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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November, 2003, 09:51 GMT
S Korea opposition in protest fast
Choe Byung-yul
Choe Byung-yul says he will not eat until the president backs down
The leader of South Korea's main opposition party has begun a hunger strike as a row over political funding escalates.

Choe Byung-yul, chairman of the Grand National Party (GNP), began fasting at the National Assembly on Wednesday after President Roh Moo-hyun vetoed an independent probe into election financing.

The GNP has already announced it is boycotting parliament and is considering launching an impeachment against Mr Roh.

29/9 - Roh quits ruling party due to factional divides
13/10 - Roh proposes referendum on his rule
16/10 - Former Roh aide held on slush fund allegations
21/10 - GNP MP confesses to taking slush money
28/10 - State prosecutors begin inquiry
10/11 - National Assembly votes for independent inquiry
18/11 - LG offices raided as scandal widens
24/11 - Samsung subsidiary offices raided
25/11 - Roh vetoes independent inquiry

The opposition-controlled National Assembly had overwhelmingly passed a bill demanding the appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate claims that a close aide to Mr Roh received 1.1bn won ($956,000) shortly after last December's presidential elections from a large business group.

But the president wants state prosecutors, who are currently investigating the claim, to finish their work first.

The GNP has argued that state prosecutors cannot be impartial.

"President Roh, who has carefully wrapped himself up in a false image that he occupies a moral high ground, has rejected the special counsel, which he fears will expose the skeletons in his closet," Mr Choe said.

"If the GNP turns a blind eye to the corruption, the people will not recognise it as an opposition party," he said.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun
Mr Roh is feeling the heat after a series of scandals

However Mr Choe admitted his party was "not so clean" either. Opposition politicians are accused of accepting even larger payments than the governing party, but they allege the official investigation is biased against them.

The state probe is investigating SK Group for the alleged back-hander to Mr Roh's former aide, Choi Do-sool, and have also widened the inquiry to other giant conglomerates including LG and Samsung, South Korea's most successful company.

A GNP spokesman said Mr Choe was ready to debate with Mr Roh on television. The president is scheduled to appear on a talk show on Friday.

But a presidential spokesman said Mr Choe should concentrate on day-to-day duties.

"Before proposing one-on-one talks, what he needs to do is to return to the parliament," the spokesman told reporters.

"Choe has engaged in blackmail politics by announcing outdoor protests. And now he's launching such an extreme political action as a hunger protest, unnerving the public."

Breaking point

The row has been escalating since President Roh stunned the country in October by proposing a national referendum on whether he should remain in office.

President Roh, who came to office promising to clean up politics but who has seen his public approval ratings plummet, said he had lost the moral authority to govern as financial scandals and economic recession left him open to political and press attacks.

The GNP is likely to block a referendum.

It sees the move as a "political plot" aimed at shoring up support for Mr Roh 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.

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

S Korea political row deepens
25 Nov 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Embattled Roh seeks referendum
13 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
S Korea slush scandal spreads
22 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
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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