UPP’s internal meltdown was a long time coming
The internal strife within the opposition Unified Progressive Party over the vote-rigging scandal reflects long-running intraparty differences.
Political observers understand that the current feud over the primary rigging allegations is a continuation of the decade-long conflict, brought upon by the inner-circle members’ old-fashioned pro-North ideology.
Among the six proportional representatives-elect, Lee Seok-gi, who is reportedly the core faction’s de facto leader controlling the UPP behind the scenes, publicly said he won’t step down at the moment and demanded a vote on the resignation.
Kim Jae-yeon, a proportional representative-elect for the younger generation, said the party’s internal probe is incorrect and that she has no reason to resign. Lee Jung-hee, the party’s official co-chair and a member of the largest faction, also said some party members are politically attacking the largest faction.
Facing harsh resistance, other non-faction members, including the other two co-chairs Rhyu Si-min and Sim Sang-jeong, are maintaining that all the proportional representative candidates elected in the rigged primary should step down.
In fact, behind the vote-rigging debate is a significant ideological gap between the UPP members.
They were mostly former socialist student activists during the democratization movement in the 1970s and 1980s, but split into two groups: the so-called National Liberalization (NL) group, which followed North Korea’s juche (self-reliance) ideology, and the Marxist-Leninist group called the People’s Democracy (PD).
The party’s largest faction is made up of former members of the Gyeonggi Dongbu Alliance, a regional chapter of NL members based in eastern Gyeonggi. Lawmaker-elect Lee Seok-gi is reportedly the leader of the alliance.
Although the two groups fought against the dictatorial administrations in the 1970s and 1980s and have some common policies such as advocating for minorities and labor activists, the PD members still haven’t agreed on the largest faction’s fringe, far-left socialism and reunification ideology that would have Pyongyang absorb the South.
The three co-chairmen of the UPP are also divided: co-chairwoman Lee Jung-hee is with the NL and Rhyu and Sim the PD.
“The NL members are biased toward pro-North ideology and it doesn’t fit with today’s democracy,” said Shin Yul, a politics professor at Myongji University. “But the PD group is relatively rational, following European socialism, and they are critical of North Korean economics and politics.”
Gyeonggi Governor Kim Moon-soo told reporters on May 5 that he is aware of the political ideology of the so-called NL members.
“I spent a year with the NL members in prison, so I know them very well through conversation,” Kim said. “They think those who don’t follow the [North Korean] leader are traitors. They also think they could do whatever the ‘dear leader’ said and not feel guilty.”
The party’s pro-North issue surfaced as a problem before the April 11 election.
The criminal record of Lee Seok-gi also raises concerns about the pro-North activist-turned-lawmaker.
Lee Seok-gi was sentenced to two years and six months in prison in 2003 on charges of involvement in the so-called Minhyeok Party scandal.
Lee was a key member of Minhyeok Party, a secret pro-North organization in the 1990s and the party’s leader Kim Yeong-hwan met with North Korean founder Kim Il Sung in 1991 by taking a submarine sent by the regime.
However, Kim Yeong-hwan was turned off by the North Korean regime’s failed politics and demolished the secret organization and disbanded some pro-North groups founded by NL members.
The current factional fight within the UPP is somewhat similar to the incident in 2005, when NL and PD groups were members of the Democratic Labor Party.
At the time, two NL members were convicted of meeting with North Korean agents in China and handing over the party’s inside information. They were reportedly members of a secret pro-North organization called Ilsimhoe (“one-minded group”).
Then-party chair Rhyu Si-min and the PD faction demanded the expulsion of the two members because they tainted the party’s political image as a “pro-North” party and negatively impacted their approval ratings.
But NL faction members rejected the request. This upset Rhyu so he and other PD members defected from the party and formed the New Progressive Party.
One of the two convicted members was Choe Gi-yeong. Choe was sentenced to three years and six months in prison in December 2007 by the Supreme Court and was released in April 2010.
While Choe was in jail, he wrote a book titled “My Beloved Democratic Labor Party.” In the book, he said: “.?.?. the case of the Ilsimhoe is a plot schemed by the United States and conservatives .?.?. the ultimate goal of North Korea’s nuclear test is not to possess a nuclear weapon, but to normalize the relationship between the regime and the U.S. for the unification of the two Koreas. This should be the strategy of the DLP for the peace of Korea.”
The JoongAng Ilbo found that Choe was appointed as a key policy maker for the UPP in January this year. He refused a phone interview with the JoongAng Ilbo.
The NL’s Gyeonggi Dongbu Alliance’s official position in dealing with the current provocations of North Korea is much different from the PD’s.
When North Korea carried out the first nuclear weapons test in October 2006, the NL said “the possession of North Korea’s nuclear weapons is for self-defense,” while non-NL members said “denuclearization is a universal value that liberals should follow.”
After North Korea launched the long-range rocket that was seen as them developing multistage ballistic missile technology, the UPP’s spokesman Wo Wi-yeong, who is a member of the largest faction, did not criticize North Korea in a statement and said “the U.S. government and the UN Security Council’s sanctions against the regime will never help to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”
“Pro-North groups never criticize five things: the third-generation succession; juche ideology; the North Korean political system; human rights abuse in the North; and North Korean leaders,” a former NL member told the JoongAng Ilbo on the condition of anonymity.
“I don’t know if they still support the juche ideology, but they still have their own specific secret organizations,” the same former NL member told the Korea JoongAng Daily.
“Their culture and emotional reactions are similar to that of an extreme religious group.”
Heo Hyeon-jun, another former NL member who was a leader of student activists at Chonbuk National University in North Jeolla in the 1980s, told the Korea JoongAng Daily that NL members think that the current economic crisis in North Korea is because of the U.S. government’s blockade.
“They have such a large-scale network and organizations nationwide,” Heo said. “They have both open and secret organizations, attracting students and labor workers.”
“Lee Seok-gi is a high-ranking NL member in the organization,” the anonymous NL member told the JoongAng Ilbo. “The reason why he jumped into politics is because they judged they can’t find a way to realize their purposes through secret organizations.”
Heo, another former NL member, raised a different speculation, saying their participation in official politics is part of their strategy.
“Their strategy is to occupy the UPP first, and then merge with the main opposition Democratic Party, win the presidential election, and unify with the North under the juche ideology,” Heo said.
The largest faction of the UPP won’t give up their vested rights and they will still harshly fight with the other members, political analysts and former NL people forecast.
“They won’t give up their pro-North stance, never, and if they do, it means they will lose every cause as a political faction,” Heo said.
“Among NL members, there used to be some people who agreed on unification of two Koreas, but were critical of North Korean regime. But they all defected from the faction. The remaining NL members are far-left, pro-North people and they will never back away,” Professor Shin said.
“Just like an extreme religious group, if they abandon what they believe, they have no reason to exist,” the anonymous NL member said.
By Kim Hee-jin [firstname.lastname@example.org]