Twelve years ago, South Korea’s parliament impeached the president only to face unforeseen consequences: an overwhelming outpouring of public anger. The president was the now deceased Roh Moo-hyun.
Key players in the 2004 parliamentary impeachment are back. But they are in different positions, this time.
Rep. Choo Mi-ae, chief of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, was then leading the Millennium Democratic Party pushing for Roh’s impeachment.
National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun was at that time on the floor along with his fellow Uri Party lawmakers, trying to stop the vote, though to no avail.
President Park Geun-hye, then a Grand National Party lawmaker, sat in the back row of the Assembly hall as voting took place. On photos taken that day, she is seen smiling.
President Roh was impeached on March 12, 2004 on charges of illegal electioneering. He was accused of violating the national election laws when he called for support for the small Uri Party, which backed the president.
Brawls and loud voices erupted during the voting session, as the pro-Roh Uri members occupying the Assembly hall in a three-day sit-in were removed by security guards at the order of Speaker Rep. Park Kwan-yong.
With Uri members not voting, the motion of impeachment swiftly passed in a 193-2 vote, suspending Roh of presidential powers as head of state and chief executive immediately. Prime Minister Goh Kun took charge in his stead.
Following seven rounds of hearings that continued until April 30, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the sanctioned Roh on May 14, 63 days after the impeachment bill passed the Assembly.
“(Roh’s charge of illegal electioneering) was not serious or grave enough to justify the unseating of the president,” Court President Yun Young-chul said in a ruling, reinstating Roh.
Nearly 60 percent of Korean citizens were against the impeachment of Roh, quite opposite to the current public sentiment calling on Park to resign over the corruption scandal.
According to local pollster Realmeter on Thursday, over 78 percent of South Koreans support the impeachment of Park.
But both in 2004 and 2016, citizens took to the streets to show “people power.”
On March 7, 2004, the very first candlelight vigil against impeachment on Roh was held on the streets of Seoul. Some 170 people mainly from Nosamo -- the official Roh Moo-hyun camp support group -- gathered to urge South Korean lawmakers to nullify impeachment discussion, five days before the motion of impeachment was to be put for a vote.
The rally soon gained momentum with over 500 civic groups, including the civic group People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, joining the move.
On the day the impeachment motion passed, about 12,000 people protested near the National Assembly, declaring that Roh’s impeachment was invalid. The number of people gathered to rally reached 70,000 the next day.
Weekly rallies reached their peak on March 20, when at least 200,000 people took to the streets at over 50 cities across the country, according to the rally organizer. Police put the number at around 130,000 people.
A month later, voters punished conservative parliamentary candidates with a victory for the Uri Party in the April 15 elections. The Uri Party won control of the National Assembly, tripling their seats to 152 to take a majority, thanks to voter fury against the impeachment.
By Kim Da-sol (firstname.lastname@example.org)