South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun yesterday vetoed a bid by the opposition-dominated parliament to appoint a special counsel to probe political funding scandals involving his aides.
In a move expected to add bitterness to his strained relations with the opposition, Roh argued that more time was needed for a separate funding scandal probe by prosecutors that has expanded to opposition parties and top business groups.
"I hope prosecutors speed up the ongoing probe to get results as soon as possible so that the people and the National Assembly can judge if special prosecutors are needed," Roh told ministers at his weekly Cabinet meeting.
Roh, who had until today to respond to the bill, came to power vowing to break the link between the country's family-run chaebol business conglomerates and politics.
"Prosecutorial authority must be protected from the high-handedness of the majority party in the National Assembly. Otherwise the prosecution's authority to pursue investigations will be seriously damaged," Roh said, according to his office.
His opponents, who are spread among three parties and hold the two-thirds of National Assembly seats necessary to override a presidential veto, vowed to fight him. But they have not yet said whether they would seek to overturn the veto in parliament.
The bill's sponsor, the main opposition Grand National Party, said immediately after Roh's decision that it would wage an "all-out struggle" against the president -- beginning with a boycott of parliamentary debate on next year's budget.
"The president himself has brought us the situation that people hate most: all-out conflict between the president and the opposition," the party's leader, Choe Byung-yol, said.
Prosecutors investigating the fundraising practices of political parties during last December's presidential election in which Roh narrowly upset a conservative candidate have raided units of South Korea's two largest chaebols.
On Monday, prosecutors turned up at a unit of the country's largest conglomerate, Samsung Group. Last week, they knocked on the doors of a unit of LG Group, with the similar aim of investigating links between politicians and business leaders.
In mid-October, Roh called for a referendum on his rule and ordered the funding probe after news emerged that a close aide had taken 1.1 billion won (US$915,100) from the scandal-tainted SK Group. Several other Roh aides have since been implicated.
The Grand Nationals insist that only an independent investigator could hold an inquiry free of interference by the administration. Choe apologized last month when it was revealed that the GNP had received 10 billion won from SK last year.
But Prime Minister Goh Kun said last week the government would try to wrap up the political funding investigation soon to minimize the impact on an economy hit hard by labor unrest and a liquidity crunch at the country's top credit card company, LG Card Co.
Roh, a former labor lawyer, called for the referendum to be held in December, saying that, if he lost, he would step down just one year into his fixed single five-year term.
But discussion of the referendum -- let alone preparation for the unprecedented confidence vote -- appears to have died a quiet death amid the scandal investigation and political squabbling.