South Korea Conservatives Divided Over Apology to Repair Image
Park Geun-hye, former president of South Korea, left, is escorted by a prison officer in 2017 in Seoul. (Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg)

South Korea Conservatives Divided Over Apology to Repair Image

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A plan to apologize for the corruption of two past presidents has sparked a rift in South Korea’s main conservative party, potentially undermining its chances of retaking power 16 months ahead of a presidential election.

The interim chief of the main opposition People Power Party, Kim Chong-in, sees the landmark apology as a way to repair a toxic image and lure back swing voters who lost faith in the group after Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye -- both conservatives -- were imprisoned for graft.

“It’s about time,” Kim told reporters about the apology Sunday. The occasion may come in the next few weeks, according to two senior party officials who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. Kim could make the apology as soon as Wednesday, the fourth anniversary of Park’s impeachment, one of the officials said.

Some conservatives see his plan as a step too far that will turn off the party base. Signs of a rift in the group come after the party’s support in August exceeded that of President Moon Jae-in’s progressive Democratic Party for the first time in four years. A downturn could endanger its plans to take back the the mayorships of Seoul and Busan in April and win the presidency in March 2022.

“Our traditional supporters are turning their backs on us,” Jang Je-won, a three-term conservative lawmaker, said in a phone interview, calling Kim’s push unilateral. “We should instead focus on criticizing the policies of the Moon administration,” Jang added.

Internal Squabbles

A spokeswoman for the party, Bae Hyun-jin, slammed Kim on Facebook on Monday, saying he should apologize for contributing to the ruling Democratic Party and thus to the Moon administration in the past. Kim was the interim leader for the Democratic Party from January to August 2016.

Rhee Chong-hoon, a former conservative lawmaker who’s now a professor at Myongji University in Seoul, said the fight indicates that the party may be focused more on internal squabbles than plotting a comprehensive strategy to take power.

“It lacks the ability to set the agenda and is failing to lead the conservative push in Korean politics,” Rhee said. “If the trend continues, the conservatives have little chance of winning the election scheduled in April.”

A bigger risk is for the row to intensify and become another chapter in the history of South Korean political parties splintering. There is also tension in the ruling progressive camp as it tries to find a new standard bearer to replace Moon, whose single, five-year term ends in 2022.

Interim conservative leader Kim has been trying to pick up support from voters dissatisfied with Moon’s progressive policies, which opinion polls show many believe have not done enough to rein in runaway real estate prices or reduce income inequality. Kim has introduced a pledge to seek a basic income for all citizens, a goal more often associated with liberals.

“We need to appeal to moderate voters and expand our support,” PPP spokesman Yoon Hee-seok said in a phone interview. “We’ve never made a proper apology to our people despite the misdeeds of our past presidents. It’s time for us to show that we are different now.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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