Out of Control

9 minute read
John Larkin and Donald Macintyre | Seoul

South Korean lawmakers are instructed by their constitution to “maintain high standards of integrity,” but that hasn’t prevented them from enjoying a good brawl on the floor of the National Assembly. On March 12, the country’s leading politicians were at one another again, chest shoving, dragging each other around like drunks at a rock concert, hurling profanities, punches, shoes and furniture. Decorum finally was restored for a floor vote, and all that energetic wrath was focused on one man: South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun. After a vote tally of 193-2, National Assembly Speaker Park Kwan Yong gravely announced that the legislature had garnered the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach Roh, plunging the country into a political crisis.

Despite the shock of the votenever before in Korea’s history had the nation’s leader been impeachedthe wheels of government continued to turn in an orderly fashion in Seoul’s highest offices. Roh himself was visiting a train-car factory in South Kyongsang province when news of the impeachment came through. Looking oddly cheerful, Roh, decked out casually in a light blue, zip-up jacket, told workers assembled in the factory cafeteria, “I hope you continue your support for me just as you applauded when I entered the room. I will not get discouraged or give up.”

There is certainly plenty of reason for him to get discouraged: the President’s executive powers have been suspended. Prime Minister Goh Kun will assume the deposed leader’s duties until Roh’s fate is decided by a special Constitutional Court, which has six months to decide whether the National Assembly’s decision should stand. If it does, a new presidential election will be held, which could mark a bitter and premature end to Roh’s political career. Meanwhile, South Korea’s armed forces went on alert on the off chance that North Korea might try to exploit the political turmoil. The U.S. State Department would say only that it’s watching developments “carefully,” while Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi deflected questions from reporters by saying, “It’s Korea’s problem.”

A leadership vacuum is the last thing South Korea needs right now. Its economy is struggling through a fitful recovery; unemployment is rising as China’s booming economic expansion eats up manufacturing jobs and threatens the South’s technological edge. North Korea threatens to test a nuclear weapon on its doorstep; South Korea is a key member of a group of five nations trying to persuade the North to abandon its nukes. Moreover, the impeachment intensifies uncertainty surrounding the April general election seen as crucial to restoring some credibility and stability to the South’s government, which has been rocked by a series of corruption scandals. None of this has helped the international standing of South Korea, which suddenly seems more like an uncontrollable adolescent than a responsible player on the world stage.

Roh’s supporters are blaming the whole mess on what they see as a cynical maneuver by his political opponents. Roh was a surprise winner of the 2002 presidential election; the liberal human-rights lawyer who campaigned as a political outsider and dedicated reformer was swept into office primarily by young voters eager for a change. His inexperienced administration has been hapless at times, and his maverick efforts to root out corruption among politicians and businessmen have gained him plenty of enemies in the Establishment. The impeachment “is nothing less than a coup d’tat,” seethes Im Jong Seok, a member of the Uri Party, a group of reformist lawmakers loyal to Roh. “It’s a wrecking of democracy.” Many others share those sentiments. The day before the impeachment, a protester doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in Seoul. The next morning, a man drove his SUV onto the stairs of the National Assembly building and set the car alight, shouting, “I’ll kill you all!” On the night of the impeachment, thousands of outraged Roh supporters thronged the National Assembly grounds.

The anger stemmed in part from the fact that Roh was dismissed as punishment for the most innocuous of transgressions. On Feb. 24, in an answer to a reporter’s question, the President said he hoped voters would support Uri Party candidates in legislative elections next month. That was a technical violation of South Korea’s election codeand pretext enough for his enemies to wage constitutional war. The country’s Presidents are supposed to remain impartial, and Roh received a light rebuke from South Korea’s election commission for the comment. When Roh refused to apologize, lawmakers moved to impeach him. For good measure, they also cited as grounds for kicking him out of office his alleged mismanagement of the nation’s economy, along with a recent flurry of campaign-financing scandals that have involved several close Roh aidesthough the President himself was never directly implicated.

What Roh was actually guilty of may simply be political inexperience and ineptitude. Prior to becoming President he served as Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheriesa position that gave him scant preparation for running the country. Small wonder that he has committed a string of political and diplomatic faux pas that have eroded his popularity during his 13 months as President. Roh has to take a large measure of blame for the partisan hostility that has poisoned South Korean politics in the past year. Most damaging for Roh, a self-declared corruption fighter, were the campaign-finance scandals involving his aides, which caused the President’s approval ratings to plunge below 30% and sparked the first hints by opposition lawmakers that they might move to impeach him.

His miscalculations continued right up until last week: Roh could have defused the impeachment threat by apologizing for the election-law violation, which he refused to do in a press conference a day before the vote. Instead, he excoriated former Daewoo Construction chief Nam Sang Kook, who was under investigation for allegedly offering $25,000 in bribes to Roh’s elder brother. Nam killed himself an hour later by jumping off a bridge into the Han River. The suicide gave the Grand National Party’s (GNP) Old Guard the high moral ground in its push for impeachment, persuading some wavering younger lawmakers to join the cause.

The President couldn’t muster the votes to fend off impeachment. Roh isolated himself politically last fall when he bolted the ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) after a period of strained relations with party leaders. Last week, MDP lawmakers teamed up with legislators from the conservative GNP to oust him. Knowing they would lose a vote, members of the pro-Roh Uri Partywhich holds only 47 of the Assembly’s 273 seatstried to block the March 12 balloting by forming a human shield around the Speaker’s podium, hoping to prevent him from taking his seat and calling the vote. It didn’t work. Security guards physically carried out the barricading legislators, and the ruffled Speaker took his seat to call a secret ballot on the motion, which passed overwhelmingly because the Uri lawmakers refused to vote.

This imbroglio was a black eye not only for Roh but for South Korean democracy. Once known as a can-do Asian Tiger that had inspiringly shed authoritarian rule in the late 1980s, South Korea has now become the poster country for government dysfunction. Shortly before chairing his first Cabinet meeting Friday night, acting President Goh Kun, a respected career bureaucrat and former Seoul mayor, called the impeachment a “deplorable” incident, saying, “I cannot but feel sorry to the nation that the situation has reached the point it has.” Goh called for calm, promising to maintain stability in government policy on important issues such as relations with the U.S. Foreign investors, who have largely shunned South Korea over the past few years, might be further spooked by the impeachment because of the political uncertainty it causes at a time when the country’s economy is shaky and the nation is threatened by North Korea. “There are some pretty heavy issues here, and yet this is where their energies go,” scoffs Michael Breen, managing director of business consultancy Insight Communications Consultants in Seoul. “Korea is going to get a reputation for being the Italy of the East.”

It would be easy to conclude that Roh’s impeachment will kill off his presidency. But his reformist agenda and his direct approach to voters still carry wide popular appeal. Some observers say opposition lawmakers felt they had to impeach Roh to prevent Uri Party candidates from sweeping the upcoming election. “This was their final gamble,” explains Cho Ki Suk, an expert on Korean politics at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “What else could [opposition politicians] do?” Says Hahm Sung Deuk, professor of political economy at Korea University in Seoul: “The impeachment was a political game of chicken.”

Regardless of the election’s outcome, Roh’s only hope now is that the Constitutional Court will reverse his removal. By Saturday evening, he had made no direct comment on his ousting, although his spokesman urged the nine-judge court to deliver a speedy ruling, expressing confidence that the pretext for the impeachment was too thin to legally stand.

In the weeks ahead, a groundswell of Roh supporters could also make themselves heard. On the night of March 13, tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside the National Assembly for a candlelight vigil. “From now on we have to fight even harder for Roh,” says Kim Yong Seok, a member of Nosamo, an organization of Roh’s most loyal backers. In Seoul’s glitzy Myongdong district, even opposition supporters were put off by the political mess. Businessman Kang Jin Woo says he voted for the GNP during the 2002 presidential race, but is disgusted by its latest maneuver. “It’s too hasty, too early to judge Roh,” he snaps, sipping beer at a bar.

Korea University’s Hahm says if Uri Party politicians win big in the general election, the Constitutional Court judges might take that into account and reinstate Roh. “Then he can keep the presidency,” adds Hahm. Or, rather, return to it. Roh Moo Hyun promised to make waves if he was allowed to lead South Korea. He’s done that, but now he must avoid being swamped by the murky backwash.

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