In a conspicuous departure from their normal stance on security matters, the leadership of the liberal main opposition Democratic Party last week visited an island near the West Sea border with North Korea to pay homage to a monument for soldiers killed during the North’s artillery attack in 2010.
DP chairman Kim Han-gil declared on the scene that it was his party’s firm principle not to tolerate any kind of military provocation that would destroy peace on the Korean Peninsula. He also said that the Northern Limit Line, a de facto inter-Korean maritime borderline disputed by the North, should continue to be defended.
The DP leadership’s visit to Yeonpyeongdo Island came amid the opposition party’s efforts to change a position seen as sympathetic with Pyongyang, which has alienated it from the growing bloc of conservative and moderate voters in South Korea.
During his New Year’s press conference earlier last week, the DP head vowed to revise the Sunshine Policy of unconditional engagement with the North to leave no room for public divisiveness. The party has found the policy, designed by the late liberal President Kim Dae-jung, increasingly out of touch with public sentiment. It has been criticized for having buttressed the oppressive regime in Pyongyang without consolidating peace on the peninsula.
Kim also said his party would push to enact a law aimed at improving the dire human rights conditions and poor livelihoods in North Korea. His remarks raised hopes that the parliament might pass a bipartisan bill on North Korean human rights as early as next month after years of opposition lawmakers’ objections to the legislation, which they feared would further provoke Pyongyang.
This shift in the DP’s stance seems motivated more immediately by its urgent need to broaden voter support ahead of the local polls to be held nationwide in June. North Korea’s volatile situation and the heightening possibility of a military provocation are putting the opposition in a weak position against the conservative ruling Saenuri Party.
An opinion poll released Monday deepened the sense of crisis among DP members. The survey of 2,500 adults conducted last week put the approval rating for the opposition party at 13.7 percent, compared to 40.5 percent for the governing party. Voter support for the DP, which has 126 seats in the 300-member parliament, was also far below that of a new party envisioned by Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, an independent lawmaker popular with the young electorate. More than 27 percent of respondents backed the planned party.
Its appeasing attitude toward North Korea may not be the only reason for the opposition party’s growing alienation from voters. But this approach has certainly eroded public trust in the DP, allowing conservative politicians and media to lock it in the old ideological framework.
The main opposition party should make continuous efforts to adjust its stance not only to expand its support base but also to ensure a concerted response to security challenges from an unstable and unpredictable North Korea and mounting rivalries in Northeast Asia.
During his news conference, the DP chairman called for a bipartisan endeavor to raise a single national voice on foreign policy and security issues. It is what voters want to see from their political leaders in this critical period of time. If the opposition proves it has made a fundamental turnaround rather than a mere political calculation, it would receive due response from the widening bloc of moderate voters, who are set to hold a key to the results of elections in the coming years.