Kim Dong-yeon drops out of race, backs DP's Lee Jae-myung
Former Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon, candidate of the minor New Wave Party, dropped out of the presidential race Wednesday to endorse the ruling Democratic Party's (DP) Lee Jae-myung.
Kim held a press conference at his campaign headquarters in Yeongdeungpo District, western Seoul, to announce the withdrawal of his presidential candidacy a day after he held one-on-one talks with the DP presidential candidate and agreed on a policy coalition.
"I will tighten my shoelaces again for the election victory of candidate Lee Jae-myung," said Kim, admitting that dropping out of the race had been a "difficult decision" to reach.
Lee and Kim held a 30-minute meeting late afternoon Tuesday at a cafe in Mapo District, western Seoul, and later revealed a joint declaration for political change. They were spotted exiting the cafe after talks, hand in hand, in an indication of unity, leading to speculation that they would soon announce a merger.
Lee told reporters immediately after their talks that he agreed with Kim's desire to "break the vested interests and create a country of opportunity."
In the joint statement announced by their campaign spokespersons, they agreed to reforms including reducing the next president's term by a year in order to simultaneously hold the presidential and local elections in 2026. They also called for the introduction of a decentralized presidential system, a responsible prime minister system and more substantive separation of powers.
The DP has pushed for a constitutional change to introduce a U.S.-style presidential system within a year. The U.S. president serves a four-year term and can be re-elected once, while Korea's can be elected to a single five-year term.
"I believe it will be the starting point for political change," Kim said in the press conference Wednesday, regarding the joint declaration. "I believe that it will break the structure of Korea's vested interests. Political change will become a stepping stone to form a unified government and solve real estate problems and economic difficulties."
Kim first declared his presidential bid in August 2021 in his hometown of Eumseong County, North Chungcheong.
A career bureaucrat, Kim served as President Moon Jae-in's first minister of economy and finance and deputy prime minister for the economy from May 2017 to December 2018. At the time, Kim reportedly clashed with then-Blue House senior policy adviser Jang Ha-sung over the administration's income-led growth policy, and both posts were replaced by Moon.
While Kim has been receiving less than 1 percent of approval ratings in opinion polls, usually trailing behind at a distant fifth behind the leading four candidates, his support for Lee's campaign is expected to appeal to more moderate voters and those who value his longtime economic expertise.
Lee in a Facebook message Wednesday wrote regarding Kim's endorsement, "I am deeply grateful for the big decision."
He continued, "I will integrate candidate Kim's many good pledges with mine. Thus, I will present to the public more plentiful and deeper pledges."
In turn, the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) downplayed any impact that a merger between Lee and Kim would have on the election results.
"I don't think it's such a big deal," said Rep. Kwon Young-se, the PPP campaign chief, at a party meeting at the National Assembly Wednesday. "Wasn't candidate Kim originally expected to be on that side?"
The PPP in the meantime has not ruled out an opposition merger, but officials admitted that the prospects were not looking so smooth.
On Sunday, Yoon Suk-yeol, presidential candidate of the PPP, said in a press conference that Ahn Cheol-soo of the People's Party ultimately turned down a merger deal despite the two campaigns having reached a tentative agreement. Ahn on Feb. 13 proposed a public survey to field a unified opposition presidential candidate but withdrew the offer one week later. He blamed a lack of response from Yoon and cemented his intention to stay in the race.
"We're waiting, but it's not easy right now," Kwon said. "And if things don't work out, we will have no choice but to just be unified in votes."
People's Party candidate Ahn, after attending a ceremony to commemorate the March 1st Independence Movement in central Seoul Tuesday, again drew the line on a merger with Yoon, telling reporters, "I don't feel sincerity."
However, when asked whether he would like to meet with Yoon, he replied, "I am willing to meet any politician if we discuss important agenda."
Ahn also had a tense moment with PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok and was photographed with a stern face as the two shook hands at the ceremony at the National Memorial of the Korean Provisional Government. The two had clashed recently amid the two campaign's merger talks, with Ahn's campaign aggravated by remarks made by Lee seen as ridiculing their candidate, another hurdle towards any last-minute unification.
Ballot papers for the March 9 presidential election have already been printed as of Monday.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]