South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun Friday stunned the whole nation with his announcement of a confidence motion.
In an emergency press conference at the Blue House on Friday, Roh said he would ask for the people's support following the conclusion of investigations over a series of political scandals involving his aides and other politicians. Referendum is one of the possible ways, said the president.
Roh's announcement came as prosecutors began a full probe into allegations that Choi Do-sul, Roh's confident aide who has been assisting him for about 20 years, took some one million US dollars in slush funds from local conglomerate SK Group.
The money was given to Choi after the December 2002 presidential election that put Roh in office. It was believed as a "reward" for Roh's winning in the election.
Roh made the decision just after he returned home from attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus Three Forum in Bali, Indonesia, Thursday night.
The former ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) said in a statement that it is a little bit embarrassing to hear such remarks from the president. "However, once the president revealed his decision, it is better for him to do so sooner or later."
The MDP asserted that if Roh reverses his decision, it will cause further political turmoil in the country.
The MDP lost its ruling party position after Roh left it in September. Roh's drop-out, which heavily hit the party, made the MDP turn its back on the president.
Earlier Friday, the country's biggest opposition Grand National Party (GNP) leader Choe Byung-yul urged Roh to carry on a national referendum if he wants to confirm the people's confidence in him.
"What other method can there be, other than a referendum, if the president wants to inquire if people still confide in him," Choe was quoted by his spokeswoman, Kim Young-sun, as saying.
However, a new political group named "People's Participatory United New Party" opposed referendum as the way to test the satisfaction over Roh's performance.
"President Roh's remarks should be viewed as his firm resolution to redouble efforts in the future to put state affairs back on the right track," said Chung Dong-chae, the new group's spokesman.
Civil groups, which were also surprised by Roh's announcement, expressed concern that it might aggravate the ongoing political struggle and further deepen national division.
"President Roh might have made the decision in agony, but it was an inappropriate remark that can fuel political turmoil and struggle," said Goh Kye-hyun of the Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice, one of the country's major non-governmental organizations.
South Korean business circle also voiced worry over the move.
"For us, what is the most important is continuing policy and stability. We really hope this situation is settled as early as possible," an official of an industrial association said.
Political analysts here say Roh may want to tough out the difficulties his administration has been facing recently by the announcement.
These include the suspected bribery case involving another close aide of Roh, Lee Kwang-jae, who heads the Presidential Office's Information and Policy Monitoring Bureau; the widening ideological rift between progressive and conservative forces on a possible combat troops dispatch to Iraq; rising real estate prices and the continuing economic downturn.
If Roh finally decided to let the people vote on his performance, he will be the first South Korean president to conduct a vote of confidence since the government of the Republic of Korea was established in 1948.
Fewer than half of those surveyed in recent opinion polls support Roh, an unprecedented phenomenon for a South Korean president who has served less than a year.
It is not clear at the moment if Roh will actually call a national referendum or no-confidence vote on his ability to manage state affairs, because no procedures exist in the law to initiate such a vote except for impeachment, which is possible under the Constitution only if two thirds of lawmakers opt for it.
While dismissing the allegation that he made too bold a decision in seeking public support, Roh said: "This is not a rash decision but an attempt to humbly accept the demands of a new era."
"How can I pursue political reform if the people perceive the president as evading responsibilities in an unclear manner?"