TCS Daily

Roh Way Out

By John McKay - April 2, 2004 12:00 AM

The vote by the South Korean National Assembly last month to impeach President Roh Moo Hyun has plunged the Korean political system, and its fledgling democracy, into dangerous, uncharted waters. At present, the interim administration is handling the situation with considerable skill, but if the crisis is allowed to drag on, there are some risks of economic instability. The continuing problem over North Korea's nuclear program is also being made more complicated at a time when clear policy directions are most needed.

The crisis over the presidency has come as something of a surprise to most commentators, and the cause of the uproar seems on the face of it to be remarkably innocuous. In response to a question from a reporter at a press conference in February, President Roh pledged that he would "do everything within the law to help the Uri Party win the parliamentary elections", which are being held on April 15. The Uri Party is a small grouping that supports the president, and was formed last year when a group of Roh followers broke away from the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). According to Korean election laws, government officials must remain neutral during election campaigns, but the National Election Commission ruled that this was at most a misdemeanor, arguing that "it would be hard to believe that a violation of the election campaign law had been committed".

However, the opposition parties in the Assembly, the Grand National Party (GNP) and the MDP were not to be swayed. They demanded an apology from President Roh, but he remained defiant, arguing that he had nothing of importance to answer for. Thus, to the amazement of most citizens, the impeachment vote was brought on. During the debate, all members of the Uri Party were expelled from the parliament for using physical means to prevent the vote from taking place. Thus, Roh is allowed to stay in the Blue House but he is stripped of all powers pending a ruling by the Constitutional Court on the legality of the impeachment. Two other grounds were added to the reasons for the impeachment: corruption involving Roh's family and associates, and administrative incompetence, in that the president had not been able to achieve a high enough level of growth in the economy. And there have been moves to add still further accusations to the formal motion.

Whatever the merits of these charges, it has to be acknowledged that the interim administration of Prime Minister Goh Kun, who has been sworn in as acting president, has moved with commendable speed to limit the damage caused by the crisis. Government officials, especially those in the Finance Ministry, are reported to have made hundreds of telephone calls and sent off thousands of emails to reassure foreign governments, foreign investors, ratings agencies, international agencies and important think-tanks that the interim administration would continue to adopt positive policies on economic reform, foreign investment and corporate governance, and would ensure macro-economic and exchange rate stability. Particular attention was given to reassuring Citigroup about stability in policy settings, given that the United States banking group had announced plans to buy just over one-third of Korea's sixth-biggest lender KorAm Bank for $2.7 billion. This deal represented the largest ever direct foreign investment in Korea, and is obviously of huge importance in reassuring other potential investors. So far, these efforts by the acting president have been very successful. Both the stock market and the foreign exchange rate have remained stable, and Citigroup has moved ahead with its investment plans.

But longer-term issues remain a concern. The Constitutional Court has 180 days from the date of impeachment vote to bring down its verdict, and it is far from clear what the ruling will be. Most legal experts in Korea, including a clear majority of law professors in Korean universities, believe that the court will rule that the impeachment is not justified, and that the other grounds do not carry sufficient weight, but what then?

It is unlikely that the Court decision will be delivered before the parliamentary elections on April 15. Opinion polls suggest that a large majority of Korean voters, perhaps as many as 70 percent, do not support the impeachment. Thus there had been some expectations that President Roh's Uri ("Our Open") Party would emerge from the elections with a large increase in its representation. However, these immediate issues are symptomatic of some wider problems in Korean political culture that continue to threaten the move towards greater democracy.

Since the end of the Korean War, Korean politics has been characterized by three distinctive and problematic features. First, political parties have not been stable, but have been subjected by constant changes of name, policies and leadership. Secondly, the political parties have been identified less with distinctive ideological positions or policy approaches than with particular personalities. Parties have been treated as the personal vehicles for individual political figures. Thirdly, regional loyalties have been the dominant force in voting behavior, and governments have rewarded their loyal regional voters with more than their fair share of government support, investment in infrastructure and the like.

Expected popular outrage against the opposition parties, and the GNP in particular, for their impeachment actions, have been made more problematic by the sudden change in the leadership of the GNP. The party has chosen as its new leader the daughter of former President Park Chung Hee, who is widely recognized as the architect of the Korean economic miracle. From 1961 until his assassination in 1979, Park Chung Hee presided over a harshly authoritarian regime, but one which achieved enormous advances for all levels of Korean society. The stated policies of Park Geun-hye stress a break with former approaches, and promise widespread reform. But it is inevitable that the links with the former president are highly symbolic, and the widespread support that his daughter commands reflect a yearning for a return to a more successful and much less problematic past. The regional dimension is also crucial, with strong support coming from the old GNP heartland of the south east of the country. Recent opinion polls suggest the support for the GNP has risen dramatically, regardless of widespread criticism of the impeachment.

Thus, one possible scenario is that the Constitutional Court will re-instate President Roh, but he will be faced with a very hostile Assembly. Alternatively, if Roh is removed from office permanently, future opposition parties have a clear precedent for removing presidents that they disapprove of. Either way, the possibilities for political instability, with serious economic consequences, are clear.

John McKay is Director of the Australian APEC Study Centre and is a Partner in Analysis International, a new think tank based in Melbourne, Australia.


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