Evolution of slinging mudHAN YOUNG-IK
The author is the political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In Korean politics, verbal controversy often shakes the last stage of election campaigns. Before the 17th parliamentary elections in 2004, then-Uri Party Chairman Chung Dong-young made a controversial remark. “It is okay for voters in their 70s not to cast a ballot. They can rest at home as they are about to leave the stage.” The comment led to serious aftermath, and Chung gave up his proportional representation seat and retired from politics. The party’s rating plummeted.
Before the 21st parliamentary elections in 2020, then-United Future Party candidate Cha Myung-jin’s “Sewol Ferry tent” remark created a serious stir. In a televised debate, Cha said that families of the victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy engaged in inappropriate acts in the tent. Later, the party’s ethics committee advised him to leave the party. But even after disciplinary action, Cha continued insisting that the truth of the Sewol ferry tent be exposed. The party lost in most battlegrounds in the capital region, and its number of seats shrank drastically.
In the 2018 local election, then-Liberty Korea Party lawmaker Choung Tae-ok said, “You move to Bucheon when you get a divorce, and you move to Incheon when you go bankrupt.” As the opposition party was already in trouble after the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, his comment made the situation even worse.
Ahead of the March 9 presidential election, ruling and opposition party leaders issued a warning on speaking imprudently. Ruling Democratic Party (DP) campaign chief Lee Nak-yeon asked representatives to refrain from posting on social media after he took the spot on Feb. 9. The DP’s election committee also sent a guideline to municipal and provincial party chapters to be careful about verbal blunders. Opposition People Power Party (PPP) election committee head Kwon Young-se sent a text message to party members, “Please pay special attention not to say or do upsetting things considering public sentiment.”
Probably due to this, there haven’t been any serious gaffes that can affect both parties with only two weeks left before the presidential election.
But the candidates are actually the ones who are close to making mistakes. At the first presidential TV debate on Feb. 21, DP candidate Lee Jae-myung and his rival Yoon Seok-yeol from the PPP made personal attacks. After Yoon attacked Lee for his land development scandal by calling it the “Lee-gate,” Lee countered, saying, “Would you resign if the allegations were false?” There is a possibility that some comments could develop into controversies. Before asking party members to refrain from harsh words, the candidates themselves need to maintain composure.