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[Election Battlefield] Busan, long a conservative stronghold, braces for a close race

By Kim Arin

Published : March 20, 2024 - 18:52

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(The Korea Herald) (The Korea Herald)

BUSAN -- Known locally as “South Korea’s second capital,” Busan is home to some 3 million and a key battlefield in the upcoming National Assembly election just three weeks away.

Busan is also politically significant for South Korea, having been the birthplace of two presidents, Kim Young-sam and Roh Moo-hyun, who are symbolic figures with the conservative party and the progressive party, respectively.

Here, the fiercest battle is expected in Nam-gu, the only district in the country where two sitting lawmakers -- People Power Party Rep. Park Soo-young and Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Park Jae-ho -- are pitted against each other in the same district that they represent.

Nam-gu used to have two constituencies, or legislative voting districts, until last month when the National Election Commission decided to merge them into one due to a shrinking population.

For the last two elections at least, half of Nam-gu elected People Power Party candidate as its lawmaker and the other half Democratic Party’s. Now, the two lawmakers will now have to compete for one seat.

Rep. Park Soo-young (center) of the ruling People Power Party speaks to The Korea Herald at Peace Park in Nam-gu, Busan, Sunday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald) Rep. Park Soo-young (center) of the ruling People Power Party speaks to The Korea Herald at Peace Park in Nam-gu, Busan, Sunday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
People Power Party Rep. Park Soo-young, sitting at the table in the red that represents his party, says he is setting up booths around the neighborhood every weekend to meet and hear out local residents in person. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald) People Power Party Rep. Park Soo-young, sitting at the table in the red that represents his party, says he is setting up booths around the neighborhood every weekend to meet and hear out local residents in person. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

“The general election in April is not my election alone,” Park of the People Power Party told The Korea Herald. “Busan is the critical line of defense as ratings in Seoul are suffering. We have to win back the three seats we lost to the Democratic Party to make up for possible losses in the capital area.”

Park said his goal was to make the district “thrive once again.” He has put forth policies that center around bringing in public infrastructure, namely the Korea Development Bank that is now in Seoul, to the Busan International Finance Center in Nam-gu.

He said moving the bank, which has over 3,000 employees, would be a major boost for the city’s economy and in line with the administration's efforts to balance growth outside of Seoul. Along with the bank, he has pledged to build a K-12 international school in the neighborhood to encourage foreign companies to settle there.

The plan has the support of the president, who as recently as in February said he backed the bank’s relocation. In a visit to Busan in early January, the ruling party interim leader Han Dong-hoon also said it was one of the party’s top priorities, saying it would happen “without fail.”

For his party, Park has played the role of a strategist, heading the People Power Party think tank, the Yeouido Institute, which is in charge of running polls and shaping campaign strategies. Before entering politics, he was an elite public official who earned his master’s degree in public policy from Harvard.

Rep. Park Jae-ho of the Democratic Party of Korea, who is running to reclaim his seat in the typically conservative city, speaks to The Korea Herald on Sunday at Peace Park in Nam-gu, Busan. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald) Rep. Park Jae-ho of the Democratic Party of Korea, who is running to reclaim his seat in the typically conservative city, speaks to The Korea Herald on Sunday at Peace Park in Nam-gu, Busan. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)
Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Park Jae-ho, clad in the blue that represents his party, speaks with residents at a park in Nam-gu, Busan, where he is running to be lawmaker, Sunday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald) Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Park Jae-ho, clad in the blue that represents his party, speaks with residents at a park in Nam-gu, Busan, where he is running to be lawmaker, Sunday. (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

On the other hand, the main campaign strategy of the Democratic Party, not just in Busan but overall, is to play up anti-Yoon sentiments.

Park of the Democratic Party, running to reclaim his seat for the third time, told The Korea Herald that while his district’s voters are older and typically conservative, he feels the “demand for a change to be high.”

“People tell me how disappointed they are with Yoon. Just look at the Dior bag controversy,” he said. In February, a controversy erupted after an online outlet aired a surreptitiously filmed clip of First Lady Kim Keon-hee seemingly accepting a pricey bag from an acquaintance.

“Of course this is Busan, so there are people who like the president. But that’s the beauty of democracy.”

He eschewed commenting on Rep. Lee Jae-myung, who during his recent trip to Busan was caught on tape telling a crowd that if they were voting conservative, they better not vote at all. The remarks sparked outrage from the Busan people.

“I am not anybody’s minion. No member of the Assembly should be. The only voice that I represent is that of the people,” he said.

Like his rival, the Democratic Party lawmaker said if elected, he would push to have the Korea Development Bank relocated to his district. “One of my chief goals is to make our city younger. To do that you need to create well-paying, decent jobs,” he said.

Park was a senior secretary for the two presidents from Busan, Kim and Roh, at Cheong Wa Dae.

BANNER WARS -- At a busy intersection in Nam-gu, Busan, a banner hung by the People Power Party promotes its pledge to move the Korea Development Bank to Busan. In the image below it, another banner installed by the Democratic Party of Korea nearby reads, “Mr. President, are you out of your mind?” (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald) BANNER WARS -- At a busy intersection in Nam-gu, Busan, a banner hung by the People Power Party promotes its pledge to move the Korea Development Bank to Busan. In the image below it, another banner installed by the Democratic Party of Korea nearby reads, “Mr. President, are you out of your mind?” (Kim Arin/The Korea Herald)

The Yoon risk

After a series of what many see as missteps by the Yoon Suk Yeol presidential office, the ruling party ratings have plunged, the latest polls show. Since the beginning of March, the ratings for the ruling party have dropped by a whopping 17 percentage points, falling behind the rival Democratic Party.

One of the administration’s blunders affecting Busan is its bid for the World Expo, the hyped-up contest that it ended up losing.

Speaking to The Korea Herald, Park of the Democratic Party said in Busan, the disappointment following the loss was “indescribable.”

He said, however, it was unclear whether it would be a plus for him or his party in this election. “Certainly people were disappointed, but it’s hard to tell whether it’s an important enough factor to influence how they cast their ballots,” he said.

The prospects of the failed World Expo bid translating to votes are “not very high,” according to Kim Hee-jung, a two-time lawmaker who once served as the gender equality minister.

She told The Korea Herald on Saturday that she doesn’t believe winning the Expo was high on the priorities for many voters in Busan.

“Competing in the bid to host the Expo kind of put Busan on the map. We were up against cities like Rome, which even Seoul would have had a hard time beating,” said Kim, who is a returning candidate with the People Power Party.

“The importance of victory in Busan cannot be stressed enough for our party to win a majority in the next Assembly,” Kim Dae-sik, the former head of the Yeouido Institute running in another Busan district, told The Korea Herald on Saturday. “That said, it is so important that no deadly mistakes are made up in Seoul.”

No guaranteed win

Busan voters warn a conservative win is not a guarantee. Out of the 18 seats in Busan, just three are currently held by the Democratic Party.

A married couple in their 30s, who declined to give their names, said they found neither party’s policy promises to be appealing.

“I guess moving the development bank wouldn’t be bad in terms of property investments, but it’s one of those things that feels out of touch with everyday South Koreans,” said one of the couple, who said she works at a government-run child welfare facility.

“I’m not seeing policies that help mothers like myself take care of young children and also make a living. This may be one of the reasons why young people are leaving,” she said.

The main point of complaint was the cost of living for a senior citizen, 79, named Kim Sook-nyeo. She said she voted conservative all her life but was considering switching parties for the first time in the April election.

“Anybody who shops for groceries will tell you how expensive everything has gotten. But you rarely see politicians talking about it,” she said. “I don’t necessarily support the Democratic Party in the election, but I hope they do well because I don’t think the government is doing its job properly.”

Conservatives would be mistaken to think they face an easy victory in Busan, according to a 50-something cab driver who said he has lived in the city all his life. “Busan is not blindly loyal. We are not like Daegu,” he said, referring to a heavily conservative-voting city up north.