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Thousands of South Koreans Protest Roh's Impeachment

March 14, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Tens of thousands of South Koreans poured into the streets Saturday night in support of President Roh Moo Hyun, chanting "Save our democracy" and decrying the National Assembly's vote Friday to impeach him.

With polls showing the public opposing the impeachment by a lopsided margin of more than 3 to 1, there were widespread predictions that it would be overturned by South Korea's constitutional court.

Singing folk songs popularized during the nation's pro-democracy demonstrations of the 1980s and clutching candles flickering in paper cups, a crowd that police estimated at 50,000 gathered at the Gwanghwamun area in downtown Seoul. Smaller demonstrations took place in other cities.

"Our democracy is being trampled by the parliament. Everything that we shed our blood to achieve was wiped out in one day," cried Kim Hyong Su, a 69-year-old retiree, who described himself as a veteran of the protest movement that dislodged the military dictatorship.

The demonstrations were the largest in South Korea in recent years -- rivaled only by a series of rallies in late 2002 held at the same locations to protest a fatal traffic accident involving the U.S. military.

Despite the impassioned sentiments, the demonstrations were free of violence. A Western diplomat said that fears of South Korea spinning out of control as a result of the impeachment crisis were unfounded and that the system appears to be working.

"This is not Haiti," said the diplomat, who asked not to be quoted by name. "You are not looking at people trying to settle their differences through extra-constitutional means.... This is in fact democracy."

The impeachment vote, which came as a shock to people both inside and outside Korea, rattled financial markets and public confidence. Saturday, a succession of government officials came forward to reassure the public that the world's 12th largest economy is not on the verge of imploding.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who was in Seoul to discuss anti-terrorism measures, became the first senior American official to meet with the acting president, Prime Minister Ko Kon.

Roh, a 56-year-old labor lawyer, took office a year ago promising to break the stranglehold on politics of the traditional political parties and to run what he called a "people's participatory" government.

That left him in constant conflict with the conservative opposition party, the largest bloc in parliament, as well as with the more liberal party with which he ran for office. The premise for the impeachment vote was a minor election-law violation.

Under South Korean law, Roh will be suspended from his presidential duties until a nine-member constitutional court decides whether to accept the impeachment. The process could take up to six months. The court is scheduled to hold its first meeting on the issue Thursday.

One South Korean political scientist said the decision would depend on whether the court decided to take a strict legalistic approach to the question or bow to public opinion.

"Generally, Korean jurors are quite conservative. But they will be under very strong pressure if they approve impeachment. It will bring an unexpected level of instability to this country," said the political scientist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pro-Roh forces plan to keep up a steady drumbeat of demonstrations in coming weeks to pressure the court. Some political pundits believe that Roh will be restored to office -- and be stronger than before.

"They have won the battle, but they will lose the war," predicted Kim Hyung Keun, a Seoul publisher and former journalist, referring to the conservatives.

Indeed, the crisis appears to have boosted Roh's popularity. A new political party that Roh is supporting in crucial parliamentary elections scheduled for April 15 has surged to first place in the polls.

Before the crisis, many of Roh's core supporters, mostly liberal voters in their 20s and 30s, were disappointed with his often clunky handling of political matters and his decision to send troops to Iraq; now, they say they have been reinvigorated.

"Roh may have made some mistakes," said Han Hak Young, 37, a homemaker who demonstrated Saturday with her 10-year-old daughter. "But impeachment is not the solution. We the people went through the effort of electing him, and it is up to us, not this corrupt group of conservatives."

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