Unified Candidacy? No, Thanks: #Shigak no. 27

By | April 04, 2017 | No Comments

On April 2, Sino-NK began a series of regular analyses looking at the South Korean presidential election through the lens of the Korean-language media, reviving a series that ran from February 2014 to October 2015. “Shigak” (시각), or “perspective” uses Twitter to curate sources on the key determinants of the election outcome. Each issue takes the most important tweets posted by Sino-NK analysts under the #시각 hashtag and augments them with essential annotations and a bite-size dollop of concentrated analysis.

Sino-NK will publish brand new #Shigak analyses three times a week between now and the election on May 9. #Shigak is edited by Steven Denney and Christopher Green. Yongmin Lee is a regular contributor. Back issues can be found on the dedicated page. Importantly, users of Twitter are encouraged to adopt the hashtag and take part in the project.

Unified Candidacy? No, Thanks: #Shigak no. 27

by Sino-NK

This issue of #Shigak arrives at the culmination of the party primaries. The candidates have now all been confirmed, but the question of who will be the next president is far from settled. The news media has fallen prey to rampant speculation about impending “danilhwa,” or “unification.” Unification of two or more candidates, that is; not the unification of Korea.

The speculation concerns plans, perhaps real but equally likely to be the fevered imaginings of the mass media, for a unified candidate capable of giving Moon Jae-in a run for his money. There are stories about the potential for a unified conservative candidate from the Bareun Party of Yoo Seung-min and Liberal Korea Party of Hong Joon-pyo (vaguely plausible), others about a unified “new politics” candidate from the Bareun Party of Yoo Seung-min and People’s Party of Ahn Cheol-soo (less plausible, but still not completely absurd), and still more about a unified candidate from a combination of all three parties (wildly implausible).

It remains to be seen whether a unified candidacy of any kind is possible in South Korea’s polarized political climate. For the time being, at least, everyone who matters is denying it.

April 5 saw the release of Bareun Party presidential candidate Yoo Seung-min’s book, “Why do I do politics? [나는 왜 정치를 하는가].” Speaking at a launch event, Yoo sought to distance himself from the notion that he could unify his presidential candidacy with that of Ahn Cheol-soo and the People’s Party, currently second in the polls behind the Minjoo Party of Moon Jae-in, or Hong Joon-pyo’s Liberal Korea Party, formerly the Saenuri Party and political home to the disgraced Park Geun-hye.

Yoo’s first target was Park Ji-won, former chief of staff in the Blue House of the late President Kim Dae-jung. “People’s Party head Park Ji-won played the leading role in making illegal payments to North Korea,” Yoo said, referring to the so-called “cash-for-summit scandal [대북송금 사건]” in which millions of dollars was transferred to Pyongyang via Hyundai Asan as part of preparations for the first inter-Korean summit on June 15, 2000. “Who would believe that a party where the person who played the main role in that incident also plays a key role is a conservative party?”

Yoo then turned his attention to Hong Joon-pyo, asserting simply that he “is not qualified to be a presidential candidate.”

In interviews following his victory in the Minjoo Party primary, Moon Jae-in delivered a stinging critique to the idea of Ahn Cheol-soo unifying with either the Bareun Party or Liberal Korea Party, saying that if this happened it would represent the continuation of the former government, not the radical change that both he and Ahn Cheol-soo want to embody. For his part, Ahn claims not to be considering a unified candidacy, saying that he will let the people be the judge.

In a frankly bizarre interview, Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberal Korea Party was too busy arguing with the host to pass comment on anything else, a tactic that may seem odd but could go down well with the party base, which holds JTBC largely responsible for the felling of the Park Geun-hye government.

On April 3, Moon Jae-in overwhelmingly won Minjoo Party’s primary election with 57% of the vote over his rivals Lee Jae-myung and Ahn Hee-jung. Also on April 4, Moon’s main rival Ahn Cheol-soo easily won People’s Party’s nomination.

It is widely predicted that Moon will become the next president. However, his main opponent Ahn Cheol-soo is catching up in the polls. In addition, there seems to be an alliance forming against Moon. Kim Jong-in, who ran the Minjoo Party’s highly successful 2016 national assembly election campaign but is no longer with the party, is set to make his own presidential bid. Kim, along with former Prime Minister Jung un-chan and media mogul Hong Seok-hyun, are attempting to forge a political alliance to provide an alternative to Moon.

South Korea’s largest newspaper by circulation, Chosun Ilbo recently created a new “Fact Check” feature dedicated to covering the  presidential election. The purpose of the new feature is to examine controversies surrounding the candidates. The newspaper states that “based on social media, groundless rumors are packaged as truth.” The Fact Check section will examine candidates’ comments and categorize them under “true,” “partially true,” “not true,” or “word change.”

The term “fake news” was popularized by the 2016 US presidential election campaign of Donald Trump, and is now being widely used in South Korean politics as well. Former UN Secretary General famously blamed fake news in part for his decision not to run for the presidency. However, Koreans’ distrust of the media is nothing new. It is common for progressive politicians to criticize major media outlets such as “조중동” (Chosun, Joongang and Donga) and general programming channels “종편” for being too biased.


A JTBC Fact Check (팩트체크) segment considers whether there are “shy conservatives” in Korea. This would constitute a group of self-identifying conservatives willing to vote for a non-conservative party candidate. In this case, Ahn Cheol-soo. Polling numbers from late March show Ahn picking up support from conservatives, at the expense of Liberty Korea Party candidate Hong Joon-pyo.

If Ahn is to defeat Moon Jae-in he would need a significant number of conservatives to cast their ballots for him. This may very well happen. Realmeter polling data from the same period show that 20 percent of those who identified as supporters of the Bareun Party also supported Ahn Cheol-soo, and 26 percent supported Ahn Hee-jung, the main competitor to Moon during the Minjoo primary. While we cannot say for certain, most of Ahn Hee-jung’s supporters (many of whom identified as conservative) are likely to have shifted their support to Ahn Cheol-soo.

The most recent data from a “simulated showdown” (강사대결) show just how close this presidential election will be. Moon’s lead over Ahn, which was in the double digits before, is a mere eight points now. This more or less confirms that most of Ahn Hee-jung’s supporters are getting behind Ahn Cheol-soo. It also makes more likely, as is noted by JTBC in the segment that analyzed the poll, a coalition between Ahn’s People’s Party and one of the two conservative parties. Whether a coalition is actually pursued is an open question. Statements by the candidates indicate it is unlikely, but the end goal of politics is power and a left-right alliance lead by Ahn could result in Ahn, rather than Moon, taking the presidency. As noted above, conservative voters looking to cast their ballots strategically may vote for Ahn, the more conservative-friendly choice among the left-of-center candidates.

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