- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

Yesterday, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun announced plans to hold a confidence vote on his government in December. Faced with new allegations of corruption among his most senior advisors, Mr. Roh said he would step down if the national referendum shows the public has lost trust in his leadership. He shouldn’t need a vote to confirm the obvious, as his popularity has been in a freefall for months. Recent polls show his public-approval rating at 25 percent. There is plenty of justification for disillusionment.

Since his election in December, Mr. Roh’s administration has been riddled with scandals. The most recent charges entangle his personal aide and financial manager, Choi Do Sul, who is suspected of taking more than $1 million in bribes from corporations. This cuts particularly close to home because Mr. Choi has been Mr. Roh’s closest operative for more than 20 years. Two of the president’s aides already are being prosecuted for taking bribes, and a third — a former personal secretary to the president — is being investigated for ties to organized crime. Last month, Mr. Roh’s Home Affairs minister was forced from office and the National Assembly refused to confirm his nominee to be the nation’s chief auditor. Probes into possible financial impropriety by Mr. Roh himself are developing.

Disagreements over his political appointments and policy direction caused infighting among members of Mr. Roh’s leftist Millennium Democratic Party, from which the president resigned two weeks ago. Now separated from his base, he holds the support of only approximately 40 lawmakers in the 272-member unicameral parliament. The conservative opposition Grand National Party has 149 seats. This position makes it next to impossible for the president to enact a legislative agenda at a time when South Korea needs effective leadership. The economy is in recession for the first time in five years, household debt is near 85 percent of gross domestic product and corporate spending is flat despite record-low interest rates.

The auto-demolition of Mr. Roh’s government might make Seoul more secure. A demagogic politician who won election by whipping up an anti-American frenzy among young voters, the president has sought to “readjust” the military alliance with the United States. In the past, he has suggested that U.S. forces should withdraw from his country, and he now is hedging on sending troops to Iraq. All of these positions send a signal to Pyongyang that the alliance that has protected South Korea for 50 years is weak.

The South Korean government is in chaos, and the president has proven incapable at managing the challenges. Mr. Roh makes California’s recalled Gov. Gray Davis look popular by comparison. After almost a year with the liberal on the job, the sagging economy, diplomatic standoff with North Korea and even political scandals are worse than they were under Kim Dae Jung, his incompetent predecessor. On Dec. 15, Koreans will decide whether they want Roh Moo-hyun to remain president for another four years. We cannot think of a single reason why they should keep him.

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