conservatives turned their backs when Park was impeached. But the conservative party did not genuinely apologize and was defeated in subsequent elections.
A public apology by Kim Chong-in, interim leader of the embattle PPP, for wrongdoings of the past is meaningful. It came on the day when President Moon lauded the legislative passing of the revised act on the establishment of the new anticorruption agency. The apology was written by Kim himself. Kim had worked on the speech for two months.
Other heads of the conservative party had apologized before. But few remember what they said since they did not come across as being genuine. This time, the message was clear. Kim admitted to wrongdoings and committing “an irreversible sin” to the people.
Rep. Sung Il-jong of the PPP explained Kim’s move. “Many in the party had opposed the plan of apologizing, claiming the DP had committed more wrongdoings. However, upon losing power to the conservatives, the DP repeatedly apologized and reinvented the party seven times. We have not made such efforts. We must sincerely atone and break with the past,” he said.
The younger voters hate the PPP for its links to Lee and Park and for its image as representing the haves. Kim’s apology was aimed at divorcing the party from past presidents who are behind bars for corruption. DP politicians vehemently criticized Kim as they fear the ramifications of the apology. The DP can hardly prevail over the PPP by simply framing it as the party of Park anymore.
A rookie lawmaker said he had received a text message from a man in his 20s who said he changed his mind upon hearing Kim’s apology. He had considered the DP an impotent yet diligent party and the PPP a shameful party. He now hates the DP more than the PPP. “We must work harder to remove the old DNA and concentrate on reforms,” the lawmaker said.
Actions must follow the apology. The PPP must recruit younger and reform-minded people. Even if they lack familiarity, fresh faces will help lessen public hostility towards the old party. People will be closely watch to see if the PPP can finally change after the apology.