A soft-spoken university dean in South Korea, concerned about economic inequality and despair among the young, has exposed deep national resentments and altered a key political race.
SEOUL, South Korea — Two days before Seoul elected a mayor last month, an unassuming man slipped into the campaign headquarters of Park Won-soon, an independent candidate. Amid flashing cameras, the man, Ahn Cheol-soo, a soft-spoken university dean who had earlier been seen as a contender for mayor himself, affirmed his support for Park, entrusted him with a written statement and then left.
“When we participate in an election, we citizens can become our own masters, principle can defeat irregularity and privilege, and common sense can drive out absurdity,” said Ahn’s statement, an open appeal to voters that quickly spread by way of Twitter and other social networks. “I’m going to the voting station early in the morning. Please join me.”
It was a pivotal moment in an election whose outcome has rocked South Korea. In a country where resentment of social and economic inequality is on the rise, and where many believe that their government serves the privileged rather than the common good, Ahn’s words — “participate,” “principle,” “common sense” — propelled younger voters to throw their support overwhelmingly behind Park, the first independent candidate to win South Korea’s second-most-influential elected office.
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Nearly 30 percent of the voters who backed Park on Oct. 26 did so because of Ahn, according to an exit poll jointly conducted by YTN, a cable news channel, and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Ahn’s charged comments on themes like inequality, the middle class, the despair of the young and “businesses with a soul and a goal nobler than just making money” are prompting comparisons here with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Yet, after setting off what stunned politicians called a “tsunami,” Ahn retreated from public view, declining all requests for interviews. Nevertheless, he remains South Korea’s hottest political star.
His name has attracted those who are disillusioned with the existing political parties. This month, 25 younger lawmakers from President Lee Myung-bak’s governing Grand National Party, responding to the party’s loss in the mayoral race, demanded that the president apologize for “arrogance and disconnectedness.” Recent surveys have found that if the next presidential election were held today and Ahn were a candidate, he would win.
Politicians have called on him to declare whether he intends to run in the December 2012 presidential election, but he has kept silent. Park said recently that he did not know whether Ahn would run, but added, “The fact that he once dreamed of running for Seoul mayor makes it clear that he is disappointed, and in despair, over the country’s politics.”
Although one newspaper columnist has accused him of spreading “the virus of demagoguery,” to his fans he is “Dr. Ahn,” a medical doctor who became an expert on computer viruses and is now ready to turn his healing powers to politics.
Cue from Spider-Man
“Like Spider-Man, once you have the power, even if you don’t like it, you have to accept the responsibility that comes with it and act accordingly,” Ahn, a science-fiction fan, told the weekly Sisa Journal last year.
If Park was the great beneficiary of Ahn’s popularity, the hardest hit has been Park Geun-hye, a leader of the Grand National Party and the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the country’s president from 1963 to 1979. Until Ahn came along, she polled higher than any other potential candidates in the 2012 election to succeed Lee, who by law cannot run again.
“She’s suddenly become a symbol of the status quo — old times, old age, old ideas,” said Hahm Sung-deuk, a political scientist at Korea University.
The Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon speaks volumes about why many Koreans often react with distrust to initiatives trumpeted by the political and corporate elite, like the contentious free-trade agreement with the United States, and why Lee, while winning the admiration of President Obama, is often regarded by his own people as out of touch.
“Professor Ahn represents the people’s aspirations for change,” said Kim Hyung-joon, a political scientist at Myongji University.
Champion of change is a new addition to Ahn’s unusual résumé. When he was a young medical doctor, Ahn, now 49, worked for seven years in his spare time to develop what became South Korea’s first widely used anti-virus software.
In 1995, he quit medicine and founded AhnLab, the country’s most successful software company. When he retired as its chief executive in 2005, he donated millions of dollars’ worth of shares to his employees. (Many South Koreans see a telling contrast between that gesture and the actions of a parade of well-known businessmen who have been caught breaking the law to channel wealth to their children.)
On Nov. 14, Ahn said he would donate half of his 37.1 percent stake in AhnLab to charity. His donation, worth about $130 million, would be used to help “the children of low-income families whose opportunities are limited because of social and economic inequality,” Ahn said in a statement.
In June, Ahn became dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology at his alma mater, Seoul National University. After the election, he resigned as director of a research institute when the governing party, citing his political activities, threatened to end government financing for it.
Ahn’s interviews, and the lectures that until recently he gave on campuses across South Korea, reveal Ahn to be not only a mentor whose talks have inspired younger Koreans, but a social critic whose pointed criticism of the country’s big businesses has struck a deep chord.
“Bill Gates wouldn’t have become Bill Gates if he were born in South Korea,” Ahn likes to say, accusing Samsung, LG and other major corporations of creating “zoos” and “a realm of predators and lawlessness” where, he says, they have shackled small entrepreneurs with slaverylike contracts.
He took on a national icon: Lee Kun-hee, the chairman of Samsung, whose elitism, analysts say, epitomizes South Korea’s national strategy of letting big business drive economic growth, in the expectation that society as a whole will benefit. Lee famously said, “We need talented people who can each create livelihoods for 10,000 people.”
“What he failed to add,” Ahn said in an interview this year with MBC-TV, “is that if someone keeps those 10,000 livelihoods for himself and takes more from others, then he’s no help to society, where all of us must live together.”
Such remarks tap into what is arguably the biggest public grievance in South Korean society — and, potentially, a political tinderbox.
Lee Myung-bak, a former Hyundai chief executive, campaigned in the 2007 election on what he called his “747” vision: the economy would take off like a Boeing 747, giving South Korea a 7 percent economic growth rate, a $40,000 per capita income and the world’s seventh-largest economy.
The economy did grow, but not spectacularly. Many Koreans complained that the 747 of growth had only the rich on board. While big businesses reaped profits, often partly by moving jobs abroad, smaller businesses supplying them earned less and less.
Older Koreans grew up believing that young people, if they worked hard, could climb high even if their families were poor; the classic example is Lee himself. But young Koreans tend to see diminished opportunities in a country where the rich can afford private tutors for their children while others struggle to pay skyrocketing tuition and the poor are shut out.
Sociologists have sounded alarms about anti-establishment hatred.
“In a way, the current system is worse than the old military dictators,” said Kim Ou-joon, who produces a weekly podcast that satirizes the government and is downloaded by millions of South Koreans. “The dictators beat students, hurting them physically. Today’s ruling class destroys young people’s self-esteem by threatening their livelihood. It humiliates their soul.”