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[Election 2017] Korea’s Obama or Trump? Candidates emulate celebrity politicians

For all the big-name politicians of the world -- whether it be Trump, Obama or Merkel -- you’ll find echoes of them in South Korea’s presidential race.

In their efforts to make strong impressions on voters, some presidential candidates are emulating famous figures overseas and tagging themselves with nicknames. 

 
Five major presidential candidates (Yonhap)
Five major presidential candidates (Yonhap)

Ahn Cheol-soo, the hottest candidate right now with a rapid rise in the polls, was a mixture of several US politicians when he delivered a speech last week upon a resounding victory in People’s Party’s presidential primary.

Wearing a white shirt and tie with sleeves rolled up, the entrepreneur-turned-politician resembled former US President Barack Obama in style.

Even his speech lifted elements from an Obama address.

“This is not a progressive country or a conservative country; this is the people’s country. This is not a country of the young nor the old; it is a country of the people. This is not a men’s country nor women’s. It is the people’s,” he said in his speech Tuesday, accepting the party’s presidential nomination.

That bore an uncanny similarity to Obama’s address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004 -- “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

Ahn Cheol-soo, presidential nominee for the center-left People's Party (Yonhap)
Ahn Cheol-soo, presidential nominee for the center-left People's Party (Yonhap)

In the same speech, Ahn also sampled “of the people, by the people, for the people” from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.”

As the familiar lines raised eyebrows, Ahn’s election camp spokesperson Nemo Kim moved to defend the People’s Party nominee. “Such political rhetoric can be seen in the speeches of other political figures, including those of Marcus Tullius Cicero in 106 BC,” Kim said.

While Ahn respects Obama, his role models tend to be innovative figures like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, the spokesperson added.

Ahn, an information technology mogul before entering politics in 2012, has been called the Steve Jobs of Korea.

Yet, the candidate is currently seeking to replace his weak, scholarly image as a geek-entrepreneur-turned politician who quit the previous presidential race midway, replacing it with an “iron man” persona. He has recently adopted a more forceful tone of voice and has parted his hair to a ratio of 4:1, which hair stylist suggest is designed to give him a safe, stable image.

Rep. Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party (Yonhap)
Rep. Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party (Yonhap)

Rep. Hong Joon-pyo of the conservative Liberty Korea Party stands out for gaining the nickname Hong Trump, or Trump of Korea, as voters liken him to the current US president.

Formerly a star prosecutor who was fearless in arresting even authoritarian leader Chun Doo-hwan’s brother-in-law and high-profile figures in the 1980s, the fourth-term lawmaker and South Gyeongsang Province governor is making news everyday with his feisty remarks. 

Last year, the politician has criticized media outlets as being “hypocritical” for releasing negative news on President Trump and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines -- both of whom are widely known for their strong, menacing statements.

The campaing team for Hong, the only conservative candidate with double-digit support in polls, says the candidate is only using "the language of the people."

Hong tops in polls of “would never vote for” candidates. Yet, he insists that just like Trump who got elected despite high unfavorability ratings and a hostile media, he can make a surprise win.
 
Rep. Sim Sang-jeung of the minor progressive Justice Party (Yonhap)
Rep. Sim Sang-jeung of the minor progressive Justice Party (Yonhap)

Among presidential candidates, there is also the Joan of Arc of South Korea. “Sim d’Arc” has become a nickname for the only female candidate, Rep. Sim Sang-jeung of the minor progressive Justice Party. She was an outspoken labor activist for 25 years who led Korea’s first labor strike movement in 1985.

Softening her public reputation is the self-professed nickname “Sim-vely,” a combination of her surname and “lovely” to highlight her personal charms.

As a minor candidate with some 3 percent support in polls, she has succeeded in raising public awareness of herself as a candidate.

In addition to her nicknames, she wants to add another: the Angela Merkel of South Korea. In a recent interview with The Korea Herald, she said she sought to become a strong female politician who can mend the cracks among political parties across the aisle.

“An important part of nicknames is that they carry the person’s strong characteristics which people agree on,” Jun Kye-wan, a political commentator, told The Korea Herald. “That way, the candidate can promote their ideal reputation and brand themselves to make strong appeal to the voters."

Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the minor conservative Bareun Party (Yonhap)
Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the minor conservative Bareun Party (Yonhap)

One who seeks but is having difficulties in establishing a more friendly public reputation is conservative presidential candidate Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the conservative Bareun Party.

Rep. Yoo, an expert on the economy having worked as a researcher at a national economic institute, only has the nickname “father-in-law of South Korea,” tagged to him because of his physically attractive 23-year-old daughter. While Rep. Yoo also seeks to promote himself as an expert on the economy and an eligible candidate for president, he struggles to shake off the elite image that deters voters from sympathizing with him.

As effective as it is for candidates to craft positive public images, some are relatively passive in adopting nicknames.

Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea (Yonhap)
Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea (Yonhap)

Topping local polls for 13 weeks with some 30-40 percent support is liberal candidate Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, who calls himself a “mega-trend.” While the former party chief is busy proceeding with his election campaign, he does not have a particular nickname that reflects his candidate characteristic.

Moon’s election camp says it prefers the nickname “Mr. Moon,” which can be interpreted two ways, referring to his surname Moon or that in the sky.

Instead of a nickname, several abbreviated Korean phrases -- “Eo-dae-Moon,” short for “The president is Moon anyways,” and “Ah-na-Moon,” which means “Vote for Moon even if my dad runs as a candidate” -- reflect his popularity.

“As for Moon, who maintains dominance in the race, he would want to become the one to be iconized,” Jun said.

Reasons for such naive and easygoing nicknames are found in the change of voters’ perspectives on politics.

“Politicians are there not to be served by, but to serve the people,” Lee Ji-eun, a 24-year-old job seeker said. “We (the people) elect them to change the nation for us.”

“In my view, the era of heroes where the politicians rule above the people has ended. Now, the people want a leader who is more approachable and familiar to them,” said Kim Min-jeon, a political science professor at Kyung Hee University.

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)
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