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[KH Explains] Aftermath of a monumental penalization

Political landscape set to undergo phase of chaos with ethics panel‘s Friday ruling

Lee Jun-seok, leader of the ruling People Power Party, speaks to reporters at the National Assembly in Seoul on July 7, 2022, after attending a meeting of the party`s ethics panel to discuss his fate over allegations of sexual bribery and a subsequent cover-up. (Joint Press Corps)
Lee Jun-seok, leader of the ruling People Power Party, speaks to reporters at the National Assembly in Seoul on July 7, 2022, after attending a meeting of the party`s ethics panel to discuss his fate over allegations of sexual bribery and a subsequent cover-up. (Joint Press Corps)
The internal ethics panel of South Korea’s ruling People Power Party on Friday morning suspend party Chairman Lee Jun-seok‘s party membership for six months.

It was a landmark decision – the first ever to suspend a party chair – likely to spark intense strife within the ruling bloc for at least the next several weeks.

Disputes have already been raised on how bylaws should be interpreted for the ruling to be processed, and the penalization is stirring debates on consequences for many heavyweights within the party and across the whole political circle.

Lee, who won the chairship last year, backed by young voters’ demand for representation and a generational shift, is faced with the biggest crisis in his political career. He has already made it clear that he will fight to keep his seat and finish his term.

How the penalization is processed and who will rise into leadership roles could create an immense shift in the power dynamics of South Korea‘s political landscape. This could also cause a shift in public opinion of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration that was inaugurated on May 10.

In this article, The Korea Herald dives into how the penalization was first established and what implications this crucial political event could bring to the country.


Q. What was the penalization about?

A. Since December last year, the chairman has faced allegations of receiving sexual favors as well as bribes worth 11.5 million won ($8,800) from a business owner in 2013. Lee was then a member of the emergency steering committee for the Grand National Party, the predecessor of the People Power Party.

Police investigations on the matter started in January but with little progress. The ethics panel separately started reviewing whether to penalize Lee for “failing to maintain dignity” and “coercing (a key informant) to destroy evidence.”

The chairman was suspected of ordering one of his top aides to broker a deal with a key informant by offering him the promise of investment.

The chairman has denied all allegations made against him, claiming that the ethics panel is targeting him under the influence of a group of People Power Party politicians with close ties to Yoon.


Q. Evidence to back up Lee’s accusations?

A. Since Yoon won the presidential election in March, calls have grown for Lee to step down and let a new leader take his place to create synergy with the Yoon administration.

He has also faced increasing opposition from his party members after announcing the launch of a special committee to overhaul nomination guidelines for the next general elections in 2024. The move was widely seen as threatening traditional heavyweights‘ chances of reelection and staying in power.

It has not been proven that anybody in the pro-Yoon circle is behind the ethics panel ruling, and the ethics panel denied claims that it is acting under the influence of hidden figures.

Despite repeated denials, many have interpreted developments as part of a war between Lee and pro-Yoon circle. The lack of concrete evidence against Lee has left many critics suspicious of the decision from the ethics committee.
A news report on Thursday raised further suspicions, alleging that a high-ranking politician was in the background, orchestrating the whole process.

The panel defended itself upon making the announcement early Friday, saying that whether Lee did indeed receive sexual favors is unrelated to its ruling. Damage to the party caused by Lee, it added, was the reason for the verdict.


Q. What now for the ruling party? Who is in charge now?

A. It is chaotic for the time being. How the party’s bylaws should be interpreted and who should now take the steering wheel are subjects of much debate among party members and experts.

The bylaws state that the chair must sign penalty decisions by the ethics panel in a meeting with senior party officials. They do not have a clause on how that should be processed if the chair is the subject of the penalty.

Lee has argued that he also has 10 days to make his case to the party before the penalization is officially imposed. He said in a radio interview Friday morning that he will file a complaint with a local court to suspend the penalization from taking place, adding he will not sign off on the penalization yet.

But Rep. Kweon Seong-dong, floor leader of the People Power Party who is the second-highest-ranking member after Lee, told reporters that he is now the acting party chairman and has the authority to oversee the final meeting to officiate the penalization.

Kweon is seen as a core member of the pro-Yoon circle and, as some have argued, benefits from Lee losing the chair.


Q. How is this going to impact the ruling party?

A. If Lee is officially suspended for six months, the party has a few options it can take in appointing new leadership.

The party could launch an emergency steering committee, possibly headed by Kweon, and run it until Lee‘s membership is given back in six months. By then, however, Lee would have less than six months left until his term ends in June 2023.

The party could start preparing to hold a national convention to elect Lee’s successor. Competition has already begun on who should take Lee‘s place. As well as Kweon, Reps. Ahn Cheol-soo, Kim Gi-hyeon and Chang Je-won, are all touted as possible candidates.

Recognizing this possibility, Lee has asked his supporters to join the party to qualify as members with voting rights. He believes the best way to avoid ending his political career is by growing his power within the party enough to prevent the pro-Yoon circle from permanently removing him.

But with the penalty levied, he might be pressured to give up the chairman seat before his term’s end. While he has maintained that he will not give up his seat, if he does step down, the party could discuss opening a national convention to elect a new chair to take his place until June 2023.

It remains unclear who would be willing to take the role of chair for less than a year.


Q. How about ratings? Are they going to change, too?

A. One thing is for sure: it will hurt the ratings. The People Power Party were successful in the past two elections because of support from young male voters who approved of the conservative party primarily because of their loyalty to Lee.

Some experts argue that the penalization could negatively impact ratings for the Yoon administration, with pro-Yoon legislators being seen to have played a critical role in levying the penalty on Lee.

Despite being less than 100 days into his term, Yoon‘s ratings have been falling due to several controversies. He told reporters Friday that he feels “shame” for the penalization of a party member.

“As I have always said, I don’t think it‘s appropriate for the president to comment on party affairs,” he said. “I look forward to our party members coming together to overcome the difficult situation quickly.”

A Gallup Korea poll of 1,000 adults from Tuesday to Thursday found that only 37 percent of respondents view Yoon’s performance favorably, with 49 percent negatively rating his work.

Favorable ratings on Yoon have nosedived from 53 percent in the second week of last month to 37 percent this week. With turmoil unfolding inside his party, experts say that the rating could fall even further.


Q. Are there any other implications we should know about?

A. The potential political death of Lee is undoubtedly good news for the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, as it is seeing one of its most powerful political enemies losing authority.

The party has been suffering from low public support and a series of election defeats. If the ruling party excludes Lee completely, the Democratic Party has a better chance of protecting its majority in the legislative branch at the general elections in 2024.

And if support levels fall for the Yoon administration, the liberal party will feel more entitled to denounce Yoon and his policy moves more openly. The party also controls enough seats at the National Assembly to exert pressure and block initiatives from taking place.

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