Calm remains after impeachment

South Koreans' response to Roh's ouster could be sign of political maturity

March 14, 2004|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SEOUL, South Korea - They were stunned, disappointed and embarrassed by the impeachment of President Roh Moo Hyun, but at least there was no street violence.

That was seen as some good news for South Koreans in the wake of one the ugliest episodes in the 10 years of full democracy here.

The risk of violence had to be considered real because of the long tradition of angry demonstrations in South Korea. About 10,000 Roh supporters marched peacefully, however, near the National Assembly on Friday night.

Assuming there is not a flare-up of emotions, analysts said they can start to consider whether the impeachment is a sign of political maturation.

"We used to solve problems like this on the streets," said Lee Doo Won of Yonsei University. "I hope we can resolve this situation within the framework of the system."

Roh was suspended Friday by the opposition-dominated parliament after a single controversial year in office, and he must await a Constitutional Court decision within six months to uphold or overturn the impeachment.

South Korea's interim leader, Prime Minister Goh Kun, and other members of Roh's administration insisted yesterday that there would be no sudden changes in direction for the government.

"Economic stability is the supreme priority," Goh was quoted as saying in The Korea Herald. "The government should be consistent in economic policies to prevent the nation's international credibility from being affected."

Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon told his Japanese counterpart that the impeachment would have no impact on the course of six-way talks over North Korea's covert nuclear weapons program, the Yonhap News agency reported.

Except for a flurry of meetings in the offices of government leaders and stock brokerages to sort through the repercussions, the hours after Roh's ouster passed unremarkably in Seoul.

Even Roh tried to take his downfall in stride. According to Yonhap, he heard the news while inspecting an industrial plant in the south of the country and kept to his schedule for the rest of the day, at least until he received the paperwork officially declaring his suspension.

"You might have heard that I am suspended from office," Roh, looking unfazed, told a group of workers. "You don't need to be worried too much. This is part of the pain of changes for the better."

The showdown with parliament was a long time coming.

Roh, a self-taught lawyer, won election as an outsider and reformer and took the role of iconoclast to an extreme. He abandoned his political party, fought with the news media and froze out his rivals. Relations with parliament were never good.

Still, impeachment came so swiftly that there hardly was time for the public to grasp what was happening before it was done.

Observers struggled to come to grips with the meaning of South Korea's first impeachment, but what they settled on is that it may be more embarrassing than damaging and perhaps will lead to some good.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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