South Korean President Roh Tae Woo announced this morning that a promised referendum on his record in office will be postponed indefinitely because “violent leftist forces” are trying to use it to overthrow the government.
In a nationally televised statement, Roh said the “interim assessment,” widely expected to be held next month, will not now take place.
“I believe holding the referendum at this time cannot help the nation and the people,” he said.
“The people are worried,” Roh said. “Leftist forces are trying to use the referendum as a football to overthrow the free democratic system.”
Roh had promised the mid-term test while campaigning for the 1987 presidential election. Today, he said he will consider permitting some sort of performance assessment at a later date.
Roh said another factor in his decision was disagreement among the opposition parties over when and how to hold the vote.
It was not clear if Roh was in fact backing away from the referendum because of concern about potential unrest or because he feared the government could not win the vote and might be forced into new elections.
Some opposition and dissident groups had been demanding that the former general stake his presidency on the referendum and step down if defeated.
But the two major opposition parties did not raise any immediate objections to the postponement.
The government had said earlier that Roh would not step down if he were defeated, but some senior administration officials have conceded that a defeat would put pressure on him to call new elections.
Some opposition leaders wanted the vote delayed until Roh completely eradicated the authoritarian legacy of predecessor Chun Doo Hwan.
Chun is currently in internal exile at a remote Buddhist temple after publicly apologizing for corruption and human rights violations during his eight-year rule.
The opposition had voiced fears that Roh could use the vote to win public endorsement for his actions since taking power in February, 1988, thus neutralizing pressure to keep probing Chun’s misdeeds.
‘Extreme Social Unrest’
Roh said he feared “extreme social unrest” if the referendum were held at a time when labor disputes and campus demonstrations were spreading quickly across the country.
“As president, I strongly oppose doing anything that would bring division and instability,” he said.
The president called on the ruling and opposition parties to carry out the task of “liquidating the wrongdoings of the past” expeditiously.
The opposition parties, which together dominate the National Assembly, want Chun to testify before Assembly panels probing abuses of power during his rule.
Chun has repeatedly snubbed summonses to appear despite opposition threats to charge him with “contempt of Parliament.”
At least three Assembly panels are investigating various Chun-era scandals, including the brutal army repression of a 1980 popular uprising in the southwestern city of Kwangju in which at least 200 people died by official count.
The Party of Peace and Democracy of Kim Dae Jung welcomed the decision, while the Reunification Democratic Party of Kim Young Sam said it would accept a temporary delay.
Kim Young Sam had been pushing for a referendum after predicting Roh would lose. Kim Dae Jung had opposed a referendum, apparently because Kim Young Sam’s party had overtaken his party in opinion polls and could win any subsequent presidential elections.
The two Kims are bitter rivals who split the opposition vote in December, 1987, presidential elections, allowing Roh to win with 36% of the vote.