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Mass protests against Roh's ouster
Impeachment or "palace coup"?

By David Whitehouse | March 26, 2004 | Page 5

THE IMPEACHMENT of South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun is backfiring on his opponents who pushed the measure through parliament on March 12. Seven out of ten Koreans oppose the impeachment, which is widely seen as a right-wing "palace coup" in a country that has been through several bloody ones.

Nightly anti-impeachment vigils in the capital of Seoul grew from 10,000 on March 12 to at least 130,000 on March 20--the country's largest demonstration since the closing days of military dictatorship in the late 1980s. Popular anger may propel the pro-Roh Uri party, founded just last year, into a clear majority in the April 15 parliamentary election. This would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago, when Roh's approval rating hovered below 40 percent.

The impeachment was based on allegations that are trivial in the context of the South Korean government's widespread corruption. Associates of Roh are accused of accepting illegal corporate contributions during the 2002 presidential campaign. But the majority Grand National Party (GNP)--which led the impeachment drive--accepted 10 times more tainted cash from corporations.

A nine-member Constitutional Court must decide within six months whether to remove Roh from office, but it is expected to rule sooner than that. The court has called Roh to testify at its first hearing on March 30.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Goh Kun has stepped in as acting president. Goh, who has held high government positions for decades, is known as "Mr. Stability." His first moves after becoming president were to reassure the people whose votes of confidence really count--U.S. investors and political leaders.

Within an hour of the impeachment, the Seoul office of Citigroup got a call from the finance ministry, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review. Citigroup plans to buy one-third of KorAm Bank for a whopping $2.7 billion, and Goh's government called to promise stability in economic policy. Another call went out to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell--to reaffirm South Korea's military alliance with the U.S., including a united policy against North Korea and South Korea's promise to send 3,000 combat troops to Iraq.

The anti-impeachment protests are clearly a rebuke to the authoritarian right wingers of the GNP. But the biggest loser is the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), which served as Roh's election vehicle in 2002, but which joined the vote for impeachment. The MDP's forerunners were the traditional opposition to the military regimes that ruled South Korea until 1987, but its leading figures have become just as caught up in corruption scandals as those of the GNP.

Most of the Uri party's 10-point-plus jump in the polls has come at the MDP's expense, which now polls 5 percent or less. Popular pressure may also crack the GNP. Many of its lawmakers are now calling for a withdrawal of the impeachment, and the party has scrambled to elect a new leadership to show a fresh face in the April elections.

Roh won office on his appeal as an outsider to the old guard. A farm boy who studied law on his own, Roh became a human rights and labor lawyer under the dictatorships. He is seen as a liberal, and he has made some statements, mostly unfulfilled, about charting a course independent of the U.S.

At the same time, he and his predecessor as president, Kim Dae-jung, have implemented a series of free-market, neoliberal economic measures, especially in the wake of the late 1990s Asian economic crisis. South Korea's thriving independent union movement has been a special target for these two former dissidents.

Many of the people who protested Roh's impeachment will have opposed his sending Korean troops to Iraq and demonstrated against the government's neoliberal economic agenda. Their opposition to impeachment is about stopping South Korea's old guard from turning back the clock.

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