Former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon arrives in Seoul today. Returning home as a major presidential contender, he will be given a hero’s welcome by his supporters – and be met with disdain from his critics.
Ban’s homecoming after 10 years as chief of the world body signals the official start of his race to become president and puts an election campaign already showing signs of overheating into even higher gear.
The main opposition Democratic Party, whose former leader Moon Jae-in is favourite to run, has already set a March deadline to nominate its candidate.
That plan is based on the assumption that the Constitutional Court will uphold the parliamentary impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, which would give the nation two months to hold an election.
It also reflects the party’s confidence – arrogance in the eyes of critics – that its victory is assured over conservatives devastated by the raging Choi Soon-sil scandal.
The escalating battles between the Democrat hopefuls – including Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung, South Chungcheong Governor Ahn Hee-jung and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon – show that they believe whoever wins the party ticket gets the Blue House.
At the same time, the Democratic Party and its candidates have united in their opposition to Ban, who poses the biggest threat to their presidential hopes.
Democratic Party chief whip Woo Sang-ho criticised Ban for supporting the 2015 Korea-Japan agreement on Japan’s wartime sex slavery, a hot issue again in the wake of Japanese anger over a statue in Busan commemorating the women enslaved.
The party’s spokesperson also condemned Ban’s performance as the UN chief, saying he failed to address the refugee problem, the war in Syria, epidemics and North Korea’s nuclear threat. The opposition also raised its voice against a corruption scandal involving Ban’s brother and nephew.
These all-out attacks on Ban reflect the party’s wariness of his potential candidacy.
Ban had a 21.5-per-cent approval rating, compared to Moon’s 26.8 per cent, in the latest public poll. He is being wooed by political groups that are opposed to Moon and the Democratic Party.
The ruling Saenuri Party hopes to enlist Ban in the wake of its fall caused by the Choi scandal. So does the Barun Party, which broke away from Saenuri.
Moreover, some presidential hopefuls, such as Sohn Hak-kyu, have suggested a wider “third party” alliance, calling for a coalition of political forces apart from the supporters of Moon and Park.
Ban is yet to offer any strong clues on which path he will take, merely saying he would exchange views with “as broad a number of people and groups as possible”.
What is certain is that his final decision will shake the presidential election and Korean politics as a whole.
Ban has emerged as a major presidential candidate mainly due to the public antipathy toward politicians and the establishment, which further deepened in the wake of the Choi scandal.
His strengths and competitive edge stem from his outsider status among established politicians. People will closely follow what he does and says in the days, weeks and months to come.