Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Crisis in Korea

The Economist has an article up about the impeachment of Roh Moo-hyun. This is a situation that really needs close watching, especially with the recent events in Spain in mind. It is not at all helpful for Korea to be effectively leaderless at such a crucial moment, and one can expect Kim Jong Il to seize milk the ongoing political crisis in Seoul to maximum effect.

ROH MOO-HYUN has never commanded the support of South Korea’s political establishment. Even after his surprising nomination by the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) for the presidency in 2002, conservative elements in the party itself tried to undermine the former human-rights lawyer. The split in the MDP last September—between a small band of Roh supporters and the majority—left the president without a party. Worse, the opposition, helped by the country’s conservative newspapers, has been trying to bring down the president for months. Even so, there was widespread surprise that the opposition managed to secure the required two-thirds majority for an impeachment bill on Friday March 12th. The vote, which Mr Roh’s supporters had tried to block by occupying the speaker’s podium for two days, produced scenes of chaos in the chamber, with the speaker having to be escorted out under a hail of shoes, nameplates and other improvised missiles. The bill has bitterly divided the country. At worst, it could lead to years of political turmoil. It has already had an effect on efforts to improve relations with communist North Korea: on Monday, the North pulled out of inter-Korean trade talks, saying the South was too “unstable” for its officials to visit.

In the short term, it is not clear if Mr Roh’s impeachment will stand. The bill must go to the constitutional court, whose judges must approve it by a two-thirds majority. The court will probably take at least a month, and possibly up to six months, to deliver its verdict—so this may not come until well after the election, due on April 15th. In the meantime, the country will be run by the prime minister, Goh Kun, who is normally a ceremonial figure. The nightmare scenario, in terms of policy paralysis, is that Mr Roh is reinstated to serve the remaining four years of his term but his new party, Uri, fails to make big gains in the election. It currently has 47 seats in the 273-seat parliament.

The transgression that led to the impeachment vote was surprisingly minor. Mr Roh is not accused of Nixonesque lying or Clintonesque sexual peccadilloes. He is guilty simply of pledging to do his utmost to secure votes for Uri in the general election. In South Korea, where the president, even when he has a party, is a public official deemed to be above grubby party politics, this is against the rules. Nevertheless, Mr Roh refused to apologise. He finally relented on Friday morning, just before the vote, but his opponents said it was too late.


Campaigning on a platform of rooting out endemic political corruption and infighting, Mr Roh was elected on a wave of optimism. However, he has struggled to build on the goodwill. Some problems, like North Korea’s nuclear shenanigans, were outside his control. South Korea’s economic troubles, too, were evident before Mr Roh’s inauguration in February 2003. The country’s growth was already slowing before the SARS virus dampened business activity throughout Asia. The government’s economic pump-priming in response to the outbreak has helped to stimulate a recovery, but this has not been entirely painless. The previous government’s policy was to underpin economic growth by encouraging consumer spending. But that has left many South Koreans struggling with huge credit-card bills. On Tuesday, the Bank of Korea, the central bank, said in a statement: “If the uncertainty over the impeachment lingers, weak consumption and slow investment could delay economic recovery and hurt employment.”

It looks like we have the makings of a South Korean Lewinsky scenario here, and the denouement looks to be similar to the American version, with a backlash hitting the overreaching politicians of the right. That aside, I think the ongoing crisis in South Korea will be an excellent test-case of John Kerry's seriousness about handling allies and enemies. Will he have anything to say about developments there, or continue to devote his energies primarily to attacking Bush's foreign policy?

I don't see that there's much any American leader can or even ought to do about the political situation within South Korea, beyond quietly encouraging both sides to step away from brinkmanship, behind closed doors of course. That said, I'd still like to know how the critics would like us to handle relations with North Korea, given the stark differences on this point within South Korea itself.