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(News Focus) Ruling party row deepens as winning allies Yoon, ex-PPP chair Lee turn into foes

Politics 14:27 August 24, 2022

By Lee Minji

SEOUL, Aug. 24 (Yonhap) -- Once political allies that led an embattled conservative party back to ruling-party stature, the feud between President Yoon Suk-yeol and former People Power Party (PPP) chair Lee Jun-seok seems to be deteriorating past the point of recovery.

The power struggle between Yoon and Lee has been lingering since before the March presidential election when the PPP returned to power five years after conservative President Park Geun-hye's 2017 impeachment prompted the public to turn away from the conservative bloc.

It was Lee, a 37-year-old Harvard-educated politician, who reversed this trend. By drawing young male voters with an emphasis on fairness and donning a no-fuss attitude that contrasted with his elite upbringing, Lee quickly emerged as a symbol of change in the conservative bloc.

Backed by young supporters who actively engaged in party politics, Lee beat out veteran lawmakers to become the PPP's youngest chair in June 2021 without ever winning a parliamentary seat or holding a public post in his 10-year political career.

Yoon Suk-yeol (L), the presidential candidate of the main opposition People Power Party, shakes hands with Lee Jun-seok, the party's chairman, during their visit to the National Cemetery in Seoul on Jan. 1, 2022. They met for the first time since Lee quit Yoon's campaign on Dec. 21, 2021, following a row with senior officials close to Yoon. (Yonhap)

Like Lee, Yoon shot up the political ladder without any parliamentary experience. To older conservative supporters concerned about Lee's relative youth but fed up with conservative factions, Yoon's bold and steadfast presence and decades of experience in the prosecution made him a viable alternative.

The former top prosecutor's political career took off in less than a year. After quitting as prosecutor general in March 2021, Yoon officially joined the PPP in July and was elected its presidential candidate in November.

Despite their similarities in establishing themselves as star conservative politicians with zero parliamentary experience, the two were often reported as being at odds over differences in political philosophies and how to run the PPP's election camp.

Yoon's core associates -- known as "Yoonhaekgwan" in Korean and used to refer to PPP Reps. Kweong Seong-dong and Chang Je-won -- were often cited as their source of friction.

Yoon and Lee, however, appeared to keep their bickering quiet ahead of the key elections, boasting their friendship in photo ops, refraining from directly attacking each other and pledging to work together for the party.

President Yoon Suk-yeol holds a news conference at the presidential office in Seoul on Aug. 17, 2022, on the occasion of his 100th day in office. (Yonhap)

Things started to fall apart just a few months after the party was emboldened by consecutive victories in the March presidential election and the June local elections.

In July, the PPP's ethics committee suspended Lee's party membership for six months over allegations of sexual bribery and an attempted cover-up. Lee, who has claimed innocence, cried foul against the decision and blamed Yoonhaekgwan for plotting against him.

The ultimatum came in later July when then-PPP acting chair Kweon Seong-dong was caught on press cameras exchanging text messages with Yoon. The president was seen backbiting about Lee and expressing pleasure over the replacement of a party chair "who used to shoot upon ourselves," criticizing Lee for denouncing Yoon and party members rather than the opposition.

In subsequent weeks, the PPP pushed ahead with a leadership switch that automatically removed Lee from office and launched an emergency leadership committee led by Rep. Joo Ho-young. Lee has filed a court injunction and another lawsuit over the move, citing procedural errors.

The former party chair opened fire in an emotional press conference on Aug. 13, lambasting Yoon and his key aides for their political scheming and letting the public support he built up crumble as Yoon's approval rating tumbled below 30 percent in an unusually low figure for a president less than 100 days in office.

Suspended Chairman of the ruling People Power Party Lee Jun-seok cries during a press conference in Seoul on Aug. 13, 2022. (Yonhap)

The turmoil escalated to another level on Tuesday when Lee's handwritten petition to the court was found to have referred Yoon to "shingunbu," a term that was used to refer to a private group of military officers led by former President Chun Doo-hwan, who came to power through a coup and suppressed democracy movements.

"The absolute being, who orchestrated this crisis, is likely to actively use the right to declare emergency just as the 'shingunbu' declared martial law, unless this situation is corrected by the judiciary," the document showed. "That right to declare emergency will dominate the party as an inerasable threat regardless of who comes to the helm of party leadership."

Lee also claimed that some of Yoon's core associates had earlier suggested that he voluntarily step down as party chair by the end of this year in exchange for a smooth wrap-up of the party's disciplinary process and the ongoing police probe.

Yoon has largely refrained from directly addressing Lee's claims. In a press conference marking his 100 days in office, Yoon said he was too busy tending to livelihood issues and public safety to look into remarks by politicians, prompting angry rhetoric from Lee.

Yoon's senior press secretary, Kim Eun-hye, reiterated the stance in a regular press briefing on Tuesday, saying it would be "inappropriate" to comment on the issue.

At a time when Yoon's approval rating and the favorability rating for the PPP continues to lag, even ruling party lawmakers known for their prudent stances have begun to denounce Lee outright. Interim chief Joo called him a "dictator" while PPP heavyweight Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon referred to Lee as a "hand grenade with a pulled safety pin."

The turmoil at the ruling party is likely to continue for the time being with the court's decision on the injunction, due out next week, expected to complicate the issue and push the PPP into further chaos.

Rep. Kweon Seong-dong, acting chair and floor leader of the People Power Party, sends a text message during an interpellation session at the National Assembly in Seoul on July 26, 2022. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

mlee@yna.co.kr
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