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‘97 Generation’ challenges established heavyweights in opposition leadership

Rising stars face steep uphill battle against Lee Jae-myung

Rep. Kang Hoon-sik of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea announces his bid for the party`s upcoming chairman election during a press conference held at the National Assembly on Sunday. (Joint Press Corps)
Rep. Kang Hoon-sik of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea announces his bid for the party`s upcoming chairman election during a press conference held at the National Assembly on Sunday. (Joint Press Corps)
The race for the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea’s leadership is heating up, with many rising stars bidding to lead the party to a new phase of politics and help overcome an ongoing series of election defeats.

Under the lead of an emergency steering committee, the Democratic Party is preparing for a national convention in August where it will elect the new chair. The chairman seat has been left vacant since former Rep. Song Young-gil resigned in March.

The party has seen members of the “97 Generation” making bids to be the next chair, the latest of whom was Rep. Kang Hoon-sik on Sunday, days after bids from Reps. Kang Byung-won and Park Yong-jin. Rep. Park Ju-min, another member of the group, is contemplating a bid as well.

The generation refers to a younger group of politicians who were born in the 1970s and attended college in the 1990s. The group has garnered attention in recent months as a potential pool of leadership as their older counterparts have failed to yield success.

“I am not standing here today merely to achieve a generational shift,” Kang Hoon-sik said in officially announcing his bid before reporters.

“I stand here today to bring back the basics and common sense that crumbled within us, show the people what useful politics are and thereby make the Democratic Party heart-pounding again.”

Although not part of the 97 Generation, Park Ji-hyun, former co-chair of the emergency steering committee for the Democratic Party, also announced her bid to be chairman on Sunday. At 26 years old, she is the youngest to announce a bid for the chairman seat thus far.

Calls have grown for members of the “586 Generation” to step down and let younger politicians like those of the 97 Generation to lead after the party lost three elections in a row: mayoral by-elections in April 2021, the presidential election in March and the local elections in June.

The three rounds of defeats have prompted many to question whether it is suitable to let the 586 Generation -- roughly those who were born in the 1950s, went to college in the 1980s and are now in their 60s -- continue to lead the party. The group has accounted for much of the liberal party’s leadership for years.

Backed by growing dissatisfaction, the 97 Generation has a chance to win the chairman election, but they face a steep challenge against Rep. Lee Jae-myung.

Lee has been strongly favored by many as the next leader for months, as he bore the party’s flag in the March presidential election and is widely considered the frontrunner for another bid in 2027. He has also continued to grow his support base even after the election defeat nearly three months ago.

Lee has not officially announced his bid to join for the chairman role, but is widely speculated to do so his soon.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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