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Sohn Concedes to New Gov`t on Restructuring

Posted February. 21, 2008 03:02,   


“Of course, that’s Sohn Hak-kyu.”

That was what people from the United Democratic Party said about its party leader. Sohn held a press conference on Wednesday to announce that a major concession had been made to resolve the political deadlock over government restructuring.

Sohn said, “We still think the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry should be retained but we made a concession so that the new government can be launched. The president-elect named a list of ministers while we were still in discussion. He is very arrogant and dogmatic. But I came here with a concessionary heart to give up something very important.” He added, “For the people, we cannot afford to always point out what our opponents did wrong. What we should do is to make the people comfortable.”

Shortly after the press conference, he attended a party leadership meeting to receive praise for his announcement. Lawmakers Jeong Kyu-hwan and Shin Kye-ryun, who initially opposed any compromise, changed their stances and supported Sohn. In a telephone conversation, Jeong said, “I respect the results.” Park Sang-cheon, another leader in the party, said, “Sohn has been leading this the entire way, so I should provide support.”

▽ Tough talk to boost his standing in the party

Sohn’s effort to preserve the Maritime Ministry was expected to cause political conflict last month, when Lee Myung-bak’s transition team submitted the government reform plan to the National Assembly.

Back then, while the Democratic Party opposed the planned closure of the Unification Ministry, Sohn opposed plans to eliminate the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry. Sohn called the Maritime Ministry a ‘future ministry,’ one that would prepare Korea to become a great maritime nation.

Sohn visited coastal cities such as Busan and Gwangyang to campaign against the new government’s proposal. He used strong phrases such as “Disregarding the opposition party,” and “Giving up on democracy.”

During his 15-year political career, 14 of them were spent with the conservative Grand National Party. Some say that Sohn needs to build up his standing as the leader of the United Democratic Party, which is made up of members from the former Democratic Party, independents and members of the 386 group (those who attended college during the 1980s and was born in the 1960s). It must have been very difficult for him as some quarters of the party believed that based on the party’s low ratings, Sohn would have done well to maintain support from traditional backers by fighting hard against the GNP.

Lawmaker Jeong Kyun-hwan said, “I did not know his style, but from this, I can see that he can be stubborn.” Sohn graduated from Kyunggi High School, Seoul National University and received a Ph.D from Oxford University. By announcing the concession, he shed his image as a man of indecision.

∇ A practical choice for the general elections

His dilemma began on the afternoon of Feb. 19, a day after President-elect Lee Myung-bak named his government ministers. Rumors suggest that Sohn made up his mind after long consultations with party whip moderate Kim Hyo-seok, a key player in the negotiations, and Yoo In-tae, who is in charge of the government affairs committee.

Kim openly commented, “If we are to be a maverick party with 50 to 60 seats, we’d better talk tough. But if we want to become a controlling party with 120 seats, we’d better change. Let’s help Lee Myung-bak.”

The April general elections, which are 50 days away, loomed large in Sohn’s mind when he made the final decision. As the party’s approval rating is just around 10%, Sohn’s tough talk could have backfired and severely hurt the party’s chances in the upcoming elections. If so, he would have to take responsibility.

Sohn is reportedly to have been in disagreement with Cheong Wa Dae during the entire course of the deal. One Cheong Wa Dae official said, “Lee Myung-bak met President Roh in the presidential house, and the president said that consolidation of the Maritime Ministry by another ministry makes sense. As this said was publicized, it must surely have played a role in Sohn’s decision.”

srkim@donga.com jin0619@donga.com