The return of Roh

Published : Jun 18, 2004 00:00 IST

THE judicial reversal of the parliamentary impeachment of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and his reinstatement are as unprecedented as the original action against him in the country's relatively young democracy. On May 14, the country's Constitutional Court ruled that "no reason exists to justify his [Roh's] impeachment" by the then National Assembly on March 12.

Much political drama took place between Roh's impeachment and his reinstatement as South Korea's highest leader under a system of executive presidency. The most significant turn of events during this period was the triumph of the Roh-backed Uri Party in the parliamentary poll that was held, in the normal course, on April 15. However, to underline this ground reality is not to suggest that the Constitutional Court was in any manner influenced by the expression of popular preferences in a general election.

In a purely political sense, however, Roh's fortunes got associated with those of the Uri Party, a splinter outfit that came into being with his blessings after his election as President well over a year ago. In fact, the main charge against him during the impeachment proceedings was his perceived infraction of the electoral laws as manifest in his explicit support for the Uri Party ahead of the parliamentary polls. Although allegations of corrupt practices and mismanagement of the national economy too were levelled against him by his parliamentary opponents, the impeachment was decided upon the main charge concerning his partisan support for the Uri Party.

While the impeachment itself seemed to have generated a groundswell of support among the people for a beleaguered President, the pro-Roh party capitalised on this. The Uri Party now holds 152 seats out of the total of 299 in the new National Assembly. The Opposition parties, which successfully campaigned for the impeachment in the previous House, have been reduced to a minority in the present Parliament.

Without reference to these political developments, the nine-judge Constitutional Court, headed by Yun Young-chul, noted that Roh violated the electoral laws by openly supporting a party in the run-up to the latest legislative poll. However, the court held that "Roh's breach of the Election Law falls short of a threat to the constitutional order". Moreover, it was reckoned that "he did not break public confidence to [such] an extent that his public endorsement [in the last presidential election] should be withdrawn".

On another but related plane of judgment, the court emphasised that much care should be exercised while initiating a process of presidential impeachment, which would imply "risks [of] causing political turmoil, leadership vacuum, national costs and social divisions". Given the unprecedented scope of the action, the court dwelt on both the constitutional and factual aspects of the case within the mandated period set for a verdict. The charges of corruption and economic mismanagement were found to be "groundless" with no specific implications of "law violations".

Roh's rise to power as Kim Dae-jung's successor in office was seen on the wider East Asian scene as the triumph of a "maverick". As a human rights activist and a leader not inclined towards the United States in his overall wordview, Roh had already made a mark, notwithstanding his inability to make a significantly positive difference to governance prior to his impeachment. His restoration as President, at this stage, brings him face to face with some critical challenges arising out of the despatch of troops to U.S.-occupied Iraq and the unresolved North Korean nuclear crisis.

Roh has provided himself with some privileged political space as regards the North Korean issue, by generally persisting with his predecessor's "sunshine policy" of engaging Pyongyang towards the goal of reunification. On the troops despatch issue, Roh decided, after some vacillation and before his impeachment, to send over 3,000 military personnel, including combat-ready soldiers, to join an earlier contingent that had been sent to Iraq on a purely "humanitarian mission".

However, his present challenge is that of vibrantly engaging the U.S. following its decision to shift some of its own troops from South Korea to Iraq.

Interestingly, the number of U.S. soldiers sought to be deployed in Iraq matches the number of battle-willing personnel that Seoul has delayed sending to Iraq, despite a decision to do so. The message behind the coincidence of numbers and the timing of the U.S.' move may not have been lost on Roh.

On the domestic front, Roh still has his tasks cut out. Besides the inevitable economic challenges in a country that rode the "globalisation wave", the political consolidation of democracy in a country that saw a slide towards autocracy and repression under first President Syngman Rhee himself is something that Roh will be expected to strive for, given his track record.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment