SEOUL -- Thousands of angry South Koreans held candlelight vigils across the country yesterday to protest the historic impeachment of their president. An interim head of state known as "Mr. Stability" took control, pledging to keep foreign and economic policies on an even keel.
The spontaneous evening protests were peaceful but underlined widespread dismay at a political crisis that has rattled a nation already juggling the North Korean nuclear standoff, a sluggish economy, and a tumultuous run-up to hotly contested parliamentary elections next month.
The presidential impeachment was a first in South Korea, and the vote followed hours of televised shoving matches in which lawmakers battled for control of the assembly's podium, throwing elbows and pulling hair. Security guards removed screaming supporters of President Roh Moo Hyun who tried to block the vote.
Prime Minister Goh Kun, who assumed executive powers from Roh, spoke of the need to "stabilize the people's lives and ensure that the country's international credibility will not be damaged."
In a phone call to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon said there would be no change in Seoul's policy toward North Korea and that the government would "maintain its close alliance with the United States," according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
The 66-year-old Goh, who held various posts under six successive governments, earned the nicknames "Mr. Stability" and "Master Administrator" for his ability to survive coups, unrest, and parliamentary machinations.
Goh will perform executive duties until the Constitutional Court rules on whether to remove Roh from office, a decision that could take six months. The opposition-controlled National Assembly voted yesterday morning to impeach Roh on the grounds of illegal electioneering and incompetence.
By yesterday evening, protests had erupted around the country, including in Seoul, Busan, Taegu, and Kwangju. Police estimated about 12,000 Roh supporters gathered outside the capital's National Assembly, waving candles and chanting, "Impeachment is null and void!"
Polls taken by broadcaster KBS and Yonhap news agency both indicated that 70 percent of South Koreans surveyed thought the impeachment was wrong.