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Lee Jae-myung and the politics of fasting

Opposition head has been living off of salt, water for 18 days and counting. What does he want?

By Kim Arin

Published : Sept. 17, 2023 - 18:20

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Democratic Party of Korea chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung, seen lying on the floor in white, is surrounded by fellow party lawmakers who are urging him to end his hunger strike on Saturday. (Yonhap) Democratic Party of Korea chair Rep. Lee Jae-myung, seen lying on the floor in white, is surrounded by fellow party lawmakers who are urging him to end his hunger strike on Saturday. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s main opposition leader Rep. Lee Jae-myung has been on an indefinite hunger strike, having consumed nothing other than salt and fluids for 18 days straight.

The chair of the Democratic Party of Korea says he is forgoing food to protest the way President Yoon Suk Yeol is running the country, which he has characterized using two keywords -- “tyranny” and “incompetence.” He insists he would not give up unless his demands are met, one of which is that Yoon replace his entire Cabinet to hold ministers accountable for the “failures” of the president’s first year in office.

Lee follows in the footsteps of major Korean politicians who staged hunger strikes for varying causes, most notably those dating back to the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s. Two former presidents, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, as opposition politicians famously went on fasts lasting 22 days and 13 days, respectively, to oppose the dictatorial governments then in power.

While politicians choosing to fast to make their point is not a rare sight in Korea, questions are being raised in some circles about the motives behind this particular hunger strike, as the opposition leader happens to be one of the most legally embattled members of the National Assembly at the moment.

The strike could cause Lee, who has had a court date nearly every week for the past several months as a defendant in two corruption cases, to fall ill, preventing him from attending court or following through with the rest of the investigation proceedings. His questioning by prosecutors in Gyeonggi Province’s Suwon last week, which took place after once being postponed at his request, had to be cut short due to health concerns.

At the advice of doctors, the rest of the Democratic Party’s leadership called in an ambulance on Sunday afternoon to try to persuade him to drop his strike and receive medical help at a hospital. With 18 days and still counting, Lee has held on for far longer than the last leader of a main opposition party to go on a hunger strike. In 2019, then-opposition chief Rep. Hwang Kyo-ahn was moved to the hospital after collapsing on the eighth day of going without food.

Lee, however, says he is not backing down. While doctors have advised “immediate hospitalization,” the Democratic Party leader’s “will to go on is too strong,” the party spokesperson Rep. Park Sung-joon told reporters on Sunday.

The Democratic Party has made its demands clear. In a resolution reached in a general meeting of the entire party convened Saturday, the Democratic Party lawmakers demanded that Yoon’s Cabinet ministers -- including Prime Minister Han Duck-soo -- either resign or be removed. With the beginning of the Assembly’s regular session in September, the majority party has been putting the pressure on Yoon to fire all of his Cabinet ministers.

Ahead of the weekend on Friday, the party lawmakers once again staged a protest outside of the presidential office in Seoul’s Yongsan-gu, asking the president to apologize for “destroying democracy and the middle class.” They threatened to impeach Minister of National Defense Lee Jong-sup, who already offered to resign, over a marine soldier’s on-duty death during a search and rescue operation immediately after heavy rains and flooding in July.

The party -- which has been holding weekly anti-Yoon protests, mobilizing registered party members from all over the country -- said in Saturday’s resolution that it would, together with civic groups, embark on a nationwide movement of the people’s resistance against the administration.

Democratic Party Rep. Kim Yong-min, who is in his first term, told The Korea Herald that the resolution reflects the party’s resolve to work with other opposition parties in the Assembly and civic groups to “form an anti-Yoon front.” “As the party that holds the majority in the Assembly, we have powers that we can exercise to work things out,” he said, one of which is “pressing the presidential office to enact a complete reshuffle of the Cabinet.”

The ruling party says dismissing all of the Cabinet ministers, as being demanded by the opposition, would lead to an inevitable, critical gap period until the next ministers are appointed.

The People Power Party’s chief floor spokesperson Rep. Kang Min-kuk told reporters on Sunday that the Democratic Party’s demands were “unrealistic.” “It’s only been a year and a few months, but the opposition party has asked for the firing or impeachment of ministers one too many times,” he said. Prior to the latest calls to impeach the defense minister, the Democratic Party had sought to impeach ministers of foreign affairs and interior.

The ruling party chief spokesperson also pointed out that the Democratic Party leader went on a hunger strike at a time when he was about to be summoned by prosecutors in a string of criminal allegations facing him.

As Lee grows weaker, Democratic Party lawmakers have been taking turns on overnight standby to respond in the event of a possible emergency. Over the weekend, Democratic Party lawmakers were seen keeping Lee company with a sign that said: “Mr. Chairman, end your fast. Let us fight on your behalf.”

Rep. Jang Kyung-tae on the party’s supreme council said in an Instagram post Sunday that given the length of his hunger strike, Lee was feared to suffer damage to his organs or worse yet, collapse. “We are facing such a sad state of things. We pledge to do everything we can to fight the atrocities being perpetrated by the Yoon Suk Yeol administration,” he wrote in the post.

The opposition leader’s continued hunger strike has agitated some of his most loyal fans, with a few of them erupting into a display of violence.

On Thursday evening, a woman who identified herself as a Lee Jae-myung supporter stabbed two police officers with a pair of scissors right outside the Assembly main building where he is holding his strike. Both officers sustained serious injuries from the attack. Then on Friday, a man was escorted out of the Assembly building after he brandished a cutter purportedly to injure himself in a bid urge the leader to stop fasting. The incidents led to the Assembly office beefing up security around the main gates.

The People Power Party’s leader Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon, suggesting a meeting with his Democratic Party counterpart, asked him to end his hunger strike for the second time on Saturday. “I respectfully ask Chairperson Lee to break his fast, and together work on what our parties can do to improve the Korean people’s lives as soon as he recovers,” he said.

Outside the Democratic Party base, views on Lee’s hunger strike are less sympathetic. Even within his own party, for some, sentiments have soured.

“Hunger strikes are the last resort for people who are marginalized, people who don’t have a platform and wouldn’t have media attention any other way. I don’t think this is the method the leader of the largest party in the Assembly should be using to get his way,” said a Democratic Party lawmaker who asked to be quoted anonymously.

Rep. Lee Won-wook, a three-time lawmaker with the Democratic Party, told a radio interview last week that the opposition leader was “only hurting himself” with the strike. “I don’t question his sincerity, but the problem is, it’s not entirely clear what he is aiming for,” he said. “There are a lot of things we could be doing, as the party holding 168 out of 298 seats in the Assembly, to keep the Yoon administration in check.”