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S. Korean President Battling Political Pressures - 2003-10-23

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun says he is under siege. He is battling a political scandal, a recession, the North Korean nuclear threat and - perhaps worst of all - his own lack of confidence. The president told the nation this month that he doubts his own ability to lead. It is not clear whether Mr. Roh will succeed or become a casualty of one of Asia's most rough-and-tumble political cultures.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has done the unthinkable for a politician: he has told his nation that he may not be an effective leader.

During a televised news conference in mid-October, Mr. Roh - who has been at South Korea's political helm for eight months - called for a vote of confidence by the country's electorate, probably in December. He pledged to step down if he loses because he would have no confidence in his ability to do his job.

The statement astonished the public and stunned the opposition Grand National Party, which has rejected the referendum plan.

South Korea's political scene is boisterous and full of constantly shifting ties and rivalries. Since Mr. Roh took office, the opposition has been on the attack, as expected. His conservative enemies have blocked his nominations for political appointments and accused him of hiding assets under associates' names.

The president reacted angrily, filing libel suits against a conservative lawmaker and several newspapers, which wrote about the allegations. That move drew criticism that Mr. Roh's behavior was "amateurish" and that he should have handled the scrutiny better.

But Mr. Roh's problems go well beyond political rivalries. The former human rights lawyer's public popularity has plunged to 25 percent from 80 percent when he was elected eight months ago by a slim margin. As the protégé of former leader Kim Dae-jung, he had campaigned on a platform to continue to develop ties with communist North Korea, reform the nation's big corporations and create a more equal relationship between South Korea and the United States.

Mr. Roh comes from a poor farming background and had no money for college, so he studied for law exams on is own and passed in 1975. In the early 1980s he defended students and labor activists and eventually joined the country's pro-democracy movement. So he lacked a political power base when he took office. His supporters hoped this would be a plus because, as an outsider, he would be able to clean-up South Korea's scandal-ridden political culture. But now several of his aides have been arrested for bribery and influence peddling.

Given Mr. Roh's problems, Balbina Hwang, a Korea analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, believes a public referendum could turn out to be a wise political maneuver. She says it has confused the opposition and put the public to a test. "I think what this political move did was it threw it back to the public, and said if you are not happy, feel free to vote me out of office," she says. "It distracted them from the fact that he is not doing very well and that he really is an amateur in terms of being a president and he really has made a lot of mistakes and some very poor judgments."

Mr. Roh's critics say he wavers on important issues like relations with South Korea's chief ally, the United States. He has both promised to support the tough U.S. negotiating stance on North Korea's nuclear weapons program and said South Korea will have a North Korean policy more independent of Washington. The 57-year-old leader is also grappling with South Korea's first recession in five years and repeated strikes by the country's powerful labor unions.

Lee Chung-min, a politics professor at Yonsei University, says he is not sure if the referendum Mr. Roh wants will eclipse his sizable problems. "He has basically showed his last card and he has put everything down on this particular referendum," he says. "On the other end, people are saying if he wins, even by small margin, does that mean that he will regain the support of the people? Does it mean that he will get full support beyond the parliament? Those two issues are not yet decided."

Mr. Roh's growing isolation also could harm him. He quit the ruling Millennium Democratic Party in late September after many of his allies defected to form an independent reformist group that he is likely to join. But for now, he remains without a party affiliation and faces a Parliament controlled by the opposition.

Against this backdrop, South Koreans are debating why Mr. Roh has called the referendum. In an editorial, the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's most popular paper, says that Mr. Roh is using a national "sense of insecurity" as a strategy to win back public support. But the second-largest daily, the Chungang Ilbo, says his intentions are still "murky."

In the run-up to the possible referendum and upcoming legislative elections in April, Ms. Hwang of the Heritage Foundation says she thinks Mr. Roh will cancel the referendum if it appears he will lose. "If there is a lot of opposition then I do not think he will go forward with it. So in the next few months you will hear a lot of very loud debate," she says. "Another sign of democracy is that politicians rely on polls and he will be watching them very carefully to see where the support goes."

Some political analysts in South Korea predict that Mr. Roh's supporters, mostly voters aged 40 and below, will rise to his defense and could re-energize the leader to tackle South Korea's woes. They also say holding this unprecedented referendum could reinforce Mr. Roh's image as a maverick - willing to break with tradition to achieve his aims. And that, they say, could serve him well.