The Korea Herald


Justice minister becomes interim leader of ruling party

Accepting party's call, Han says he wants to help socially vulnerable, improve livelihoods of Koreans

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Dec. 21, 2023 - 14:52

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Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon attends a meeting at the National Assembly on Wednesday. (Yonhap) Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon attends a meeting at the National Assembly on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon on Thursday stepped down to take on the role of interim leader of the ruling party, heeding the growing calls to steer the party through next year's general election.

President Yoon Suk Yeol officially accepted Han's offer to resign from his current post, hours after he had expressed his intention to step down earlier in the day.

The Justice Ministry explained that Han decided to take on the role of chairman of the People Power Party‘s emergency leadership committee.

"I wanted to be good at my job -- to improve the livelihoods of my fellow Korean citizens and take the side of the socially vulnerable," he said as he left the ministry, where he has worked for 18 months.

"I credit everything I've done that has earned a great response from our citizens to my fellow colleagues at the Justice Ministry. I wish everyone well."

Officially recommending Han as the interim leader of the party, People Power Party Floor Leader Rep. Yun Jae-ok said earlier in the day that Han will be the most innovative leader to achieve political reform.

"Han is expected to be the youngest-ever interim leader who is capable of bringing about a political reform to the party," Yun said in a press briefing held Thursday.

"The chairman of the emergency leadership committee must have a clear goal and the right sense for picking people, as he will be tasked with leading our party through next year's election," he added.

The emergency committee that Han is set to lead will be launched within this year, he said. The party decision was shared with the presidential office, stressing that there was no interruption from the office.

Han's upcoming role is projected to resolve the ruling party's current leadership void from former chairman Kim Gi-hyeon's decision to resign last week. Kim had stepped down in a surprise move, which was widely seen as an effort to support intraparty reform to win back voter trust.

Several ruling party heavyweights had since mentioned that the 50-year-old was a strong candidate to head the party's emergency leadership committee.

Some lawmakers mentioned that Han's popularity among voters of all ages, especially among young Koreans, will help improve the ruling party's "outdated" image.

"Han's good reputation and his ability to deliver messages clearly and concisely has attributed to his popularity among voters of all ages," People Power Party Rep. Yoo Sang-bum said in a Tuesday radio interview.

Han, viewed as Yoon's right-hand man after working closely beside him for nearly a decade as both a prosecutor and a Cabinet member, had been relatively tight-lipped on taking the role of interim leader in the weeks leading up to Thursday's announcement.

Skeptics, meanwhile, have been pointing out Han's lack of political experience, which Han brushed off on Tuesday by telling reporters that a "real crisis" comes not from a lack of experience, but when people try to be either too calculating or play it too safe.

Politicians and political commentators have been comparing Han to Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598), a distinguished naval commander during the Joseon era.

"Admiral Yi appeared when we had only 12 ships left, then pulled off a last-minute victory against the Japanese in the Imjin War," Yoo Heung-soo, a former four-term lawmaker and standing adviser to the party, told reporters on Wednesday.

Yoo explained that the ruling party is trapped in a similar situation with "only 12 ships left" and that he expects Han to step in to lead the party into victory in the upcoming election.

Referring to Yoo's comment, political commentator Chin Jung-kwon said in a Thursday radio interview the Yi Sun-shin narrative would work in Han’s favor based on his relationship with the president.

"The outcomes will vary on how much Han can voice his own opinions against Yoon," Chin said.

Han is a legal elite who joined the prosecution in 2001.

He worked under Yoon on a corruption scandal probe in 2016 that led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye. He has led investigations into a slew of key corruption cases against former ministers and business leaders as well.

Han earned his bachelor of law degree from Seoul National University Law School, and passed the Korean bar exam in 1995. He has a master of laws degree from Columbia Law School in New York in 2005, and was admitted to the New York state bar shortly after.