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Fresh twist in S. Korean scandal

Roh says he will not interfere with prosecutors already probing a number of his aides.
Roh says he will not interfere with prosecutors already probing a number of his aides.

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SEOUL, South Korea (Reuters) -- South Korea's mounting crisis over a political funding scandal has taken a bizarre turn when a pro-government politician said he was on hunger strike to protest against the opposition party chief's own fast.

The head of South Korea's main opposition Grand National Party, Choe Byung-yol, stopped eating on Wednesday, saying he would start again only if President Roh Moo-hyun lifted a veto of parliament's bid to name a special counsel to probe the scandal.

The president argues that more time is needed for a separate prosecution inquiry that has expanded from a probe into some of his aides to take in major "chaebol" conglomerates and opposition parties just months before an April parliamentary election.

Roh has vowed to cut ties between politics and the chaebol.

Now the chairman of the labor committee at the Uri Party, which split from the then-ruling party in September and backs Roh, has gone on hunger strike to highlight what he sees as the disruptive nature of the Grand National Party's protest.

"If Choe thought about the future of South Korea and the people he should stop and return to the National Assembly," said Kim Young-dae by telephone, referring to the single-chamber parliament that still has 1,205 bills to vote on before the end of this year's session on December 9.

All 149 Grand National Party parliamentarians, who dominate the 273-seat chamber, are boycotting the session.

"My hunger protest against Choe will last one day more than Choe's does," said Kim, who aides say is just drinking water and taking some salt. Choe is just drinking water.

South Korean politics is often tempestuous and unpredictable. Labor-related street protests can also turn violent, providing graphic images that deter potential foreign investors.

The boycott of parliament could hold up voting on next year's budget for Asia's fourth-largest economy. Political tensions also do little to help resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis.

The presidential Blue House had no comment on the hunger strikes. It said an opposition call for prosecutors to probe Roh over bribery allegations was a matter for the prosecutors.

Roh said on Wednesday he would not duck an investigation or interfere with prosecutors already probing a number of his aides.

"We have to follow democratic rules which are written in the constitution before blaming and fighting each other," he said.

"The recent political crisis due to my veto on the bill was not inevitable considering the large number of opposition party members. It's more like an illegal strike by the majority party which has no intention to yield."

That was a reference to the potential for the opposition to overturn his veto in parliament because the three parties who oppose him there hold at least two thirds of the seats.

A close Roh aide is under investigation for taking 1.1 billion won ($915,000) from the scandal-tainted SK Group.

Prosecutors investigating fund-raising practices of political parties during the December 2002 presidential election, in which Roh narrowly upset a conservative candidate, have raided units of South Korea's two largest chaebol, Samsung Group and LG Group.

In mid-October, after news emerged about his close aide, Roh called for a referendum on his rule and ordered the funding probe. The referendum proposal appears to have died a quiet death amid the scandal investigation and political squabbling.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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