At the press conference, Ahn Cheol-soo’s voice nearly broke with emotion. He took long pauses between sentences before saying, “I declare my candidacy for the 18th presidential election.” A chorus of cheers rose, and a group of Ahn’s supporters broke into delirious chants of his name.
That was in 2012, a time when Ahn was already a tech titan, well-known in South Korea for developing a widely-used anti-virus software program. His profile grew as he toured the country holding live events where he discussed the issues facing South Korea. He developed a reputation as an innovative thinker, someone who could enter South Korea’s political establishment with a fresh approach to the nation’s politics, which have long been dogged by corruption and cronyism.
Several years later, Ahn is hoping to seize on a moment of political chaos in South Korea, to complete his transition to a public figure, by running for the nation’s highest office.
Ahn is currently second in the polls, trailing liberal candidate Moon Jae-in. His success story as a doctor-turned-tech entrepreneur resonated in Ahn’s public appearances at the time, attracting many young viewers. Now it’s a key part of his image-branding as a candidate.
“I started a small venture company which grew into a firm with almost a thousand employees,” Ahn told Korea Exposé. “At first, it was tough to pay my employees their monthly salaries. I was turned away from doorsteps and endured much humiliation but built a strong, medium-sized company. Through this experience, I came not to be afraid of risks.”
His track record in information technology highlights him as someone adept at crafting innovative solutions to complex problems, and now as a presidential candidate, he turns his prescriptive lens to the public sphere, particularly young people’s problems of unemployment and South Korea’s demanding education system.
It’s not yet clear if Ahn will get the chance to apply these lessons, if enough South Korean voters will take a risk on him as a less experienced politician, or if more voters will go for Moon, a more known, but less fresh, quantity.
Ahn isn’t a completely fresh face in South Korean politics. In 2011, with his fame increasing as a public personality, he was pegged as a possible contender for Seoul’s mayoral election, though in the end he stayed out of the race, throwing the support of his growing following behind his friend, and eventual victor, Park Won-soon.
Perhaps even then, Ahn had higher goals in mind. He embarked on a long march toward national politics, working his way up the ranks of South Korea’s liberal faction. He wasn’t immediately welcomed by all; conservative lawmaker Kim Jae-won called Ahn an “opportunist with the face of the Little Prince,” a dig at Ahn’s youthful appearance and lack of political experience.
Ahn was touted as a candidate for the 2012 presidential election, but brushed up against Moon as the liberals were selecting their candidate to face off against conservative Park Geun-hye. Sure that fielding two candidates against Park would split supporters and pave the way for a right-wing victory, Ahn ended up stepping aside to boost Moon’s chances. (Moon lost anyway.)
A tearful Ahn resigning from the presidential race in 2012. (Source: YouTube)
Before election day in December 2012, Ahn flew to the US, and wasn’t around to watch the results come in. He returned to South Korea a couple of months later, and entered politics at the local level, winning a by-election for a seat in Seoul’s Nowon district as an independent.
In early 2014, he briefly joined forces with the main opposition Democratic United Party (precursor to today’s Minjoo Party) to form the Democratic Alliance for New Politics.
But Ahn soon left to start his own political movement, positioning himself as the sensible middle ground in South Korea’s brutal partisan politics.This People’s Party soon faced a scandal related to campaign funding, and Ahn stepped down as leader, but has remained the public face of the party.
The current political moment in South Korea is ripe with opportunity for a charismatic centrist. Voters are fed up with the status quo, of nearly twenty years of the liberal and conservative factions trading power, and neither side leaving the country in appreciably better shape than the inherited it. Now may be a good time for a relative newbie like Ahn to seize power.
“Five years ago, the people who called me forth [for the 2012 race] didn’t do so, so I could learn how to do politics,” Ahn said in his official bid to the 2017 presidency on Mar. 19, just nine days after the disgraced president Park Geun-hye was formally removed from office. “They called on me to change politics.”
What Ahn doesn’t admit in this speech is that he has become more and more of a typical South Korean politician; not just because he touts grand, sometimes questionable, promises of change and progressivism.
Like many South Korean politicians, Ahn is rich; indeed, with total assets exceeding 100 million U.S dollars, he is far and away the wealthiest of the candidates vying for the presidency. But unlike most others, he emphasizes, he made his own money doing something innovative and has never been the direct subject of corruption allegations.
But Ahn isn’t totally free from negative rumblings about his finances. He has been grilled over the allegedly lavish lifestyle of his daughter Seol-hee, who currently resides in the U.S, and faces suspicions that he passed on some of his wealth to her and concealed some assets in her name as a means of tax evasion (a common tactic for South Korea’s wealthy elite).
Ahn attempted to brush off the allegations, but eventually issued a statement saying that his daughter had total assets of 120 million won, which he says she earned from her salary as a research assistant at Stanford University, as well as gifts and inheritance from her parents and grandparents.
Still, just a few months ago, Ahn was barely on the radar as a viable candidate. His fortunes rose significantly over the spring, after the leading conservative hopefuls, Ban Ki-moon and Hwang Kyo-ahn, both declared they weren’t running.
In this way, Ahn’s centrism and relative lack of a political resume played to his advantage. At a time of widespread disillusionment with South Korea’s political mainstream, Ahn is the one candidate who can convincingly claim to come from outside the political establishment, and have no entrenched loyalty to either the conservative or liberal camps. More importantly, conservative voters, many vehemently opposed to Moon Jae-in, flocked to Ahn’s camp.
Even just one week ago, the race seemed to be close. In poll data released on Apr. 17, Moon was the leading candidate with 36 percent of support and Ahn was a very close second with 31 percent (a heady rise from a support level in the high teens as recently as late March). But support for Ahn waned quickly, an apparent result of his disappointing performance in the presidential debates, and Moon has opened a double digit lead in the polls. Now, there are less than two weeks remaining until election day on May 9.
In an apparent effort to stop that slide by appealing to more conservative voters, Ahn has been shifting somewhat to the right. The most publicized, and criticized, change is his position on THAAD, a U.S.-made missile defense system that South Korea is deploying on its soil. It’s one of the clearest issues dividing the left and right; last summer, when the deployment decision was first announced, Ahn released a statement voicing his opposition.
But this April, Ahn said that the next South Korean administration should honor the agreement made with the US to deploy THAAD. Ahn told Korea Exposé that he sees the threat posed by North Korea as the most urgent task the next president will face.
Ahn said he would, “create a Response Centre within the Presidential Office which deals with North Korea’s nuclear issues and also set up a Centre of Strategy for North Korea’s nuclear issues. I’ve already made public my pledges on increasing the prowess of South Korea’s navy and airforce as well as on the Kill Chain and the early completion of the Korea Air and Missile Defense system.” (“Kill Chain” refers to a preemptive strike system)
He tempered these hard-line plans with vows to also seek to hold negotiations with North Korea. How to deal with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is one of the oldest and most vexing questions in South Korean politics. The left puts forth dialogue as the answer, while the right dismisses dialogue as a waste of time and insists that South Korea must arm itself to the teeth for military defense and deterrence.
Ahn seems to be seeking to appeal to both sides, while leaning somewhat to the right. “I’ll work on re-opening not only a bilateral dialogue between the two Koreas as well as the six-way and four-way talks involving North Korea,” he told Korea Exposé. “Dialogue between the two Koreas should not be the end goal. I will work on creating peace and a strong national security so that South Koreans will not have to constantly live in concern about what may happen on the Korean Peninsula.”
Such tough talk may be Ahn’s way of warding off claims by conservative candidates that he isn’t hard-nosed enough to provide security. He is resistant to suggestions that he is a political newbie that lacks the experience needed to lead the country, pointing to his four years of experience as a lawmaker, during which time he tabled 18 bills, and passed six of them.
But a lack of noteworthy accomplishments as a lawmaker, and lackluster leadership of the People’s Party, have also held Ahn back from building a more loyal national following. He has also gotten less than enthusiastic reviews for his performances in the televised presidential candidates debate, at times coming across as inarticulate.
Ahn himself still clings onto the perception that he represents something new. He sees his status as a someone who spent the bulk of his career outside of politics as a positive attribute, at a time when South Koreans are seeking a new direction for their society. “Three of the five main presidential candidates had important roles in previous governments and I would say they’re responsible for much of the ills Korea is experiencing now,” Ahn said.
“I believe it’s not an issue of if and how long your government experience is. It’s all about how much good you can do in your position.”
Cover Image: Ahn Cheol-soo, doctor turned tech tycoon, seemingly came out of nowhere to energize South Korea in 2012. Since then, has he become just another politician? (Source: Flickr)
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