- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

SEOUL — South Korea’s Constitutional Court rejected the impeachment of the national president in a final ruling announced today, restoring Roh Moo-hyun to his post.

“There are no reasons which are grave enough to remove the president from office,” said Yun Young-chul, court president, announcing the ruling at a public hearing carried on national television.

“The court rejects the request for impeachment.”

The court has final authority on impeachment, with no provision for appeal.

A majority of six of the nine court justices was necessary to uphold impeachment and oust the president from office. The ruling did not specify how many justices opposed or supported the motion to impeach.

With recent parliamentary elections severely punishing two rival parties that had voted to impeach Mr. Roh, it was widely expected that the court would overturn the decision.

“In principle, the Constitutional Court is supposed to be independent,” said Lee Jung-hoon, a professor of politics at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “It is meant to make a legal, not a political decision. But in actuality, nobody believes that.”

In the April 15 legislative election, the impeached president’s Uri (Our Open) Party more than tripled its seats, from 49 to 152, gaining a majority in the 299-seat National Assembly.

That election came a little more than one month after opposition parties, which controlled the legislature, made their move to oust the reform-minded president on March 12.

Amid noisy confrontations, hair pulling and tears on the floor of the house, the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) and the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) — of which Mr. Roh was formerly a member — made their move to impeach him on charges of violation of election law, corruption and incompetence.

Much of the public considered the violation of election law, cited as the main charge, as frivolous: Mr. Roh had called for support for the Uri Party, violating rules stating that public officials, including presidents, cannot take political sides.

The parties that sponsored the motion, the GNP and MDP, were punished at the polls. The GNP dropped from 137 to 121 seats while the MDP, the prime sponsor of impeachment, was almost annihilated, plunging from 59 to nine seats.

After April 12, Mr. Roh stayed out of sight, while Prime Minister Goh Kun took over as acting president. The Constitutional Court convened seven times to review the case.

About 200 riot police were deployed around the court building yesterday. Officials in the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential mansion, have said Mr. Roh will accept the court’s ruling. Mr. Roh plans a press conference tomorrow.

With his return to office as a result of today’s judicial decision, Mr. Roh is likely to accelerate his reform agenda in league with the newly supportive legislature.

“I think what we will see is media reform, particularly of the [conservative] daily newspapers, which have been most critical of Roh,” Mr. Lee said.

“There will also be moves for corporate reform, attempts to improve the transparency of the conglomerates. This is controversial, as many are saying that rough weather is no time to rock the boat” — a reference to fears that immediate corporate reforms could damage the fragile economic recovery.

The much-delayed deployment of brigade-level Korean forces to Iraq — which would make South Korea the third-largest coalition partner after the United States and Britain — is likely to be vigorously debated in the new National Assembly, which opens at the end of this month. Many newly elected Uri lawmakers have expressed opposition to the plan, particularly since reports of suspected abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American and British soldiers.

A coalition of civic groups is planning a rally in Seoul this evening to protest the troops dispatch. However, the government is stating that the planned deployment will go ahead.

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