S. Korea seeks stability after debacle

Friday's presidential impeachment - and ensuing civic unrest - tests the government as key elections approach.

The downfall of President Roh Moo-hyun as South Korea's chief of state opens a period of potentially explosive protest, amid vows of continuity and stability by those whom he had appointed to high posts during nearly 13 months in power.

As Mr. Roh's adherents opened what they promise will be daily protests, the acting chief of state, Prime Minister Goh Kun, pledged to carry out all the policies Roh had pursued.

For the government, the task becomes one of assuring stability in the run-up to crucial National Assembly elections next month, as the country attempts to restore confidence in the economy and pursues reconciliation with North Korea.

Mr. Goh, who has switched parties during his long career in politics, projected the image of one who would play a subdued caretaker role. His first priority was to assure the country, on television, that the armed forces would "forestall any gap in national security" amid multilateral negotiations on North Korea's nuclear programs.

Goh and the ministers of finance, defense, and foreign affairs sought to allay the widespread uncertainty that engulfed the country after the National Assembly on Friday voted 193 to 2 to impeach Roh on grounds of a seemingly trivial election law violation.

They all planned to keep their jobs while Roh remains in the Blue House, plotting his appeal to a Constitutional Court that has up to 180 days to review the impeachment, the first under Korea's "democracy Constitution," established in 1987 after massive protests against military-dominated regimes. For the impeachment to stand, six of the nine judges must approve it.

North Korea was quick to exploit the issue, denouncing Roh's impeachment as a "political rebellion" carried out by politicians eager to drive "a knife into the heart of the public," terms used in rallies by South Korean leftist groups.

At the same time, North Korea signaled a new strategy of using the impeachment in negotiations. Citing "chaos" in South Korea, the North called for moving the next round of trade talks with South Korean officials - set for Monday and Tuesday in a city north of Seoul - to Kaesong, site of a new industrial zone on the North Korean side of the border.

Criticized by foes as leaning to the left when he defeated a conservative candidate in the December 2002 presidential election, Roh was impeached by a conservative-led coalition that said he had broken the election law by seeming to favor candidates in April's National Assembly elections.

Conservatives, however, had no quarrel with Goh, former mayor of Seoul, appointed by Roh after his inauguration in February 2003, as a figure capable of compromising and winning respect from all sides.

Last month, Roh, in search of stability, named Lee Hun-jai as deputy prime minister and finance minister. Mr. Lee had won a reputation as tough-minded but essentially conservative when he held the same posts several years ago under Roh's populist predecessor, Kim Dae-jung. At the same time, Roh named Ban Ki-moon, a soft-spoken former ambassador, as foreign minister, ending a dispute between the foreign ministry and members of the National Security Council.

Reassuring words from the government did not quiet the thousands of protesters as they converged over the weekend in central Seoul and in other major cities, singing patriotic songs and listening to speeches denouncing what they called a "parliamentary coup." Holding candles in paper cups, demonstrators shouted, "We protest" and "Restore democracy," reminiscent of the protests that led to Korea's first democratic presidential election in 1987.

The People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, among several hundred nongovernmental organizations that criticized the impeachment, denounced the impeachment as "a mere political ploy" in which "lawmakers abused their power" to carry out "a coup without guns."

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