[Viewpoint] Selling Sohn Hak-kyuThe main opposition Democratic Party, the Civil Unity Party led by loyalists of former President Roh Moo-hyun and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions will soon launch a new party together. They will register the new party with the National Election Commission on Monday and organize its leadership.
The merger is the brainchild of DP head Sohn Hak-kyu. He had to contend with strong and even violent opposition from DP members from South Jeolla, the traditional base of the liberals. Pro-Roh forces say if not for Sohn, a former ruling Grand National Party member, the coalition could not have won over the party’s old guard led by former floor leader Park Jie-won, a close aide of former President Kim Dae-jung, who resisted and said the coalition would dilute the party’s identity. Even his opponents give credit to Sohn’s persistence.
Sohn has been resolute and devoted to the plan of enlarging the opposition party. He said he would step down once he accomplishes the merger. Park accused him of back-room dealing. But Sohn sucked up the criticism and pushed ahead with the merger. He will be retiring from his position as head of the party. He plans not to serve in any executive position in the new party and instead concentrate on next year’s presidential election campaign. Will he become the presidential candidate for the new opposition party? Will all Sohn’s endeavors to enlarge the party pay off and smooth the way for his presidential ambitions?
Sohn has an innate weakness. His political birthplace is from within the conservative GNP. He has desperately tried to erase that scarlet letter. He risked losing office by running in a risky by-election for a National Assembly seat from Budang, Gyeonggi, home to upper-middle-class and conservative voters. Through his surprising win, Sohn helped boost the DP’s status.
He stood at the front in street protests against ratification of the free trade agreement with the United States to show some liberal backbone. Yet his ideological conversion is still viewed with suspicious eyes. To most liberals, he remains an outsider.
The new party will vote for a new leader in January. Han Myeong-sook, former prime minister under President Roh, Park Jie-won, and Moon Sung-keun, an actor-turned-activist and Roh loyalist, will run for the top post. Han is thought to be the strongest candidate. Park is handicapped due to his role in leading the opposition to the merger. Han is not only a high-profile member of the DP, but also a devout loyalist of Roh. She is close with the key members of the pro-Roh Civil Unity Party, such as her predecessor Lee Hae-chan and Moon Jae-in, head of the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation.
If Han wins the primary, the new party could be driven mostly by loyalists of Roh. Sohn may be treated as an elder, but his influence would likely be watered down from his days as DP head. Sohn, when he was the conservative governor of Gyeonggi, attacked then-President Roh as a false liberal and a president who was incompetent in economic affairs. Former Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan used to say he didn’t want to join the DP because of Sohn.
Supporters of the late liberal president Roh aren’t likely to want Sohn as their presidential candidate. Even if Ahn Cheol-soo, professor of Seoul National University, stays away from mainstream politics, Roh loyalists are expected to field Moon Jae-in or South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Doo-kwan in the presidential race. Sohn is now pitied to have done such hard work for someone else.
Sohn has a weak base in the opposition camp. Park and other old boys have turned their backs. Some now joke that Sohn is on the verge of extinction and needs protection. He can only rely on himself.
He must demonstrate that he guarantees a win. He cannot make himself stand out by trying to become like all others. He must first overcome his outsider complex. As he has done before, Sohn must sell his strengths in reason and intelligence. He must look to the public, not the pro-Roh loyalists.
To most liberals, Sohn is nothing but an interloper. He still has time to prove them wrong.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Sang-il