Rhyu Si-min not ready for prime time, forget the presidency
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Rhyu Si-min not ready for prime time, forget the presidency

Rhyu Si-min is on the short list of candidates widely considered to have a realistic chance of winning next year’s presidential election in South Korea.  Alas for Rhyu’s supporters, he is unlikely to live up to the hype.

His biggest claim to fame so far was serving as former president Roh Moo-hyun’s Minister of Health and Welfare.  His career since he resigned from that post in March of 2007 has been less than stellar.  He ran for the United New Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, but his effort fizzled and he was forced out in the early rounds of voting.  He bolted from the party soon after that defeat.

After wandering the political wilderness for some time, he formed a new party with other Roh supporters after the former president’s suicide in 2009.  He secured the nomination to run for the governorship of Gyeonggi Province in 2010 in a joint primary between the PPP and the Democratic Party (as the UNDP came to be called) based on a phone survey rather than an actual vote.  He went on to lose in the general election to incumbent governor Kim Moon-soo despite the success of progressive politicians in most of the country.

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Rhyu Shi-min has still not been able to create a political image indepdendent of former president Roh Moo-hyun. Roh killed himself in 2009. (Yoon Hoi-yong photo)

Getting played by a real politician

Despite those setbacks, Rhyu remained popular with progressives and won election to the PPP’s chairmanship.  Using that position, he worked hard to secure a place for a PPP candidate on a unified progressive ticket in the Gimhae-B National Assembly race in by-elections last April 27.

Rhyu’s efforts paid off and his party’s candidate, Lee Bong-su, won the right to run on the unified progressive ticket by a three percent margin.  Again, the victory came as the result of a public opinion poll rather than an actual vote.

But Rhyu was walking into a trap.  Democratic Party chair Sohn Hak-kyu was already in a mood to cut a deal with the PPP and other minor parties in order to secure a clear shot for himself in Bundang.  Sohn’s popularity was flagging and he needed a big win in order to revive his hopes.  He had already agreed to hand the safe Suncheon district in South Jeolla Province to the Democratic Labor Party in order to secure their cooperation in other races, including Bundang (a move that enraged Democratic Party members in Suncheon, who ran as independents but lost to the DLP nominee in the by-election).

Sohn acquiesced to Rhyu’s demands for the united party primary format.  That acquiescence earned Sohn a magnanimous reputation while Rhyu’s aggressiveness earned him what one Sohn aid called a “narrow-mindedness image.”

The other shoe dropped for Rhyu in the April 27 by-elections.  Despite Rhyu’s heavy campaigning in Gimhae, Lee lost to the Grand National Party’s candidate.  To make matters worse for Rhyu, Sohn won his race in Bundang.  As a result of those races, Sohn supplanted Rhyu as the leading progressive candidate for the presidency, according to public opinion polls.

The double loss (and Sohn’s victory is nothing but a loss for Rhyu) has wounded Rhyu politically and progressives are looking around for a new champion to challenge the moderate Sohn for right to run against the GNP’s Park Geun-hye in next year’s presidential election.

Rhyu has been “holed up at home” since the by-elections to reflect on the losses.  He shared his conclusions in an interview with the progressive newspaper The Hankyoreh.  That is the subject of my next post.