- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

From combined dispatches

SEOUL — South Korea’s parliament impeached President Roh Moo-hyun on charges of illegal electioneering and incompetence today, stripping him of his constitutional powers in an unprecedented vote that came after hours of scuffles and protests.

Prime Minister Goh Kun assumed Mr. Roh’s presidential duties, including his role as military commander in chief. The Constitutional Court must now give final approval to unseat the president.

The move comes as the government prepares for nationwide parliamentary elections next month and tries to balance tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program with a fragile economic recovery.

The Constitutional Court has 180 days to rule on whether Mr. Roh must permanently step down. If it does, a by-election will choose a new president.

Mr. Goh, the prime minister, planned to convene a meeting of foreign affairs- and security-related ministers later today, his office said. Finance Minister Lee Hun-jai also called an emergency meeting of senior policy-makers.

The impeachment passed by a vote of 193-2, well above the 181 votes needed for the measure. Many pro-Roh lawmakers had been forcibly removed from the chamber by Assembly security and were unable to vote.

A shoving match was sparked earlier when pro-Roh Uri Party members tried to stop Assembly Speaker Park Kwan-yong from taking the podium, the only place he can call a vote.

Assembly security officers then moved in to begin removing lawmakers trying to block his progress. Mr. Park had warned yesterday that he might exercise his right to have security officials clear the lawmakers.

Live television footage showed security officers dragging out screaming Uri members one by one.

As the voting proceeded by secret ballot, opposition members applauded and screaming Roh backers chanted that it was a “coup.” Other Uri Party members broke into tears and sang the national anthem.

Earlier, in an apparent last-minute attempt to ward off the vote, Mr. Roh apologized for the crisis, but the opposition said he was too late.

“I deeply apologize to the people for the country being led into this impeachment crisis,” Mr. Roh said. “I couldn’t sleep at all last night.”

Mr. Roh said he was heartbroken after a businessman apparently had killed himself after the president mentioned him in a briefing yesterday at which Mr. Roh had refused to apologize for illegal electioneering. Mr. Roh urged supporters not to take extreme actions, as one did yesterday by setting himself on fire.

Even before the apology, there was drama in parliament.

In the middle of the night, opposition parliamentarians stormed into the chamber to try to secure the occupied speaker’s podium from sleeping pro-Roh Uri Party members.

Politicians fought, wrestled, argued and shoved. The Uri Party kept the speaker’s chair but opposition parliamentarians gained a foothold on the podium.

The speaker had adjourned yesterday’s session after he failed to persuade the Uri Party members to clear the podium.

Adding to the high-stakes atmosphere, police detained a man after he drove his off-road vehicle on to the steps of the imposing National Assembly and then set fire to the car.

The vote comes barely a year into Mr. Roh’s single five-year term and just weeks before an April 15 parliamentary election at the heart of the impeachment row.

Mr. Roh does not belong to a party, but has said he wants to join Uri.

The National Elections Commission ruled last week that Mr. Roh had engaged in illegal electioneering, but that the infraction was minor and did not warrant criminal charges.

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