|Im Jong-seok, former presidential chief of staff, gives a farewell speech at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, Tuesday. Cheong Wa Dae replaced top aides including Im. / Yonhap|
By Park Ji-won
Former presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok is emerging as a key factor in Korean politics.
He left Cheong Wa Dae, Tuesday, after working as President Moon Jae-in's top aide for 20 months. But he is already being regarded as a potential contender for president.
While in office, the former lawmaker successfully positioned himself as a major liberal figure despite incessant ideological attacks from conservatives.
He played a big part in Moon's major achievements, especially in building a reconciliatory mood between the two Koreas. Im also served as chief of the preparatory committee for Moon?s three summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last year.
However, political pressure increased on him after a former Cheong Wa Dae staffer raised allegations that the presidential office conducted illegal surveillance of citizens. The prosecution is now investigating the case.
The political community is wary of what next steps Im will take amid rumors he may contend a National Assembly seat in the general election next year.
There are reports that he may run in Jongno-gu, central Seoul. The precinct has a symbolic meaning in Korean politics because former presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak also won there.
"I will take several months off for a break, but I will move somewhere in Jongno-gu once I return to prepare for my next step," Im said.
Insiders expect former Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun, who won in Jongno-gu in the last election, will likely yield to Im, as it is customary not to run for office after serving as parliamentary speaker. However, as Chung didn't openly say he will resign from the post, there is a possibility Im needs to consider another precinct for his career.
Some say he may push to take back his old precinct of Seongdong-gu. He debuted there as a lawmaker in 2000 aged 34.
Another speculation is that he wants to serve as unification minister because of his expertise in inter-Korean relations.
Im was in the pro-democracy movement generation in the 1980s that fought against the military governments. He was among student activists seeking to increase engagement with North Korea.
Im was jailed for three-and-a -half years for violating the national security law by helping Lim Soo-kyung, then a student activist, to illegally visit to Pyongyang.
Politicians close to him insist he has moved away from his previous radicalism, but there are still some doubts from those who believe he is a sympathizer of North Korea.
However, insiders expect he will not take an administration job for a while to allow for rest after his job with Moon. "It will be better for him to expand his footprint by raising his voice on his own by serving as a lawmaker if he wants to become president, which appears to be his goal," one insider said.
Some say Im may run for Seoul mayor as he served as vice mayor for the capital between 2014 and 2015 under incumbent Park Won-soon. But it is unlikely as there is a three-year gap until the local elections in 2022.