Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon is gaining increasing political fame in the leadup to the general elections slated for April, with some raising expectations that he could create a sensation and save President Yoon Suk Yeol and the ruling People Power Party (PPP), which have both been grappling with approval ratings hovering only at around 30 percent.
The prosecutor-turned-minister, who is also a close aide to the president, has become a uniquely popular figure since his inauguration on the back of his direct and assertive interactions with opposition lawmakers, providing robust critiques and rebuttals during National Assembly sessions. These actions were well-received by specific political factions, propelling Han into the political spotlight.
Although the minister remains discreet about his political ambitions, speculation has already been mounting over his potential run in the general elections, becoming a possible savior of the conservative party. Fueling such hopes is the fact that there has been no discernible rebound in the party's approval ratings, despite various strategies employed, such as moving to incorporate Gimpo City into Seoul and forming an innovation committee ahead of the upcoming elections.
Such speculation began to mount after the minister's wife made a notable public appearance on Wednesday, participating in volunteer activities with the spouses of other ministers. This sparked rumors that the minister had already begun preparations to run in the elections.
"The wives of ministers participating in volunteer activities is nothing new, but the question centers on why Han's wife got all the media attention," former PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok said appearing on a YTN news program.
"Han's wife also appeared to have anticipated the media attention and prepared for it. When looking at her photos, I think she is preparing for public activities."
The spontaneous display of popularity toward the minister is also fueling the speculation, as he received a huge welcome, reminiscent of a K-pop star at a fan meeting, during a visit to Daegu — a traditional stronghold of the conservative party — on Friday.
During the visit, which was part of his on-site inspection of legal policies, Han found himself repeatedly approached by citizens seeking to be photographed with him. The scene evolved into a three-hour-long impromptu interaction, with citizens lining up for a chance to have a moment with the minister.
When asked about the possibility of him running for the elections, he merely said, "Opinions may vary."
Experts suggest that should Han decide to pursue a political career, his potential options could include running for a National Assembly seat through the general elections, assuming the role of the ruling party's emergency committee chairman or heading its election strategy committee.
However, skepticism exists within the party regarding his potential appointment as the emergency committee chairman or the head of the election strategy committee, given his limited political experience, as he hails from a judicial background. And such traits are actually prompting calls for the minister to run in the election.
Some experts warn that Han assuming a significant role in the ruling party could be a risky political move.
"Minister Han Dong-hoon has political acumen. However, having political intuition doesn't necessarily translate into being adept in politics," said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University. "Politics requires not just political acumen, but also a certain set of political skills accumulated through years of working as a politician."