Send to

[Election Battlefield] Political novice to face off star politician in ‘swing district’

In Dongjak-B, ex-police officer critique of Yoon competes with 4-term lawmaker Na Kyung-won

March 27, 2024 - 15:30 By Jung Min-kyung

Na Kyung-won, co-chair of the People Power Party election campaign committee and four-term lawmaker, greets commuters returning from work at Sadang Station in southern Seoul on Monday. (Jung Min-kyung/ The Korea Herald)

On a rainy Monday afternoon in Dongjak-gu, southwestern Seoul, four-term lawmaker and star politician Na Kyung-won stepped inside the underground Sadang Station around 5:50 p.m. to greet tired commuters returning home from work.

Faces of several Dongjak-gu residents who spotted the 60-year-old former judge-turned-politician lit up as they approached her to shake hands. Some even took photos with her, acting like excited fans who finally met their rock star.

Greeting commuters returning from work at major subway stations is a common campaign strategy for legislative election candidates such as Na. She will be competing as the ruling People Power Party candidate against political novice and former senior police superintendent Ryu Sam-young in the upcoming April 10 legislative election to represent Dongjak-B.

Dongjak-B, one of the two constituencies in the district with a population of some 380,000 sandwiched between the conservative stronghold of Gangnam-gu and the progressive haven of Guro-gu, is Na’s turf. She has represented the area for three consecutive terms from July 2014 to May 2020, winning her the title of the longest-serving Dongjak representative.

Though she lost to former judge and ex-Democratic Party Rep. Lee Su-jin in the previous 2020 election, she is now determined to win Dongjak-B back.

“I have a good feeling about the upcoming election,” Na told The Korea Herald after wrapping up her afternoon schedule.

“I’m very lucky that the residents of Dongjak-gu acknowledge my efforts to make the district a better place,” she added.

Na Kyung-won poses for a photo with a supporter at Sadang Station on Monday. (Jung Min-kyung/ The Korea Herald)

Her confidence stems from the love she has received from Dongjak-gu residents as a familiar face.

According to a poll by KStat Research conducted on March 22-24, 44 percent of the voters living in Dongak-gu chose Na as their next lawmaker to represent their district. Some 34 percent chose Ryu, while the remaining respondents chose neither or not to answer. The survey involved 500 voters aged 18 or older.

Shin Jin-soon, a 68-year-old restaurant owner who has resided in Dongjak-gu for the past 16 years was an avid supporter of Na.

“She is wonderful. I think she did everything for the community when she was our representative,” Shin said as she looked back at Na while going up the escalator.

“She is one of us in a way -- she is a mother who understands the importance of education and how painful it is to deal with the fast-rising prices of groceries such as agricultural and livestock products,” she added.

Na was well-respected among her supporters, as a Busan District Court judge-turned-lawmaker. She earned both her Bachelor and Master of Law and a doctorate in international law at the prestigious Seoul National University. She is also a mother of two children, and has advocated for the disabled community here, as her eldest daughter has Down syndrome.

But not all Dongjak residents were fans of Na. Some commuters returning from work openly expressed disdain for the candidate, avoiding eye contact with Na or frowning and shaking their heads disapprovingly.

“I think it’s time that we need a fresh representative. Nothing around this area has improved while (Na) was our representative,” said Cho Eui-taek, a 71-year-old recently retired office worker and a Dongjak resident of 20 years.

Swing voters

As reflected in its geographical location, Dongjak could be reasonably won by either the progressive party or the conservative party. The conservative party and the progressive party have each won four times and five times, respectively, in a total of nine legislative elections held since 1987, when South Korea ended decades-long military regimes while adopting several democratic reforms.

The poll numbers are in favor of Na, as the latest KStat Research survey showed that Na took the lead ahead of Ryu by a margin of 10 percentage points. But with Dongjak viewed as a “swing district,” her victory is far from certain. The previous election was also a close call with Lee defeating Na by a narrow margin of 7.1 percentage points at 52.1 percent. Na won 45 percent. Lee was also a political novice at the time, much like the current Democratic Party candidate Ryu.

In an attempt to win over the swing voters, Ryu carried out his meet-and-greet session for subway commuters Tuesday afternoon at Isu Station, located just one station away from where Na’s event took place the previous day.

Ryu Sam-young, former police superintendent, poses for a photo with a supporter near Isu Station on Tuesday. (Jung Min-kyung/ The Korea Herald)

“I will do everything to contribute to bring down the current dictatorship regime,” the 59-year-old candidate told a supporter.

As he wrapped up his meet-and-greet session and walked into the nearby Namsung Sagye Market to continue his schedule, he told The Korea Herald, that his main goal was to “bring peace to the district after helping end the Yoon Suk Yeol administration.”

The goal is in line with Ryu’s identity -- a police superintendent who resigned after leading a meeting of about 50 senior police officers nationwide in 2022 against the establishment of a police oversight bureau. The bureau was launched regardless of fierce opposition from the police.

“The current People Power Party candidate won’t bring any change to the community. She is an avid supporter of the Yoon administration and has failed to bring any change here as a representative of Dongjak-gu,” he explained.

Ryu walks into Namsung Sagye Market near Isu Station in southern Seoul on Tuesday (Jung Min-kyung/ The Korea Herald)

Election pledges

Na’s key policy pledge is about improving education in the district. Her goal is to make the quality of education on par with those of the neighboring Gangnam’s, Na told The Korea Herald.

"I think improving education in Dongjak-gu is my most important policy. I plan to allow schools to have an option of adopting Swiss-style IB school programs," she said.

Building a high-speed train that connects Seoul’s southern Gangnam area to the central Gwanghwamun area is another pledge she has announced.

Ryu, on the other hand, seeks to improve the business and livelihoods of those in the district. He pledges to hand out benefits to the small business owners and traditional markets in the area.

"It's all about improving livelihood and controlling inflation in the end," he said as he walked through the traditional market.