As I noted in my previous post, People’s Participation Party chair Rhyu Si-min has shown himself unable to win major campaigns and is unlikely to win next year’s presidential election despite good political terrain for progressives and his relatively strong standing in public opinion polls.
Rhyu suffered a setback last April 27 when his party’s candidate lost in a by-eleciton for the Gimhae-B National Assembly seat despite Rhyu’s heavy campaigning in the district. To make matters worse for Rhyu, Democratic Party chair Sohn Hak-kyu – his main progessive rival at the moment for next year’s presidential election, won a dramatic victory for a National Assembly seat in Bundang on the same day. As a result of those two races, Sohn overtook Rhyu as the most popular progressive candidate for the Korean presidency.
The twin setbacks caused Rhyu to spend several weeks “holed up at home” to spend time “reflecting and searching.” Rhyu shared the result of all that introspection in a recent interview with The Hankyoreh that is as Fisk-worthy as anything I have read recently. I shall not give it the full treatment but several of his responses are in need of translation.
H: Are you saying that you participated in an alliance (with the Democratic party) that was not cooperative but competitive and antagonistic?
R: “I think the PPP was an inconvenience to the DP as the main opposition party. I thought that opposition solidarity might turn out to be a cooperative game. . . . The conditions were not right for that, including a lack of political ability on the part of the party chairman. I also think [a cooperative alliance with the Democratic Party] will be an extremely tall order going ahead. I am worried about that. And it is a very serious time and situation with the approach of the general and presidential elections.”
Translation: I played hardball with the Democrats and was somehow surprised that they would decide to concentrate their efforts on elections where they had candidates rather than helping my guy out. Since I cannot expect to be able to mooch off of their party organization next year and my party is too small by itself to help me win the presidency, I need to make a new plan.
H: You have requested participation in a joint meeting toward a grand unification of progressive parties. Have your thoughts changed regarding the main source of contention, the South Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA)?
R: “The reality we are given is that of an open trade nation. If we face this fact squarely in dealing with the issue, there really is not any need for the positions to be divided in a hostile way. The normal approach is to then make a determination about changes. When people are telling you to state that you have changed position on a certain policy from ‘A’ to ‘B,’ like you are a religious convert, you need to think about that in terms of freedom of conscience. I was a Cabinet member during the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s negotiations. If you ignore that completely and tell me to state my position as Rhyu Si-min the individual, I cannot really say anything, can I?”
Translation: Korea needs a free trade agreement with the US, so we can try to tweak it some so that the left-wing and labor forces I need to win a presidential nomination will not be so angry. However, I also need to win the general election, I am not going to change my earlier support for the KORUS FTA. By the way, the KORUS FTA was negotiated by the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Remember Roh Moo-hyun? I have the same position Roh Moo-hyun had. That was Roh Moo-hyun’s position so do not ask me to have a different position than Roh Moo-hyun had.
H: What is your position on North Korea’s third-generation transmission of power, which has been the subject of friction among the progressive parties?
R: Is there a single person in the Republic of Korea who fancies the idea of national power being handed down according to genes? But it is a low blow to tell people to state openly that they like it or hate it. You cannot ask questions of other political groups that force emotional humiliation on them.
Translation: Yes, it is pretty bad that Kim Jong-un is going to be taking over in North Korea, but there is a sizable minority on the far left that go along with whatever Pyongyang says. I need their votes, so do not expect me to make a big deal over it.
I have some sympathy for Rhyu regarding that last question. There is little South Koreans can do about what goes on in North Korea and stating opposition to Pyongyang’s dynastic succession is akin to denying the legitimacy of the North Korean system, something that would alienate South Korea’s far left. Since Rhyu needs all leftists united under his banner to defeat the more moderate Sohn, he does not want to say anything to alienate them. However, most South Koreans see Kim Jong-un’s as reprehensible, so Rhyu would have a difficult time winning the general election against Park Geun-hye if he was seen as towing Pyongyang’s party line.
Most of the rest of the interview reads similarly. It exposes a candidate too caught up in the micro-politics of the left to lead the whole nation.