SEOUL — South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, his 8-month-old presidency reeling from scandals and political strife, said today that he would call for a "vote of confidence" from the people but said he had not yet determined the mechanics of doing so.
Roh said he was motivated by recent allegations that longtime aide and confidant Choi Do Sul had taken nearly $1 million from the South Korean telecommunications conglomerate SK, which is at the center of another bribery investigation.
"I apologize to the people for this shameful and unsavory situation," Roh said in a televised news conference. "Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, I will ask the people for a vote of confidence not only on this matter but also on my performance since taking office."
The news caught the public by surprise, and there was widespread confusion today about whether Roh intended to call a special election. Roh said the idea was in the planning stages and that he was unsure how or when it would be carried out.
South Korea has parliamentary elections scheduled for April, but Roh said the confidence vote should take place sooner.
Political observers saw the announcement as a maneuver typical of a president who has often tried to appeal directly to the people, circumventing the political class and the media, who have been hostile to him.
"This is really a big gamble for him," said Chang Noh Soon, a Seoul-based political scientist. "If a confidence vote were to take place tomorrow, he would definitely lose, but with time, maybe the Korean people will decide it would put Korea in a difficult position to switch presidents at this time."
A diplomat who asked not to be named said it was still possible the public would appreciate Roh's willingness to take the fall for the alleged bribery of his personal aide.
"Traditionally in Korean politics, there was always somebody to take the fall -- usually the prime minister -- when something went wrong. But Roh has said it was his intention to clean up the system of corruption so he has to do something more," the diplomat said.
The 57-year-old Roh, a self-educated labor lawyer with little administrative experience, took office Feb. 25 for what is supposed to be a five-year term. His young presidency has been buffeted by the North Korean nuclear crisis and a faltering South Korean economy.
A poll published today in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo showed that only 16.5% of surveyed voters strongly backed his performance. But 42.4% assessed it as fair, with 36% strongly opposed.
Jinna Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.