In One of the Least Diverse Nations, an American Outsider Shakes Up Politics | Mint

In One of the Least Diverse Nations, an American Outsider Shakes Up Politics

John Linton speaks fluent English and Korean—and doesn’t try to mask his Southern twang while speaking either.
John Linton speaks fluent English and Korean—and doesn’t try to mask his Southern twang while speaking either.

Summary

John Linton, born and raised in South Korea, tries to rejuvenate that country’s ruling party.

SEOUL—John Linton is quick to acknowledge that on the surface he might be an unusual choice as the architect behind a political reboot of South Korea’s ruling party.

For starters, he is a doctor who has never held office. He’s also an American. Then there is his ethnicity. “I’m outwardly, ya know, a white guy, a Caucasian," Linton said.

South Korea’s political parties often turn to new faces during tough times. But Linton is a rarity in one of the world’s least diverse countries—where politics is decidedly a matter for ethnic Koreans. His appointment by President Yoon Suk Yeol’s struggling People Power Party shows how badly the party wants a makeover ahead of April’s legislative elections.

Polls show about three-fifths of South Koreans disapprove of the job performance of Yoon, as well as the head of the opposition party, as the country deals with economic stagnation and rising inflation. Those dissatisfied with Yoon, who took office last year as a political neophyte, most commonly cite economic concerns as the reason.

Yoon’s party sought a revamp in October, in the aftermath of a defeat in a special election vote seen as a proxy for next year’s race. Yoon, whose five-year term ends in 2027, risks being seen as a lame duck, domestically and abroad, if his ruling party fails to win a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly, where the opposition now has control.

While the 64-year-old Linton said his ancestry includes a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, he has deep roots in South Korea. The son of American missionaries, he was born and raised in rural South Korea. He became South Korea’s first naturalized citizen more than a decade ago.

He speaks fluent English and Korean—and doesn’t try to mask his Southern twang while speaking either language. Referring to the southwestern province in South Korea where he largely grew up, he said, “I’m just a Jeolla-do country boy."

Still, when the ruling party’s chairman, Kim Gi-hyeon, asked him in a private hotel meeting room to be the chairman of the party’s innovation committee, Linton said he inquired three times if Kim was making a mistake. He insisted he knew nothing about politics, he said.

“That’s exactly what we need," Linton recalled Kim telling him.

Two days later, Linton accepted.

In South Korea, with a foreign population of roughly 4%, only one non-ethnically Korean person has served in the National Assembly. Jasmine Lee, who was born in the Philippines and immigrated to South Korea after marrying her Korean husband in the 1990s, served a single four-year term from 2012 to 2016.

Though a fluent Korean speaker, Lee recalled questions about whether she knew the language, history and legal system well enough to serve as a lawmaker. Some suggested she would need twice as much time as her fellow newly elected lawmakers to adjust to the National Assembly. Some of the compliments struck her as odd, such as well-wishers remarking, “You’re more Korean than a Korean."

“That just means I’m not Korean," Lee said. “You being an outsider, people think of you in a biased way."

Linton said he sees his outsider status, and the fact that he doesn’t owe anything to anyone in the political world, as strengths. “If I were ethnically Korean, a lot of people would be second-guessing my motives," he said. “But I think being originally from a foreign background gives me some Teflon coating."

He has suggested a slew of changes aimed at boosting the ruling party’s support among voters. He has proposed slashing lawmakers’ pay, boosting outreach to younger voters and diversifying the conservative party’s candidate pool ahead of April’s national legislative election.

In South Korea, lawmakers don’t need to live in their districts. So, Linton has suggested the party’s most powerful and connected officials run in more contested areas instead of conservative strongholds.

His outspoken views have drawn near round-the-clock media attention and controversy across the political spectrum. He was punched by protesters at a memorial service held for those killed in last year’s fatal Itaewon crowd crush, Linton said. The protesters were angry at the Yoon administration’s response to the tragedy. A former ruling party chairman who had been ousted from the party addressed Linton at a public event in October: “You became one of us, but you don’t look like us as of now."

Linton and his innovation committee plan to submit a final report on Monday and then wind down their work. Linton said the rest will be up to the party, and he would likely be stepping back from politics for a while. It isn’t clear what, if any, proposals will get implemented.

“I’ve taken a huge beating," Linton said on Thursday. “I’ve had enough. I’ve had more than enough."

Linton, whose Korean name is Ihn Yohan, has enjoyed a degree of local celebrity throughout his adulthood, given his unusual biography. He is the longtime pitchman of a popular line of probiotic milk called “Dr. Capsule." Over the decades, he has been involved with so many of South Korea’s marquee moments and figures that he has been referred to as the country’s Forrest Gump.

In contrast with the heads of South Korea’s two major parties, more South Koreans like Linton than dislike him, recent polling suggests. Linton said he encounters strangers who give him thumbs-up on the street and encourage him to “give those politicians hell."

In his new political role, Linton can be a double-edged sword to South Korea’s ruling party. While he is pushing for an overhaul, he is also unafraid to express unconventional views, said Rob Rapson, a retired former senior U.S. diplomat in South Korea, who has known Linton for decades. “He says the kinds of things you don’t hear from Korean politicians," said Rapson, citing Linton’s persistence in proposing that well-connected party members run in competitive districts.

Linton’s attempts to meet people who disagree with Yoon, by attending events in liberal strongholds, are positive moves, though will go only so far toward charming the public, said Jeong Han-wool, a public opinion analyst at polling firm Hankook Research. “At the end of the day, voters won’t be convinced that the party is willing to change unless Yoon himself comes forward to address the people’s discontent," Jeong said.

Other than a few years in his youth and his medical residency in New York, Linton has spent his entire life in South Korea. On his mother’s side, Linton said he is related to John Witherspoon, one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, who later became the sixth president of Princeton.

His family’s roots in South Korea stretch back more than a century, with his maternal great-grandfather Eugene Bell arriving as a missionary to Korea in 1895. One of his grandfathers helped raise global awareness for Korea’s independence movement against Japan. His father served as a U.S. Navy captain in the Korean War.

Linton himself served as a translator for foreign journalists during the 1980 Gwangju uprising, one of South Korea’s turning points to democracy. He became the first Westerner to pass South Korea’s medical-license exam and has traveled to North Korea more than 20 times to help combat the impoverished regime’s widespread tuberculosis.

In South Korea, Linton’s views have spanned across the political spectrum. The late President Kim Dae-jung, a liberal and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was a mentor to Linton. “I’m very confusing to both sides. And I like that," Linton said.

Linton said he hasn’t voted in U.S. elections, except for his time in New York, though he follows American politics. But if the choice were between President Biden and Donald Trump?

“I think this time I’ll abstain," Linton says. “But I’m going to vote in Korea."

Dasl Yoon contributed to this article.

Write to Timothy W. Martin at Timothy.Martin@wsj.com

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