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An ‘Orange Revolution’ in South Korean Politics?

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An ‘Orange Revolution’ in South Korean Politics?

Ousted PPP chair Lee Jun-seok has started his own political party. Will his New Reform Party become a force to be reckoned with?

An ‘Orange Revolution’ in South Korean Politics?

PPP presidential candidate (and future South Korean president) Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and then-PPP chair Lee Jun-seok (holding Yoon’s hand) campaign together in Seoul on July 25, 2021, before their falling out and Lee’s ouster from his party leadership position.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ 고려

On January 20, Lee Jun-Seok, a former head of South Korea’s ruling party, and his supporters launched a new political party named the New Reform Party. This new party has attracted strong public and media attention throughout the country, evidenced by hundreds of media reports and the presence of leading politicians, including South Korea’s former prime minister, at the launch event.

Lee, a Harvard graduate, has generated more news than any other political figure in South Korea since the summer of 2021, when he was unexpectedly elected as the head of then the largest opposition party, People Power Party (PPP). At just 36 years old, Lee became the youngest politician to ever head a major political party in South Korea

After his election as the party leader in June 2021, Lee successfully led the PPP’s presidential campaign, making its candidate Yoon Suk-yeol South Korea’s new president in 2022. Yoon had been a political outsider but gained popular support for his stance against South Korea’s former regime on a politically sensitive case in his capacity as the head of the prosecution service.

Lee’s innovative political campaign not only led to Yoon’s victory in South Korea’s presidential election held in March 2022, but also racked up huge gains in South Korea’s local elections in June 2022. Despite these victories, the newly elected Yoon was known to harbor resentment against him. Generational culture gaps – Yoon is 63 years old – and internal power struggles caused acute disagreements between them during the presidential election campaign. 

Yoon’s resentment of Lee had serious consequences for South Korean politics. It influenced and empowered Lee’s opponents to act against him, which resulted in Lee’s expulsion from his party leadership position in July 2022, shortly after the PPP’s victories in the local elections. The party’s ethics committee convened sessions to address charges made against Lee for a supposed attempt to conceal evidence concerning sexual misconduct that allegedly happened ten years before.

None of these charges, including Lee’s alleged sexual misconduct, was proven, and it was even unclear whether the party’s disciplinary committee had the authority to impose disciplinary action against the elected party head. However, the committee nevertheless decided to suspend Lee’s party membership in July 2022, and this decision led to his removal from the party leadership position later that year.

This was the first case in South Korean history in which an elected head of a major political party was removed by the actions of the party’s disciplinary committee. Lee’s expulsion made for a dramatic political saga, considering that he had  won two major elections – the presidential and regional elections – for the PPP, which had lost the four preceding major elections since 2016.

Since Lee’s controversial removal from the party leadership, Yoon’s approval rate dropped below 40 percent. In addition to Lee’s expulsion, which cost him support from the younger generation, Yoon also deviated from the majority’s preference by emphasizing his conservative political stance and failing to work with the opposition party, which holds the majority of seats in South Korea’s legislature. This failure means that his administration has been unable to address South Korea’s significant economic and social issues effectively, as doing so requires new legislation and support from the opposition. 

Over 18 months after Lee’s ouster, the political situation does not seem to have improved for the president and the ruling party. South Korea’s general election is scheduled to be held in April, now less than three months away, and given Yoon’s low approval rate and the ruling party’s unpopularity, it seems rather unlikely for the PPP to win majority control of the National Assembly.

Against that backdrop, in December 2023, Lee left the ruling party he had once led and recently formed a new party, calling for changes in South Korea’s politics. His new party has significant implications for South Korean politics, not only because of Lee’s objections to Yoon, whom he once supported in the last presidential campaign. The New Reform Party represents a new political focus and is bringing new dynamics to South Korea’s political scene.

First, Lee has “digitalized” the political process in South Korea. When Lee first suggested that he could leave the PPP and form a new political party, several commentators expressed doubts that he had the financial and personnel resources to do so. Surprisingly, Lee recruited over 50,000 members for his party in only a few days, and he did it through an online campaign and internet application process. 

Lee’s approach represents a new innovation that significantly economizes the political process and broadens political participation across the board. Lee’s innovation did not begin with his new party. He won the election for the PPP leadership in 2021 through online and media engagements with the aid of only a few assistants and a modest budget. Lee had also used online platforms to increase the membership of the PPP by hundreds of thousands. Now, his digital strength and innovation empower his new party, which he has successfully formed at an unprecedented speed with a membership of over 50,000 from all age groups and regions in South Korea.

Beyond his digital approach, Lee’s focus on pragmatic policies – rather than the power politics so often seen in South Korea – raises hopes for many South Koreans who have waited to see more “productive politics” to address their real economic and social issues. Lee has announced a series of new policies, including one to minimize political influence on media by mandating employee approval for the government appointment of the head of state-financed media outlets, such as Korea Broadcasting Service (KBS). 

Lee has shown the courage to announce policies that might be beneficial in the long run but are likely be unpopular and face challenges in the short run. For example, Lee is calling to stop a free subway ride benefit for the elderly (those over 65), which has been in place since the 1980s, and replace it with a transportation voucher and a discounted fare scheme. In a fast-aging country such as South Korea, where a third of the population is expected to be in this age category, this type of reform is necessary but has provoked resistance and criticism from many elderly South Koreans. 

Lee’s political initiatives face three challenges. First, the new party’s success will be measured by its performance in the upcoming general election in April. As is the case in the United States, South Korean politics have been dominated for decades by two major parties, one more conservative (the People Power Party, currently holding the presidency) and another more liberal (the Democratic Party, currently in control of the legislature). Each party commands over 40 percent support in most elections. 

Many say that PPP and DP supporters are not likely to vote for a third party, even if they may not be completely satisfied with their own parties. However, there is a growing popular sentiment that the power politics of these two parties have reached a dead end, and a third party, which will focus on pragmatic policies that will actually help the voters’ lives, is necessary. Lee will have to garner support from this segment of the population to secure a meaningful number of legislative seats in the upcoming election.

The second challenge for Lee and his party is to develop and implement policies that will gain support from the general population. The policies that he has announced so far have drawn a degree of interest but do not seem to address the most important problems that the country faces, such as South Korea’s population decline on the back of the world’s lowest birth rate, serious economic difficulties prevalent among small and medium-sized businesses and general economic stagnation, and deepening security issues arising from North Korea’s military and nuclear threats. 

Lee also faces a misperception that some of his policy proposals, such as requiring a military service record for both men and women applying for certain public official positions, are gender-dividing, when his policies promote more of a merit-based system across the board and may have an effect of reducing favorable treatment for certain segments of population.

Finally, Lee’s new party is a leading alternative to the two major parties, but it’s not the only one. Several other political dissidents, including a former South Korean prime minister, are also forming their own parties. Voters who wish to support a third party could be split if they remain separate from each other. Lee will have to show political leadership to create a united or coordinated front, encompassing these new players that span the political spectrum. This is a necessary step to build a lasting new political force in South Korea that can make meaningful changes.

It remains to see whether Lee’s “Orange Revolution” (following his new party’s chosen color) will indeed become a reality and turn South Korea’s decades-old power politics into something that is more productive and can actually pave the way for the country’s future. Regardless, Lee’s innovative initiatives have already marked a new development in South Korean politics and will leave a mark on the upcoming general election.