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South Korean Opposition Moves to Impeach President

Times Staff Writer

The turbulent, year-old presidency of South Korea’s Roh Moo Hyun was hit with its most serious political challenge to date Tuesday when the two main opposition parties initiated impeachment proceedings in parliament.

The motion to impeach the president, unprecedented in South Korea, follows a series of corruption scandals and Roh’s messy divorce from his political party. In the incident that prompted the impeachment proceedings, opponents complained that the plain-spoken labor lawyer was trying to manipulate parliamentary elections scheduled for next month.

To initiate an impeachment, Roh’s opponents needed a simple majority in the 271-member parliament -- a threshold they easily exceeded with 159 lawmakers endorsing Tuesday’s motion. But to go forward with the impeachment, a two-thirds vote is required.

A secret ballot is to be held before 6 p.m. Friday. If the measure is approved, it will then go to the Constitutional Court for a final ruling.

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“President Roh’s unfaithful performance and rash governance created political instability and the nation is falling into extreme misery,” Roh’s opponents said in the motion.

Adding to the chaos, Roh’s supporters in the National Assembly have threatened to block the vote. They began a sit-in today in front of the speaker’s chair and said they would remain there until Friday’s deadline expires.

Although the impeachment motion’s chances of succeeding were deemed slim by political pundits, the mere attempt was seen as something of a milestone for a country that only 16 years ago emerged from dictatorship.

“This is the first time that our congress has tried to impeach an incumbent president. That is an important event for Korean politics,” said Hahm Sung Deuk, a political scientist at Korea University. Hahm recalled that in the early 1970s, Koreans were extremely impressed by the American political process during the Watergate investigations.

“Of course, Roh Moo Hyun’s violations cannot be compared to what Richard Nixon did in 1972,” Hahm noted.

Roh’s troubles resulted from his characteristic bluntness. In a television interview last month, Roh said he would do “whatever [I] can within legal bounds” to help a new political party made up of his supporters win the April 15 parliamentary elections.

The national election commission ruled that the comment violated strict regulations requiring presidential neutrality, but deemed it a minor infraction. Political opponents demanded a retraction, but Roh refused.

In an unusual collaborative effort, the impeachment motion was initiated by Roh’s jilted political party, the Millennium Democratic Party -- on whose ticket Roh ran in the December 2002 presidential election -- and was backed by the far larger, conservative opposition, the Grand National Party.

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Roh’s spokesman Yoon Tae Young called the impeachment efforts “unjustifiable and irrational.”

Kim Geun Tae, a leader of the newly formed Uri Party of Roh supporters, told Korean reporters: “The impeachment is nothing short of anti-parliamentary outrage and tyranny of the mammoth opposition.”

Polls show that more than 60% of voters oppose impeachment and about 20% are in favor, with the remainder undecided.

A self-styled anti-politician, Roh is more popular with voters than with lawmakers. In his presidential campaign, he relied on the Internet instead of traditional political party structures.

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“He doesn’t have a strong political base to sustain his power and authority,” Hahm, the political scientist, said.

Some of Roh’s supporters have been disappointed by the scandals. Prosecutors recently said they had found about $9 million in illegal funds that had been donated to Roh’s 2002 campaign. Although that was a fraction of the $68 million illicitly given to his conservative opponent, Lee Hoi Chang, the finding was an embarrassment to Roh.

Jinna Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


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