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[News Analysis] After election defeat, where is ex-PPP leader headed?

Han Dong-hoon still has clout, but must be cautious in choosing his next steps, critics say

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : April 24, 2024 - 16:23

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Han Dong-hoon announces his resignation as chair of the People Power Party emergency response committee, at the ruling party headquarters in western Seoul, April 11. (Yonhap) Han Dong-hoon announces his resignation as chair of the People Power Party emergency response committee, at the ruling party headquarters in western Seoul, April 11. (Yonhap)

Following the ruling People Power Party’s bitter defeat in the April 10 parliamentary elections, the party's ex-interim leader Han Dong-hoon has faced a barrage of criticism.

The latest attack on Han, however, came not from a member of the main opposition party, but from a star politician in Han's own conservative bloc -- five-term lawmaker and Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo.

In recent weeks, Hong has labeled Han a “traitor” and a “political celebrity who only took selfies,” in multiple posts uploaded on Facebook or on the online community forum, The Youthdream, which was launched by the Daegu mayor in 2021. Hong also warned Han not to be “even seen near the party” and stressed that the ex-interim leader was no longer welcome in the People Power Party, all while blaming Han for the election loss.

Some joined in on Hong’s condemnation of the 51-year-old political novice, but others, like activist Kim Kyung-yul, who worked closely alongside the ex-interim leader as a former member of the ruling party’s emergency response committee, interpreted the Daegu mayor’s remarks as an attempt to bring down a potential opponent ahead of the 2027 presidential elections here.

The latest rift in the conservative bloc surrounding the prosecutor-turned-politician has prompted concerns among his followers that he might lose the support of the conservative voters. Despite all the commotion, all eyes are on whether Han will return to the battlefield in the race to become the next president.

In spite of the election loss, Han still remains one of the strongest potential candidates for the upcoming presidential elections in 2027, observers said, although his support rate has dwindled.

The latest poll released by Gallup Korea on April 19 showed that the support rate for Han as the next presidential candidate dropped by 9 percentage points to 15 percent from a record high of 24 percent in the first week of March.

The ex-ruling party interim leader ranked second in terms of support behind Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Jae-myung, who earned 24 percent.

Rebuilding Korea Party Chairman Cho Kuk came in third with 7 percent, while New Reform Party leader Lee Jun-seok and Daegu Mayor Hong each earned 3 percent support. The survey involved some 1,000 respondents across the country aged 18 or older.

“Support for Han as a politician continues to stand out among his peers,” Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University said via a phone interview.

“This means that he will remain a strong presidential candidate in the conservative bloc,” he added.

On top of the poll numbers, Shin pointed to Hong’s latest online posts as a sign that Han remains a threat to the Daegu mayor and other potential candidates such Lee Jae-myung and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, among others.

“Hong is seeking to join the next presidential race and with Han remaining in the top ranks, he is cutting down the competition (with his remarks),” Shin explained.

But Shin noted that Han would have to choose his next steps carefully if he wanted to stay in the race for the next presidential elections. Han is “likely to keep a low profile for the time being following the latest election loss,” according to the political expert.

Lee Kang-yun, a political commentator, echoed Shin's remarks, saying that Han remains a strong “potential candidate for the presidential race” and that his political career is “unlikely to end here.”

Han’s next steps remain largely a mystery, with the ex-interim leader having been relatively tight-lipped about his post-election plans.

Prior to stepping down from his position as chair of the ruling party's emergency response committee, Han revealed that he would do some charity work after his term as interim leader ends.

On possible scenarios tied to his political career, observers said that he could return for the 2026 parliamentary by-elections, but is unlikely to run for the next chairman of the ruling party. The People Power Party is currently gearing up to hold a national convention to name and pick their new leader in the coming months.

In a radio interview last week, political activist Kim Kyung-yul said, “There is zero possibility at the moment” that Han will run for the next chairman position.

Han was appointed as the ruling party’s interim leader in December last year, after former party chair Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon stepped down following a nine-month tenure. Kim had expressed hope to fuel intraparty reform through his resignation at the time.

Prior to his entry into politics, Han served as justice minister in President Yoon Suk-yeol’s Cabinet from May 2022 to December 2023.

Han joined the prosecution in 2001 and has been referred to as Yoon's right-hand man since then, working alongside the current president during his time as a prosecutor in investigations into high-profile cases.

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

Han earned his bachelor of law degree from the nation's top-ranked Seoul National University Law School and passed the Korean Bar exam in 1995. He earned a master's degree in law from Columbia Law School in New York in 2005 and was admitted to the New York State Bar shortly after.