As if South Korea doesn’t have enough troubles already, President Roh Moo Hyun, elected as a populist in December 2002, is facing impeachment, with the National Assembly slated to vote on his political fate by Friday. Lawmakers from Roh’s Uri Party have so far prevented the assembly’s speaker from holding a vote by staging a sit-in. Most South Korean papers urged politicians to abandon the impeachment attempt and get on with their jobs.
To maintain the neutrality of the head of state, South Korean election law prohibits the president from campaigning on behalf of members of his party. In early March, the election watchdog ruled that Roh had publicly supported members of the Uri Party in contravention of the law. The smart move would’ve been for Roh to offer a sincere apology to the Korean public for the minor infraction. Unfortunately, as ever, President Roh was not so politically astute.
Instead of apologizing, Roh said that he would let the April general elections, not the impeachment process, decide his fate, and he even denied any wrongdoing. A good result for his party at the elections, observers argue, would mean a vote a confidence for Roh.
The Korea Times reported that Roh compared his situation to a scene from his favorite TV program, The West Wing, in which fictional U.S. President Bartlet campaigns for a Democratic candidate for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. “We should throw away the double standard,” Roh said. “The president is a politician.” The Korea Times concluded, “President Roh seems to indirectly show his hope that a head of state should be allowed to engage in political activities.”
An editorial in South Korea’s leading daily Chosun said Roh’s move to treat the April general election as a vote of confidence was “predictable” and concluded that “it was planned this way right from the beginning.” President Roh’s aides and his family members have been embroiled in financial scandals, and last year the president said that he would hold a referendum as to whether he should continue as president. “Now, this means that the basis for the upcoming general elections has been completely taken away and is becoming pro-Roh versus anti-Roh.”
However, an editorial in the liberal South Korean paper Hankyoreh called for the withdrawal of the “unjustified” impeachment bill because it lacks “common legal sense.” The majority of the Korean people opposed impeachment, the editorial claimed:
The judgment of many around the country is that taking the issue of the president violating the principle of election neutrality and wildly wielding the sword of impeachment, while holding the country and the people hostage, is a move that goes too far. The opposition’s claim that it has to impeach the president because he hasn’t apologized makes no sense logically, because it means it introduced the bill over something that could be put to rest with an apology. Generally, people assumed the opposition would never actually go as far as it has done.
Behind this nonsensical … move to impeach lies the opposition’s … election campaign strategy. The … leadership of both parties figured that if they make the political agenda all about impeachment, then depending on the party, it will bring approval ratings back up after being stained from taking bribes by the truckload, or bring supporters back to the fold. It’s irresponsible and selfish high-handedness that thinks not the least about the anxious minds of the people as they struggle each day or about the difficultly faced by the economy. … If [the opposition parties] force a vote for reasons of partisan strategy, the ax is going to fall on their own feet.
A columnist in Donga Daily cited a biography of John F. Kennedy, which said a person is not born president, but, once elected and having faced adversity, becomes presidential. The commentator deplored the reckless behavior of both the Uri Party and President Roh and declared, “Many Koreans really now wish that President Roh would become more presidential.”
To help President Roh in his fight for his political life, Joongang Daily reported that Nosamo, a grass-roots organization that supported Roh in his presidential bid, asked former President Kim Dae-jung to persuade the opposition Millennium Democratic Party not to pass the impeachment vote. Kim, South Korea’s first democratically elected president, chaired the party during his term in office.
This is the first time that an impeachment bill has been introduced in Korea, a reflection of the unusual strength of the opposition parties—the Grand National Party and the Millennium Democratic Party—which currently control two-thirds of the votes in the assembly. Parties other than the president’s can have a majority in the assembly, just as a U.S. Democratic president can face Republican-controlled Congress.
Roh’s possible impeachment is a serious matter. If the bill passes, it would cause political confusion and stunt nascent economic recovery. If impeached, Roh would be suspended from office for up to 180 days, pending a ruling on his removal by the Constitutional Court. If that were to happen, Prime Minister Goh Kun would step in to serve as interim president.