With less than three months until South Korea’s presidential election, candidates of both major parties are competing over their prospects as the country’s next president. However, family scandals and controversies appear to have dominated the debate instead of policy discussion and plans for the future.
The 2022 South Korean presidential election will be held on March 9, as President Moon Jae-in’s single five-year term ends that month. And it appears to be a duel between Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and Yoon Seok-youl of the main opposition conservative People Power Party (PPP) as third-party candidates not having nearly enough support to clinch the top role.
However, as the election closes in and stakes get higher, both candidates have been embroiled in scandals and controversies involving their family members.
Lee Jae-myung Scandals
On Dec. 16, Lee Jae-myung, presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, admitted that his 29-year-old son had engaged in illegal gambling through a press release and has since issued many apologies, according to South Korea’s JoongAng Daily.
“I apologize for my son’s wrongdoings,” the candidate said. “I failed as a parent to properly teach my child.” Lee added that his son “deeply repents of his actions” and said that he told his son that “rightfully assuming responsibility is the way to lessen that misery.”
However, nine years ago, as the mayor of Seongnam City, Lee shared an article on Twitter titled, “Gambling is a sign of ruin for the country,” as he went on to criticize those that gamble.
After the gambling scandal broke, later that same day, more allegations pointed to Lee’s 29-year-old-son visiting a massage parlor suspected of sex trafficking. The following day, Lee said his son had denied allegations he visited a massage parlor for sex, according to The Korea Herald.
“I also checked, but he says there was no sex trafficking,” Lee told reporters after a party meeting at the DP headquarters. “He swears it’s not true, so as a parent, I have to trust him.”
Prior to the recent scandals, Lee faced heavy criticism for defending a nephew who brutally killed two women and later downplayed his case. Lee apologized after the Supreme Court of South Korea upheld a life sentence for his nephew in 2007. However, the opposition is now questioning his fitness to hold office, citing his past actions.
Lee is a qualified lawyer in South Korea, having passed the bar exam in 1986. Lee served as a defense attorney for his nephew when he was accused of murdering his girlfriend and her mother in 2006.
Yoon Suk-yeol Controversies
Amid the scandals and accusations against his political rival, South Korea’s leading conservative candidate for the People Power Party (PPP), Yoon Suk-yeol, apologized for the controversy surrounding his wife’s inaccurate resume, according to a Reuters report.
South Korea’s YTN news network accused Yoon’s wife, Kim Keon-hee, of falsifying parts of her resume when applying for jobs at universities in 2007 and 2013. Kim said in an interview with YTN that she had, indeed, claimed to have won an award that she had not won, blaming herself for the indiscretion.
On Dec. 17, Yoon said he was sorry “for causing concern to the people over controversy related to [his] wife.”
“Regardless of the reasons, the fact that the credentials were inaccurately stated and it triggered controversy runs counter to fairness and common sense that I have underscored,” Yoon told reporters.
“The principles and standards that I have always adhered to should be equally applicable to my family and the people around me. I will live up to the people’s expectations and humbly accept the criticisms of my wife from the people,” Yoon added, citing a Yonhap News report.
A political novice, Yoon rose to fame as prosecutor-general for indicting Cho Kuk, a former justice minister and aide to President Moon Jae-in, over several charges, including bribery and fraud in getting his daughter into university.
The controversy surrounding the resume of Yoon’s wife makes people question the double standard of justice advocated by Yoon.
Falling Popularity, ‘Mudslinging’ Instead of Policy Debates
With the presidency at stake, both candidates are busy fighting off scandals and accusations one after another. Amid the ongoing CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic and the rising U.S.-China tensions, neither candidates seem to be offering South Koreans a clear vision for the country’s future.
Recent polls show the popularity of both top candidates on the decline.
According to a poll conducted Dec. 12–17 by South Korean polling agency Realmeter, the popularity rating of Lee and Yoon were at 38.0 percent and 44.4 percent, respectively, dropping 1.7 percent and 0.8 percent compared to a week prior.
A nationwide poll conducted by the Korea Society Opinion Institute over Dec. 17–18 showed the popularity of Lee and Yoon were at 40.3 and 37.4 percent, respectively. Lee’s rating fell by 0.3 percentage points while Yoon fell 4.6 compared to its previous poll.
Major Korean outlets published editorials weighing in on the candidates’ family matters.
The Dong-a Ilbo editorial called on the leaders to set aside their family-related scandals, unite the nation, reduce polarization, and address the ongoing pandemic and U.S.-China tensions.
Hankyoreh’s editorial urged the candidates to stop the “mudslinging” at each other and show people their visions on the important issues—domestic and aboard—facing South Korea.