Ahn Cheol-soo on the State of South Korean Politics

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Ahn Cheol-soo on the State of South Korean Politics

An interview with the former third-party presidential candidate turned PPP lawmaker.

Ahn Cheol-soo on the State of South Korean Politics
Credit: Kenji Yoshida

A seismic shift is underway in South Korean politics as April’s general election looms.

In January, former leaders of the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) separately broke off to form two new parties. 

Lee Jun-seok, the disgruntled ex-PPP chief, now heads the New Revolution Party with over 50,000 registered members. Meanwhile, former DP leader and five-time elected heavyweight Lee Nak-yon left his team to launch the New Future Party. Their departures have kept the establishment on edge, as the two Lees have not ruled out the possibility of a coalition. 

Party abandonment is on a rising trajectory. Over a dozen local and state-level lawmakers departed from the DP this month alone, including bigwig Lee Sang-min, who joined the rival PPP. The governing party also lost three of its politicians in the same month, one of whom allied with Lee Jun-seok.   

This trend has spilled over to a third party. Last week, first-term assemblywoman Ryu Ho-jeong announced she was leaving the Justice Party – the third biggest party in the country – to seek a new path. 

How the newly founded groups will influence the electoral calculus is anyone’s guess. What are politicians themselves thinking of the turbulent situation? 

In an interview with The Diplomat, Ahn Cheol-soo, a three-time lawmaker currently with the ruling PPP, shared insights into the nation’s pre-election drama and offered guidance to his party. Having served as the head of four different parties and campaigned in presidential and Seoul mayoral races, Ahn knows South Korean politics inside out. 

Major changes are occurring in the political sphere before the April election. Some people are creating new parties, some are leaving parties, and some are forming fresh alliances. What does this mean for the ruling PPP?

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration is heading into its third year. President Yoon, inheriting a divided assembly, with the opposition DP holding the majority of seats, had difficulty pursuing many of his hallmark policies. 

April’s election will determine whether a legislative stalemate will continue to hinder President Yoon’s political ambitions. The success of the remaining three-year tenure of the Yoon administration is predicated on the triumph in April – that’s how crucial this election is for the president and his ruling PPP. 

Third parties are also ramping up their activities. You are one of the handful of politicians in South Korea to form and lead a formidable third party. How do you assess the current situation? 

We need to analyze the so-called third-party forces in relative terms. Our country’s political structures inherently favor a two-party system, so a third party is essentially a “dependent variable.” However, third parties tend to attract more attention when an establishment abandons basic principles and fails to provide for its constituents’ basic needs.

As someone who has spearheaded third parties for many years, I’m often asked why they frequently fail to exert influence in Seoul. The answer is, again, a relative one. 

Take, for instance, Germany. Third parties in the Bundestag are able to survive and thrive because the country opted for a party-list proportional representation system. In Germany, constituents often vote to their taste, as there are no dead votes. In South Korea, constituents often vote for the most electable candidate. It has everything to do with the system and structure. 

The PPP has also experienced party defection over the past few weeks. A recent poll shows the rival DP taking a slight lead over the PPP in a hypothetical race. What changes are required for your party to reclaim a majority in the assembly? 

There are three main prerequisites. 

First, the PPP and Yongsan [presidential office] must establish a horizontal and constructive relationship. Unlike the legislature, the executive branch is in a position to implement policies not entirely in line with people’s will. Contrastingly, we legislators know firsthand what our district desires and the will of our voters. Therefore, party members and the presidential office should constantly hash out ideas and be able to point out any shortcomings on both sides. 

Second, our party and the executive branch should strive to fill positions with competent candidates with clean track records. This applies to nominating parliamentary candidates, cabinet members, and staff members of the presidential office. 

Finally, we need a clear redirection in priorities. Until mid-last year, the president put ideology above all else. But lately, he has shifted his focus to improving people’s livelihood and revitalizing the economy. This is praiseworthy, but more is required in areas like the rapidly aging population, low birthrate, regional disproportion, and reinvigoration industries tied to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

In December, the PPP nominated former Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon as acting chairman. As someone who has headed many parties, what advice would you give Han? 

Han’s undertakings heretofore have largely centered on meeting and greeting party members in various electoral districts. But from here on, he needs to reach out to centrists to expand PPP’s base.  

Han also needs to expedite the implementation of the “second annex office” that manages and oversees the activities of the first lady. Likewise, a special inspector who oversees the presidential office free of external pressures must be appointed immediately. Former President Moon Jae-in neglected to do this in his 5-year stint. 

In fact, I conveyed these points to Han when we met [in mid-January]. 

You are sometimes criticized for moving from left to right and not taking a clear ideological position on certain issues. What do you say to those critics? 

The most important elements of politics are national security, protecting our citizens, and preserving people’s livelihoods. If you observe a problem from an ideological lens alone, the answer is always pre-determined. Take, for example, our foreign policy postures vis-a-vis North Korea and Japan. Seoul’s relationship with our neighboring states constantly changes, so having a fixed ideological stance is not necessarily in our nation’s best interest. 

I always aspire to be a politician with a sense of balance. In her “The Story of the Roman People,” Nanami Shiono, a prominent Japanese novelist, said the following about moderation: “Being balanced is not about standing still in the center of the spectrum. It’s a process of swinging back and forth between extremes, constantly searching for the optimal point.” I carved these words deeply into my heart. 

Granting that some of the criticisms against me are valid, I have never shifted my core principles or values in my 11-year political career. 

Can you share with us some of your future plans? Will you be running for the presidency in 2027?

I unified my candidacy with then-presidential candidate Yoon in the 2022 presidential election because I noticed that third parties are ineffective in South Korea without a structural change. People tend to forget this, but I am a “voter” just as much as I am a “lawmaker.” In other words, I also need to choose the best candidate to lead our country. That is what I did in the last election. 

And my decision didn’t come lightly. I spent some 7 billion won [about $5 million] running my campaign out of my pocket, none of which was reimbursed. In South Korea, the Election Commission reimburses all campaign expenditures if a candidate receives more than 15 percent of the vote – I was polling at 17 percent. But in politics, second and third places are pointless. 

You asked about whether I’ll run again in 2027. In many respects, running for the presidency is not up to the individual but to a higher being. There needs to be a national calling and a defining spirit of the time. And, of course, you as a candidate have to reflect those ethos and sentiments – what Germans, I believe, call zeitgeist.  

I had the privilege of experiencing so much in my relatively short political career. In some sense, more so than our respected former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam. But I certainly don’t take the credit. I owe everything to my supporters. So, right now, I wish to focus on giving back by helping my party and the president succeed.