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Tiff in South Korea Boils Over as Assembly Ousts President

March 12, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — In a historic first for South Korea, the National Assembly voted today to impeach President Roh Moo Hyun after a trivial political spat snowballed into a crisis that in effect paralyzed governance of the nation.

Pro- and anti-Roh lawmakers traded blows and wrestled on the floor of the assembly as the votes were counted.

The impeachment still needs to be approved by the Constitutional Court, and some experts said that approval was in doubt. But in the interim period, which could last six months, Prime Minister Ko Kon will serve as acting president and Roh will be suspended from official duties.

In today's tumultuous vote, an unlikely collaboration of two leading parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum mustered 193 votes -- more than the two-thirds of the 271-member assembly required under the constitution.

The effect is that South Korea will be in a political vacuum during a crucial period when North Korea is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Financial markets tumbled in reaction to the news. Ko, a former Seoul mayor and political veteran, called an emergency meeting of the government's top ministers.

In a statement read on television by an aide, Roh said he would respect the parliament's decision, but urged the Constitutional Court to act quickly to minimize confusion.

"I'll leave it to the judgment of the people and history," Roh said in the statement.

Roh, 57, a self-styled political outsider, has had a stormy relationship with South Korea's entrenched political parties since taking office last year.

Up until the last minute, pro-Roh lawmakers tried to block the impeachment vote by staging a sit-in. They camped out overnight sprawled on the pale-green carpeted steps leading to the assembly speaker's podium, trying to block him from occupying his chair to call the vote.

With the decorum of a kindergarten class, some of the nation's leading politicians -- mostly middle-aged men in somber suits -- pushed and shoved and threw paper and furniture. Roh supporters screamed that the assembly was staging a "coup d'etat."

One legislator fainted. Others burst into tears. Pro-Roh legislators joined hands and sang the national anthem as they were dragged out.

Later, the Uri Party issued a statement saying that all of its 42 members in the assembly were resigning.

Hours before the vote this morning, Roh issued a statement pleading for restraint and apologizing to the South Korean people for an incident last month in which he was accused of violating election regulations.

But the eleventh-hour concession was too late to avert the first impeachment vote of an incumbent president in South Korea, one of Asia's proudest democracies.

Kim Geun Tae, the leading Roh loyalist in the assembly, predicted that the Constitutional Court would reinstate Roh as president because the constitution, he says, allows for impeachment only in cases of treason or gross malfeasance. But in the interim period, he warned, there would be a political vacuum.

"Impeachment would be a national disaster. It would bring chaos to a political arena that is already filled with political strife," Kim declared on the eve of the vote.

The impeachment crisis is purely about politics and the wrangling of the various parties for position. It was triggered last month when Roh, in a television interview, said he intended to do everything "within legal bounds" to help candidates he favors in April 15 parliamentary elections.

Opposition parties seized on the remark as a violation of election laws that require the president to remain neutral. The national election watchdog organization agreed that Roh's comment was inappropriate, but deemed it a minor infraction.

By all expectations, the squabble would have ended there. But the two opposition parties demanded that Roh apologize. He refused. On Tuesday, they introduced the impeachment bill, once more demanding an apology.

"If people say I should apologize just to avoid being impeached

Until Thursday, it was widely assumed that the impeachment drive was nothing more than a political game of chicken and that the assembly would never come up with the two-thirds vote needed. But the speech angered many undecided legislators and tipped the balance against him.

"We have no choice now but to vote for impeachment," Chung Byung Guk, an assemblyman from the opposition Grand National Party, said on the eve of the vote.

The impeachment was made possible by a collaboration between the conservative Grand National Party and the Millennium Democratic Party of Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae Jung. Roh was the Millennium Democratic Party's candidate in the December 2002 election, but broke with the party shortly after taking office in February 2003.

He had been expected to join the newly formed Uri Party, which is fielding a slate of candidates for next month's elections.

Roh has been far more popular with the public than the parliament has been. Younger voters especially tend to see him as a fresh, new face in politics. Polls this week showed that more than 60% of the public opposed the impeachment.

"They have no right to impeach Roh Moo Hyun. They are just the old politicians from the era of the military dictatorship," said Park Kwang Min, 33, a taxi driver in Seoul.

Jinna Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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