The oddest couple

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The oddest couple


Lee Jung-min
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The People Power Party (PPP) abruptly came into order on the brink of an epic collapse. Members of the opposition cheered in relief, but onlookers responded coldly to the sudden peace. It was a sad déjà vu. The fall of its presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol was foreseeable. Given his lack of political experience, too many confounding behaviors — and never-ending suspicions about his family — helped raise questions about his leadership, morality and vision. Yoon has repeatedly apologized for his slips of the tongue, appointments of aides and wrongdoings by his wife Kim Kun-hee. But the public cannot remember what he really repented for.

After disbanding his oversized campaign committee just two months before the March 9 election, Yoon chose to finish the race with young PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok instead of Kim Chong-in, an octogenarian with experience in winning elections. Yoon must be betting on young voters rather than centrist voters. The two make the oddest couple after Lee’s butting heads against Yoon whenever he could and picking fights or running away like a sulky child.

But the patch-up appears to be working as seen in Yoon’s rebounding approval ratings. His campaign promises targeting young male voters — such as the elimination of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and raising monthly pay for conscripts to 2 million won ($1,683) — may have scored. Lee took credit by posting on Facebook a comment — “It took [only] two days [for the rebound of Yoon’s ratings]!” — as if to brag about his strategy targeting male voters in their 20s by comparing the spikes in their votes in the Seoul mayoral by-election, which led to a landslide victory for the conservatives. He is moving to raise the banner specifically aiming for young male voters to navigate the wrecked ship towards an election triumph.

But the sailing can be highly risky as it requires “hate marketing.” A campaigning capitalizing on the hopelessness of young males and their misogyny is typical of the “high-risk, high-return” strategy by Chairman Lee. Yoon has hopped on the bandwagon. Society and its grassroots have been divided and stressed by never-ending political wrangling between the liberals and the conservatives throughout the Moon Jae-in administration. Politics are sneered at for tribalism. Even if Yoon wins the election with the help of angry male voters in their 20s, deepened societal schisms can leave lasting scars. A seasoned lawmaker expressed concern about the so-called Lee risk spilling over to a greater risk for presidential candidate and the party.
Opposition People Power Party (PPP) presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol embraces Chairman Lee Jun-seok in a meeting at the National Assembly on January 6. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

January 6 was the longest day for Lee. If not for Yoon’s sudden interference, Lee could have become the first party chief to be kicked out by party members. Lawmakers calling for his resignation even suggested he get a psychological checkup.

There was much hope for a radical change in the old school party when a 36-year-old with no lawmaking experience became its head. Many prayed that he was trying to end many outdated ways in Korean politics. But that was just wishful thinking.

Chairman Lee was hardly youthful in the way he raised issues. Instead of demonstrating self-confidence and cool acceptance of mistakes and weakness as the younger generation does, he would whine, sulk, and run off if he was ignored. He did not act like a party head. He would attack the party and the presidential candidate through social media to get what he wants — just like a cunning politician. Lee even “tested” out the presidential candidate, and appearing on an entertainment program, said that if he had to choose, he wished to run for the presidency. Lee acted more like someone spoiled by the sweets of power than a young and daring chap who raised many hopes for change in the governing power.

We have hope in the young because they are our future. Anyone can speak about the past, but the future is unknown. It must be approached and prepared for through constant study, research and deliberation.

Korean politics are forever in the third-rate category because politicians are bent on judging and punishing past governments instead of preparing for the future. Though Lee takes pride in representing the future generation, he has been a disappointment as he could not deliver a vision for the future. Either he had no will from the start or is incompetent. Promising that he would resign if he runs away one more time, Lee vowed to defend Yoon no matter what. The couple has so far sailed relatively smoothly. Is the PPP really past the Lee risk? That is possible only if Lee proves he is capable of much more than adroit use of social media and attracting the media spotlight for actions good or terrible.
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