S.Korean opposition set for impeachment vote
Angry South Korean opposition leaders looked set to push ahead with an unprecedented attempt to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun Thursday after he refused to apologize for illegal electioneering.
Answering questions at a televised news conference, Roh also said he would decide his future based on the outcome of an April 15 parliamentary election at the heart of an impeachment bid that could plunge South Korea into months of political uncertainty.
"I am aware of public opinion that I should apologize," said Roh. "It is something difficult for me to accept."
Opposition parties said Roh had made impeachment inevitable but were meeting at around 11:30 p.m. EST Wednesday to decide definitively whether to hold the vote Thursday -- they have until Friday to do so.
"We need a little more time," said Eun Jin-su, spokesman for the main opposition Grand National Party. The opposition controls parliament but needs a two-thirds majority to pass the bill.
Foreign investors closely watch political stability in South Korea, which already faces a crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, a still-nascent recovery in Asia's fourth-largest economy and an investigation into illicit funds given to political parties by conglomerates known as "chaebol."
"What concerns the market is that investors are a fickle bunch and the crowd, especially foreign investors, could be affected if the political row is protracted," said Hwang Chang-jung, head of research at LG Investment Securities.
Financial markets were unmoved Thursday morning.
Roh, a feisty former labor lawyer known for his outspoken and off-the-cuff comments, chose his words carefully on Thursday. He expressed regret over the funding scandal but said aides of his who had been arrested had not embezzled money.
Crucially, Roh declined to apologize for supportive remarks he made about the Uri Party that backs him. The opposition wanted an apology to stop them voting on impeachment by 6:30 p.m. (0930 GMT) Friday.
Roh said he respected a National Election Commission ruling that said he should not have spoken for the Uri Party but added he did not see it as grounds for impeachment. He said he might apologize if the impeachment bid did not go ahead.
Opponents were not impressed.
"There was no apology or regret. From now on the judgment of the nation and parliament lie ahead," said Kim Young-hwan, spokesman for the Millennium Democratic Party that launched the impeachment attempt.
Park Jin, a parliamentary member of the main Grand National Party, told CNN television Roh's remarks were disappointing.
"Sentiment will now gravitate toward impeachment," he said.
The two main opposition parties have 206 seats in the 273-seat National Assembly and have thwarted Roh's reform efforts. The Uri Party is seeking to boost its share in the election to an enlarged 299-seat unicameral parliament.
A vote for impeachment would trigger Roh's suspension from office pending a final Constitutional Court ruling which could take up to six months. Prime Minister Goh Kun would serve as interim head of state. Roh held an emergency cabinet meeting earlier Thursday to discuss the impeachment bid.
Uri Party members kept up a sit-in they began in the domed riverside National Assembly Tuesday. That could spark lively scenes in parliament if the vote is called.
The opposition mustered 159 signatures to register the impeachment motion. They need 180 votes to pass it -- two thirds of the 270 occupied seats in the chamber.