Can media mogul Hong lead anti-Moon faction?

By Choi Ha-young
Hong Seok-hyun

Media mogul Hong Seok-hyun suddenly resigned from the JoongAng Media Network chairman post on March 19, feeding speculation he may jump into politics with the ambition to run in the presidential election.

But political pundits commonly say his chances are slim considering his age of 67 and lack of public awareness. Also, for that bid, it was better for him to join a parliamentary party or start a new one, both moves unlikely considering the tight schedule before the poll slated for May 9.

Under such circumstances, it seems he is instead eyeing political leverage by cooperating with those opposing the presidential frontrunner Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).

After his resignation, Hong, who headed the nation’s second-largest newspaper JoongAng Ilbo and cable channel JTBC, contacted former five-term lawmaker Kim Chong-in, a vocal critic of Moon, and former Prime Minister Chung Un-chan. “I listened to Kim’s remarks in support of a coalition government,” Hong said on March 29 after meeting with them.

On April 5, Kim declared his presidential bid as an independent, making clear his intention to form an alliance against Moon.

However, the plan doesn’t seem to be going as well as he would like: Kim’s presidential bid has failed to impact the electoral landscape, with his approval rating standing at a scanty 1.2 percent according to a Realmeter poll released Thursday.

“The next administration ― most likely led by Moon ― will not have a place for Hong,” political analyst Hwang Tae-soon said.

Moon, with a huge campaign team full of high-profile figures, already vowed to recruit a prime minister from the Jeolla region to embrace his opponents there. Also, Hong’s views on reform through social integration clash with those of the leading contender who calls for thorough reform against deeply rooted evils.

Yoon Tae-gon, a senior political analyst at The Moa Agenda & Strategy, is also skeptical of Hong’s challenge. “If Hong seeks a role in the centrist group with Kim, they need to cooperate with Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party or Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party. However, both are unlikely to accept such interference.”

Instead, Hong can contribute by building a sound think tank for bipartisan policymaking and nurturing talent, political commentator Choi Young-il said.

This is in line with Hong’s email to JoongAng Media Network staff members upon his resignation. “I’ve decided to do something meaningful for the future of Korea,” he said, envisioning a think tank along with former ministers, ranking officials and experts with on-site experience.

Hong, an uncle of Samsung Group heir Lee Jae-yong, has engaged in social issues. Especially, JTBC played a crucial role in unseating former President Park Geun-hye by obtaining a tablet computer containing physical evidence to prove her confidant Choi Soon-sil meddled in state affairs.

Amid the swirling scandal leading to Park’s impeachment, the conservative media group kicked off a project named “Reset Korea,” dealing with pressing issues such as justice, youth unemployment, job creation, social unity and peace around the Korean Peninsula. Despite the newspaper’s conservative editorials, Hong has shown a liberal stance toward unification and diplomacy.

Hong previously served as the nation’s ambassador to the United States, and liberal former President Roh Moo-hyun once tapped him as a candidate for U.N. secretary-general.

However, he has a few hurdles to clear before entering politics: namely, his family background and a previous bribery scandal. His father Hong Jin-ki, Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul’s best friend, was a well-known pro-Japanese collaborator and associate of dictatorial former President Syngman Rhee. In 2005, he had to quit his ambassador job following an allegation that he and some Samsung officials attempted to provide illegal political funds to then-conservative presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang, and his desire to become the U.N. chief disappeared.

“In addition to his blot in history, he is a hyper-elite, which is a weakness for a public politician here to be,” Choi added.

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