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Race begins for People Power Party leadership

Four star politicians enter fray to lead People Power Party

June 23, 2024 - 15:40 By Jung Min-kyung
Han Dong-hoon is surrounded by his supporters after making his candidacy announcement for the chairman of the ruling People Power Party at the National Assembly in western Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)

The race to become the leader of the nation’s conservative ruling party kicked off Sunday, with three star politicians declaring their candidacies throughout the day.

The announcements by former Justice Minister and onetime ruling party leader Han Dong-hoon, judge-turned-five-term lawmaker Rep. Na Kyung-won and former Land Minister Won Hee-ryong follow Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun’s declaration of candidacy on Friday.

The race is expected to be a monthlong four-candidate battle with crossfire aplenty, heading into the party convention scheduled for July 23, where the election is to take place.

Han, currently the front-runner in the race, addressed criticisms surrounding his previous role as the People Power Party interim leader in an afternoon announcement. A recent survey shows that over half of the ruling party's supporters plan to vote for the 51-year-old as the next party chairman.

The former justice minister took the helm of the party in December last year to lead the party into the April 10 parliamentary elections, but suffered a bitter defeat against the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, which won a decisive majority of 175 out of the 300 seats in the National Assembly.

“After a long and careful deliberation, I’ve changed my mind on my previous stance not to return to politics,” Han said in a press conference at the Assembly in western Seoul, while referring to his earlier remarks expressing his desire to take some time off from politics following the drubbing in April.

“I plan to turn my experience of defeat into soil for change, victory and (the power) to bring about the reinvention of the current administration,” he added.

Pointing toward criticisms of the ruling party as being influenced heavily by the decisions of President Yoon Suk Yeol, Han pledged to reestablish a “parallel relationship” with the presidential office.

“I don’t need to warm up (for the race) because I had first-hand experience when the party was going through its most desperate and difficult phase. I know what kinds of changes this party needs,” he explained.

Han joined the prosecution in 2001 and had long been Yoon's right-hand man, working alongside the eventual president on 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.

However, Han's relationship with Yoon began to sour when he took on the role of ruling party interim leader due to their failure to bridge gaps on various issues, including allegations that first lady Kim Keon Hee violated the antigraft regulations by receiving a luxury bag as a gift from a pastor in 2022.

In an announcement made an hour earlier than Han, Rep. Na vowed to bring the political conservatives “back in power.”

“I refuse to hand over the People Power Party to the hands of irresponsible, shameless and inexperienced politics,” Na declared, indirectly denouncing her rival Han.

“I plan to make the dream of bringing the conservatives back in power to reality,” she added.

She stressed her identity as a politician who is not part of the hard-line pro-Yoon faction, yet who remains amicable with the current administration.

“I am free (from such concerns). I do not have to be confrontational, nor do I have to walk on eggshells, which is why I can truly bring the Yoon Suk Yeol administration to victory,” the 60-year-old who was reelected in the spring's general election to represent the Dongjak-B constituency in southern Seoul said.

Won, who was the last to declare his candidacy among the three who made their announcements on Sunday, emphasized his strong ties with Yoon.

“This could be the last chance (for the conservatives to maintain power),” the 60-year-old prosecutor-turned-politician warned.

“I have a trusting relationship with the president, which is why I plan to deliver the opinions of the ruling party and the public to the president with honesty,” he added.

According to local pollster Gallup Korea on June 17, 59 percent of People Power Party supporters favored Han to be the next leader for the ruling party. Some 11 percent liked Won, while 10 percent chose Na. The survey, which involved 1,008 respondents aged 18 and older, was conducted before the politicians announced their candidacies.