[INSIGHT]Chaos threatens Korea in the new year

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[INSIGHT]Chaos threatens Korea in the new year

The beginning of the year is a time for well-wishing remarks and hopes, but such customary courtesy seems a luxury for Koreans this year. Only a week into January, newspapers are already filled with unpromising stories. President Roh Moo-hyun predicted that the country would be noisy until June, and said the government would not function if the opposition party won the majority of the National Assembly in the election in April. While he supposedly meant to emphasize his will to stabilize the administration, his remark sounded like a threat by scaring the citizens with a potential constitutional crisis.
The opposition party is equally violent. Opposition politicians talk about splitting the party over party nominations for National Assembly candidates. In this gapsin year of the Oriental cycle, we recall the most notable gapsin year 120 years ago, when there was an abortive coup that ignited the fall of the Joseon Dynasty. Koreans are nervous about welcoming another gapsin year for the unpromising prospects we already see.
While we have more than one concern as the year unfolds, the biggest and most serious of the problems is political corruption and the consequent instability of the administration. The prosecutors are still investigating the presidential campaign fund scandals, and we cannot predict how much more both the ruling and opposition parties will be damaged in the course of the probe. When national leaders are tainted with ethical and legal wounds, how will they steer the ship of state and navigate the high seas? Let the law deal with the corruption of the opposition politicians. But what about the president himself? As the prosecutors announced at the end of last year, Mr. Roh is suspected of misappropriation and violation of the law on political funds. He might become a subject of prosecutors’ investigations when he steps down. The citizens are watching how the independent counsel investigates the corruption scandals surrounding the president’s entourage. Can we expect the president to fully perform his role as a chief executive when the legal process is waiting for him when he finishes his term? A series of scandals have damaged Mr. Roh’s reputation for ethics and leadership, and the psychological burden might influence him when he leads the administration.
During Mr. Roh’s term, comprehensive changes in the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court are scheduled, and prosecutors, including the prosecutor general, must be reappointed or replaced. With the power to name the judges and prosecutors, the president might be tempted to create a lineup of judges and prosecutors who would be favorable to him. He could feel he should prepare for his days after the presidency by making certain arrangements. If he is tempted, how can we stop his meddling?
Mr. Roh’s posture concerning the National Assembly elections is already fishy. He is so desperate that he looks as if he has bet everything on the election. He might go an extra mile to help his party win the election. Mr. Roh is not a member of the ruling party yet, but he has made very thinly disguised remarks. He has said voting for the Millennium Democratic Party would be helping the Grand National Party, and he would not be able to maintain his administration if the Grand National Party continued to be in the majority. He makes the voters worry whether the election will be a fair one and whether the country will be stable after the election.
As Mr. Roh has said, the government is so fragile it could collapse at any time. If the prosecutors uncover the size of the ruling party’s illegal campaign funds as more than one tenth of those of the Grand National Party, Mr. Roh has to resign. If the Grand National Party maintains its majority in the Assembly, the administration cannot function. The president has called for a vote of confidence in his administration, so the outcome could alter his fate. The results all will be out by the end of the year, so 2004 will be a critical crossroads for the Roh administration and the Republic of Korea.
The debates of 2003 continue in 2004. While some say the president’s resignation would destabilize the country, others insist that we cannot go on for four more years like this. If the president quits in the middle of his term, the authority of the constitution would be violated. The interim government under proxy chief executive and another presidential election within 60 days would put the country in chaos. No party would have a candidate prepared to perform the job. How can we handle the confusion and turbulence?
On the other hand, how can we bear, for four more years, a president whose dignity and leadership we cannot trust, and who might be legally punished when he steps down? We may be able to save four years if we go through chaos quickly. That also sounds right.
Whether Mr. Roh steps down or the government becomes impotent, the country would have to suffer a constitutional crisis. Although different from the one 120 years ago, we might repeat the turbulence of the gapsin coup in 1884. Only Mr. Roh has the key to avoid the set of worst-case scenarios. Depending on his demeanor and decision, he could either complete his term or be forced to leave the top position. If he could stand in the center of the turmoil and show true leadership, people would support him throughout his term. But if he makes unreasonable moves and sticks to political games, citizens will have to drive him out. The gas-guzzling limousine of the opposition party stopped long time ago. It is up to Mr. Roh to keep his compact car going for four more years.

* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Song Chin-hyok
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