A political maelstrom

Print edition : April 09, 2004

The impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun, widely described as a "parliamentary coup d'etat", has serious implications for South Korea's immediate neighbourhood and for the country's long-term equation with the United States.

in Singapore

MORE questions than answers litter the South Korean political scene after the National Assembly acted decisively to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun on March 12.

Opposition lawmakers and security guards remove pro-Roh Uri Party members who blocked the Speaker's chair before the impeachment vote could start.-LEE JAE-WON/AP

The unprecedented move was, in domestic political terms, a one-sided vote, with the dominant Opposition parties mustering the mandatory two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Roh's political supporters, all grouped together within the relatively new Uri Party, were in any case in a minority. The asymmetry between the presidency and South Korea's unicameral Parliament is not really anomalous in a system where the head of state is also the country's chief executive and not a constitutional figurehead.

Roh remains suspended from office. At the time of writing, Prime Minister Goh Kun has begun to function as the Acting President, without being actually sworn in as the chief executive. While the constitutional requirements in this crisis situation have been followed to a nicety, quick sample surveys of public opinion have revealed almost a 70 per cent disapproval of or at least dismay over, an executive president, who was elected just over a year ago, having to face the prospect of removal from office. Protest demonstrations in Seoul greeted the parliamentary verdict. But no major case of popular unrest was reported even a week after the impeachment.

The issue itself is now before the Constitutional Court, which is mandated in such circumstances to pronounce, within 180 days from the date of impeachment, on the legal aspects of the political event. The prime question to be decided is whether Roh should be indicted or could be allowed to resume office and serve the remainder of his term. This legal process had not taken off until March 18.

Just as important as the domestic implications of the impeachment are its reverberations on the wider international stage, especially in South Korea's immediate neighbourhood.

The Roh administration had, until its eclipse, played a pivotal part in the six-party talks, which still remains on course as the possible facilitator of a peaceful resolution of the issues arising out of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's [DPRK or North Korea] nuclear weapons programme. Acting President Goh, who retains his prime ministerial position, has sought to assure the international community of a definitive continuity in Seoul's current foreign policy. The six-party process acquires utmost priority in Seoul's diplomatic calculus because of South Korea's abiding ethnic links with the DPRK as also the geopolitical realities in East Asia and, above all, the unmitigated America factor in the region's future.

Seoul's long-time military alliance with the United States was originally a legacy of the proactive role that Washington played in shaping the causes and consequences of the Korean War in the early 1950s. Today, Washington wants this alliance to be refashioned to suit the ill-defined dynamics of futuristic wars and other military crises of singular concern to the U.S. In a subtle sense, Roh's current fall is caught in the gathering maelstrom of an internal political debate on what Seoul's long-term equation with Washington should be.

It is, of course, nobody's serious case, even within South Korea at this time, that the U.S. might have influenced the course of events that led to Roh's impeachment. However, it is hard to believe that Washington would have shed tears over his political predicament. Roh is not believed to have been Washington's preferred candidate when he narrowly overcame the challenge from a more conservative Lee Hoi-chang to win the presidency in December 2002.

Michael O'Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki have pointed out in their book Crisis of the Korean Peninsula that the Washington-Seoul "rift is rather serious" at this point. This is so despite Roh's success in persuading the National Assembly to vote for the despatch of South Korea's "non-combat troops", in the first instance, to Iraq to aid in "humanitarian" and "reconstruction" activities there under the overall military auspices of the U.S. Shortly before his impeachment, Roh secured a similar approval for the despatch of additional troops to Iraq. The additional contingent, expected to be in Iraq by late April, will number over 3,000 and include combat-ready personnel. If this is a sop to U.S. sensibilities, Roh has certainly not endeared himself to his compatriots on this score.

U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld felt constrained to argue, during his recent visit to Seoul, that South Koreans should have no qualms about sending their young soldiers to Iraq at this time just as the U.S. felt comfortable sending its soldiers to Korea during the war in the early 1950s. What he glossed over was the fact that the U.S. thereafter established a firm "forward military presence", which continues to this day, in significant parts of the East Asian region. The social aspects of the U.S. military presence, such as the perceived insensitivity of the U.S. soldiers to the interests and emotions of the local population, partly explain Washington's current unpopularity among South Koreans. As Harvard Professor and author Joseph Nye articulated, the U.S. has been found to lack the "soft power" to persuade, and not coerce, people and nations.

On a different plane, Roh's credentials as a human rights activist and a campaigner against "authoritarianism" in the South Korean context have not brought him closer to the U.S. which, despite its pro-democracy rhetoric, has traditionally struck levels of comfort with non-representative leaders in other countries.

Acting President Goh Kun.-LEE JAE-WON/AP

On balance, though, Roh's own ambivalent attitude towards the U.S., despite his accommodation of its Iraq-related interests on considerations of pure realpolitik as relevant to East Asia, does not establish a link between his fall and Washington's own wish-list regarding leaders in different parts of the world. However, one critical aspect of the interactions between Roh and U.S. President George W. Bush is an issue in South Korea's internal politics as well. This relates to Roh's persistence with his predecessor Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of engaging the DPRK rather than seeking to isolate it.

Ironically, during Bill Clinton's presidency in the 1990s, it was South Korea, then under Kim Young Sam's rule, that resisted the idea of engaging the DPRK, while the U.S. tended to prefer that course. However, in 2001, Bush was openly dismissive of the "sunshine policy". Now, Washington's somewhat ambiguous stance on Roh's "sunshine policy" has sometimes figured as a largely unspoken irritant in U.S.-South Korea interactions.

In a broad sweep of the South Korean political canvas, the "sunshine policy" itself has come to be associated with slush funding. The key allegation, not yet fully investigated, is that the DPRK had been provided with illegal funds for agreeing to hold a historic summit with Kim Dae-jung in Pyongyang in mid-2000. It is in this backdrop that the question of illegal funding of electoral campaigns has become a prime political issue in South Korea.

Roh's aides have come under the spotlight in the context of allegations that they had helped him win the presidency in 2002 on the strength of illegal campaign funds, among other factors. Prior to his impeachment, primarily on a different count, he even promised to hold a referendum on his presidency. With constitutional issues about the permissibility of such a plebiscite remaining unresolved, he let the issue stay dormant, even as a storm over a different issue led to his impeachment.

Supporters of Roh hold a candlelight protest in downtown Seoul.-

South Korea's parliamentary elections are scheduled for April 15. Roh caused a rumpus by saying in a televised programme that he would do whatever he could, through legal means, to ensure the success of the Uri Party, which backs him, in the polls. The Millennium Democratic Party and the Grand National Party, both opposed to Roh for a variety of reasons, seized on this remark and demanded a public apology from him for "violating" the letter and spirit of the electoral laws. The presidency is considered to be above party politics for the purposes of parliamentary polls.

With Roh refusing to apologise and sue for peace, the Opposition moved and secured the passage of the impeachment resolution. While Roh's supporters described it as a "parliamentary coup d'etat", the Opposition parties, basking in their triumph on the floor of the National Assembly, hailed their own action as a "victory for the people and for democracy".

Clean politics was also cited as an issue in this context. Roh responded by expressing the hope that the Constitutional Court would uphold his continuance as President by taking a "legal" stand on the issues at stake and not a political view. While the ball is now on the turf of the Constitutional Court, the role and relevance of the people can be another factor if South Korea is to sort out the current crisis.

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