Big win for S. Korean leader

Thursday's assembly election repudiates impeachment.

South Korea's left-of-center Uri Party rode an emotional outpouring against the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun, replacing the conservatives Thursday as the dominant force in the Korean National Assembly.

The Uri Party, formed at Mr. Roh's behest last year, outstripped the Grand National Party in a contest that reflected a generational shift in Korean power politics as well as a yearning to move from the shadow of the US alliance. Some analysts say that the win could imperil South Korea's commitment of troops to Iraq, a promise Roh has vowed to keep.

"This is a mandate," says Jang Ha Sung, a Korea University professor who has been a leading voice for an overhaul of the power structure that has traditionally dominated Korea. "It shows the majority of the people want to see reform."

The success of the Uri Party, projected to win slightly more than half the 299 assembly seats, suggests reaffirmation of power for Roh, who was impeached by an overwhelming 193 to two in the assembly last month. In a scene repeated in the party's campaign commercials, Uri Party members in the assembly were physically thrown out after trying to block the voting.

Chung Dong Young, Uri Party chairman, indicated the party would fight to rescind the impeachment motion. Roh's future still depends on a constitutional court that must decide whether to uphold the impeachment, but analysts say the court will have difficulty arguing with the national mood reflected Thursday.

"Probably the court will be influenced by the majority," says Park Nei Hei, a professor at Sogang University. "My sense is the court will rule in favor of Roh, giving him just a warning about violations of the election law."

Roh, since his impeachment, has remained in the presidential Blue House while the prime minister, Goh Kun, has filled in for him.

With the Uri Party capable of forming a majority in the assembly, the question remains of how far it is likely to go in breaking away from the US alliance and answering the demands of a rising generation of Koreans for fundamental shifts in both policy and governance.

Members of the "386 generation" - those who were born in the 1960s, entered college in the 1980s and were in their 30s as Korea was undergoing a transition to democratic rule - have identified closely with the Uri Party. Young Koreans, many now in professional positions in companies and universities, were on the forefront of candlelit demonstrations demanding Roh's reinstatement to full power.

Mr. Jang, one of the leaders of the influential People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, predicted that Uri Party members would attempt to reverse the government's commitment to send 3,000 troops to Iraq, in addition to several hundred noncombatant medics and engineers already there.

"The alliance with the United States will remain strong," he says, "but that doesn't translate into sending troops to Iraq." The Korean public, he says, "will have a negative opinion" of involvement in Iraq even though Roh has vowed to stand by his pledge to support the US-led coalition.

The polls closed half an hour before the arrival here of Vice President Dick Cheney on a mission to whip up support for the allied coalition in Iraq and also to increase pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Cheney on Friday is seeing Acting President Goh Kun and other top officials, hoping to bring them into line with US policy vis-à-vis both Iraq and North Korea.

Several hundred demonstrators turned out Thursday in central Seoul demanding Cheney "go home" while several hundred others marched near the US military base two miles away supporting the decision to send Korean troops to Iraq. The demonstrations reflected the generation gap in which many younger Koreans question the need for US troops in Korea while older Koreans, including Korean War veterans, regard the Korea-US alliance as essential.

"There is a huge generational change, not only between parties but inside the parties," says Moon Jung In, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University.

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