Liberty Korea Party nominee is folksy yet sharp-tongued maverick

Liberty Korea Party'sHong Joon-pyo 

Former prosecutor rose to prominence after rounding up powerful crime and gambling rings

Entered politics in 1996, held GNP's chairmanship, floor leadership

Folksy yet sharp-tongued, known for his unyielding drive, unsparing attacks on rivals

The presidential nominee of the pro-government Liberty Korea Party is a folksy yet sharp-tongued political gladiator known for his unyielding drive and unsparing attacks on rivals.

South Gyeongsang Province Gov. Hong Joon-pyo, 62, has recently emerged as a potential standard-bearer of the nation's fractured conservative camp reeling from a corruption scandal that led to the downfall of ex-President Park Geun-hye.

He is ahead of all other right-wing contenders in opinion polls with his popularity soaring after Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn opted out of the race earlier this month.

Before entering politics in 1996, the former state prosecutor rose to prominence after rounding up crime organizations and a powerful gambling ring, which inspired a mega-hit TV drama.

Hong Joon-pyo named presidential candidate for Liberty Korea Party

Hong was first elected to the National Assembly that year, but lost his seat three years later after being convicted of violating the election law. He returned to the Assembly in 2001 by winning a Seoul by-election and grew influential while serving until 2012.

He held the powerful positions of chairman, floor leader and Supreme Council member in the Grand National Party, now the Liberty Korea Party, before being elected as the provincial chief in a by-election in December 2012. He was re-elected in 2014.

During his some 20-year political life, Hong often invited controversies with his virulent attacks on opponents.

He once called an opposition regional councilor "trash," and most recently disparaged former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun as a "man who killed himself after taking bribes."

His free market-oriented policies in the province sparked national disputes, including his push to close a debt-ridden public hospital and refusal to support free school meals.

But he was praised for getting rid of the province's debts worth around 1.3 trillion won (US$1.16 billion) during his first 3 1/2 years in office.

In 2015, Hong suffered his biggest political crisis undergoing a corruption probe. He was accused of taking 100 million won in kickbacks from a businessman, ahead of the party's leadership election in 2011.

But an appeals court exonerated him last month, paving the way for his challenge for the next presidency.

Hong was born to a poor family in Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, in 1954. His father never had any school education, and his mother was illiterate, Hong has said.

Hong went to middle and high school in the southeastern city of Daegu, 302 kilometers south of Seoul. He graduated from Korea University's public administration department in 1977.

sshluck@yna.co.kr | 2017/03/31 15:30