Will Justice Party chief escape shadow of eccentric presidential candidate?

Justice Party President Sim Sang-jung addresses the nation at the National Assembly on Jan. 17, after resuming her presidential campaign that she unexpectedly halted on Jan. 12. Korea Times file

By Ko Dong-hwan

Before Korea's presidential race began last year, Justice Party chief Sim Sang-jung's steadfast political stature seemed to face no threat from the zany National Revolutionary Party leader Huh Kyung-young.

Sim started out in the 1980s as a laborer at Seoul's Guro factory district and became a politician backing human rights and improved working conditions for workers, women and other socially vulnerable groups for over 20 years. She has had her own legion of followers and shaped her party as a symbolic minor progressive force against larger political groups. This was why there was reason enough to believe that, when she ran for this year's presidential election on March 9, she would somehow draw enough supporters to chip away at the ratings of major party candidates like Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) or Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP).

Huh, meanwhile, has long been considered a clownish figure in Korean political circles, with his eccentric remarks and unrealistic pledges of distributing an exorbitant amount of cash to all citizens for various nominal reasons. Most people could only see him in public during election seasons, as early as 1987 when he announced his first presidential bid. His last election campaign was for last year's Seoul mayoral by-election, in which he got 1.07 percent of the votes, coming in at third place.

Other than his occasional appearances as a singer and a lecturer, any of Huh's social contributions and political influence remain almost invisible. Furthermore, in 2007 he received an 18-month jail term and was banned from politics for 10 years, when a court decided his presidential campaign that year was fraught with lies and forged data, most notably his declaration he was conditionally engaged to Park Geun-hye, a conservative political candidate who became president in 2013.

In August 2021, he proclaimed his third presidential bid ― wearing traditional battle armor while riding a white horse at Haengju Fortress in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province ― by putting on a skit where he slashed enemy soldiers and screamed "I will protect this country!" He is also promising to give 100 million won ($84,000) plus 1.5 million won a month in cash from the national coffer to each citizen aged 18 or over within two months of getting elected, which not too many people took seriously.

But what was long unimaginable happened last December, when Huh's support rating began to surge and finally outran Sim. A poll by Asia Research and Consulting showed Huh garnered a support rate of 4.7 percent, coming in third following Yoon (45.5 percent) and Lee (37.2 percent). Sim drew 3.5 percent, while Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party had 2.3 percent. Huh's support rating rose further later that month to 5.5 percent, according to a survey by People Networks Research on Dec. 22-23, while Sim posted only 2.8 percent in the same survey. Some media outlets called it "Huh Kyung-young syndrome coming in strong."

Huh Kyung-young, in a traditional battle armor, declares his intent to run in the country's 20th presidential election at Haengju Fortress in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Aug. 18, 2021. A poster behind him reads 'I will protect this country.' Yonhap

Sim, unable to raise her support rating above what most people see as a "joke candidate," suspended all her campaign activities on Jan. 12 and entered a period of private "introspective" vacation indefinitely. Meanwhile, Huh decorated his website with statistics from the polls taken late December, highlighting the time he was ahead of Sim and Ahn. His flamboyancy went up a notch a day after Sim hid herself from the public eye, saying on Facebook that if he gets elected, he will appoint her as his vice president and empower her to appoint his administration's ministerial positions. "So, do not get so upset, candidate Sim," the 74-year-old said. It was a twist of the knife for Sim, who had been mocked as "a politician with a lower support rating than Huh."

Sim finally broke her silence on Monday. With her hair cut "shorter than ever," according to her, and wearing a pair of yellow sneakers, she stood at the National Assembly and addressed the nation.

"I didn't suspend my campaign simply because of my support ratings," she said. "As I was campaigning, the hearts of citizens, with whom I and the Justice Party were supposed to hold together, felt distantly far."

She said she reflected on what went wrong and where she needed to change, and came to the conclusion that she was a part of the political system that had created an unfair society.

"I feel infinite responsibility," she said, noting a growing need for her party to stand up to inequality and vested rights, and fight for laborers and women and address climate change. "No matter how hard and difficult that path is, I will not give up until the end so that the new generations of progressive politicians can stand on my 20-year-long political career as a pedestal and ambitiously lead the future politics."

Yoon and Lee's one-on-one TV debate is scheduled on Jan. 27, according to Tuesday's reports. It will be the first TV debate for this presidential election. Besides the two frontrunners locked in a neck-and-neck race, the minor candidates complained they have been blocked from joining in the debate. Sim condemned the PPP and DPK for overlooking democratic principles, comparing them to "a school kicking out certain students from taking a test for their shorter height than others."

Sim still has a chance following the Lunar New Year holiday early February, after which the National Election Commission as well as terrestrial TV stations KBS, MBC and SBS are expected to host presidential TV debates inviting Lee, Yoon, Ahn and Sim. Sim, 62, known for her sharp debating skills, still has plenty of time to talk her way through the uphill race course ― and prove Huh she won't be part of his administration, if that fantasy ever becomes reality.

Ko Dong-hwan aoshima11@koreatimes.co.kr

Top 10 Stories


Sign up for eNewsletter