The Lee Jun-seok phenomenon: sensational rise of a young political leader
Idaenam (이대남) / idaenyeo (이대녀)
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The Lee Jun-seok phenomenon: sensational rise of a young political leader
Writer: Yeon Woo Lee
Senior Editor: Regine Armann
Editor-in-Chief: Fred McNulty
Researcher: Sunny Um, Yul Jun
(Source: People Power Party)
Lee Jun-seok (이준석), a 36-year-old politician, was declared the new leader of the conservative main opposition People Power Party (국민의힘당) on June 11th. It was a landslide victory, considering the PPP’s infamously rigid and old-school image. According to research by Embrain, after the last by-election, people generally view politicians from the PPP as so-called “kkondae (꼰대)” (Korean link) in their late 50s to 70s who value power and wealth. “Kkondae” is a term used to describe someone who patronizes younger people or junior colleagues or forces their ideologies and experiences on them.
The leader was determined by a combination of party member votes (70%) and opinion polls from the public (30%). Lee secured 43.8% (around 93000) of the votes, defeating Na Kyung-won (나경원), the former leader of the party, by 6.7%. Even though Lee fell behind Na in ballots cast by party members, he won the majority of ballots from citizens.
(Source: The JoongAng ilbo)
Lee is the first politician who became a party leader below the age of 40 in the constitutional history of Korea. This election was the demonstration of a drastic shift inside the PPP, considering Lee’s young age and his inexperience as a lawmaker. He has never won a single election before.
Who is Lee Jun-seok?
Lee is the founder of Edushare (배움을 나누는 사람들), an educational service organization that offers free education to low-income families. In 2011, he was handpicked by Park Geun-hye (박근혜), the then-leader of the Grand National Party (한나라당, a PPP predecessor), and began his political career as a member of the party’s emergency committee. This committee was established after the poor results the Grand National Party bagged in the by-elections of 2012 - all members of the supreme council stepped down, and the emergency committee was charged with boosting the party's image and regaining the public’s trust. To reform the party structure and change attitudes, Park Geun-hye recruited the then very young IT entrepreneur Lee to this committee. Even though he has been recognized as the “Park Geun-hye Kid (박근혜 키즈)” since those days, he failed continuously to get elected into the National Assembly in 2016, 2018, and 2020. However, in 2021, he created a storm that shook the political establishment and made him the youngest party leader ever in Korean political history.
How did Lee Jun-seok become such a phenomenon in Korean politics?
1) Opposition to feminism
The last mayor by-elections in April lit the fire of feminism in Korean politics. The elections were held as the former mayors of both major cities, Seoul and Busan, failed to fulfill their terms after being accused of sexual harassment of staff. As both mayors were from the Democratic Party (민주당), the ruling party of Korea, the by-elections were a turning point for young people who generally support the DP over the conservative PPP. An overwhelming 72.5% of male voters in their 20s voted for Mayor Oh Se-hoon (오세훈) from the PPP; many female voters in their 20s, however, still decided to vote for the DP, which led to the DP candidate leading with a narrow margin of 3.1 percentage points in this voter group.
(Source: The Korea Times)
Lee drew media attention by claiming: “The DP suffered a crushing defeat in the by-elections because it underestimated the unity and voting power of men in their 20s and 30swhile only focusing on feminist policies." Lee’s outreach was an explicit appeal to the anti-feminist sentiment among young men. Chin Jung-kwon, a former professor of Dongyang University and a well-known political commentator, publicly denounced (Korean link) that Lee was engaging in “very bad populism”, dividing the nation across gender lines.
2) Overwhelming support from men in their 20s and 30s
His anti-feminism comments made Lee the spokesperson of men in their 20s, many of whom believe they are discriminated against by feminism. Many believe that Lee’s provocative comments toward feminism are specifically aimed at gaining support from men. He even once stated that he believes men in their 20s might start a riot due to their difficulties getting married in the future. He pointed to an imbalance in the sex ratio in Korea as the reason for these difficulties but compared the birth rate of men born in 2000 to that of women born in 2005. His statement has been widely criticized for supposing that a woman should be five years younger than her husband and for justifying outbursts of anger by men over such topics.
Moreover, one post on Facebook revealed that Lee is frequenting FM Korea (에펨코리아), a male-dominated community website that frequently posits misogynistic, anti-feminist positions. As a result, Lee’s supporters, whose majority are men in their 20s, seem to have gone beyond being mere supporters and evolved into “fans”. (Korean link)
3) Hopelessness in the face of the never-changing mainstream politics
Korean politics have for a long time been dominated by relatively old people. This culture stems from Confucian practices and beliefs that value the older generations as more experienced and wiser. Therefore, young people often find themselves marginalized and excluded from established political circles and decision-making, as they are seen as lacking skills and experience. The result of this is that Korean politics are mostly devoid of creative and dynamic sources of innovation.
While Lee has never been elected to the National Assembly, he insists that the traditional political circles with their vested interests have brought the people nothing but disappointment. His supporters believe that he is the one who can bring a drastic shift to the stagnating political structures.
4) Promise of a “fair competition”
Lee is an outspoken advocate for “elitism” and “professionalism”. Being part of the “elite” himself, as someone who graduated from Seoul Science High School and Harvard University, he promises innovations that are based on meritocratic principles. Lee claims that setting hiring quotas for women, for instance, would deepen inequality and should therefore not be considered. He believes that evaluations must only be based on professional skills and merit. Such ideas resonate with young people who feel they have been stripped of any opportunity to get on the playing field by the so-called “privileged groups”.
Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk (조국), a member of the DP, tweeted in 2012 that “Not everyone can be a dragon and there is no such need. Even if one cannot fly like a dragon, we should create a society where everyone is happy to live as a carp, frog, or crawfish in a pond.” This led to national outrage because many people feel that the elite have many more ways to help their children become dragons and that such a society would still not be fair and equal. The fact that Cho Kuk and his wife were later accused of (and his wife sentenced to prison for) falsifying their daughter’s academic achievements to get her enrolled in prestigious schools fueled even more anger, as it seemed to prove the public exactly right on their condemnation of privilege and unequal opportunities.
5) Frequent appearance on media
Unlike other politicians, Lee frequently appears in the media and is never afraid of tough press questions and interviews. His media appearances made audiences view him as intelligent and competent, even though people are not sure about his political abilities. His appearance on The Genius (더 지니어스), a Korean variety show that brings a number of contestants together to compete in a variety of games, brought him nationwide popularity.
(Source: Dong-a ilbo)
How will Lee Jun-seok’s victory usher Korean politics into a new era?
1) Election campaigns
The steps Lee took during the party leadership election campaign were completely different from those of other politicians. He did not rely on the three components that are usually considered to be essential in election campaigns - a campaign office, campaign vehicles, and promotional text messages to potential voters. His team consisted of only five people, and he traveled by subway and train. Moreover, barely sending any of the usual text messages saved him hundreds of millions of won. Instead, he put significant effort into delivering clear messages and publicizing his agenda-setting, never shying away from controversial or potentially uncomfortable issues.
2) Recruitment of people
Lee is planning to recruit a new team of spokespeople for the PPP through a debate tournament. The idea is in line with his preference for meritocracy over privilege, and by selecting candidates “fairly” regardless of age and experience, he hopes to encourage more talented and politically inexperienced people to join the PPP. Applicants should submit a self-written commentary on three subjects chosen by the party, along with a video clip of themselves reciting their commentary. After a so-called “pressure interview” conducted by Lee, 16 people will be chosen for the competitive debates and the final four will enter the final debate. The PPP announced their plan to invite not only conservative but also liberal politicians as well as private citizens to the panel to evaluate the candidates.
Lee also announced that the selection of the candidates for next year’s local elections will be based on a qualifying exam that tests computer skills, reading comprehension, and presentation ability. However, debates have arisen over Lee’s idea of recruiting people based on such skills, as they do not guarantee one’s qualifications as a politician.
3) Digital reformation of the party
Last week, Lee announced his future plans to make the PPP undergo a digital transformation. Concrete steps are yet to be released but the PPP developing their own application and the use of the party’s existing social media channels are both being considered. Lee said that he hopes to reform PPP’s vertical communication system (Korean link) to boost and vitalize the party's inner communication.
What does the aftermath of Lee Jun-seok’s election look like?
Even though not every member of the public trusts Lee and supports him in his new role, many people are expecting his election to lead to some sort of political transformation. Some credited Lee’s win to an exciting surge of new ideas in politics (Korean link), rather than to his personal achievements. Lee himself acknowledged his supporters’ high expectations regarding a new political approach (Korean link) in several interviews. On the other hand, some consider Lee’s victory a result of anti-feminist young men and disillusioned young women who have no strong preference for either political camp now voting for the PPP.
It seems natural that the media want to know more about Lee, who suddenly burst onto the boring political scene with big plans for change. Some questions directed at him on shows and in interviews, however, have raised people’s eyebrows as they focus only on his private life and have nothing to do with his political agenda. These questions cover the following topics, for example: whether Lee has a girlfriend, what kind of shoes he wears, and what means of transport he used on his first day of work.
Lee Jun-seok’s almost idol-like popularity led to a significant influx of members to the PPP. After Lee’s election, 23 thousand people (Korean link) have joined the party, and around 9 thousands of them are younger than 30. This figure marks about a tenfold increase from the same period last year.
Idaenam (이대남) / idaenyeo (이대녀)
Idaenam (이대남) and Idaenyeo (이대녀) are abbreviations of 이십대 남자 (men in their 20s) and 이십대 여자 (women in their 20s). Unlike other expressions that were created by the public, Idaenam and Idaenyeo were first used by the media and then spread into people's daily lives. The words were coined to highlight the phenomenon that younger generations turn away from the liberal ruling party, which became especially evident at the mayor by-elections in February.
However, these words have been criticized for their negative connotations and their emphasis on deepening a gender binary. Some say that framing youths by gender (Korean link) worsens gender stereotypes in our society and that such labels could easily be exploited by provocative media outlets.
A: Did you read the news yesterday?
The exit polls say 44% of women in their 20s voted for the Democratic Party.
B: I knew it. That’s what Idaenyeo is, trying to vote for a more feminist party.
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