[Viewpoint]What’s next for Sohn?

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[Viewpoint]What’s next for Sohn?

Among active politicians, it is hard to find a figure who has had a more turbulent life and career than Sohn Hak-kyu, the head of the United Democratic Party.

From an intellectual with a left-leaning activist background to a lawmaker of the conservative party, from a passionate health and welfare minister to a well regarded Gyeonggi governor, from a presidential hopeful for the Grand National Party to a presidential candidate for the ruling United Democratic Party and then UDP party chairman, a series of changes have marked Sohn’s political career.

What has made Sohn run so dynamically? What did he want to achieve through those changes?

In 1993, Sohn was a political professor-turned-first-term lawmaker. It was fresh and striking to meet him. At the time, Sohn was assigned to the financial affairs committee of the National Assembly.

As a novice, he paid visits to rookie economic journalists and asked endless questions about the pending issues facing the committee. Saying that he did not know much about the economy, Sohn wanted to listen to the in-depth stories of journalists.

Later, I was told that some of the Finance Ministry officials had become Sohn’s passionate fans. Officials who were used to seeing lawmakers behaving badly fell in love with this newcomer’s passion and humility as he personally telephoned rank-and-file officials and politely asked for data.

He served as minister of health and welfare in 2002 and was later elected as governor of Gyeonggi Province after one defeat. Sohn then demonstrated a new achievement. As governor he broadened the horizon of provincial governance to overseas. He was a governor of accomplishments, not words.

Challenging the Roh Moo-hyun administration, which was obsessed with restrictions over the capital region, Sohn hosted a large-scale LCD production complex in Paju near the DMZ. He was a capable pioneer of pragmatism.

With his achievements as governor, Sohn tried to become a presidential candidate for the Grand National Party. He did not have a base of support within the party unlike other candidates and he did not have much funding, but he was the most favored presidential candidate among journalists covering political affairs.

Sohn’s greatest political asset was that he was armed with both a progressive background and pragmatic accomplishments. It was a political condition that allowed him to win both sides of the spectrum. No other presidential candidate seemed more qualified than Sohn.

But that was not the end of the story. It became obvious he was not going to win the GNP nomination, and he bolted from the party and moved to the United Democratic Party.

After he left the Grand Nationals, Sohn severely criticized the past conservative administrations. He threw away a core political asset ? pragmatic accomplishment.

What was left was his background of democratization activism from the past. But that was not enough for Sohn to become president. By giving up his strongest asset, Sohn lost the UDP primary.

Some sy there is no way to rewind history, but the political landscape of today would have been 180 degrees different if Sohn had stayed in the GNP primary till the end. He would have had enormous influence on whoever of his two competitors went on to become the party’s candidate. And he would have won anything and everything ? whether it was becoming prime minister in the new administration or chairman of the Grand National Party ? no matter whether Lee Myung-bak or Park Geun-hye ended up representing the GNP.

Sohn probably could have prepared another run for the presidency in the ensuing five years, and the latest political knee-capping would have not existed, some say.

There is nothing we can do, because some choices cannot be reversed. Sohn, after losing the UDP primary, led the United Democratic Party’s National Assembly election campaign in the aftermath of its presidential defeat. The outcome of the general election was another serious defeat. The UDP ended up being the 81-seat opposition party from the 136-seat ruling party.

The UDP now faces an opportunity days before the end of the National Assembly session. With its expiring power as the majority party, the UDP is doing its best to keep the fires burning around the U.S. beef import dispute. At the center of the efforts is Sohn.

He previously vowed to ratify the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement during this National Assembly session for the sake of the nation. However, such a promise has disappeared, and Sohn has become a battered opposition party leader, repeatedly asking for meaningless renegotiations of beef imports. Politicians are warming themselves by the fire that started with the candlelight of young students in protest, and Sohn stands in the center. Where will he go from here? What is he looking for?

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jong-soo
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