On March 12, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun was impeached in a 193-2 vote by the National Assembly, suspending his presidential powers as head of state and chief executive. The decision to permanently remove President Roh from office now lies in the Constitutional Court, which must decide on the legality of the legislature's impeachment within 180 days. At the very least, this impeachment procedure demonstrates how far South Korea has come in building its democratic institutions.
If six of its nine judges uphold the impeachment, Roh will be removed from office, and a special presidential election will be called. But if the court dismisses the articles of impeachment, the parliamentary motion will be shelved and Roh's powers will be restored. In the meantime, Prime Minister Goh Kun, the former mayor of Seoul and a cautious centrist politician, will be acting president.
The impeachment was based on two charges. The first is that Roh received illegal campaign funding during his successful December 2002 presidential bid. Roh has admitted that his campaign received illicit funds but protests that his party received less than ten percent of the amount of the illegal funds the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) did. Recent investigations launched by a Special Prosecutor have revealed that the GNP received more than $100 million during the presidential campaign from some of Korea's largest firms (chaebol) that were seeking favor with the President's office.
The second charge is that Roh violated election laws pertaining to the neutrality of the presidential office by openly campaigning for the Uri, or Our Open Party, in advance of the national legislative elections on April 15.
Polls show that a majority of South Korean citizens (as many as 70 percent) believe that Roh should not have been impeached, although some do criticize Roh's lack of remorse.
The immediate and long-term implications of the impeachment are unclear. Some fear that the country is deeply polarized and in a state of political chaos and that pending issues, such as weak economic growth, North Korea's nuclear programs, and a readjustment of the U.S.-ROK security alliance, may stagnate while Roh's future is sorted out by the Court.
Still, the impeachment was carried out systematically within the rules of South Korea's democratic constitution, and the rule of law seems to be functioning well. This impeachment procedure demonstrates how far South Korea has come in building its democratic institutions. In the past, sitting presidents may have been removed from power at the hands of the military, but not by the democratically elected legislature.
Of course, it is too early to tell how all this political maneuvering will play out in coming weeks and months. Overall, the long-term impact may prove to be positive for the future of South Korea's democracy if the impeachment procedure is allowed to play out transparently, peacefully, and according to the rule of law.
Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.