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S. Korea Questions Direction of Latest Step

Some fear the effort to oust the president is a return to repression. Others see democracy.

March 13, 2004|Barbara Demick Times Staff Writer | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL -- To one veteran of the pro-democracy uprisings of the 1980s, the National Assembly's vote to impeach South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun is nothing short of a coup d'etat by the old guard.

"It will plunge us back into the dark days of the military dictatorship," lamented 40-year-old Song Yong Gil, a former student activist turned pro-Roh legislator, on the eve of the impeachment vote.

But to some South Koreans, the very fact that a country that shook off its dictatorship just 16 years ago can now move to impeach a president is proof that democracy is alive and thriving in South Korea.

"Our presidents used to be like emperors," said Hahm Sung Deuk, a presidential scholar and political scientist. "From now on, the president is only the first among equals and he can be fired from the job."

The vote Friday of the National Assembly to impeach Roh, 57, a maverick labor lawyer, over a minor election-law violation has triggered a national debate about how well the political system is faring in South Korea, a country that prides itself on having one of the most vigorous democracies in Asia.

Under South Korean law, the impeachment could still be rejected by the constitutional court -- and many predict it will be. But in the interim, Roh is suspended from carrying out his presidential duties. The prime minister, Ko Kon, is serving as acting president.

Roh promised to follow the decision of the court and seemed to take the impeachment in stride.

"As the larva of an insect undergoes a metamorphosis, a society must go through pains to reform and change," he was reported as telling workers at a railroad-components factory he was visiting at the time of Friday's vote.

But many of his supporters reacted with near-hysteria.

At least three people were reported to have immolated themselves in protest in separate incidents around the country. Another blew up his car in front of the National Assembly. Friday night, about 3,000 people holding candles marched on the legislature, claiming as their inspiration the pro-democracy demonstrations of the 1980s.

Polls showed that the South Korean public strongly opposed the impeachment. A poll for the Korea Times taken Friday after the vote found 72.8% of respondents disapproved of the assembly's action.

"The politicians are trying to impose their old values on Korea and stop the reforms," complained a 28-year-old homemaker, Ham Mi Young, who was drinking coffee with a friend.

"It will hurt the national credit rating and the economy. And you wonder whether the conservatives didn't take this extreme action to cover up their own sins," agreed a 52-year-old optician, Noh Kil Hwan.

Although Roh's popularity has been highest among young voters, displeasure over the impeachment seeped into the financial markets. Stocks fell sharply Friday.

Acting President Ko, a 66-year-old bureaucrat who has held many top government posts, hastened to reassure the public that the country's institutions would conduct business as usual while the constitutional court decides whether Roh will keep his job.

Under the law, the court has six months to decide, although the head judge, Yun Young Chul, told reporters Friday that they might try to act quickly to avoid leaving the country in limbo for an extended period.

"This case was all about examining whether Mr. Roh's act was grounds enough for his impeachment.... We will also see whether there were any procedural defects and whether the case is valid," Yun said at a news conference Friday.

The event that provoked the impeachment was a relatively innocuous comment Roh made in a television interview last month about wanting to help his supporters in the upcoming April 15 parliamentary elections. Opposition parties from both ends of the political spectrum accused him of violating rules requiring strict presidential neutrality and demanded an apology. Roh refused.

The success of the drive to impeach -- which was approved by 193 of the 271 lawmakers -- appeared to take the South Korean public by surprise because it resulted from a spat that had escalated rapidly over the previous few days.

From the start, Roh has been an irritant to the parliament and the political parties. A self-educated lawyer who represented left-wing student radicals and trade unionists during the 1970s and 1980s, Roh shocked the political establishment when he won the December 2002 election with a campaign that relied heavily on the Internet.

Although he had little experience in foreign affairs -- and had barely traveled out of Korea -- he has won high marks from Koreans for his government's mediation of the dispute between North Korea and the United States. But domestic politics have been a mess with constant petty feuds, scandal investigations and tumult.

In his 13 months as president, he worked to loosen the traditional ties between big business and politics, to weaken the power of the political parties and even the office of the presidency.

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