Fault lines

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 March, 2004, 12:00am

It is sad that there is talk of impeaching South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun only one year after he took office. Given the strong powers and influence of the office of president, instability there could seriously undermine the country's political and economic stability.

There are many reasons for this unfortunate political development. Mr Roh may be corrupt and incompetent, as opposition parties claim. During his one-year rule, there have been too many policy mistakes. Mr Roh has failed to show clear leadership, particularly in security and economic fields.

Mr Roh's words and deeds have been problematic. He created unnecessary anxiety in the country by making provocative remarks on various matters. His casual speaking style is not well received in a society where people expect a certain degree of authority from political leaders. Mr Roh says his manner is designed to reflect the end of authoritarianism in South Korea, but many see it as plain shallowness.

Still, it is not fair to attribute all the problems to Mr Roh. He is also a victim of South Korea's idiosyncratic structure. He leads a country divided geographically, politically and ideologically. Although he was elected with strong support from liberal and idealistic young voters, many conservative older people detest everything about him.

Older generations believe Mr Roh and his young supporters are irresponsible dreamers who know little about the real world. The younger generation accuses the old of being corrupt. The generational divide is so deep that no president can fully satisfy both sides. If the president makes friends on one side, enemies will automatically emerge on the other side.

That gap is worsened by the country's chronic regional divide. The Gyungsang area, in the southeast, is much more conservative than the rival Jolla, to the southwest. If the president tries to appease one region, the other region in most cases gets upset.

South Korea's less-than-perfect political system is also responsible for the current turmoil. Its presidency is a single five-year term that makes any president a lame duck from day one in office. Barred from seeking re-election by the constitution, the president cannot fully control his political party or pursue policies on a long-term basis.

South Korea's national assembly has traditionally been dominated by opposition parties. Voters who choose a president from one party tend to elect lawmakers from other parties, preserving checks and balances. In such a structure, presidents always face difficulties in carrying out policies. For unpopular presidents like Mr Roh, this systematic flaw can be an overpowering hindrance.