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Last Updated: Monday, 13 October, 2003, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Embattled Roh seeks referendum
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun
President Roh said he could not continue
South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun has proposed a national referendum on his rule in mid-December after admitting he had lost confidence in his ability to govern.

President Roh said that if he failed to win new backing in the referendum, he would step down and hold new presidential elections in April 2004.

"I reached a situation in which I cannot conduct the presidency," he said in the televised address, "I have no confidence in doing my job under this situation."

The BBC's Seoul correspondent, Charles Scanlon, called the move a "desperate political gamble" to regain presidential authority.

In office for only eight months, the president has seen his popularity plummet as financial scandals and economic recession left him open to political and press attacks.

His handling of the North Korean issue and relations with the United States has also brought widespread criticism.

Economy under cloud
Graft allegations hit key aide
Opinion poll ratings slump

The 57-year-old president, whose term of office is due to run until 2008, said he favoured holding a referendum around 15 December.

He first mooted the idea on Friday, leading his cabinet to offer its resignation en masse the following day - something Mr Roh rejected.

But it is not clear whether the referendum will go ahead. The opposition Grand National Party (GNP) and Mr Roh's former party, the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), have both opposed it.

The GNP had previously welcomed Mr Roh's proposal, but it warned on Monday that it should not become a general referendum on political corruption, but should be limited to the president's close aides.

The MDP, from which Mr Roh recently split after factional infighting, said the referendum was unconstitutional.

Mr Roh acknowledged that the vote would create political "chaos", but said it would serve "as an opportunity to change our politics".

"There is no future for us unless we cure our moral paralysis. There can be no economic development, no joining of the advanced nations," he said.

The president came to power promising to root out political corruption.

But the GNP sees the referendum call as a "political plot" ahead of parliamentary elections in April.

The president is currently without a power base in the National Assembly. He split from his own party, the MDP, last month, after it was wracked by mass defections to other parties.

An MDP splinter group of Roh loyalists holds just 42 seats, compared to the 149-seat majority the GNP enjoys.

Mr Roh's popularity ratings have plummeted from more than 80% to below 30%.

He has been tarnished by political scandals, an economic recession, and tension over the South's relations with the North and the United States.

Seoul and its allies have not come closer to resolving the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear programme since it erupted last October.

And Mr Roh is currently struggling with Washington's request that South Korea send troops to Iraq. He needs to balance the demands of Seoul's closest partner with public concerns over potential casualties.

Graft probe

But the incident that appears to have sparked Mr Roh's referendum call was a probe into graft involving Choi Do-sool, an aide of President Roh.

Prosecutors are investigating claims that Mr Choi received a payment from a major company, shortly after last December's presidential elections.

SK Global headquarters
Scandal at SK Global triggered the inquiry into the parent group
SK Group, the country's third-largest business conglomerate, is alleged to have paid Mr Choi 1.1bn won ($956,000).

Last week, SK Group suffered the lion's share of fines dished out by South Korea's Fair Trade Commission (FTC) for making illegal transactions to support failing parts of their businesses.

SK Group confessed to 1.5 trillion won ($130m) hole in the accounts of one of its subsidiaries, SK Global, earlier this year, triggering the FTC investigation.

SK Global was eventually put into receivership while its creditors haggled over how to recover their money.

There is no suggestion that the president was directly involved in the scandal, and investigators have no plans to question him at present.

Polls conducted at the weekend suggest that Mr Roh would survive a referendum.

Out correspondent says the gamble could pay off again - if only because people are alarmed by the prospect of a political vacuum.

The BBC's Charles Scanlon
"He said he lost the ability to do his job"

S Korean president quits party
29 Sep 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Roh Moo-hyun
24 Feb 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: South Korea
24 May 03  |  Country profiles
New probe hits SK chief
22 Sep 03  |  Business

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