In less than three weeks, South Korea will have a new president. It’s a little crazy how quickly things have moved in the past few months: Former president Park Geun-hye’s ouster from office on Mar. 10, which immediately kicked off the 60-day presidential race, and the fierce competition among the 15 registered candidates — most of whom are not even on the public’s radar.
Since it’s so hard to keep track of who’s who, we introduce to you the leading contenders, with a little help from the South Korean netizens’ ingenious sense of humor (which never fails to shine through at important political events, like this one and this one).
Hong Joon-pyo, Liberty Korea Party
10.2 percent approval rate, as of Apr. 19 on Realmeter: The leading conservative candidate Hong Joon-pyo has many nicknames. From “Hongry bird,” a reference to his scowl that reminds some Koreans of the characters in the Angry Birds game, to “Hong Trump” for his notoriously hot temper and unfiltered language, not unlike that of Donald Trump, Hong has no shortage of epithets, from which his party is not shying away. His official Facebook link embraces these nicknames, plus another one called “Hong Quixote.”
Hong is harsh on North Korea, as he agrees not only on installing THAAD, the much-disputed anti-missile system from the U.S, but also on installing tactical nuclear weapons on South Korean soil. He is the only candidate upfront about his pro-chaebol (family-run conglomerate) attitude, with plans to reduce corporate taxes. His welfare pledges are far from innovative, promising pecuniary compensation for those in need.
On Apr. 13, the top five candidates had their first debate together. Hong became the talk of the town, thanks to his rather amusing claim that he would put the entire country inside a washing machine when he became president and run it for a year (meaning he would wash away all corruption, particularly that of “aristocratic” labor unions).
Hong’s washing machine remark in the Apr. 13 presidential debates. (Source: YouTube)
Hong’s washing machine claim prompted other candidates to issue clever rebuttals of their own. Yoo Seong-min from the Bareun Party told Hong during the debate, “You know, some people think you should go in the washing machine,” directly referring to an infamous corruption scandal in which Hong was embroiled. (He was found not guilty in his most recent trial, prompting prosecutors to appeal the case to the Supreme Court).
When Hong responded that he had already been inside a washing machine, Sim Sang-jung from the Justice Party, questioned whether it was a broken one.
“It was a Samsung washing machine,” retorted Hong with a quip that has perplexed many. Did he mean to say it was a top-quality washing machine, or was he unwittingly expressing his pro-chaebol stance for which his critics condemn him?
Ahn Cheol-soo, People’s Party
32.3 percent approval rate: Ahn Cheol-soo is in second place, close behind Moon Jae-in. Some popular nicknames for him include “Ahnphago,” a portmanteau of Ahn and Alphago that refers to his technical expertise (Ahn is a former software engineer). Ahn is also known as “Louis Ahnstrong” by fans for roaring in a hoarse voice during a speech, ostensibly to counter criticism of his voice, which is sometimes seen as thin and feeble.
Ahn Cheol-soo as “Louis Ahnstrong.” (Source: Deepr)
In the 2012 presidential election, Ahn ran as a liberal candidate before stepping aside to make way for Moon Jae-in. This time, Ahn is taking a middle path, trying to embrace both liberals and conservatives. When the Park administration announced its plan to install THAAD last July, Ahn opposed. But since this February he has become pro-THAAD, while his own party still opposes. Ahn claims that he is the most suitable candidate to run the nation amid the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” emphasizing his background as the founder of a very successful computer security company.
When the official election posters came out on Apr. 16, it was Ahn who stood out, literally. Other candidates had used the conventional bust shot, but Ahn included his whole upper body, with his arms raised high in a “V” shape. Some wondered whether this pose, coupled with the number three (his official candidate number), refers to “V3,” the name of the antivirus software Ahn created and is known for.
Moon Jae-in, The Minjoo Party
43.8 percent approval rate: Critics of front-runner Moon Jae-in have labelled him stodgy as a “sweet potato,” in direct contrast to Lee Jae-myung, one of Moon’s contenders in the primaries, whose rhetoric was branded “as refreshing as lemonade.” (Sweet potato is a popular snack in Korea, but is hard to swallow.) The “sweet potato” nickname referred to Moon’s tedious and slow manner, unlike that of straight-talking Lee (who is somewhat like Hong).
Moon was chief of staff to late-president Roh Moo-hyun and is famous for being one of Roh’s closest aides. Moon’s allegiance to Roh is one of Moon’s greatest strengths and setbacks. While the many admirers of Roh also admire Moon, this same history is precisely why so many conservative voters shun him.
Moon doesn’t have a strong stance either for or against THAAD, prompting criticism from other candidates. But he once described the missile defense system as an important diplomatic card. If he wins, he is likely to soften the stance toward North Korea, which may complicate South Korea’s relations with the Trump administration.
“Job-creation” is, like with the other candidates, one of Moon’s biggest buzzwords in the campaign. He has pledged to create 810,000 jobs in the public sector and raise tax on those in high-income brackets.
Moon is also called “Myeongwang,” as he resembles the eponymous character from the Japanese manga series “One Piece.”
Yoo Seong-min, Bareun Party
3.2 percent approval rate: It’s harder to find original netizen-generated materials on the last two candidates, Yoo and Sim Sang-jung. Their poll ratings are also the lowest among the top five.
Yoo has a controversial past, especially with regards to the most recent impeachment scandal.
He was the floor leader of the former Saenuri Party (now called the Liberty Korea Party). He was one of ex-president Park Geun-hye’s most famous aides, until he fell out of her favor in 2015. Then, when he won a seat in the parliamentary elections in 2016 as an independent candidate, the then-Saenuri Party called him back. But by the end of 2016, at the height of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment scandal, he broke off again, form his own new conservative party with other ex-Saenuri lawmakers who also fell out of Park Geun-hye’s favor. And now, he is running as the presidential candidate of the Bareun Party.
Perhaps more interesting to netizens, especially the younger ones, is not Yoo himself, but his daughter Yoo Dam. During the parliamentary elections last year, Dam’s attractive appearance excited some voters who subsequently dubbed Yoo Seong-min the “nation’s father-in-law,” presumably because they want to marry her…?
Anyway, Yoo claims to push for a “new conservativism” in direct opposition to the Liberty Korea Party, represented by Hong Joon-pyo in this election. Hong calls Yoo “leftist” in a derogatory way, ostensibly for endorsing policies that aren’t “truly” conservative. It’s not quite clear what that means.
Yoo wants to reduce the number of irregular workers, raise corporate taxes and tackle the entrenched dominance of chaebols over the national economy. His welfare policies are also praised by Sim Sang-jung, arguably the most progressive candidate in this election, who openly agreed with Yoo on their similar labor policies during the first debate on Apr. 13 (perhaps why Hong calls Yoo an inauthentic conservative).
Sim Sang-jung, Justice Party
4.2 percent approval rate: If Yoo Seung-min is the “nation’s father-in-law,” Sim Sang-jung would be the “nation’s mother-in-law.” Sim’s son, Lee Won-kyun, also grabbed public attention during last year’s parliamentary elections for his good looks.
Sim stands out with her progressive pledges, including her relative consciousness about the environment, emphasis on strengthening the power of the labor minister to improve labor conditions, and her endorsement of LGBT causes, including the anti-discrimination act, long held back because of opposition from the Protestant lobby.
She is the only left-leaning candidate who strongly opposes installing THAAD, unlike Ahn who is now pro-THAAD and Moon who is refraining from taking any position. She is also the only candidate who vowed to not pardon Park Geun-hye and Samsung’s Lee Jae-yong if she wins (the other candidates skirted the issue when asked during the Apr. 13 debates).
This is Sim’s third bid for the presidency, but it is highly unlikely she will win. Still, her PR team tries hard — seeking to appeal to voters with catchy nicknames like “Simcrush” and “Simvely” (Sim + lovely), and highlighting Sim’s record as a prominent labor rights activist and a mother.
Cover image: the five leading candidates are depicted as Power Rangers. (Source: Instagram)
For more in-depth stories about the candidates and their policies, check out: