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PSPD    People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

  • Civil-Political
  • 2004.03.20
  • 2507
"People's Action Against 3/12 Impeachment and Political Corruption" Invites the Foreign Press Corps to a Press Conference on 'Impeachment, Democracy and the Response of the Civil Society'

When: March 20, 2004 (Saturday) 11:30 Where: Cafe Neutinamu (Anguk Station Exit No. Opposite the Jongno Police Station) Contact : Ms. Kim, Hye-Ae (Media Coordinator) 016-243-4903 Ms. Youngmi Yang (International Coordinator, PSPD) 019-358-0217 yang@pspd.org The National Assembly, driven by 193 members, struck an impeachment against President Roh Moo Hyun. The civil society organisations condemned the action as a "parliamentary coup d'etat", and rallied to organise immediate and massive protest campaign.

Everyday, following the unprecedented impeachment of the president, the streets of major cities in Korea were filled with candle lights protesting the darkness drawn over the fate of democracy, calling for the impeachment of the responsible parliamentarians. Despite the uncertainty of the government's attitude on the "illegalness" of the after-dark candlelight protest rallies, the civil society, which has brought about the democratic advances, rushing to its defence at every crisis, is determined to remain vigilant.

The "People's Action" will share its views with the press corps on the issues of "illegality" of its actions, the reasons for civil society protest against the impeachment, views on the proceedings and ruling of the Constitutional Court on the impeachment indictment, and its plans for future actions.

The "Press Conference" will be followed by the "Million People Rally to Nullify the Impeachment and to Defend Democracy", at 6 p.m., the Kwanghwamun Junction, in Seoul (to be held simultaneously at major cities throughout the country).

================================================================================ Impeachment, Democracy and the response of Civil Society 1. Program Briefing Background on People's Action Questions and answers 1) Legality 2) On about decisions to be made by the Constitutional Court 3) Our key point : Upholding democracy, not a popularity contest 4) Next steps in people's action

2.Press Release Statement on the Current Impeachment Crisis by the Korean civil society - Dismiss the Impeachment, End the Political Corruption

Analysis: Politics of the March 12th Impeachment 3. Speakers Moderator : Ms. Kim, Hye-ae (Green Korea United) Translator : Francis Lee (PSPD) Mr. Kim, Kisik (PSPD-People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy) Ms Cho, Young-sook (KWAU-Korea Women's Association United) Mr. Park, Sok-woon (Minjung Net) Mr. Ahn, Sang-woon (Lawyer, Minbyun -the Lawyer's Association for Democratic Society) ================================================================================

[Press Release]

The Political Significance of the Impeachment

Jung Hae-koo (Professor, Social Science Faculty, Seongkonghwe University )

On March 12, 2004, the National Assembly of Korea, attended by 195 members, convened to vote on a motion of impeachment against President Roh Moo Hyun. The motion was adopted with 193 members voting in favour. The Grand National Party and the Millennium Democratic Party, which had moved to set the impeachment process into motion, defend their action as an effort the uphold democracy. They are, however, faced with a mountainous protest from the all works of society for undermining the system of constitutional rule and driving democracy into a crisis.

This paper, in endeavouring to explore the political significance of the whole impeachment saga, examines the underlying nature and the political background that gave rise to the actions of the two opposition parties which hold a firm control of the parliament, and attempts to trace the future courses of the situation precipitated by the impeachment.

The Impeachment As An "Attempted Parliamentary Coup d'Etat" A coup d'etat is commonly understood as a seizure of power by a segment of the ruling regime through a subversion of the existing government by an illegal use of physical force. A "military coup d'etat", therefore, denotes the seizure of political power by the military or a segment of the military following an overthrow of the existing government with the use of military mobilisation. Is it possible to depict the impeachment by the Parliament undertaken on March 12 as a coup d'etat given its commonly understood meaning? In responding to this question, the phenomenon needs to be tested against the two central features defining an act of coup d'etat: whether the Parliament is a party to the overall governance and rule of the state and whether the resolution of the impeachment was an illegal act based on the use of physical force.

Is the Parliament, in Korea today, a party in the overall governance and rule of the state? There is a tendency to hold that governance of the state is monopolised by the president and his party. This stems from an understanding of the presidential system that operates in Korea and is rooted in the experience of the past era of authoritarian regime where the president, as a dictator, held and exercised an unchallengeable power. The rule and governance of democracy, however, is jointly held and exercised by the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary, under a system of division of power. Therefore, in principle and (more and more) in reality, power, in Korea, is shared; the parliament constitutes an important element of the Government holding an important place within the system of governance of the state.

Can the passage of the impeachment motion by the coalition of the three opposition parties, the Grand National Party, the Millennium Democratic Party, and the Liberal Democratic Union, be perceived as an illegal act with the use of physical force. The Constitution of the Republic of Korea provides, in Article 65, the Parliament to initiate impeachment indictment against the president for violation of the Constitution or laws in the conduct of the office. The motion has to be tabled by at least half of the members in the Parliament and two-thirds majority for passage. The proponents of the impeachment assert that it was totally legal and legitimate as there were clear cases of violation of law by the president and the passage complied fully with the procedural requirements. However, the following consideration cast doubt over whether the impeachment has sufficient legality and legitimacy.

An impeachment of the president requires a violation of the Constitution and law in the official conduct of the duties as a president. The question persists whether there were infringement of law that would legitimate the recourse to impeachment. The opposition coalition points to illegal election campaign, graft and corruption exploiting the positions of power, "failure of diligence in the conduct of the duties of the office", and "footloose management of the state affairs".

"Failure of diligence" and "footloose management" are mostly subjective and arbitrary judgement, which would be difficult to hold up as the causes and grounds for impeachment. The issues of graft and corruption, on the other hand, are problems common to virtually everyone currently in the political arena. As the Grand National Party, the majority opposition party has been revealed to be tainted more seriously, it would be nonsensical to pick out the president to take all the responsibility. It is a matter that would have to wait for the actions of the prosecutorial authorities in their investigation of all the related allegations.

The one remaining category of the grounds for impeachment is the issue concerning president's illegal election campaigning. The issue is whether president's comments in answering a question at a press conference which expressed his support for a particular political party can be construed to be an infringement of the law. Firstly, it is contentious whether the actual act was in fact an infringement of law. President is an elective public official who secured the position in a political election where candidates contest on the basis of their politics. The status of the president as an elected official is, therefore, different from career public official who are employed and appointed by the government. Expressive activities of a president, as a public official elected into the office on the basis of political contest, in support of a particular party needs to be regarded as legitimate behaviour as long as they are not illegal political interventions exploiting the resources and powers of the office.

Secondly, the question is whether the Central Election Management Commission, a body established by the Constitution, deemed the particular behaviour of the president to be an infringement of the law. The actual letter sent to the president by the Commission appears to be one calling the attention of the president to its caution and warning. The determination of the Commission on the matter, however, was publicised as one in which it had deemed the president's behaviour had been an infringement of the law.

In addressing the issue of impeachment, the gravity of the infringement needs to be examined even if there was an infringement law. The application of the Article 65 of the Constitution, taking only the words that constitute the provision, can bring every behaviour of the president in infringement of the law as the grounds for impeachment. The grounds for an impeachment of a president, who has been entrusted with the management of the state through a democratic election, however, needs to be correspondingly sufficiently grave. An impeachment of a president based on ‘minor' infringements could lead to a negation of the sovereignty of the people and the office of the president in charge of the affairs of the state.

The Constitution protects the president from criminal indictment for crimes other than subversion and foreign currency while being in the office (Article 85). This provision aims to protect the role of the office of president in charge of the affairs of the state from disputations over legal infringement. But, if the impeachment provision of the Constitution is interpreted as to make all legal infringements legitimate grounds for impeachment, the president remained exposed to the threat of impeachment while being denied the right to challenge a criminal indictment.

Given the various questions arising from the impeachment undertaken by the opposition coalition, while the passage may have been "legal", it cannot be deemed to be completely legitimate. The actions of the opposition coalition based on partial legitimacy cannot escape the charges of illegitimacy. The actions of the parliament, in moving on the impeachment under the protection of parliamentary guards, cannot escape being portrayed as a "coup d'etat" in reality.

The members of the parliament and the political parties are scheduled to run in a general election to face the "judgement" of the people. Many of the parliamentarians and their parties are currently under investigation by the prosecutors for illegal political funds. The impeachment of the president arose out of a political manoeuvring and positioning in preparation for the upcoming elections. The opposition coalition, faced with a crisis of legitimacy arising from revelations about political funds, had hoped to turn the table, by undermining the president who is being portrayed as attempting to bring about a change to the establishment politics, and to seize the front position in the run up to the elections. In the long term, the impeachment was thought to generate a momentum for a constitutional reform to bring a shift to a "parliamentary" system of government or a system of limited president powers, through which the forces that make up the opposition coalition could sustain its place in the national politics.

It is in this light that the impeachment by the opposition coalition could be described as a "parliamentary coup d'etat" through an abuse of the Constitutional provision and the power of the parliament aimed at achieving its political objectives. As a wilful abuse of the impeachment provision of the Constitution in the service of its political calculation, the actions of the opposition coalition cannot escape the condemnation for its undermining of the Constitution.

The difference between a "parliamentary coup d'etat" and a "military coup d'etat" lies in that the former is executed in the cloak of legality while the latter is undertaken by illegally mobilising the military. But the two share a commonality in that both aims to subvert the legitimate government of the people that has come into office through a democratic election.

The Political Background of the Anti-Democratic "Parliamentary Coup d'Etat"

What was the reason for the opposition coalition in instigating the impeachment? In the past authoritarian era, the dictatorial regime had seized a total control of power and rule and exercised its power in an arbitrary manner. The democratisation process instituted in 1987 had made this impossible. The government and the ruling party and the various political forces were compelled to comply with the results of the elections and the various democratic norms increasingly empowered by the democratisation process from the below. But, not all of the political process have willingly and wholeheartedly embraced the process and the results of democratisation. The various groupings branching out from the past dictatorial forces remained at odds with the democratisation process. They have at times openly attempted to defy the results of democratic elections and undermined the democratic norms through their anti-democratic behaviour.

One outstanding example of the resistance against the democratic process was the merger of the Democratic Justice Party, Unification Democratic Party, and the New Democratic Republican Party in January 1990. The political party affiliation of the elected members of the parliament had changed overnight. The various quasi-democratic reforms in the pipelines under the matrix of opposition majority in the parliament became stalled with the creation of a mammoth ruling party emerging from the three-party merger. The new power base saw the emergence of the Kim Young Sam regime founded on a regional hegemonic alliance. While the merger of the political parties may not have been an infringement of the law, it was certainly an anti-democratic behaviour which had overturned the sovereign decision of the people.

The impeachment undertaken by the opposition coalition also stems from an anti-democratic attempt to resist against the results of a democratic election. The foremost cause for the opposition coalition's action is the results of the last presidential election. The Grand National Party was unable to accept Roh Moo Hyun, a non-mainstream politician, as the president. The new president and his government had refused to compromise with the mainstream establishment political forces that had sustained themselves on the basis of regionalism and establishment interests. Rather, the new president was seen to be bent on dismantling the very foundation of the establishment prerogatives. The split of the Millennium Democratic Party and the investigation into political funds by the prosecutors office had galvanised the sense of crisis and vendetta mentality of the majority Grand National Party. The crisis became more menacing as the established political parties saw their support dwindling in the various opinion polls in the run up to the parliamentary elections. The opposition coalition was moved to embark on a fanatic attack against the president to overturn the situation that was shaping up unfavourably to itself. The "parliamentary coup d'etat" executed through the impeachment was the manifestation of such a panic response by a political grouping that saw its survival threatened.

What lies behind the various anti-democratic spasm, such as the impeachment attempt by particular political groupings, despite the democratisation process that has set in since 1987? The non-democratic political forces, which have been unable or unwilling to adjust to the new demands of democratic norms that have been demanded of them, have found themselves in a constant and ever worsening crisis of survival as they sought to rely on or re-invoke non-democratic behaviour. The opposition coalition has sought to suspend the office of the president in the face of rising pressure and momentum of political reform personified by the new president whom they found totally unable to recognise or respect.

The minimum requirement of democracy is acceptance of the results of democratic elections and respect for democratic norms. Some political groups active in the political arena, however, have found themselves incapable of living up to these minimum demands of democracy. As a result, they perpetrate anti-democratic actions, which fail to meet the test of democracy in substance, couched in formal legality. That is why the "parliamentary coup d'etat" undertaken by the opposition coalition is perceived as a challenge against democracy. Democracy in Korea is, in the context of the continuing anti-democratic actions clothed in democratic formalities which undermine the Constitutional order, is yet again facing a crisis. Democracy in Korea is, therefore, currently undergoing another test in the course of its consolidation since the institutionalisation of the democratisation process.

What the Future Holds Following the Parliamentary Impeachment

The politics in Korea, since the passage of the impeachment motion on March 12, is faced with a serious uncertainty and instability. The most immediate development following the parliamentary action was a spontaneous eruption of a massive protest movement. The popular response is fuelled by a justified anger against the illegitimacy of the impeachment that is not only difficult to understand or accept, and shaped by a widespread concern for the crisis of democracy it has generated. The protest rallies in downtown Seoul and most of the major cities around the country are beginning to shape up as a nation-wide people's movement of resistance.

The Grand National Party and the Millennium Democratic Party, which had masterminded and instigated the impeachment against the president, however, are intent on rationalising their actions. They are, instead, accusing the media of agitating the negative public opinion and the wave of protests. The behaviour of the opposition coalition is likely to have an effect of fanning the conflict rather than bringing the situation to a resolution. The conflict is likely to emerge in the Korean society between the groups which attempt to justify the impeachment and those which protest against it. It is very likely that this conflict would galvanise and intensify even to a greater extent.

How will the situation unfold? There are two moments which will have significant bearing on the direction of the situation. The first is the results of the decision of the Constitutional Court on the impeachment hearing. The Constitutional Court will need to consider the fact that it itself is a party to the impeachment together with the parliament. While the parliament's actions are mostly motivated by political considerations, the decision of the Court will mainly be a legal review. The Constitutional arrangement for impeachment process where both the legislature and the judiciary are involved stems is intended to instil seriousness in determination and to institute a check and balance. The situation may become uncontrollable if the Constitutional Course was to rule in favour of impeachment of the president. Such a decision may add volatile fuel to the anger of people aroused by the illegitimate and unacceptable action of the parliament. A decision of the Constitutional Court to reject the impeachment indictment nullifying the parliamentary action, the current turmoil may come to a settlement.

Another important occasion which will have an influential impact on the situation is the parliamentary elections. It represents an opportunity for the people to make a judgement on the parliament's decision to impeach the president. The results of the elections, however, may become a seed for new (phase of the) conflict. The scene was set by president Roh Moo Hyun's comments that he would like the question of confidence in his presidency and the results of the general elections. Given this, if the Uri Party, the self-proclaiming minority ruling party (the president has yet formalised his affiliation to this party while repeatedly indicating his association), were not able secure one-third of the seats in the parliament that is necessary to prevent a constitutional amendment, the post-election situation may be dominated by a political debate for a new form/system of government, be it a parliamentary (cabinet) system or a limited presidential system. Given that the impeachment project of the opposition coalition was closely linked to its attempts to replace the current presidential system in order to transform its parliamentary position into power, the Korean politics, depending on the results of the elections, may be catapulted into a volatile debate over constitutional amendment.

Given the range of likely direction of the situation precipitated by the impeachment, the Korean society can be said to be standing at a cross roads of two choices. One is the direction of the continuation of the politics of the established interests. This is one favoured by the Grand National Party, Millennium Democratic Party, and the Liberal Democratic Union. They are intent on reformulating the political systemic framework that would guarantee their continued survival and defence and promotion of their established and vested interested. This calls for the weakening or collapse of the government of president Roh Moo Hyun which is set on bringing a change to the established politics of regionalism and antiquated politics. In the long run, this objective needs, in order to succeed and to secure stability, to establish a limited presidential system or a parliamentary (Westminster-style) cabinet government system through a constitutional amendment. Their survival in the face of rising demand to clean up corruption and political reform propels them to push ahead in this direction.

The other path is one of shift away from the established and establishment politics; a more democratic and non-regional politics. This is propelled by demands from below from the people and promoted by the government of president Roh Moo Hyun from the seat of power. The systematic mechanism that links the pressure from the below and the drive from the above is the presidential system of government based on direct election of the head of the government. The clash of the old politics which is operating out of the parliament and the new politics that is operating out of the people and the president came to the fore in the form of the impeachment of the president by the parliament.

The Korean society is at a crossroads, faced with a choice of two paths. One path can be sketched out as: starting with the impeachment of the president by the parliament, the approval of the impeachment by the Constitutional Court or the victory of the established politics in the upcoming parliamentary elections, the shift in the system of government into a parliamentary system or a limited presidential system, and culminating in the continued survival of the established politics. The other path is expected to course through the following landmarks: securing a successful defence with the rejection of the parliamentary impeachment of the president by the Constitutional Court, seizing an opportunity to move ahead with the victory of the forces of new politics in the parliamentary elections, and setting forward for continued political reform on the basis of the presidential system.

What will be the direction of the future? Korean society finds itself democracy still under challenge despite the near two decade of democratisation process that has brought the dictatorship to an end. The democracy in Korea is faced with a test, with both possibilities of a leap forward and a fall backward, with the impeachment of the president still hanging in the balance.
Center for National Assembly Watch
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