Korean Left has a new front-runner
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Korean Left has a new front-runner

Rhyu Si-min has been locked in a tight competition with Sohn Hak-kyu for several months as they try to position themselves for next year’s presidential election.

Rhyu had the upper hand earlier this year.  The People’s Participation Party chair was seen by progressives as the ideological heir of former president Roh Moo-hyun, which gave Rhyu the upper hand over Sohn in most public opinion polls.

But Sohn was not without his advantages, including being the chair of the much larger Democratic Party.  Even more importantly, Sohn has much greater political acumen, as demonstrated by their actions in by-elections last April.  During negotiations on a unified progressive ticket against the majority conservative Grand National Party, Rhyu played hardball for a seat for his party that Sohn was already prepared to sacrifice in order to clear the way for his run for a seat in the National Assembly.  Sohn won his race while Rhyu’s man lost his race, a result that caused Sohn to catapult past Rhyu in the polls.

The result also has a longer-term consequence for Rhyu:

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.

It took three months, but it appears that progressives are starting to rally around that new champion.  Moon Jae-in has surpassed Rhyu for the first time and is now only second to Sohn among potential progressive presidential candidates.  The latest Realmeter poll has Sohn at 11.6 percent, Moon at 7.1 percent and Rhyu at 6.7 percent.  Former GNP chair Park Geun-hye leads all potential candidates at 32.3 percent but the race will undoubtedly tighten once the various parties on the left settle on a single leading candidate.


Moon Jae-in, head of the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation, overtook Rhyu Si-min in the latest Realmeter poll. (Naver photo)

As I noted in a profile of Moon in June, he is the perfect foil for Rhyu, having also come from the Roh Moo-hyun administration.  His position as the head of the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation and his work unifying Korea’s various left and center-left parties on gives him a stronger claim as the standard bearer of Roh’s legacy.  He has also positioned himself well to make a strong run for the presidency as a unity candidate:

If Moon wants to run for president, he will likely decide to forgo the risk of running for a National Assembly seat (unless it is in a safe seat or high on the proportional representation list)  in the spring of 2012 and instead concentrate on negotiating the unification of the various progressive parties. That role would put him in contact with the major political players, potentially giving him a foothold in both Sohn Hak-kyu’s Democratic Party and Rhyu Si-min’s People’s Participation Party, positioning himself well as a compromise candidate between supporters of those two parties.

This week’s poll may just be a blip with Rhyu reasserting himself as Sohn’s main rival by next week, but I believe that Moon will completely supplant Rhyu by April of 2012.