Heo Gyeong-yeong Picks up His Antics Again in the Seoul Mayor Race

The cult leader's frivolous campaign is sometimes an ironic contribution to democracy.

Heo Gyeong-yeong Picks up His Antics Again in the Seoul Mayor Race

Photo: Heo Gyeong-yeong.  Credit:  Facebook page of Heo Gyeong-yeong.

Eccentric cult leader Heo Gyeong-yeong, 69, has run in two presidential races, one Assembly election, and two local elections, and never won. He has claimed he has the ability to levitate and teleport; his followers have claimed he defrauded money from them and sexually assaulted them. And now Heo is trying again in the Seoul mayoral by-election. He has at least some name recognition: in a recent poll by RealMeter, Heo came in third, behind the candidates for the two major parties, with 1.2%.

Heo began gaining a reputation in politics in the 2007 presidential election, primarily because of his outlandish antics. In addition to claiming to have superpowers, he claimed he was an adopted son of Samsung Group’s founder Lee Byeong-cheol 이병철; was South Korea’s official delegate for George W. Bush’s inauguration (he presented an obviously photoshopped image as evidence); and that he was betrothed to then-Assembly Member Park Geun-hye 박근혜. (In 2008, the court sentenced him to 18 months in prison for Elections Act violation and criminal defamation. Heo appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost.) Although Heo never came close to actually winning, he became a popular online sensation.

Yet his campaign was not entirely substance-free: Heo’s campaign promises included a monthly payment of KRW 700k (USD 600) to seniors and a “birth dividend” of KRW 30m (USD 26k) to newborns. At the time, the promises were derided as a joke; today, they are the headline policy debate as South Korea is assessing the merits of universal basic income. (See previous coverage, “Basic Income in the Pandemic Economy.”) And his absurd antics have sometimes served to expose the shortcomings of South Korea’s democracy. In the April 2020 Assembly elections, for example, Heo Gyeong-yeong’s National Revolution Party 국가혁명당 received KRW 840m (USD 700k) in public assistance earmarked for political parties whose candidates for district-based seats are more than 30% female. The NRP was the only party to collect the money, revealing the sorry state of the gender disparity in Korean politics. (For the major parties, 12.6% of the ruling Democratic Party 민주당’s district-based candidates were women; the figure was 10.9% for the opposition conservative party.)

For the Seoul mayor campaign, Heo Gyeong-yeong is once again promising UBI-esque payments. He has even promised a “dating dividend,” a monthly payment of KRW 200k (USD 170) to unmarried adults. The payment must be collected in person, so that the single people would naturally gather near the district offices, meet each other and go out on dates.

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