Pressure builds to impeach South Korea's president

Accused of violating election rules, President Roh faces unprecedented vote Friday.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is battling for his political life against fast-rising pressure to drive him from power.

An unlikely coalition dominated by Mr. Roh's conservative and regional critics is seeking to impeach the president amid charges of corruption and violation of South Korea's election laws.

Thursday, the coalition claimed that it had the two-thirds majority vote needed to pass an impeachment motion. But Roh's followers in the National Assembly physically blocked lawmakers from casting ballots against him.

The ruckus in the assembly reaches a showdown Friday, when members have to cast their ballots. By law, lawmakers have just 72 hours to act on the impeachment motion, which was introduced by a simple majority vote on Tuesday.

If the motion passes, power would transfer to Prime Minister Goh Kun, a former mayor of Seoul and veteran of Korea's political wars.

The political warfare to oust Roh goes far beyond election law violations or even the corruption scandals that have dominated the headlines here for months. At stake is the issue of conservative opposition to Roh's attitude toward big business as well as domestic regional rivalries.

"He is trying to mobilize the left-leaning people against business," says Lee Shin Bom, a candidate of the conservative Grand National Party. "He is just trying to destroy the establishment."

At the same time, the relatively liberal Millennium Democratic Party, which supported Roh in the 2002 presidential election, now opposes him for failing to shower favors upon politicians from the southwestern Cholla region, the wellspring of their strength.

Roh was elected in part because he won 95 percent of the votes in Cholla, the power base of Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae Jung. Mr. Kim supported Roh, who is from near the southeastern port city of Pusan, often at odds with Cholla politically.

Assembly election nears

Roh, who once said he would call a referendum to see if he was fit to stay in office, clung to power in a rambling press conference Thursday in which he said he was sorry for the controversy over charges of bribes accepted by a brother and several aides.

Roh added that he would decide on the future of his presidency based on parliamentary elections scheduled for April 15. Only then, he said, would he make "the bold decision" on "whether I will step down."

In addition, Roh adamantly refused to yield to demands that he apologize for violating an election law that forbids a president from supporting any candidates in the assembly election.

The national election commission issued a warning after Roh indicated in a television interview last month that he favored members of the Uri Party, a small group formed last year.

Scandal-related death

The controversy claimed its first victim immediately after Roh's press conference when the former president of Daewoo Construction and Engineering Co., one of South Korea's largest construction firms, jumped to his death from a bridge in Seoul that spans the Han River.

Prosecutors alleged that Nam Sang Kook had transferred $25,000 to Roh's older brother, who was charged with accepting the bribe even though he later returned it.

Several hours after the leap, a member of an Internet group that had campaigned passionately for Roh in the 2002 campaign set himself ablaze near the National Assembly building. He was reported to be in stable condition.

Several hundred advocates of political reform demonstrated for Roh outside the Assembly. Holding candles and shouting slogans, they promised to intensify their protest as the voting loomed. Rows of policemen stood guard outside the sprawling domed building.

Surprisingly to foreign observers, relations with North Korea is a minor issue in the furor.

Despite its desire to widen commercial and cultural contacts, the Grand National Party has criticized the government for unreservedly favoring reconciliation with the North.

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