SEOUL, South Korea – President Roh Moo-hyun (search) was stripped of his constitutional powers Friday in an unprecedented impeachment vote that rattled a government already struggling with the North Korean (search) nuclear crisis and a struggling economic recovery.
The parliament voted to impeach Roh after hours of scuffles and protests that included one Roh supporter setting himself on fire and another man trying to drive his car up the parliament steps and into the building.
Prime Minister Goh Kun (search) was to assume Roh's presidential duties, while the Constitutional Court decides whether to unseat the president. The powers include his role as commander in chief of South Korea's 650,000-member military, which faces off against communist North Korea's 1.1 million armed forces across the world's most heavily armed border.
Goh instructed the Defense Ministry to heighten military vigilance along the inter-Korean border, although the ministry said it has detected no unusual military movement.
The vote marked a spectacular setback for the 57-year-old, self-made human rights lawyer who came to office last February on a populist ticket that promised South Koreans better relations with communist North Korea and a more equal footing with the country's biggest ally, the United States.
His 13-month tenure was dogged by corruption scandals. But Friday's vote was a crowning embarrassment for the feisty, independent leader. It was the first time South Korea's parliament has impeached a president.
The matter now goes to the Constitutional Court, which has 180 days to approve or reject Roh's ouster.
In a three-line statement issued by Roh's presidential office, the administration said it would subject itself to "the judgment of history and the people" and hoped that the Constitutional Court "will make a quick decision to minimize confusion in state affairs."
Chief Justice Yoon Young-chul could not say when hearings would begin. But he called the impeachment "a matter of grave consequence" and pledged to handle it "in a speedy and precise manner."
The impeachment comes as the government prepares for nationwide parliamentary elections next month.
The pro-Roh Uri Party, which had tried to physically block the vote by commandeering the National Assembly podium from which votes are called, announced that its 47 lawmakers would resign en masse to protest.
Tensions are running high amid the deepening international standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons development. North and South Korea have had thousands of troops dug in along their borders since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Roh believes that dialogue is the only way to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons development and is a supporter of his predecessor President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine" policy of engaging the North.
"The people feel unease because the impeachment bill was passed at a time that the economy faces difficulties," Goh said. "The Cabinet and all government officials must do all they can to stabilize the people's lives and ensure that the country's international credibility will not be damaged."
Goh also issued a statement saying it was "deplorable that this kind of incident has happened" and that he "cannot but feel sorry that the nation that the situation has reached the point it has."
The opposition Grand National and Millennium Democratic parties cited three main reasons for the impeachment: Roh's violation of election laws, corruption scandals surrounding former aides and his alleged mismanagement of the world's 12th largest economy.
South Korea's KOSPI stock index tumbled 5 percent after the impeachment decision but recovered slightly to end down 2.5 percent.
South Korea's economic growth rate slowed to 2.9 percent last year, from 6.3 percent in 2002. The government aims at 5 percent growth this year, but poor domestic consumption and tensions over North Korea's nuclear crisis burden the economy.
"This crisis doesn't mean there is a problem with our economy. We have so far established an economic system that is resistant toward political upheavals," Finance and Economy Minister Lee Hun-Jai said.
Roh has yet to apologize for the flash point of the impeachment attempt: accusations that he broke election laws by stumping for the Uri Party in the upcoming April 15 parliamentary campaign.
Roh does not belong to the Uri party, but has said he wants to join.
The National Elections Commission ruled last week that Roh had engaged in illegal electioneering, but that the infraction was minor, not warranting criminal charges.
Political analysts said policy may now take a back seat to politics in next month's election.
"I worry the nation may split into pro-impeachment and anti-impeachment factions," said Lee Jung-hee, a politics professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
Even before the impeachment, Roh's credibility had been undermined by corruption scandals within his administration. In December, three former Roh aides were indicted on charges of collecting illicit funds from Samsung, LG and other big businesses for the December 2002 presidential campaign.
Roh says his campaign was far cleaner than opposition's. Prosecutors' investigations indicate the GNP amassed $72 million and that Roh's camp accepted $9.4 million.