- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

SEOUL — In an acknowledgment of his own unpopularity and in a bid to raise the fortunes of his beleaguered Uri Party ahead of December’s presidential election, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun yesterday announced that he would resign from the party.

“I have already stated that I would make a decision on my party affiliation in a way that benefits the party,” Mr. Roh said at a meeting of Uri leaders after a dinner at the presidential residence. “I hope that the political climate will be improved by my decision to resolve my affiliation with the party.”

The move had been widely anticipated in political circles here. Mr. Roh’s lack of popularity has been seen as a liability for the left-leaning Uri Party, which is in dire straits of its own. Racked by defections, it lost its majority in the unicameral house when 23 lawmakers deserted it to form a floor negotiating group and possibly a new party early this month.

In recent opinion polls, the conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) has approval ratings of about 50 percent. Uri’s support hovers at about 10 percent.

Pundits were quick to dissect Mr. Roh’s strategy.

“Firstly, he wants to show political neutrality because he wants to propose a constitutional amendment to Congress very soon,” said Hahm Sung-deuk, a political science professor at Korea University. “Secondly, he is not popular anymore, so he doesn’t want to give a political burden to the ruling party.”

Mr. Roh made no comments on constitutional change yesterday.

Under the South Korean constitution, presidents are elected for no more than a single five-year term. While some members of the GNP are believed to favor an amendment that would allow a sitting president to seek a second term, in Korea’s fiercely partisan politics, analysts do not expect the opposition to back Mr. Roh’s proposal — should he make one.

The liberal Mr. Roh narrowly won the 2002 presidential election against a backdrop of nationwide anti-American demonstrations. But his popularity soon dropped because of his apparently casual approach to leadership and his habit of making controversial, off-the-cuff statements.

He appeared headed for ignominy when the opposition impeached him for questionable violations of election law, but an angry public subsequently voted his left-leaning Uri (“Our Open”) Party in with a majority in the 2004 National Assembly elections. The Constitutional Court overturned his impeachment.

But that political triumph is long past. Since then, all his major policies have stumbled.

In the face of well-organized opposition spearheaded by then-Seoul mayor and current leading presidential contender Lee Myung-bak, he failed to push through his flagship plan to relocate South Korea’s capital to an administrative city in the provinces.

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