South Korea seems headed for a spell of political uncertainty as President Roh Moo Hyun's authority comes under a cloud in the wake of allegations of corruption against his close aides.
SOUTH KOREAN politics has rarely been tranquil. This year has been no exception.
The political temperature rose dramatically after the Opposition's unprecedented move to overturn a veto cast by President Roh Moo Hyun. And, for the first time in 42 years, the Opposition-dominated South Korean Parliament overrode a presidential veto, during a tumultuous sitting in the first week of December. President Roh had vetoed an Opposition-sponsored Bill passed in late November calling for an independent investigation into allegations of corruption against a few of his close aides. While vetoing the Bill, Roh had argued that the time was not opportune for the setting up of a separate inquiry. He had also demanded that the independent inquiry team that the Opposition wanted should also look into the corruption scandals linking the big business "chaebols" (conglomerates) and Opposition parties. Roh came to power a year ago promising to cut off the umbilical cord tying political parties with the conglomerates. This linkage has been the bane of Korean politics since the 1950s.
The Opposition parties have never really allowed the new President to settle down. Roh had fought the elections on an anti-corruption plank and promised to provide a transparent and clean administration. Almost all administrations over the past three decades, including the military ones, had left office under the shadow of corruption. Over the past two decades, three Presidents have had to go to jail for accepting bribes.
Some of the major initiatives taken by Roh to clean up the political system did not go down well with the three Opposition parties. After coming to power, Roh has, to a great extent, lost the backing of the country's strong trade union movement because of his government's failure to formulate a coherent and credible response to the demands of the labour force.
Roh has indicated that he wants a scaling down of the United States' military presence in the Korean peninsula. He has vowed to continue the dialogue process with North Korea on the nuclear and missile issues even while providing financial incentives to the economically beleaguered government in Pyongyang. Roh was initially reluctant to send Korean soldiers to help the U.S., an ally, out of its predicament in Iraq. Washington wanted a 5,000-strong Korean force to be deployed in Iraq. Roh is willing to send only a token contingent of troops, preferably in a non-combat role. With the killing of two South Koreans in Iraq in the last week of November, public opinion is even more resolutely opposed to the deployment of Korean troops in Iraq.
The charges brought against Roh are not too serious, going by the yardstick applied in Korean politics. It is alleged that one of Roh's former close aides, Choi Do Sool, had received money from a tainted South Korean conglomerate, the SK Group, to finance Roh's successful bid for the presidency. Choi, along with another of Roh's financial backers, Kang Keum Won, were indicted in October in connection with the charges. The President was quick to order the state prosecutors to look into the charges. However, the Opposition smelt blood. The major Opposition party, the Grand National Party (GNP), has had a dubious reputation in respect of corruption. In fact, the majority of South Koreans are of the view that the GNP has seized on the issue to achieve its political goals. Interestingly, a senior GNP legislator, Choi Don Woong, has acknowledged that he too received $8.3 million from the SK Group.
The GNP leadership hopes that an independent inquiry will nail the Roh administration before the parliamentary elections are held in April 2004 and help puncture his image as an honest reformer. As soon as the allegations became a serious political issue, the offices of the SK Group were raided by prosecutors investigating fund-raising practices by political parties. Interestingly, big "chaebols" such as Samsung, Hyundai and the LG Group were also raided. It is a well-known fact that these big multinationals have been bankrolling the election efforts of right-wing parties such as the GNP. Roh's supporters in Parliament alleged that the GNP was trying to force an inquiry into the "imaginary allegations" in an attempt to shield itself from the ongoing official probe against prominent politicians belonging to the Opposition who were on the payroll of the big "chaebols".
Roh had decided to take on single-handedly the powerful Korean media establishment. The media, under the influence of big business, have never reconciled to Roh occupying the "Blue House", the official residence of the President. In a controversial remark, the President had alluded that the media in his country were prone to corruption. Roh started an Internet newspaper with the aim of counteracting the influence of the big media houses and disseminating the views of the government and highlighting its achievements. In another dramatic move, which caught the Opposition on the wrong foot, Roh announced in mid-October that he would ask for a referendum on his presidency early next year. Public opinion polls have indicated that Roh commands majority support and is especially popular among the youth. The Opposition has, on the other hand, argued that the President's move is constitutionally illegal. Observers of the Korean scene feel that it will be difficult for the President to go ahead with the referendum exercise, given the current political stalemate.
ROH, after casting his veto on an independent inquiry, said that he would cooperate fully with the official investigation. "We have to follow democratic rules that are written in the Constitution before blaming and fighting each other," he told the people. According to many Korean legal luminaries, the President had the constitutional right to veto Parliament's majority vote to appoint an independent inquiry commission. After the veto was cast, the leader of the GNP, which along with the two other Opposition parties holds more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, started a hunger strike and the functioning of Parliament was virtually stopped. Kim Young-dae, the leader of the Uri Party, which supports the President, went on a counter-fast to protest against the unorthodox tactics adopted by the Opposition. The drama lasted for a week, with both the leaders ending their fasts after Parliament voted against the President. Important Bills, crucial for Asia's fourth largest economy, have been held up. Before the presidential veto was overturned, Roh had warned that the sovereignty of state prosecutors would be threatened if Parliament voted to override his veto. He severely criticised the Opposition for taking a confrontational approach and using its brute majority to scuttle reforms proposed by the government.
The President is now obliged to sign the motion passed by Parliament. An independent commission is likely to start work by early January. If evidence does emerge against Roh, his party's chances in the crucial legislative elections to be held in April could be affected.
The Korean Bar Association will recommend two candidates for the special prosecutor's post. The President will have the privilege of choosing one of them. The special prosecutor will be given two months to complete his inquiry and submit his report. The Korean Parliament has mandated that extension be given only for a month, if the need arises. The report, it appears, will be timed to coincide with the Assembly elections. Roh has said that he will resign if he ceases to enjoy the support of the majority of the people. The Opposition, on the other hand, has threatened to impeach him if evidence of wrongdoing emerges from the independent inquiry. Either way, South Korea seems headed for political uncertainty in the months to come.