Chung Kwang-yong choked up in describing how much he missed South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has been cloistered in her official residence since her impeachment in December last year on corruption charges.
“Dear President Park Geun-hye, please come out. We miss you so much,” Chung said before a large crowd that rallied in central Seoul on a recent Saturday to demand her immediate reinstatement. “You have done nothing wrong.”
Few South Korean leaders have ever been as besieged as Park, whose presidential powers have been suspended since the National Assembly voted to impeach her on Dec. 9.
Recent surveys have ranked her as one of the least popular presidents ever, with about 80 percent of respondents wanting her removed from office.
However, Park still commands an almost cult-like following among people like Chung, and that lingering devotion is fragmenting the country’s conservative bloc as it struggles to find a viable replacement candidate in an election that could take place as early as May.
In South Korean elections, conservatives have usually rallied around a single presidential candidate, propelling them to victory as progressive voters split among rival opposition candidates.
Now, it is the divisions in the conservative ranks that are providing the progressives with an opportunity to return to power after a decade away from the presidential palace.
In December, a group of conservative lawmakers, disillusioned by the accusations of corruption and abuse of power made against Park, joined the opposition in passing the bill to impeach her. They then bolted from her governing Saenuri Party and created the Bareun Party.
Its approval rating plunging and desperate to rebrand itself,
Saenuri on Monday changed its name to the Liberty Korea Party, but it has been unable to redefine its relationship with Park.
Many conservatives, including some Liberty Korea lawmakers, want to distance themselves from Park and regroup around a new leader to have a fighting chance against progressive opposition leader Moon Jae-in in the election.
However, other party members and right-wing groups, like Chung’s Parksamo, or “People Who Love Park Geun-hye,” want Park, 65, to finish the final year of her five-year term.
These groups have organized increasingly large rallies in central Seoul in recent weeks, calling any conservative politician who turns against Park a “betrayer.” Their rallies attract not only Park loyalists, but also older Koreans who share, if not their loyalty to Park, their belief that the country’s progressive opposition is too sympathetic toward North Korea to be trusted.
“I have always voted conservative and always will, as long as North Korea exists,” said Kim Myong-soo, 65, whose family fled the North during the Korean War. “But frankly, if an election is held now, I don’t know which conservative candidate to vote for. There is none who can win.”
To her critics, Park has come to symbolize everything wrong with the country’s conservative elite, as she stands accused of conspiring with a longtime friend to extort tens of millions of dollars from big businesses in return for political favors. Prosecutors also accuse her of ordering a government blacklisting of artists, writers and movie directors deemed progressive.
However, according to flag-waving, military uniform-clad conservatives at the rallies, Park was an innocent victim of a “sedition” masterminded by politically biased prosecutors, a “fake-news media” and “Communists.”
Their rallies feature military parade songs and chants for Park to “mobilize the military” to regain power, an echo of how her father, dictator Park Chung-hee, took power in a military coup in 1961. Some participants carried signs that said: “It’s OK to kill Commies!”
“They want to overthrow the government and establish a pro-North Korean regime,” Kim Chul-hong, a theology professor and vocal supporter of Park Geun-hye, said of the opposition during a news conference this month. “South Korea is now in a civil war.”
Few South Koreans believe that another military coup is possible. Chung’s Parksamo is considered by many to be little more than a personality cult and an overzealous ideological outlier.
However, its Red-baiting campaign, a traditional vote-gathering tool for conservatives, has intensified as the Constitutional Court prepares to rule on whether to reinstate Park or end her presidency.
Many conservatives had looked to former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to become their candidate, but he pulled out of the race this month after he failed to narrow the gap in polls with Moon.
Highlighting the fractures among conservatives, as many as 10 politicians affiliated with the two conservative parties have declared their presidential ambitions, but none has a popularity rating higher than the low single digits.
In Myung-jin, the leader of Liberty Korea, said he favored South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is serving as acting president, as his party’s candidate.
Hwang, who has no party affiliation, is the only conservative with a popularity rating of more than 10 percent, ranking third in recent surveys after Moon and a provincial governor, Ahn Hee-jung, also a progressive.
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