South Korean court reinstates impeached President Roh with bolstered mandate
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ President Roh Moo-hyun regained power Friday in a historic court ruling that overturned an opposition-led impeachment vote, giving him a fresh mandate to seek more latitude from Washington in negotiations with North Korea.
The nine-judge Constitutional Court panel ruled that Roh, impeached in March, had violated an election law but that the infraction was not serious enough to justify ousting him after one year in office. The vote breakdown was not released, but at least six justices needed to support Roh's impeachment for it to become permanent.
The verdict, watched by millions on seven national television stations, ends months of political paralysis created by the unprecedented impeachment and deals an embarrassing blow to the conservative opposition. It also bolsters Roh's policies of seeking reconciliation with communist North Korea and more equal footing with the United States.
``We have him back!'' dozens of tearful supporters chanted outside the white granite courthouse, while others festooned downtown Seoul with yellow ribbons and balloons. Villagers in the president's hometown on the south coast danced under trees decorated with yellow ribbons.
``Let's make policies that win support from the people,'' Roh said during a luncheon he hosted for his presidential staff after the verdict, according to his spokesman Yoon Tae-young.
Roh will be working with the first liberal National Assembly in four decades, one that supports him and wants a foreign policy less dependent on the United States.
Yet he will need to balance that with maintaining the traditional alliance with Washington, considered crucial for a peaceful resolution of a crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
A more immediate challenge is how to subdue opposition to his decision to send 3,600 troops to Iraq, amid rising violence there.
The main opposition Grand National Party, which sponsored the March 12 impeachment in the National Assembly, said it ``humbly respected'' the ruling.
``We offer our deepest apologies for causing unease and concern for the people over the impeachment,'' said GNP head Park Guen-hye in a news conference.
But bitterness lingered.
``To me, the verdict was a funeral song for the nation,'' said Sohn Chang-shik, 58, one of dozens of people who gathered outside the court shouting ``Down with Roh Moo-hyun!''
He feared that Roh, encouraged by the ruling, might become more dismissive in dealing with conservatives who cherish ties with Washington and want Seoul to get tough on the communist North.
Roh says he supports the decades-old alliance with the United States but wants Washington to show more latitude in resolving the nuclear standoff.
South Korea entered uncharted territory in March when Roh became the first president ever impeached by its legislature, just one year into his five-year tenure. The move humiliated Roh, agitated neighboring North Korea and drove tens of thousands of his supporters into the streets in protest.
The two main opposition parties impeached Roh on charges of minor electioneering violations and incompetence, for failing to rein in corrupt aides. Polls showed, however, that seven in 10 South Koreans opposed the move, calling the grounds flimsy and politically motivated.
The Constitutional Court had 180 days to approve or reject Roh's ouster. Friday's ruling, read by Constitutional Court President Yun Young-chul, covered three main charges against Roh _ illegal campaigning, corruption scandals involving his aides, and economic mismanagement.
It cleared Roh of the charge of economic mismanagement and the allegation he was incompetent for failing to control corruption among several former aides. But it agreed with the charge that Roh violated election rules when he spoke in favor of the small, liberal-leaning Uri party at a news conference.
In nationwide elections in April, Uri tripled its seats to take a slim majority and break the conservatives' four-decade grip on the assembly.
The reinstated 57-year-old president is now paired with a friendly assembly, a first in 16 years.
Presidential spokesman Yoon pledged the government will fulfill its promises with ``new resolve.'' Uri chief Chung Dong-young called the verdict a ``great victory for the people who wanted to defend democracy.''
Roh immediately resumed his executive duties, which had been handed over to Prime Minister Goh Kun while the Constitutional Court reviewed the case.
``This is going to show to the world that this country is not going to tolerate any influence from outside countries,'' said Seo Yong-suk, 28, who supports Roh's policy of greater foreign policy independence. ``It's just a great day for this people, a great day to enjoy.''
Seoul's main stock index rose 1.5 percent after the ruling, but shares later settled lower.