That leader, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, appears to be suffering a severe bout of self-doubt. Mired in the country's latest corruption scandals, the political maverick astonished the nation during a televised press conference last Friday by calling for a public vote of confidence. "I am trying to seek the people's renewed support over the accumulated mistrust because I want to manage state affairs with moral confidence," Roh said.
Though it's unclear whether a formal referendum is legal, Roh later said he might try to get the law changed to ensure a vote is taken. "I'm ready to step down if I fail to win enough confidence," he said. "It is more important to establish the political culture of taking responsibility and lead national politics in the right direction than to complete my five-year term." His colleagues certainly seemed to take him seriously. On Saturday, Roh's Cabinet and senior presidential staff resigned en masse to take responsibility for the administration's failures. Roh refused to accept their resignations.
With doubts swirling over his ability to lead, it looked like a reckless misjudgment for Roh to make a unilateral call for a show of public support. Some interpreted this bombshell and the resignation drama as desperate but calculated ploys to elicit voters' sympathy—while others merely saw them as evidence that Roh's faltering presidency is coming apart at the seams just eight months after he took office. "He's not taking the pressure very well," says a foreign businessman who once counted himself as a Roh supporter. "I can even see a scenario in which he opens his mouth at the wrong time and resigns." Says Kim Il Young, a political scientist at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul: "This is not something that happens in a normal democracy."
But he has been thwarted on almost every front. Asia's fourth largest economy slipped into recession earlier this year for the first time in five years. Roh's perceived mishandling of everything from crippling labor strikes to the North Korean nuclear crisis to relations with the U.S. has sent his approval ratings plummeting to 25.6% from 80% right after he took office. "I supported Roh because he was new and clean," says Myong No Min, a furniture-shop owner in the southern city of Kwangju. "Now I really regret it. He's not ready to be President."
Roh's biggest headache: a corruption scandal that is particularly embarrassing, given his campaign pledge to end dirty politics and his crusade to curb shady dealings among the country's powerful conglomerates. Two of Roh's closest aides are on trial for allegedly taking bribes from now defunct Nara Merchant Bank. Last week, prosecutors said they will summon former presidential secretary Choi Do Sul for questioning in a widening political-finance scandal. (It was the allegations against Choi, who resigned in August, that prompted Roh's surprise plea on Friday for the people's trust.) Prosecutors suspect Choi collected $1 million from a political slush fund allegedly set up by the giant SK conglomerate. Choi, who has denied the charges, is a high school friend of Roh and is so close to the President that he is known as "the Butler."
Roh himself has not been implicated in any wrongdoing in the Choi case (the Blue House did not respond to repeated requests from TIME for comment). But with blood in the water, Roh's conservative enemies in the Grand National Party (GNP) have been on the attack. In late September, they blocked Roh's nominee for the country's top auditor post and passed a no-confidence motion against Home Affairs Minister Kim Doo Gwan, who was dismissed last month. Lately, they've used a series of annual legislative hearings on government affairs to air allegations that Roh illegally hid real estate assets under the name of his brother, chauffeur and other relatives and friends. Last month, the opposition used another hearing to probe allegations that Roh's presidential campaign got help from nightclub owner Lee Won Ho, currently under investigation for tax evasion, pimping and ordering the murder of a gang boss. Lee testified he helped round up 600 pro-Roh voters for the presidential primary. The allegations arose after Roh's former personal secretary, Yang Gil Seung, was filmed carousing with Lee at a nightclub in June. The administration says it conducted two internal investigations and found Yang took no bribes.
Compounding Roh's problems is his increasing political isolation, which leaves him vulnerable to attack. On Sept. 29 he quit the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), ending a testy relationship with party bosses. Roh, who is now temporarily without political affiliation, is expected to join a new party formed recently by 42 renegade MDP and GNP lawmakers. That group, tentatively called the United New Party for Participatory Citizens, hopes that Roh's reformist credentials will help it win seats in the 273-member legislature during next April's parliamentary elections, possibly enough of them to form a majority coalition to battle GNP conservatives, who currently hold the most seats.