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Opposition Questions S. Korea Confidence Referendum - 2003-10-14

Opposition politicians are questioning the constitutionality of a national vote of confidence called by President Roh Moo-hyun to gauge public sentiment. The president said Monday that he would step down if he gets low marks from the public in the unprecedented referendum.

Political parties opposed to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun are attacking him for what many see as a bold political gamble: His call for a national vote in December to gauge public feeling about his leadership.

The main opposition Grand National Party, or GNP, is accusing the president of using the referendum as a ploy to divert attention from his aides' corruption scandals.

The former ruling Millennium Democratic Party is saying the referendum is unconstitutional.

And some opposition politicians are going so far as to suggest impeachment.

Under South Korean law, the president is limited to a single five-year term. Mr. Roh took office only eight months ago, and since then he has been harshly criticized by opposition politicians and the media. Surveys show that seven out of ten South Koreans disapprove of the president's performance.

GNP leader Choe Byung-yul, in a speech to the National Assembly, accused Mr. Roh of creating and manipulating the current political upheaval, saying the president is using the referendum to serve his own political interests. Mr. Choe said the president first claimed the referendum was intended to gain public pardon for a close aide's scandal, then changed his story to say the referendum is a tool for political reform.

The scandals are being investigated, with Mr. Roh's longtime private secretary undergoing interrogation at the Supreme Public Prosecutor's office in Seoul.

Meanwhile, the Yonhap news agency says a decision on whether or not South Korea will send combat troops to Iraq may be further delayed by the political turmoil.

The news agency, quoting government sources, said President Roh is not willing to anger voters ahead of the vote of confidence in December.

The United States has asked South Korea to dispatch forces, including combat troops, to Iraq to help maintain public security there. But most South Koreans are not in favor of the idea.

South Korea's National Security Advisor, Ra Jong-yil, is in Washington for talks with U.S. officials on the matter.