- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

SEOUL — Opposition parties submitted a motion for the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun yesterday, throwing the nation’s volatile political scene into new turmoil with just over a month to go before National Assembly elections.

The proposal was submitted by the two main opposition parties, the Grand National Party (GNP) and Millennium Democratic Party (MDP).

The grounds for the motion were remarks Mr. Roh made in answer to journalists last month when he called for “overwhelming support” for the Uri (“Our Open”) Party in the National Assembly elections slated for April 15. Mr. Roh is constitutionally obliged to remain aloof from electoral politics.

It remains to be seen whether the motion will pass a floor vote. It was proposed by 159 lawmakers, but needs support of two-thirds of the 273-seat Assembly to make it to the Constitutional Court. A lawmaker told Agence France-Presse that the vote would take place tomorrow. The GNP holds 144 seats, the MDP 62, and the pro-Roh party, Uri, 47.

“This should be seen as political melodrama rather than evidence of a real crisis in Korea,” said Mike Breen, the Seoul-based author of “The Koreans” and head of Insight Consulting, a firm that advises foreign businesses in South Korea. “This kind of political posturing consumes Korean lawmakers but hinders the democratic process and damages Korea’s image.”

Chaos is expected during the voting process, but if the motion reaches the Constitutional Court, six of nine judges would have to find against the president. In the meantime, Prime Minister Goh Kun would take power. Mr. Goh, a former mayor of Seoul, is considered a masterly administrator but not a powerful leader.

The action could backfire against its sponsors in the assembly and increase support for the embattled president. Younger lawmakers in both opposition parties already have made clear their discomfort with the idea of impeachment, and recent opinion polls suggest that 60 percent of the electorate are against it.

The process would be uncharted territory for South Korea, which has never faced a presidential impeachment.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the pro-Roh Uri Party is a breakaway from the MDP, which has, since the split, become the president’s strongest critic, and was the main force behind the impeachment motion.

Mr. Roh faces a disconnect in the Korean constitution. While presidential elections take place every five years, assembly elections are held every four years. This makes the April 15 election a virtual referendum on Mr. Roh’s first year in office. Polls suggest that support for the Uri Party, which has branded itself as young and progressive, is looking strong ahead of the election.

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