In the conflict-laden arena of South Korean politics, reform is a much-abused word that often rings hollow and invokes skepticism. Politicians from both ruling and main opposition parties have long disappointed the public by only talking up the need for reforms without taking the real steps necessary to overhaul their parties.
The ruling People Power Party appointed Ihn Yo-han, also known as John Linton, as the chair of its innovation committee on Monday. Ihn, a professor at Yonsei University College of Medicine and Korea’s first special naturalized citizen, is now expected to play a crucial role of implementing reforms for a party still reeling from its crushing defeat in the Oct. 11 by-election for the head of Seoul’s western Gangseo-gu.
In the by-election held in a district with a number of swing voters, the People Power Party suffered a defeat to the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea by a margin of 39 percent to 56 percent.
Given that the election was widely seen as a preview of the general election scheduled for April next year, such a decisive defeat was more than a wake-up call for the ruling party leadership.
That is why the People Power Party tried to launch the innovation committee to reverse sliding public support. The appointment of Ihn as chief of the committee draws attention because his notable background sheds light on what the ruling party intends to achieve politically.
Ihn, a descendant of an American missionary and a physician who helped establish democracy in Korea in the 1980s, was born in 1959 in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, a region traditionally associated with the progressive bloc and the Democratic Party.
Although Ihn worked on the transition team for former President Park Geun-hye in 2012, he has largely stayed away from politics -- until now. Compared with other familiar political figures, there is no question that Ihn stands out in a way that rekindles hopes for change in a ruling party struggling to shore up its base of voters.
Upon his appointment, Ihn said the People Power Party must “change everything except wives and children,” borrowing the famous words from the late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee. His remark suggests that comprehensive reforms are needed to bring change to the party.
In reaffirming his will to spearhead reforms, Ihn also said that there would be no change without sacrifice, signaling that the party members may have to deal with painful developments in the process of a drastic reform push.
However, it is far from clear whether Ihn can truly transform the ruling party in line with his ambitious vision. The task of overhauling the party’s longstanding practices and paving the way for victory in the forthcoming general elections for the National Assembly is easier said than done. To achieve the goal and meet expectations, Ihn needs overwhelming, if not unlimited, authority and mandate in implementing reforms that could displease or anger key party members.
Unfortunately, some political observers claim that ruling party leader Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon might be one such figure opposed to real reforms. Kim publicly said Monday that Ihn will get the party’s full support in transforming the People Power Party into “a party that South Korean people will trust.”
But critics say Kim is unlikely to hand over much authority to Ihn since he had attached too many conditions in screening candidates for the head of the innovation committee. He reportedly did not want a figure with a high profile; nor did he want a person who would push drastic reforms and demand unlimited authority.
It remains to be seen whether Kim and ruling party members would fully empower Ihn to push ahead with much-needed reform steps and follow his lead. If they fail to change, the People Power Party could find itself in a difficult situation in the upcoming election.