[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Advice for Roh: Buy timeBarely into his second year in office, President Roh Moo-hyun finds himself facing the possibility of impeachment. Like a sudden cold snap in spring, the surge in impeachment talk has caught the nation off guard. It has ebbed and flowed since the Millennium Democratic Party split last year, but the current push is more than idle talk. It is the first serious effort at impeachment since the founding of the republic in 1948. Even if the effort stalls before it reaches a final vote, the seriousness of the effort has important consequences.
There has always been an odd temporariness about Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency. A few months into his term, the president complained about how difficult his new job was. Later, he offered to hold a national referendum on his performance and promised to resign if it did not go his way. And more recently, he has offered to resign if the amount of his illegal campaign funds in the 2002 presidential election exceeded 10 percent of those of the Grand National Party.
The prosecutors’ office issued a report on Monday showing that Mr. Roh’s campaign had received 13.7 percent of the amount of illegal campaign funds that the Grand Nationals had received.
The public has grown to accept Roh Moo-hyun as a temporary president, but it is not ready for impeachment. Roh is unpopular, certainly, but his “unpopularity” pales compared to that of Chun Doo Hwan in 1987 or Kim Young-sam in 1997. Both faced the possibility of being forced out before the end of their terms, but the public was patient enough to endure them for the sake of a peaceful transition to a newly elected leader. The public is equally patient with President Roh, but is willing to tolerate a voluntary early departure if the president chooses to make one.
An impeachment of President Roh would mean two things: removing an elected president from office and electing a new president. The prospect of removing a legitimately elected president from office is deeply troubling because it creates political instability and raises questions about the health of Korean democracy. The prospect of a new presidential election is less troubling because it gives the people a chance to choose a new and hopefully better leader. But that still may be too much politics for most people to take comfortably.
With little public pressure building for impeachment, the president should have the upper hand. As Bill Clinton found out in 1998, however, impeachment takes on a life of its own that defies conventional wisdom. With both opposition parties facing the prospect of losing seats in the National Assembly elections in April, they think the time for impeachment is now. They may still lose seats in the election, but impeachment offers them the chance to win the presidency. The Grand National candidate nearly won in 1997 and 2002, and probably stands a chance of winning a special election.
The current alliance between the two opposition parties serves them both well because it gives them a chance to rule that neither would have if they tried to gain power alone. Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, and Kim Dae-jung all built alliances in the National Assembly to secure their rule and advance their agenda.
With less than a month to go before the National Assembly elections, President Roh should try to run out the clock. He knows that his new Our Open Party stands to gain seats in the election, thus making him impeachment-proof for the rest of his term. A strong showing by his party would help him build alliances to create a working majority in the National Assembly. Even a weak showing would give Our Open Party enough seats to make the president impeachment-proof, if he were able to keep the party’s loyalty.
The easiest way for President Roh to run out the clock would be to accede to the Millennium Democrats’ demand for an apology; Mr. Roh was cited by the National Election Commission for violating election laws that require public officials to remain neutral in election campaigns. The president may fear that this would make it appear as if he is kowtowing to the National Assembly but it gives him a chance to call the opposition’s bluff and, more important, to buy time.
Buying time would also give the public a chance to think about impeachment more carefully. The more it does, the more it will see that President Roh’s failings, numerous as they are, do not justify impeachment. The National Election Commission did not punish the president for any illegal campaigning. The people, of course, will get their chance to speak on the issue in the National Assembly elections, which is why the opposition is pushing impeachment so stridently now.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser