Rowdy Parliament Impeaches South Korean President

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Months of political crisis for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun reached a climax Friday, when lawmakers headed by the country's conservative opposition party voted to impeach him for violating election law and for incompetence.

The impeachment vote in the National Assembly means Roh's powers have been taken over by the prime minister, pending a Constitutional Court ruling on whether the president must resign altogether.

Even if the Constitutional Court overturns the first impeachment of a head of state in South Korea's history, that process could take up to six months.

The vote Thursday followed two days of high drama, involving the reported suicide of a businessman Roh accused of corruption, the attempted suicide of a Roh supporter, the setting alight of a car on the Assembly steps, and brawling inside the chamber.

Overnight, rival groups of lawmakers tussled for physical control of the speaker's podium in the Assembly - the only location from which the speaker can call for a vote, according to national law.

Hours later, opposition parties mustered 193 votes in the 273-seat Assembly, 12 more than the two-thirds majority required to pass the motion.

Roh's supporters refused to vote during the rowdy session.

The political crisis, although domestic in nature, has spotlighted the deep ideological divide in South Korean society.

The liberal, former human rights lawyer counts among his supporters many younger Koreans keen to move away from the traditional alliance with the U.S. and seek closer ties with the communist North. Roh has called for South Korea to lessen its reliance on the U.S.

On the other hand, his main opposition and the largest party in the Assembly, the Grand National Party (GNP), is primarily pro-U.S. in outlook and deeply suspicious of North Korea.

Muddying the waters, however, is the fact that Roh's critics include both supporters and opponents of his decision to commit 3,000 troops to the mission of rehabilitating Iraq.

Roh came to office last year promising to clean up longstanding problems of powerful Korean business interests paying off politicians.

But last October, a close aide, Choi Do-sool, was arrested on suspicion of accepting nearly $1 million from a conglomerate during the presidential election won by Roh.

The National Assembly then voted for an independent inquiry into the political funding affair, but Roh vetoed the move.

Although the funding issue damaged Roh, it also implicated his opponents in the GNP.

The impeachment issue arose after Roh was found to have violated electoral laws ahead of next month's parliamentary elections, by urging voters to give "overwhelming support" to a minority party that comprises the core of his supporters in the Assembly.

The law prohibits presidents from getting involved in legislative elections.

The impeachment motion which was passed on Friday also demanded that Roh take responsibility for corruption among his former aides and for Korea's slow economic recovery.

In an apparent eleventh hour bid to fend off a vote, the president's office released a statement early Friday, apologizing for "the situation in which the political confrontation has led to an impeachment move against me."

In the statement, Roh also said he was sorry about the death of a top businessman, who police said jumped off a bridge into a river Thursday shortly after the president accused him of bribery during a televised press conference.

In other related incidents Thursday, a Roh supporter set himself alight outside the National Assembly, and was taken to hospital. And a man tried to drive a car up the building's steps, then torched the car before being arrested.

Both the domestic political upheaval of recent months, and economic concerns, have overshadowed the usually-pressing issues of foreign policy, particularly those relating to Seoul's military alliance with the U.S. and the North Korean nuclear question.

"Compared to the beginning of the [Roh] term, there's been much less public attention towards foreign policy matters," Asia Foundation's Seoul-based program officer Chun Moon said Friday.

"It simply hasn't been mentioned that much, by the media or the public. Apart from the impeachment [issue], I guess the primary topic on Koreans' minds has been the economy - unemployment and labor issues."

He said it had helped that it had been a calmer than usual period in North-South relations, with fewer "inflammatory remarks" emanating from Pyongyang.

Asked about the mood in Seoul, Moon said people were just getting the news of the vote, but it was his impression that "a lot of people are worried about what will happen."

He described Prime Minister Prime Minister Goh Kun, who has taken over head of state duties, as a "non-controversial" career bureaucrat, who was respected and generally well-liked on both sides of politics.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow