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S. Korean President's Impeachment Not Expected to Have Lasting Effect on Economy - 2004-03-12

South Korea's opposition-controlled parliament has impeached President Roh Moo-hyun, just one month before a general election. The political uncertainty is expected to have little lasting effect on the economy and relations with North Korea.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has been forced out of power - at least temporarily - just 13 months into his five-year term.

In line with South Korean law, Prime Minister Goh Kun has assumed presidential duties while South Korea's Constitutional Court decides whether to unseat Mr. Roh. That process could take six months.

Many political analysts, such as Lee Nae-young of Korea University, say the unexpected impeachment vote is troubling, even though Mr. Roh's leadership has been widely viewed as ineffective and the economy has been showing signs of weakness.

"I am surprised and worried," he said. "I think there are many opportunities for the ruling party and the opposition to solve their problem within the legislature, without going to the Constitutional Court. But many Korean people are now worried about this uncertainty."

Mr. Roh tried to reassure the public Friday, saying he would not give up and that he expected the court to restore him to the Blue House, the South Korean presidential compound.

It is not the first time the 57-year-old Mr. Roh has taken a defiant stance.

The former labor lawyer rose from humble origins. He came from a farming family that could not afford to send him to college.

He financed his own studies and passed his legal exams in 1975. Mr. Roh entered politics in 1988, but lost in several attempts to win parliamentary seats, and he also failed to win the job of mayor in his native city of Busan.

He persisted in politics, and Mr. Roh secured the presidency in December 2002 after just one term as a legislator and a short stint as a maritime minister in the cabinet of former President Kim Dae-jung. When he took over as president two-months later, he pledged to reform the political system and rid it of corruption.

But like President Kim, he struggled with corruption allegations among close aides, although he he has never been implicated. A vast campaign finance scandal that has engulfed all of South Korea's political parties also burdened and distracted him.

But other factors damaged his public standing and sent his popularity rating plunging below 30 percent. South Korea's economy is one issue. Growth in Asia's fourth-largest economy was halved to about three percent last year, and critics have blamed Mr. Roh for leaving too much power in the hands of South Korea's huge family-run conglomerates.

Bob Broadfoot, managing director of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong, says the current power vacuum could keep the economy in the doldrums.

"It is going to keep it on its backside," he said. "South Korea just cannot take the steps right now to fix its problems. We thought when Roh first came in he would be able to but he got bogged down so quickly with politics."

Mr. Roh also had difficulties with his nation's communist neighbor, North Korea, and its nuclear weapons programs. Seoul is one of five nations trying to convince the isolated Stalinist state to dismantle its nuclear programs, but the effort is at a stalemate, despite two rounds of multilateral talks.

Mr. Broadfoot and other analysts think the impeachment vote will not have much effect on those negotiations, especially since little progress is expected before the U.S. presidential election in November. But Mr. Broadfoot believes a series of inter-Korean projects to help strengthen the North's economy will continue moving ahead.

"Basically this is an issue that both sides know how to manage, and I do not think it is going to change in the coming year," he said.

The impeachment vote surprised South Korea and much of the world, but it seems unlikely to have a profound effect on the country's already sluggish economy and its ties to other countries.

It appears that Mr. Roh's heavy political burdens had already stopped him from enacting meaningful reforms and that many observers and voters perceived he would accomplish little more during the rest of his presidency.

While the Constitutional Court deliberates on the impeachment vote, a general election in South Korea on April 15 will be the key test of President Roh's support, as well as for the opposition groups that succeeded in unseating him.