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S. Korean Leader Considers Vote on Ouster

By Christopher Torchia, AP, Washington Post, Saturday 11 October 2003; 7:52 AM

SEOUL, South Korea—Facing widespread discontent, President Roh Moo-hyun said Saturday that he was considering a national referendum on whether he should resign, and rejected an offer from his Cabinet and presidential aides to quit.

But Roh, who has a hostile relationship with the opposition-controlled National Assembly, acknowledged it was unclear whether a referendum was legal. The confusion raised the possibility of months of political wrangling at a time when South Korea is trying to revive its faltering economy and stop North Korea's development of nuclear weapons through talks.

If a president is sacrificed in the middle of his term and if that serves to straighten out South Korean politics, I think that is a bigger stride forward for the development of South Korean politics than a case in which the president simply completes his five-year term, Roh said at a news conference.

The leadership crisis followed months of increasingly virulent criticism of Roh, whose blunt style and perceived inconsistency on major policy issues have alienated many South Koreans. Corruption scandals involving presidential aides have also drained his approval ratings.

It was not immediately clear how what Roh described as chaos in state affairs might affect international efforts to stop North Korea's nuclear development. South Korea, a close U.S. ally, is eager to promote dialogue to resolve the issue.

The economy is another worry, with foreign investment dropping, partly because of a perception that the government has been soft on a wave of labor strikes in recent months. Domestic demand is tepid.

The economic ministries will keep striving to revive the economy, as we have done so far, said Kim Sung-jin, spokesman for the Finance and Economy Ministry.

Roh's rejection of resignation offers from the Cabinet eased chaos in the short term, but the months ahead are likely to be difficult. Roh, a former human rights lawyer who took office in February, suggested the law could be altered to allow for a referendum to assess the public's confidence in him.

I think the law on a referendum could be changed, he said. A debate on a law change, or a constitutional amendment, would likely be a lengthy, divisive process.

The opposition Grand National Party, which controls the National Assembly, said Roh's behavior was baffling.

President Roh should clearly propose how and when he is going to ask the people about their confidence in him before the confusion amplifies, the party said in a statement.

The political upheaval began Friday, when Roh said he wanted a pardon from the people to restore moral strength in his 8-month-old government, which is besieged by hostile legislators and unfriendly news media.

Roh had said he was unsure about a referendum because it could hurt national security amid tension over North Korea's nuclear program. He said he wants to figure out how to assess public opinion by the time the country elects a new parliament next April.

Early Saturday, Prime Minister Goh Kun and the Cabinet, as well as aides at the presidential Blue House, apologized to the public and offered to resign. Presidential press secretary Lee Byung-wan told reporters that Roh's aides felt unlimited responsibility for making the situation reach this point.

After Roh's rejection of the resignation offer, they agreed to stay in their jobs.

I think it is morally right and courteous of them to tender their resignations, but this could reflect that it's their responsibility, which is definitely different from the truth, Roh said.

They did not do perfectly well, but the responsibility is not upon them. So I immediately reject their resignations, Roh said.

If we ask for the public's opinion in a calm and cool manner, we don't have to necessarily call it confusion. I don't think the confusion of asking the public's opinion would be greater than the confusion we've had in the past months, Roh said Saturday.

Roh's initiative was a risky political gamble aimed at winning a fresh mandate for his increasingly unpopular government. The opposition Grand National Party, which controls a majority at the National Assembly, demanded a national referendum.

Prosecutors are investigating an allegation that Choi Do-sool, a longtime Roh aide, received $956,000 from SK Group, South Korea's third-largest conglomerate, shortly after Roh won December's presidential election.

SK, an oil and mobile phone giant, is also accused of giving $8.7 million to the GNP. The opposition party denies the charge.