[OUTLOOK]Justice delayed, justice deniedPresident Roh and his supporters deserve credit for the restraint and patience they have shown over the last two months.
Koreans are often stereotyped as emotional and socially unstable. Labor unrest can bring tens of thousands of workers into the center of Seoul and end with blazing clashes between police and union members who have a taste for flinging Molotov cocktails. Korea religiously memorializes past political demonstrations in which many people have died.
In the case of the impeachment of Mr. Roh, the characterization seems wrong. In the run-up to the National Assembly elections, the rallies to back the president were peaceful affairs. Entire families, young and old, joined in subdued candlelight vigils. More than 100,000 citizens, on at least one occasion, gathered and dispersed without incident. Other smaller protests were equally civil.
Up until recently, the president had quietly retreated to the Blue House. For public consumption, he was reported taking long walks in the woods and was said to be reflecting on ways he might better govern the country.
As the Constitutional Court impeachment trial got under way, Mr. Roh remained loftily above the fray. His lawyers told the justices that he would not appear or testify in his own defense, suggesting to do so might sully the honor of the presidency. The court blinked.
Now, after a series of meandering hearings, the highest justices in the land ― mostly conservative political appointees ― are deliberating the charges against Mr. Roh. But what is there to discuss? That the president violated the law by talking about politics? Corruption that an independent counsel could not establish? That the president somehow ruined the economy?
Serious scholars, and even an advisor to the court, have been dismissive of the case and the evidence. If the National Assembly election results are any guide, the public regards the whole thing as silly and an offense to the political order.
So what is at stake is the court’s credibility. The justices are facing no better a situation than did the independent counsel appointed by the National Assembly to investigate the president and his aides for corruption. For political reasons, the Justice Ministry investigation into the same matter was not trusted by Mr. Roh’s opponents.
When the independent counsel reported he could find no evidence, the whole episode seemed like a joke, especially after the long and stormy political debate over the appointment of the counsel in the first place.
Now the Constitutional Court is risking a similar fate. Prosecutors under the Justice Ministry have refused to turn over investigation reports to the court, saying the corruption cases are ongoing. Thus the impeachment trial looks more like a case of justice delayed becoming justice denied.
Korea needs leadership, and its people for better or worse have voted for Mr. Roh and, in overwhelming numbers, for his Our Open Party allies. Acting President Goh Kun has slipped from view. Even his ceremonial role has all but dried up, though he may be helping behind the scenes to keep the administration ticking over.
The president senses the danger of a political vacuum and has started meeting with supporters, advisors and other officials. On the face of it, this could also be another violation of the law, but so far no one has had the courage to complain publicly. Doing so would be embarrassing.
Still, it is curious to see Mr. Roh going about his business while his powers are suspended.
The country’s business elites, meanwhile, are deeply worried about where Korea is headed under a younger generation of leaders. Some simply feel disheartened; others mutter darkly about communists being in control of the country. Still, political paralysis is no alternative.
It would be hard to argue that modern Korea has ever enjoyed more social and political freedom that it does right now. The openness of the press is a stellar example of how far the country has come. The risk is that Mr. Roh’s supporters will begin to believe that something basically unfair is going on.
So it would be better for the court to issue its preliminary judgment on the president quickly. It’s been suggested the court has reached a decision. But if it’s not forthcoming, we can start to think about bonfire vigils, instead of a hopeful nation waving candles.
* The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Charles D. Sherman