The Lee Jun-seok phenomenon
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Lee Jun-seok, the new face of the conservatives, is rocking the nation. Disgust over the changelessness of mainstream politics has led the people — especially the younger generation — to go crazy over the straight-talking 36-year-old politician who won the leaderships of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP). “Fairness and competition are the primary values of the conservatives,” he said. What sounds like prosaic rhetoric of a new party leader is actually pointedly aimed at the ruling party’s many flaws, best exemplified by the case of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, a stalwart of the Moon Jae-in administration.
Lee, who was brought into politics by former President Park Geun-hye from her home base of Daegu, thanked the former president for recruiting him, but frankly said he believed she deserved impeachment. He passed through the swamp of impeachment by showing boldness and honesty. The public is excited with a feeling of connection — and catharsis — through Lee’s fearless and unpretentious language.
The political rookie has taken on business-as-usual politics by winning over a crowd hungry for political freshness and vision. “I have beheld the Weltgeist [world spirit] upon a white horse,” young German philosopher Hegel declared in eulogy to Napoleon Bonaparte, who led revolutionary wars that contributed to breaking up European feudalism and the nobility. Would Hegel give the same blessing to Lee if he was alive?
With a new and unorthodox chief, the leadership of PPP has undergone a complete makeover. Of six people on the executive level, three are in their 30s and three are women. A disgraced party with two presidents in prison is beginning to have the look of a progressive party of multilateral European politics. The ruling Democratic Party (DP) is still infused with a self-righteousness its members earned through a struggle against dictatorships decades ago. The young blood has brought a revolutionary change in the political landscape in Korea.
President Moon Jae-in congratulated Lee’s ascension as “the sign of changes not just in politics but in the society.” If Moon truly thinks so, he should apologize for defending all the irregularities and hypocrisy of Cho Kuk that resulted in giving Lee and former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl the upper hand in fairness and justice. Moon’s die-hard supporters, who had ridiculed and scolded five first-time lawmakers and DP head Song Young-gil for apologizing for the mistakes of the liberal government and DP after their crushing defeat of the April 7 by-elections, also must read the writing on the wall. The DP has no future if it is still attached to Cho Kuk.
Some could be uncomfortable with Lee’s dedication to performance-based systems. In his book “Fair Competition,” Lee pointed out that freedom is the most important value in the United States. “A jungle also runs on its rule. The winner takes all. The U.S. does not try to contain the jungle rule. We must seriously consider the idea of borrowing such an American value system across our society,” he said.
But the Biden administration has gone all-out to correct the rules of the jungle that stifle the broader weaker population. “Can such a jungle traditionalist become an icon of conservative reform and responsible for generational change?” asked Lee Byung-chun, an emeritus professor at Kangwon National University. His criticism has a point.
But the focus should not be on Lee, but on the phenomenon he represents. The public is not enthralled by his performance-based systems, cynicism about political correctness, or radical ideas of eliminating preferential treatment for women, youth and people from the Honam (Jeolla) region in the conservative party’s nominations for elections. They cheer his challenge to the political cartel and the impotence and immorality of the political mainstream.
In 1970, forty-something politicians — Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Lee Chul-seung — ran in the primary for presidential candidates of the main opposition New Democratic Party. The party chief called them “political adolescents.” But society did not agree. The two Kims became central to the democratization movement. After their long struggle against the military regime, they took turns becoming president. If Lee also wants to pave the way for a new history, reporting to work on a bike won’t be enough. He must be able to fill the potholes in the political scene.
Public expectations are high for the maverick who rose from the political ruins. In his inaugural speech, Lee urged his party and supporters to “join the process of changing the world and breaking the stereotype and complacency.” If he is sincere, he would have touched the heart of Hegel.
Only when he learns to reinvent his own ideas with flexibility can he truly save Korean politics from the aporia of impotence and immorality. The Lee Jun-seok phenomenon must meet with the zeitgeist demanding an end to conflict and hostility. But if he keeps to his faith in the rules of the jungle and shuns criticism of reason, the Lee phenomenon will fizzle out. It is entirely up to Lee whether he can keep his own phenomenon alive to bring about meaningful changes for the country.