- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

SEOUL — Thousands of angry South Koreans held candlelight vigils across the country to protest the historic impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun yesterday. Prime Minister Goh Kun, known as “Mr. Stability,” took control, pledging to keep foreign and economic policies on an even keel.

The spontaneous evening protests were peaceful but underlined widespread dismay at a political crisis that has rattled a nation already juggling the North Korean nuclear standoff, a sluggish economy and a tumultuous run-up to hotly contested parliamentary elections next month.

The presidential impeachment was a first in South Korea.

Mr. Goh, who assumed executive powers from Mr. Roh, spoke of the need to “stabilize the people’s lives and ensure that the country’s international credibility will not be damaged.”

In a phone call to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon stressed the government’s commitment to continuity. He told Mr. Powell there would be no change in Seoul’s policy toward North Korea and that the government would “maintain its close alliance with the United States,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

There were no reports of any change in the alert status along the South’s highly militarized border with the North following the rapid change in leadership.

But Defense Minister Cho Young-kil said today the impeachment had caused a “crisis situation in the supreme military command.” He did not elaborate but urged U.S. military assistance in maintaining “impeccable vigilance without the slightest wavering.”

U.S. Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, is scheduled to meet Mr. Cho today.

Mr. Goh, 66, who held various posts under six successive governments, earned the nicknames “Mr. Stability” and “Master Administrator” for his ability to survive military coups, civic unrest and parliamentary machinations.

Mr. Goh will perform the executive duties until the Constitutional Court rules on whether to unseat Mr. Roh, a decision that could take six months.

Protests erupted throughout the country, including rallies in Seoul, Busan, Taegu and Kwangju. Police estimated that about 12,000 Roh supporters gathered outside the capital’s National Assembly, waving candles and chanting, “Impeachment is null and void.”

Riot police parked buses bumper-to-bumper to block protesters from marching on parliament.

Fueling the rallies was a widespread perception that the opposition Grand National and Millennium Democratic parties began the impeachment bid for political gain ahead of nationwide parliamentary elections on April 15.

Polls taken by broadcaster KBS and Yonhap news agency both found that 70 percent of South Koreans thought the impeachment was wrong. The KBS poll’s margin of error was 3.3 percentage points; Yonhap’s was 3.07 percentage points.

Mr. Roh, 57, a former human rights lawyer, came to office in February a year ago on a populist ticket that promised South Koreans better relations with communist North Korea and a more equal footing with the country’s biggest ally, the United States.

His 13-month tenure was dogged by corruption scandals, but yesterday’s vote was a crowning embarrassment for the feisty, independent leader.

North Korea watchers agreed the impeachment wouldn’t alter the South’s basic policy, but said it could lead to Seoul’s taking a harder line toward the North — especially if a new leader takes office.

Investors recoiled and sent the country’s KOSPI stock index tumbling 5.5 percent at one point. It closed down 2.5 percent. South Korea’s currency, the won, fell by about 1 percent, closing at 1,180 to the dollar.

The opposition-backed impeachment motion had cited Mr. Roh’s purported mismanagement of the economy as one reason for trying to oust him. South Korea’s economic growth rate slowed to 2.9 percent last year, from 6.3 percent in 2002.

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