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Lee Jun-seok drama roils ruling party

An emotional Lee speaks to reporters during a press conference on Saturday. (Yonhap)
An emotional Lee speaks to reporters during a press conference on Saturday. (Yonhap)

Lee Jun-seok, the disgraced former leader of the ruling People Power Party, has launched a string of attacks on President Yoon Suk-yeol and his “pro-Yoon” rivals.

Lee was unceremoniously dismissed as the party leader on Tuesday, as an interim leadership was sworn in. Lee, who was already suspended from the party by an intraparty ethics committee over a month ago, has made sure not to stay silent.

Speaking to reporters outside Seoul’s eastern district court Wednesday, Lee said him being replaced was “hurting democracy within the party.”

Lee was in court for questioning over an injunction he filed against his own party last week -- while he was still in office as its leader -- in a bid to stop the launch of a new leadership.

When asked about Yoon’s press conference held earlier the same day, he parodied the president saying, “I was too busy thinking about democracy that I, rudely, didn’t have the chance to listen to what the president said.”

At the press conference marking his 100 days in office Wednesday, Yoon, responding to a reporter’s question about Lee’s recent remarks, said: “I didn’t have the chance to pay attention to what other politicians have been saying as I was focused on the people, as president.”

In an earlier press conference on Saturday, Lee said that he “wanted to cut ties several times over the course of the election out of shame.”

“Shame because I have been selling dog meat as if it were lamb. Looking back, I think I was the best at it, and the most devoted,” he said.

Many have interpreted these remarks as a slight toward Yoon. Some ruling lawmakers, including Rep. Kim Mi-ae, have slammed them as “demeaning” and “lacking respect.”

Initially, Lee denied that he was referring to Yoon as “dog meat.” In response to the criticism from lawmakers, he said in a Facebook post over the weekend, “How can you think dog meat was the president from what I said? It’s like these people are possessed or something.”

But on Monday Lee said that the remarks “might have been in reference to the president, among others.”

This is not the first time Lee has made a controversial meat analogy about Yoon.

In a radio interview in May last year, Lee compared Yoon to different grades of beef. Lee said that Yoon, who at the time had been speculated to run as president after stepping down as prosecutor general, would be regarded as “domestic beef,” considered high quality, if he joined the party early. But if he came late, he would be like low-quality “imported beef.”

Amid the constant retorts from Lee, however, the party maintains that the leadership reshuffle is a fair move.

“We looked at the rules and the transition is legitimate,” the party’s interim chair Rep. Joo Ho-young told reporters Tuesday.

As the party turned against him, Lee was quick to place the blame on the president.

“(Yoon) was basically signaling to his loyalists at the party to strike me by calling me names in front of other people,” he argued in a radio interview on Monday. Lee claims the president has been talking about him in vulgar terms.

In another TV interview Tuesday, Lee said in a message to lawmakers whom he called “Yoon loyalists”: “They can go ahead and prove that Lee Jun-seok needed to go away. If they can’t then I’m coming back.”

He went on, “When I’m back, I’m going to retire them.”

As the tirades from the ousted leader continue, even those classified as pro-Lee have grown critical.

On Lee being sharp-tongued, Chun Ha-ram, a member of the party’s committee for innovation, said Tuesday that he feels the ex-leader was “going over the line sometimes” but that it was “his tactic to deploy provocative language.”

“He feels like he needs to stay in the spotlight. So he continues to throw around these strong messages. The controversy is good for him,” he said, appearing as a guest on a radio show. “Being rude might be part of who he is. His supporters find it cathartic.”

Similarly the party’s spokesperson Park Min-young, who is embroiled in his own controversy over his alleged to connection to the far-right forum Ilbe, said last week that, “People who care about (Lee) are now saying he should tone it down.”

Lee’s hold on the party has been getting weaker in open display.

Others who had held leadership positions alongside Lee resigned en masse after he was handed a six-month suspension by the ethics committee. The committee said it decided to suspend him for “damaging the party’s dignity” by trying to cover up allegations that he accepted sexual favors from a businessperson.

At one point Bae Hyun-jin, one of the supreme council members who offered to resign, refused to be in the meeting as Lee, saying the allegations facing him were “shameful.”

Lee was first to suggest he was not getting along with the rest of the People Power Party, claiming on several occasions that he was being “ignored” by his colleagues.

Speaking to reporters on July 7, on the eve of the ethics committee deliberation, an emotional Lee said that despite the party’s win in the last two elections, he was “not respected by anyone.” “I’ve been attacked and ignored,” he said.

“Maybe it’s because I’m their new leader and I’m young,” he told a radio interview in July last year on his ideas about COVID-19 relief being met with opposition by others at the party.

In a Facebook post, Lee called on some of his fellow politicians to “salute the rank, not the man,” quoting the US TV series “Band of Brothers.” “You see Lee Jun-seok as some kid and not as the party leader,” he said in the same post.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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