US Stake in South Korea's Crisis

The last time a South Korean president was removed from office was by a bullet. That was in 1979, when a dictator ruled. Last Friday, 17 years after it adopted democracy, South Korea removed a president by legal impeachment.

It was a great day for democracy in Asia, which has far too few of them. But that's the best that can be said for the way that Roh Moo Hyun was forced out by a large majority in the National Assembly.

The official offense against him as president hardly deserved such punishment (he committed a minor election violation). And the political fallout over the next few weeks could affect how the United States deals with North Korea's nuclear threat.

Chances are that Mr. Roh will be returned to office within weeks by a constitutional court that will rule on the impeachment, and that the strong public reaction against his removal will help his political party win seats in the legislative elections on April 15. If so, that would set the course of South Korea's politics and policy for the next four years.

As an outsider and a maverick who didn't go to the "right" schools, this former human rights lawyer came to office 13 months ago with plans to shake up the entrenched political elite in Seoul. He wanted to set up what he called a "people's participatory" government. That challenge was largely the reason for his ouster.

Now, if he rides back into office in victory, he could then push harder for his other major goal of distancing South Korea from the US.

Roh wants to curtail US influence by reducing the American military presence and by building up the nation's forces to defend South Korea on its own. He's also eager for some sort of political unity with North Korea that could open up the peninsula as a regional center for economic ties in Northeast Asia. South Korea is Asia's fourth-largest economy but is surrounded by three giants (Japan, China, and Russia).

Like many younger South Koreans with no memory of the Korean War, Roh sees little threat from the North, and may not be as eager as the US is to end the threat of North Korea exporting missiles and possibly nuclear-weapons material to terrorist nations.

In January, he fired officials in the Foreign Ministry who were seen as too pro-Washington in their views. A re- instated Roh could become even more nationalistic, creating the kind of differences with the US that North Korea has long tried to exploit.

Democracy may be alive and well in South Korea. But in the mini cold war on the peninsula, such politics can have results that reverberate around the world.

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