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Rookie hunt finds some fresh blood for parties

Jan 10,2020
With three months left before the April 15 general election, a competition has begun between the two largest parties to recruit political rookies with extraordinary backgrounds.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) announced Wednesday that it has recruited former athlete Kim Eun-hee, an icon of the Me Too movement in the sports community, and Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who works as a rights activist in the South.

The LKP hosted a welcome ceremony for Kim and Ji Wednesday. The conservative party’s attempt to improve the party’s image by recruiting fresh faces was in limbo over the past two months after Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn’s plan to recruit a four-star general backfired.

Last year, Hwang planned to recruit Gen. Park Chan-ju, despite a scandal in 2017 in which he and his wife were accused of treating soldiers serving in their residence like slaves. After a lot of embarrassing headlines, the LKP scrapped that plan, but the damage was done.

“I used to think my beliefs and this party do not go together,” Kim, a 29-year-old former tennis player, said Wednesday. The LKP is recording particularly low popularity among women in their 20s. LKP officials said Hwang worked hard to persuade Kim to join the party.

“But I thought a party’s [ideological] color is not that important in order to resolve human rights issues,” Kim continued. “What I considered the most important was its determination to resolve the rights issues. I had many discussions with the party, and I was able to see its strong will to resolve the human rights issues. I was promised specific efforts, so I decided to join.”

Kim started the “Me Too” movement in Korea’s sports community. She suffered sexual abuse from a coach in 2001 and 2002 when she was an elementary school student but never made it public. After learning that he was still working as a teacher in 2016, Kim pressed charges against him, and he is now serving a 10-month prison term.

Ji, 38, is a North Korean defector. He lost his left arm and leg in a train accident in the North, but swam across the Tumen River in April 2006 to reach China. He walked on crutches over 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) for six months to reach Laos and sought asylum in the South.

He founded the Now Action & Unity for NK Human Rights (NAUH) in 2011 to raise awareness of rights abuses in the North. In 2018, Ji was invited by U.S. President Donald Trump to the State of the Union Address in Washington, D.C., and told his story of escape from the North.

The ruling Democratic Party (DP) started announcing its recruitment of political rookies last month. Its first star recruit was Choi Hye-young, head of the Korea Education Center for Disabilities Awareness and professor of social welfare administration at Gangdong University, on Dec. 26.

Choi is a former ballerina. After a traffic accident paralyzed her arms and legs in 2003, she studied social welfare. Her recruitment jibed with the DP’s need to engage with younger voters, women and people with disabilities.

Four more recruitments were announced, including former Gen. Kim Byeong-joo who served as deputy commander of the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command.

The DP made public its fifth and latest recruit on Tuesday: 31-year-old firefighter Oh Yeong-hwan. He vowed to improve working conditions for firefighters.

Oh, however, triggered a controversy by defending former Justice Minister Cho Kuk during a press conference later Tuesday. He said the media has exaggerated the academic frauds allegedly committed by Cho and his wife, claiming what they did for their children was normal custom for parents in the past.

Civic groups issued statements to express their disappointment in Oh and the LKP attacked him.

The DP was baffled by the situation because Oh was recruited to appeal to young voters, which seems to have backfired. “He was just a young man with no experience in politics,” said a DP lawmaker. “I think he just made a slip of the tongue.”

Political analysts expressed disappointment at the DP’s recruitment strategy. They said the party needs to invite political rookies who can make up for its gaps.

“Where is the party’s philosophy for democratization?” said Kim Hyung-joon, a professor of political science at Myongji University. “The DP has been facing criticism for doing nothing but staging a political show. Why is it continuing this in its recruitment campaign?”

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]