SEOUL — The always contentious South Korean political scene was shattered last week with the impeachment of the sitting president, Roh Moo Hyun, with both Korea watchers and Koreans themselves who take their young democracy very seriously caught off guard.

Once again, South Korea was showing its worst side to the world, with plenty of blame to go around. Roh did himself no good by questioning his own effectiveness as president and offering to hold an unprecedented referendum on whether he should continue in office. Whether or not this was a political ploy to bolster his political standing in the polls, it opened the way for opposition parties to capitalize on an unending string of corruption and related scandals laid ever closer to Roh’s doorstep, combined with revelations of campaign shakedowns by both major political parties during the 2002 presidential campaign.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back was trivial by comparison: the president voiced support for the newly formed Uri Party — which is composed of his core supporters — allegedly in violation of an election law that itself may not pass muster. This led to the National Assembly vote last week, accompanied by shouting and shoving inside the chamber and arrests and arson outside.

But the saga has yet to play out. While Roh remains cloistered in the Blue House, stripped of all power and basking in the exalted status of a political eunuch, the old reliable prime minister, Goh Kun, can be relied upon to keep the wheels of government turning for the time being.

The Constitutional Court, the final arbiter according to the South Korean constitution, holds the key to Roh’s fate and has 180 days to rule on his tenure. However, it will probably act sooner rather than later, in all probability, not long after the April 15 parliamentary elections. In a very real sense, this will amount to a second presidential election (as well as a verdict on Roh’s tenure), this time with the president running against a majority in the National Assembly. If Roh’s party captures a majority, he is very likely to be vindicated. If not, he will likely be ousted or will resign, paving the way for new presidential elections within 60 days.

Two questions leap to the fore. How did it come to this? And does Roh really merit impeachment and removal from office?

The first question is more readily disposed of than the second. Korean politics has always been characterized by ideological extremism and political polarization. North-South relations exhibit the former, while in the South itself, corruption, personal vendettas and regional cleavages (east and west), evidence the latter.

These factors make for a disconnected democracy in which politicians, once elected, operate on their own without being responsive to the needs and desires of their constituents.

This is also a case of conflict between opposition members of the National Assembly and President Roh that has been brewing for a long time following a close and bitterly contested presidential election in 2002.

Like financial markets that tend to overshoot and then self-correct, the political system has gone beyond rational limits. Thus, a decision vindicating Roh would be an exercise in self-correction.

The second question is more legal than political, relating to the substance of the charges against Roh, i.e., what constitutes an impeachable offense under South Korean law?

An extreme act

As it stands now, without any precedent to go by, it is whatever the Constitutional Court decides. This runs the risk of greatly degrading Korean democracy since the impeachment and removal from office of a duly elected head of state in a democracy is the most extreme step possible, overturning the popular will.

If it is seen to be politically motivated rather than legally sound, future presidents will be vulnerable to similar excesses and the standing of Korean democracy will suffer accordingly.

In this regard, a comparison of impeachment procedure and practice in South Korea and the U.S. is instructive. Under the U.S. Constitution, impeachment must be voted on by a majority of the House of Representatives and a trial held in the Senate, both popularly elected institutions. Thus, the incumbent is exposed rather than shielded from judgment by elected officials.

Secondly, the grounds for impeachment are clearly spelled out, constituting high crimes and misdemeanors. The former is understood to be treason or its equivalent, although misdemeanors, deemed to be less serious offensive, are not fully elaborated. Presumably, however, they encompass a failure to discharge the presidential oath to take care that the laws are faithfully executed.

The U.S. political system has been tested in terms of its ability to conduct and survive the political trauma of the impeachment of its highest official three times — twice over in a little more than the last two decades. The first occurred in 1868, as a politically motivated vendetta against President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and was widely seen as selling out to Southern interests by the political opposition after the Civil War. In the end, democracy triumphed and he escaped removal from office by one vote.

Recalling Nixon, Clinton

The impeachment of Richard Nixon, a Republican, in 1974 and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in 1997, was each legally motivated inasmuch as both presidents lied to the American people and, to that extent, violated their constitutional oath to take care that the law be faithfully executed.

The principal difference lay in the fact that Nixon’s deceit was in the public realm of covering up a crime, i.e., the break-in into Democratic Party headquarters, popularly known as Watergate, while Clinton’s was related to a private infidelity that had become a public spectacle that compromised credibility as moral leader.

Nixon resigned in disgrace rather than face certain removal form office while Clinton fought back and survived, albeit finishing his term with a blemish.

What will be the outcome of the Korean impeachment impasse is anybody’s guess. Will the rule of law or the law of the political jungle prevail? It should be remembered that Roh was impeached not for what he did but for what he said, ostensibly showing support for the Uri Party.

Without legal precedent, Roh’s fate will, unfortunately, be decided on political grounds. The election will be the referendum that Roh had previously sought. If Uri wins, the strong likelihood is that the Constitutional Court will interpret that as a reflection of the popular will, and allow the elected president to complete his term.

If the reverse occurs, the court will probably rule in the alternative. In that case, Roh should spare it the necessity of ratifying the electoral will as well as the country from additional distress and quickly and quietly resign.

There is a silver lining to the current South Korean political turmoil. There has been no thought or talk (so far as is known) of military intervention in the political process, a sign of political maturity.

Moreover, because the two Koreas live cheek to jowl, it is likely that the North’s Kim Jong Il is more than an uninterested bystander, keenly aware that Roh’s survival is in his interest as well — not that he fears a similar fate. Indeed, were the Supreme People’s Assembly to impeach — pardon me — purge the Dear Leader, he could surely count on the Korean People’s Army to rescue him, whereas Roh cannot count on military support to compensate for the loss of his political base.

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