DUP’s Sohn calls Ahn Cheol-soo an ‘empty image’

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DUP’s Sohn calls Ahn Cheol-soo an ‘empty image’


Sohn Hak-kyu

Dismissing the allure of liberal independent Ahn Cheol-soo as “nothing but an illusion,” Sohn Hak-kyu, a presidential contender from the Democratic United Party, stressed that the key to victory in the December race will be winning over middle-class, centrist voters rather than depending on time-worn concepts of vote banks based on?regionalism.

Sohn, 65, met with the JoongAng Ilbo earlier this week to discuss his presidential ambitions and the prospects for the liberals’ campaign.

The former Gyeonggi governor, who flirted with a presidential bid with the conservative ruling Grand National Party in 2007, is now seeking the chance with the largest liberal opposition party.

“It is absurd to talk about creating a coalition government with someone who offers nothing but an empty image,” Sohn said of rival Moon Jae-in’s recent proposal to software mogul-turned-professor Ahn. Stressing his ability to win over middle class voters, Sohn said his experiences as a student activist during the democratization movement and as Gyeonggi governor will allow him to become a president with stable policies.

Sohn only joined the DUP five years ago and will compete in its primary against Moon, former chief of staff for the late President Roh Moo-hyun, and Kim Du-kwan, South Gyeongsang governor.

Asked about those two rivals, both from South Gyeongsang, a stronghold of the pro-Roh faction, Sohn said fielding a Roh loyalist as the DUP candidate will create an unnecessary rift in society. “We will lose if the presidential election is about confrontation,” Sohn said. “We have to promote a candidate who can go beyond confrontation.”

He continued: “Because the people are fed up with the Lee Myung-bak administration, any liberal candidate can score significant votes in South Gyeongsang. But ultimately, a presidential victory can be achieved only by winning the middle class and the centrists.”

Sohn said his strategy in the primary will be similar to his campaign during last year’s by-election in Bundang B District. That constituency was a stronghold of the Grand National Party, the predecessor of the ruling Saenuri Party, and Sohn managed to win it against a former chairman of the ruling party.

“Once again, I am confident that the candidate who wins the hearts of the middle class will win the DUP primary,” Sohn said, stressing that appeals to regionalism will no longer work in the primary or the presidential election.

“Many said they want a candidate from South Gyeongsang,” Sohn said. “Because the DUP’s stronghold is Jeolla, many think winning the votes from South Gyeongsang will guarantee a victory.

“But having a candidate from South Gyeongsang will only bring about 10 percent more votes. Instead, we have to focus on winning the middle class and the centrists,” he said. “They are the voters in the capital region. If you win 3 percent more in the capital region [which has a large population], that is more than winning 10 percent more in South Gyeongsang.”

Asked about backlash over his leaving the Grand National Party in 2007 during its presidential primary, Sohn said he had done no damage to his current party. “Have I incurred damage to the DUP? Have I disgraced it?” Sohn asked. “I have contributed decisively to the unity of the liberals, and I have worked hard to make it a party that is capable of running a country. My political opponents will, of course, bring it up anyway.”

After his presidential ambition was overshadowed during the GNP primary in 2007, Sohn left the party and joined its liberal rival. But he lost the presidential primary to Chung Dong-young. Sohn served as the largest liberal opposition party’s chairman twice in 2008 and 2010.

Sohn said he is a better candidate than the Saenuri Party’s front-runner Park Geun-hye because of his convictions about democracy. “I agree with the sense of stability that she gives and her ability to manage a crisis,” Sohn said. “But because democracy is not her fundamental, it is dangerous. For that, a DUP candidate must compete against Park’s sense of stability and crisis management ability.”

He also rejected the idea of consolidating a candidacy with Ahn Cheol-soo after the DUP primary selects its presidential candidate. “We are the largest liberal forces united since the democratization [in 1987],” Sohn said. “The people are ready to support us, but why will they choose us if we say with our own lips that we are powerless, stupid and don’t offer enough so that we have to go join hands with him?” Sohn said. “If we cannot win the presidential election on our own, we should just give up.”

Sohn also said it is premature to talk about an alliance with Ahn at all. “Ahn could be nothing but an illusion,” Sohn said. “How can we decide on an alliance based on just an image? Until now, he has been nothing but image, but from now on, it will be about content. Voters are pragmatic and they are selfish. They want to see a president who will improve their harsh lives.”

Asked if he thinks of Ahn as a presidential contender, Sohn responded with a laugh. “See, this is such an ambiguous situation that such a question has to be asked,” he said. “And do you think in that situation it makes sense to have a primary taking into account the Ahn factor?”

Sohn also said the alliance between the DUP and the Unified Progressive Party can only continue after the UPP implements stern reforms. He spoke negatively about the leadership of the DUP and the UPP visiting the U.S. Embassy in Seoul shortly before the April 11 legislative election to argue that the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement be scrapped.

“Because we followed the voice of some people and failed to control the party’s opinion, the voters turned away from us in the general election,” he said. “Free trade is a global trend, and I don’t disagree with it. It is important to protect what should be protected and communicate well with the people.”

A native of Siheung, Gyeonggi, Sohn studied political science at Seoul National University. When he made his presidential bid official last week, he summarized his life as “having fought against the Park Chung Hee dictatorship for democratization, created 740,000 jobs as a Gyeonggi governor and achieved liberal unity for the country’s unity.”

After working for years as a democracy and labor activist, he became a scholar to teach students in 1993, and he joined politics at the invitation of then-President Kim Young-sam to join the ruling Democratic Liberty Party. In the Kim administration, he served as health and welfare minister.
In 2002, he served as the Gyeonggi governor as a GNP member, and after his term ended in 2006, he toured the country for 102 days to meet with ordinary citizens and experience 93 jobs. Once considered a presidential contender, Sohn left the GNP in 2007 as he failed to agree with the primary rules. He united the liberals by merging the Uri Party of the Roh faction and the traditional Kim Dae-jung faction to create the United New Democratic Party.

By Ser Myo-ja, Kim Jung-wook [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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