Tue, Oct 14, 2003 - Page 1 News List

S Korean leader calls for December confidence vote


South Korea's embattled President Roh Moo-hyun said yesterday he would put his job on the line in a Dec. 15 referendum and step down if the vote went against him.

The 57-year-old former human rights lawyer, facing crumbling popular support, a hostile parliament and a critical media, said he needed a new mandate less than a year after his election to office for a five-year term.

Roh's comments in a policy speech to the National Assembly came three days after he triggered a political crisis when he indicated that he had lost his legitimacy to rule.

A day later, instability deepened when his entire Cabinet offered to resign, claiming responsibility for Roh's troubles. The president rejected the offer.

The left-of-center leader, in office for just over seven months, has seen his approval ratings crash from nearly 80 percent to less than 30 percent since he won election in December last year.

A track record of inconsistency has alienated voters who see Roh as ineffectual in dealing with South Korea's economic slowdown and the lingering North Korean nuclear crisis.

Roh's surprise call for a national referendum was sparked by the latest graft case affecting one of his closest allies.

Prosecutors have accused Choi Do-sul, a former top advisor to Roh, of taking around US$1 million in bribes from SK Corp, South Korea's third-largest business group, in exchange for favors.

The allegations against Choi and other top political figures emerged last week as Roh attended a summit meeting of regional leaders in Indonesia.

Roh, in his National Assembly speech, said that when he heard the allegations: "I felt darkness in front of my eyes ... I felt so miserable."

"We have no future without correcting the rampant corruption in political circles and moral indifference to this," he said.

Roh, 57, won December's elections promising to root out corrupt political practices revolving around slush funds that have oiled the wheels of power in South Korea for decades.

On Friday, he said he had lost the "moral authority" that legitimized his his reformist rule.

However, some analysts see political calculation behind the hand-wringing over corruption.

A popular show of support for Roh, in the form of a referendum, would strengthen his hand against parliament, which is controlled by the vehemently anti-Roh Grand National Party.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for April.

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Roh in biggest gamble of his life

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