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2 South Korea's Roh in a one-man
show By Donald Kirk
SEOUL - Forget about the notion that South
Korean President Roh Moo-hyun may decide to step
down rather than face widespread criticism of his
personality, politics and policies.
more than once in the past year Roh has hinted he
might quit if people didn't like him, but he's now
absolutely sure he's going to bull his way through
the remaining 13 months of his five-year term, and
he's not talking at all like the "lame duck" that
of his critics say he has become.
can't succeed himself, under the 1987 "democracy"
constitution that limits the president to a single
term, but he clearly would like a hand in the
choice of a successor, even though polls have
repeatedly shown his popularity rating has plunged
to levels even below those of his embattled US
counterpart, George W Bush.
the barbs at a press conference on Thursday in
which he said definitively, "There is no chance I
will shorten my term as president." After all, he
noted, "If I shorten my term, everything will get
very complicated." This is a judgment no one would
Roh was equally emphatic,
however, about his willingness to resign from his
own Uri Party, the left-of-center amalgam that
thrust him to victory over his conservative
opponent in the presidential election in December
2002. "If I am an obstacle," he said, "I am
willing to leave the party."
little doubt, however, that he is engaging in a
flight of rhetoric, a bid for sympathy and support
as he fights to hold together an alliance in the
midst of fragmentation.
"I would like to
appeal to Uri lawmakers to stick to the party and
use it as a political force," he said. "It's
important we have big thrusts together and create
a larger party."
It was in a gesture of
seeming self-sacrifice that he said it will be
preferable "for me to leave the party rather than
them" - his foes in the party. Or, as he put it,
"If it's because of me they want to leave the
party, then I will be the one to leave." But, he
quickly added, "I don't think anyone welcomes me
leaving the party". Such a move would lead to the
creation of "a neutral cabinet", one that owed
allegiance to no party at all.
whatever happened to Roh's earlier proposal for
revising the constitution to provide for a
four-year presidential term - but no bar on a
president running for a second term?
it is clearly too late to push through such a
scheme in the time remaining in his own term, Roh
suggested that any presidential candidates who
favor the idea should state during their campaign
their willingness to serve just four years if the
revision becomes law.
Roh was the picture
of ebullient self-confidence as he rambled on in
response to pre-arranged, vetted and approved
questions from Korean reporters - and one Japanese
and one British. He defended his record before the
media just two days after having talked so long in
a New Year's speech that he had to skip some of
the text and advise viewers to read the rest on
For all his words, though,
Roh avoided the central problem, that a
conservative reaction, plus regional sentiment,
has undone the reign of liberal if not leftist
leadership that began with the razor-thin
presidential victory of Kim Dae-jung in December
1997. This was at the height of an economic crisis
that forced the government to go to the
International Monetary Fund for a US$58 billion
bailout from bankruptcy.
Roh more or less
carried on the policies of Kim, notably that of
reconciliation with North Korea, but he, his
closest aides and their political allies are under
intense fire these days for their handling of the
economy as well as their dealings with Pyongyang.
Not a single name has emerged to carry on
the mantle of Korean-style liberalism, while at
least three well-known figures are jockeying to
run for president under the banner of the
conservative Grand National Party.
front-runner is Lee Myung-bak, who stepped down
last year after a term as a highly successful
mayor of Seoul and, according to the latest Gallup
poll, has the support of 50.8% of the voters.
Lee's popularity reflects the
single-minded efficiency with which he revitalized
central Seoul. Most visibly, he was responsible