03/26/2004, 00.00
South Korea
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The future of President Roh

by Pino Cazzaniga, PIME
The country's Constitutional Court is meeting these days to decide the fate of the president after Parliament voted to impeach him. Below, our Seoul correspondent offers a behind the scenes analysis, as South Korean general elections draw near.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – On the evening of March 20 over 130,000 citizens marched along the 10-lane boulevard linking City Hall to the ancient Imperial Palace to shout their support for President Roh Moo-hyun (pronounced Noh Mu-hyun). Similar such rallies occurred simultaneously in 48 other towns and cities across the country.   

In South Korea public protests on streets after dark are not permitted by law. Yet even so, the 50,000 police force mobilized all over the country simply limited themselves to standing alert in case  potential clashes with opposing factions needed breaking up.   

"Reverse the impeachment!", "Save democracy!" were the battle cries screamed by angry marchers as they rhythmically raised and lowered lit torches. The massive rally had been the most incredible collective expression of citizens since the political earthquake that rocked the national Parliament building. On that morning 193 opposition party deputies voted for a motion to remove the head of state from office.  

What the president was blamed for

On Feb. 24 in response to a journalist's question, Roh Moo-hyun said he would support the Uri (or "We") party during the next general elections scheduled for April 15.  

These words, however, marked the beginning of his downfall. South Korean election law requires that the president remain neutral in his support for one party or the other. While a major infraction, the president's error was a reflection of naïve expression, coming from a man who still doesn't possess the cleverness of smooth political language or diplomatic abilities. At any rate, such an error on his part should not constitute such drastic measures taken by the government. This is, at least, what most political analysts are saying.

Nevertheless the administrative procedure was correct in itself. Acting on the fact that an overwhelming 2/3 majority voted for Roh's impeachment, the head of parliament declared that the president was suspended for all his powers. From that moment on the Prime Minister Goh Kun temporarily assumed the president's powers and duties. Roh, who at the time was presiding over a military cadet graduation ceremony, accepted the news calmly. And without saying anything he returned to the Blue House, his official presidential residence. He in fact was "suspended" but not yet officially "removed" from office. Yet he will be so should the Constitutional Court approve the Parliament's vote of impeachment within 180 days.      

A sad day in the history of democracy

In sharp contrast with the president's calm is the utter disbelief on the part of South Korea's diplomatic corps and harsh criticism from analysts. Not to mention the angry masses.  

The pro-impeachment vote was an "unforgivable act made by opposition members of Parliament," said political science professor Dr. Kim Jon-han. "It will go down in Korean history as an infamous act. Generations to come will regard it as a twenty-first century version of battle between internal factions, like the fights which led to the fall of the Choson dynasty and Japan's annexation of Korea (in 1910)", he added    

"March 12 will be remembered as the most humiliating day in South Korean history. I don't think there is another country in the world which has removed a president from office for such petty reasons," said Uri party chairman Chung Dong-young". 

People's indignation, over and beyond their demonstrations and rallies, is found in surveys conducted by major newspapers. Not only in the capital, but throughout the entire country (even in regions where the 2 opposition parties find favor) 7 out of 10 citizens say they are against the president's impeachment. And for the first time regionalism, the endemic disease of South Korean democracy, has been overcome.

The country's thirst for power and self-interest

Even the National Attorneys Association has expressed their opinion in favor of the president, since it seems the case that no legal transgression was made or, at any rate, to such a degree that to deserve such an extreme government measure. The real reason behind the 193 votes is found not in the law but in politics: that is, the move was based on getting rid of a reformist president who was not from the ranks of the opposition.   

Roh Moo-hyun won the presidential elections thanks to the huge support of the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). Yet, ironically, it was this very party that advanced the impeachment motion. Why?  We think there is an explanation (if not the main one) to the political paradox, as evidenced in the Confucian culture still dominating old-school politicians' mindsets: an old man cannot subject himself to the commands and wishes of someone much younger than him.  In Confucian culture someone who is still learning must respond to the master of his trade. Roh, when he ran for president, was not a politician –much less a veteran in government affairs. He was a lawyer who, inspired by reformist ideas, used his profession to serve poor social classes. The candidate that ran against him was the chairman of the majority Grand National Party (GNP). The brilliant attorney for the poor, however, proved the victor by a few thousand votes.      

Realizing that he didn't have the support of Parliament to carry out his reform programs, Roh rashly threatened to call a referendum. The GNP and MDP, which considered the president's move as a sign of weakness, formed a coalition to reach a radical solution. And that solution was put into action on March 12.   

Government paralysis and economic disaster was avoided

In an editorial published in the The Korea Herald we read: "What is absurd about the current situation is the incompetence and democratic immaturity of the leaders who made this all possible." Notwithstanding the deaf ear turned by opposition members of Parliament, Roh, who had been only a year in office, had great success – especially in the field of economic improvement. Now, however after his impeachment, social and political instability looms large as foreign investors have withdrawn their capital before a disastrous financial crash hits the country.      

When he was in power Roh managed to prevent the economy from collapsing and avoided political unrest, thanks to the team of collaborators and advisers he chose. Prime Minister Goh Kun, a skilled veteran in the administration, immediately and firmly mobilized all the president's cabinet of ministers to continue both Roh's and finance minister Lee Hun–jan's same economic polices. The premier did so in such a convincing manner that he was able to win back the confidence and trust of investors.

The impeachment plays in the president's favor

"Roh could not have asked better gift than his impeachment," writes political analyst Mike Weisbart. The reason is simple: the general elections scheduled for April 15 will virtually be a referendum on people's trust in their "suspended" president.

Roh Moo-hyun's future now depends on the verdicts reached by two courts –that of the Constitutional Court and that of the voting citizen population. The opinion backed by most political and legal experts is that the latter will influence the decision of the former. This is true, particularly since it is unlikely that Constitutional Court justices will release a verdict prior to election day; secondly this is so since the issue is based on political and not legal codes. The Court cannot help but take into consideration the direction in which the citizen body votes: in South Korea the president is elected directly by the country's citizens.    

And such a tendency has been already expressed. Last September a group of parlamentary deputies –stern supporters of Roh –left the MDP party to form a new party –Uri. It was an active and lively party, but apparently a minority: it won only 47 of 271 seats in Parliament. That sad day the president was due to be voted for impeachment Uri party leaders had tried to prevent the head of Parliament from entering the building. This was not a very democratic maneuver, to say the least, as security forces had to pry each one of them from their firm positions of protest.     

At any rate, there is a very good chance the current house majority will be turned on its head at the next elections. In newspaper surveys performed following the impeachment proceedings, popular consensus is for the Uri party, while GNP support has dropped to just 15% and that of the MDP to a mere 5%.
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