Author: Jinwoo Kim, Sermo Institute of International Studies
Sometimes a political earthquake unfolds right before one’s eyes. Such was the case on 11 June 2021, when Lee Jun-seok was elected as the youngest leader of South Korea’s main conservative opposition party, the People Power Party (PPP). Riding the coat-tails of a convincing PPP sweep of by-elections in Seoul and Busan, the 36-year-old, Harvard-educated computer science major vowed to revamp South Korean politics.
Lee promises to cure the body politic that he says has fallen ill with President Moon Jae-in’s leftist statism, inflation and corruption. His medicine? A dose of meritocracy and equal opportunity, with transparency thrown in for good measure. It remains unclear whether his medicine is just a placebo.
In his acceptance speech, Lee paraphrased the analogy of the US salad bowl to showcase South Korea’s bibimbap, a national dish that consists of different vegetables mixed with rice and sauce into a unified meal. His message, hackneyed but clear, is that there is strength in diversity of opinion.
His default to this cliche should not be surprising. While Lee has been on the media talk circuit for over 10 years and is fluent in the game of the 30-second sound bite, he has never been elected to office. Established conservative leaders ridiculed the political lightweight and foretold calamity in the 2022 presidential elections if this amateur were to win. But win he did.
Undoubtedly, Lee has a smooth way with words. But the content of his speeches lacks substance which makes it hard to discern a lasting impression. Elements of Lee’s persona and philosophy can be gleaned from interviews in which he expounded on his fondness for former US president Barack Obama’s ‘One America’ speech and his testament to eradicate the PPP’s culture of entitlement.
Lee’s youth is both his strength and his weakness. Like any good promoter, he knows how to draw in an audience. In one of his first actions as party leader, Lee launched a political version of America’s Got Talent to select the PPP’s team of spokesmen. He exploited the South Korean public’s disgust with its leaders’ lack of accountability by casting a nationwide audition. After completion of this popular casting, he hinted at tapping the public once again for policy ideas.
Yet he needs to hit the books rather than hold another round of auditions. The works of Milton Friedman, Michael Oakeshott and Robert Nozick are recommended for the freshmen leader instead of the publicity strategies of Simon Cowell, Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins.
Going outside the party for fresh blood and ideas is alluring but risky. Contestants are judged by their performances in a single audition. Candidates build their expertise, earn their spirit and are tested and judged over a lifetime of experience — which takes time and hard work. Flash in the pan auditions may produce ratings, but they do not produce serious candidates. The public perhaps deserves better.
Political parties are not only for building consensus, instituting discipline and forming diverse opinions but for thorough vetting. Lee has his work cut out for him. He must navigate between the Scylla of popular sentiments and the Charybdis of party cohesion. He has to accommodate entrenched long timers, balance the pro-Park Geun-hye and reformist factions and dampen regional frictions. He also has to deal with Yoon Seuk-yeul — the rising star in South Korean politics and former prosecutor general under President Moon.
Lee’s unstated strategy for a conservative comeback relies on a supposed coalition of disenchanted progressives who regret supporting Moon, moderate conservatives and the proverbial middle. This may be short-sighted. Lee can only capture the swing voters in the centre after solidifying the base — he cannot continue to ground his strategy solely in a centre-as-base, ‘anti-Moon’ stance. Rallying the PPP and its eventual presidential nominee to offer the voters a clear vision for the country and promise regime change is a prerequisite.
Will Lee emerge as a strategic visionary or a tactical hack? He hasn’t espoused any genuine conservative principles — he has no position on taxes, minimum wage, nuclear energy or unemployment. He is also a blank slate on foreign policy. Lee may want to be president one day. But he must first lead the PPP to victory in the 2022 presidential election — the penultimate test of his spirit and credibility. Only then can he contemplate satiating his presidential ambitions.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that ‘talent develops in quiet, alone; character is sharpened in the torrent of the world’. Lee’s political talent is unquestionable. Whether he can forge the character to boldly confront the challenges of his leadership and achieve electoral victory remains to be seen.
Jinwoo Kim is Founder and President of the Sermo Institute of International Studies.