A half-president. That's what South Korea's Roh Moo Hyun has been predicting he will be if his backers don't win coming elections. But in fact, that is exactly what he has been in his 13 months in office, as constant fighting with the majority opposition in the National Assembly has prevented Roh from carrying out the reforms he promised would be his top priority. That battle reached an absurd crescendo on Mar. 12, with the Assembly voting to impeach Roh and strip him of his executive powers over what most observers consider a minor offense. He will remain on the sidelines until the Constitutional Court makes a ruling on the charges against him -- which could take six months. Now, in a country where the President has traditionally wielded all power, Roh, 57, spends his days reading books, hiking -- and no doubt plotting revenge against his enemies.
Vengeance could be Roh's as soon as Apr. 15, when voters go to the polls in national elections. By all accounts, the vast majority of the public is so angry at the damage done to national stability by the unprecedented impeachment that they are rallying behind the Uri Party formed by ardent Roh supporters in November. It was because he called for a big Uri victory in February that Roh was impeached, since South Korean law forbids civil servants, including the President, from electioneering or trying to influence campaigns. The odd twist is that in the wake of the impeachment -- which many legal experts predict the Constitutional Court will reverse -- angry voters may give Roh the mandate he wants. ``In the end, Roh could escape from being a half-President,'' says Kang Won Taek, a political scientist at Soongsil University in Seoul.
How badly did Roh's enemies miscalculate? Very badly, according to opinion polls. One survey shows Uri's popularity has soared to 53.8%, compared with 15.7% for the main opposition Grand National Party (GNP) and 4.4% for the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). Currently, the GNP has 147 seats in the 273-seat National Assembly, the MDP has 62, and Uri 47. Uri had only 15.6% support when it was created last November. If the poll numbers hold up, it could end up with a majority.
Indeed, the impeachment has done more for Roh's popularity than he ever did himself. His approval rating has hovered around 30% for most of the past year. He has upset the elite by attacking them for living beyond the law. And he has disappointed his many anti-U.S. supporters by reversing course and endorsing a strong alliance with Washington. Worse, several close associates of the graft-fighting President have been implicated in corruption, while state prosecutors have accused his campaign of accepting nearly $10 million in illegal contributions. All of this has tainted his clean image. ``Roh was elected not because of his political caliber but because of aspirations for change among voters who got fed up with old-style politics,'' says political scientist Kang.
``Dirty Political Move''
Thus, the logical course for the opposition might have been to sit back and wait for the voters to make their harsh judgment. Instead, worried that Roh's legions of Internet-savvy young supporters would turn sentiment around, they went for the jugular with impeachment, which passed by an overwhelming 193 to 2 after guards removed from the Assembly chamber Uri lawmakers who tried to physically prevent the vote from proceeding. ``We had earlier thought impeachment would not be put to a vote,'' says GNP lawmaker Park Jin. ``But the President invited it with provocative remarks. The consequence, of course, is burdensome.''
Indeed it is. The night after the impeachment vote, the streets of every major city were flooded with tens of thousands of vexed Koreans staging candlelight vigils. They loathed the National Assembly scene -- in which lawmakers traded punches and hurled furniture. ``I don't think anyone who joined the impeachment is cleaner than Roh Moo Hyun,'' says Park Hee Woong, a computer engineer who took part in a Seoul street protest. ``The opposition lawmakers sought to overrule the people's choice in the presidential election for a totally unjustifiable reason.''
But Roh, too, bears a share of the blame for the paralyzing inter-party fight. ``The impeachment is the outcome of a political gamble by both sides,'' says Hahm Sung Deuk, a political science professor at Korea University. Roh could have headed off impeachment by apologizing to the nation after the National Election Commission warned him to stop making public statements supporting Uri. Instead, the President said he would stake his presidency on the outcome of the April poll. ``The impeachment was a dirty political move,'' says Kim Yung Myung, a political writer who is head of Hallynm University's College of Social Sciences. ``But we worry about our nation's future if Roh refuses to be flexible.'' Adds Hahm: ``Even if Uri scores a landslide election victory and Roh returns to the presidency, his term won't be smooth unless he changes his style.''
Despite the shock waves sent out by the political crisis, the short-term impact has been limited. Korea's financial markets recovered after a brief dip when Roh swiftly handed over presidential powers to Prime Minister Goh Kun, who pledged policy continuity. Credit-rating agency Standard & Poor's maintained the country's solid A- long-term sovereign rating.
But that doesn't mean Korea hasn't been damaged. Perhaps the biggest casualty will be the belief that South Korea, after decades of dictatorship followed by 15 years of political upheaval, had finally become a mature democracy. ``The impeachment sets the stage for political leaders to engage in a perennial game of brinkmanship,'' worries Choi Gong Pil, chief economist at the Korea Institute of Finance, a think tank for commercial banks. Already, important National Assembly bills designed to curb corruption and reform South Korea's big conglomerates, or chaebol, have been delayed by the contretemps over impeachment.
For his part, Roh insists that when he resumes his office, he will continue his quest to curb political corruption, rein in the chaebol, resolve the nuclear crisis with North Korea, and help the business community make the best out of its investment in China. But his credibility has been damaged. How can he deal with competitors and adversaries in China and North Korea, critics ask, if he can't make peace with rivals at home?
By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul