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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 March, 2004, 12:00 GMT
S Korea's class conflict sparks fury
By Charles Scanlon
BBC correspondent in Seoul

Roh supporters stage a candlelit protest against his impeachment
South Korea has been left with a political vacuum
To his supporters Roh Moo-hyun is a champion of reform, who had the courage to stand up to a corrupt and conservative political establishment.

But his opponents see him as an outsider and a menace - some have called him an amateur who lacks the dignity to be president.

The opposition has now made its move, after many months of ferocious political conflict, and removed him from office - at least for the time being.

"The attacks started three days after his inauguration, they never recognised him as president," says Yu Jay-kun, an MP for the Pro-Roh Uri party which physically blocked a vote on impeachment for three days.

In the end the president's supporters were dragged out by security guards and the vote went ahead.

"The political elite think they're from the noble class and they looked down on him as a self- made man from a poor farming background," said Mr Yu.

There is an element of class conflict in the current struggle.

It is also about generational change and the transition to a more liberal democratic culture.

Mr Roh came to office with support from young voters, who favour closer ties with North Korea and are suspicious of the long standing alliance with the United States.

Candelit protest

The fury and frustration in parliament found its echo on the streets.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun
President Roh's powers suspended
Case decided by Constitutional Court, could take six months
PM Goh Kun becomes acting head of state
15 April National Assembly elections to go ahead

Within hours of the vote thousands gathered for a candle lit vigil to support the president.

Opinion polls suggest at least 70% of the population oppose impeachment.

Many say the main grounds for impeachment - illegal campaigning - are simply too trivial.

President Roh in February had called for support for his own parliamentary faction in upcoming elections and received a mild censure for the National Election Commission.

"I thought a coup was carried out by tanks and guns, but this was a coup disguised as a legal process," said one of the demonstrators outside the National Assembly.

Mr Roh remains hunkered down in the presidential mansion, the Blue House, but he's been stripped of his powers and must wait the verdict of the constitutional court which has six months to make its decision.

Prime Minister Goh Kun, who has taken over as acting president, said he hoped it would decide as soon as possible.

He has called for calm and is trying to assert his authority over the machinery of government.

But South Korea has been left with a political vacuum that could have damaging consequences for the economy and national security - at a time when North Korea is resisting international demands to abandon its development of nuclear weapons.

Yet for all the sound and fury it is a measure of South Korea's democratic progress that no-one is talking about the danger of an uprising or a military coup.

On two previous occasions when South Korea has been without a strong president, the military took over. Those days are long over.

But many Koreans are concerned about the continuing immaturity of the political process and what are seen as the wildly irresponsible antics of politicians.

The opposition parties appear to have decided on impeachment as a last resort in the run up to hotly contested National Assembly elections on 15 April.

They are up to their necks in a massive political finding scandal and have been losing support to the reformist MPs who back President Roh.

Sympathy vote

Mr Roh's aides and relatives were also found to have taken millions in illegal contributions. That severely weakened his position.

But many voters still see the president as cleaner than his opponents.

Mr Roh has shown extraordinary resilience in the past.

He defied all the odds to emerge as his party's presidential candidate and then to win the 2002 election by a whisker.

It would be a mistake to count him out now. He will be hoping for exoneration by the constitutional court.

Meanwhile his supporters could emerge as the majority party in the upcoming legislative election, buoyed by a sympathy vote.

The gloves have come off in South Korea's bitter political feud and the contestants are preparing themselves for the second round.

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Country profile: South Korea
24 May 03  |  Country profiles

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