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S. Korea constitutional court to rule on Roh's impeachment
Updated: 2004-03-12 13:30

South Korea's parliament impeached President Roh Moo-hyun on charges of illegal electioneering and incompetence Friday, stripping him of his constitutional powers in an unprecedented vote that followed hours of scuffles and protests.

Prime Minister Goh Kun assumed Roh's presidential duties, including his role as military commander in chief. The Constitutional Court must now give final approval to unseat the president.

The move comes as the government prepares for nationwide parliamentary elections next month and tries to balance tensions over North Korea's nuclear program with a fragile economic recovery.

The Constitutional Court has 180 days to rule on whether Roh must permanently step down. If it does, a by-election will choose a new president.

Goh, the prime minister, planned to convene a meeting of foreign affairs- and security-related ministers later Friday, his office said. Finance Minister Lee Hun-jai also called an emergency meeting of senior policy makers.

The impeachment passed by a vote of 193 to 2, well above the 181 votes needed for the measure. Many pro-Roh lawmakers had been forcibly removed from the chamber by Assembly security and were unable to vote.

A shoving match was sparked earlier when pro-Roh Uri Party members tried to stop Assembly Speaker Park Kwan-yong from taking the podium, the only place he can call a vote.

Assembly security officers then moved in to begin removing lawmakers trying to block his progress. Park had warned Thursday that he might exercise his right to have security officials clear the lawmakers.

Live television footage showed security officers dragging out screaming Uri members one by one.

As the voting proceeded by secret ballot, opposition members applauded and screaming Roh backers chanted that it was a "coup." Other Uri Party members broke into tears and sang the national anthem.

Speaker Park admonished them, saying "You asked for it."

Lawmakers loyal to Roh had planned to stall for time in the hope that the ouster motion would automatically expire on Friday evening.

As the clock ticked for opposition members to call a vote, rival factions cursed and shoved as they fought for the parliamentary speaker's podium.

Dozens of pro-Roh Uri Party members had camped out around the podium overnight after South Korea's two main opposition parties first tried to call a vote on Thursday but were blocked.

A 20-minute scuffle erupted earlier Friday when about 20 opposition legislators stormed the National Assembly hall to try to remove their rivals, who were sleeping around the dais, according to Assembly officials and footage broadcast on local television stations.

Later about 200 Roh supporters briefly exchanged punches with riot police who blocked them from marching on the National Assembly building. They chanted, "Let's block impeachment!"

President Roh later apologized for the chaos and urged calm.

"Regardless of which side is wrong, I offer my sincere apology for the situation in which the political confrontation has lead to an impeachment move against me," Roh said in a statement read by his senior public relations secretary, Lee Byong-wan. "I strongly urge all sides to regain self-control."

The Grand National Party rejected Roh's overture, saying in a statement that it was "not a true apology and he didn't admit his wrongdoing." The Millennium Democratic Party concurred: "The arrow has already left the bow."

Earlier Friday, a man attempted to drive his car up the steep steps into the Assembly hall in protest. When the car stalled, the man got out and set the car on fire, said police Sgt. Lee Sun-kyun.

"I will kill them all!" the man shouted as Assembly guards overpowered him.

On Thursday, a Roh supporter set himself on fire outside parliament, shouting "Let's block impeachment!"

The embattled leader has yet to apologize for the flash point of the impeachment attempt: accusations that he broke election laws by stumping for the Uri Party in the upcoming April 15 parliamentary campaign.

Roh does not belong to a party, but has said he wants to join Uri.

The National Elections Commission ruled last week that Roh had engaged in illegal electioneering, but that the infraction was minor, not warranting criminal charges.

Opposition lawmakers also charge Roh with incompetence at a time the country is trying to balance tensions over North Korea's nuclear programs with a fragile economic recovery.

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