Is South Korea Ready for Constitutional Change?

기사승인 2017.05.17  21:32:08


- Heated debate surrounding the South Korean Constitution Amendment

ON OCTOBER 24, 2016 the former South Korean President Park Geun-hye proposed to amend the 1987 Constitution, which restricts the elected president to serve up to five years, without being re-elected. Park’s proposal included the amendment of the current Constitution to allow presidents to serve two terms, instead of one. Park’s remarks have triggered controversy among the public, and even after her impeachment, the issue is still widely discussed among major political parties.

The Process to Constitutional Amendment
Constitutional amendment is the process of altering or amending a constitution by a constitutional procedure. The Constitution of the Republic of Korea has been revised nine times in total since its creation in July 17, 1948. The latest amendment included direct presidential elections, introduction of a single five-year term, and the establishment of the Constitutional Court. It also ended the military dictatorship of former presidents, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, and limited future presidents to serve only up to five years. This constitution is meaningful because it was the first agreement reached by the conservative and the liberal party. Since the reform, the presidential power has been relatively weakened, and the power of the National Assembly has increased.

What are the alternatives of the presidential system?
There are various types of presidency systems that South Korea must take into account. Park Geun-hye’s proposal for constitutional reform involved the replacement of the current five-year, single presidential term to a four-year, two-term presidency. This is the model of the current Constitution of the United States. Under Amendment XXII, Section.1, of the Constitution of the United States, "No person shall be elected to the office of President more than twice.” This means that a president can serve up to a total of eight years if re-elected. According to Park, the two-term presidency will grant enough time for a president to secure a stable political system. On the other hand, critics argue that presidents may carry out many populist policies during their term in order to be re-elected.
An alternative to the current system is the parliamentary cabinet system. In parliamentary elections, the Parliament elects the prime minister, and the prime minister acts as the head of the cabinet. There is no clear separation between the legislative and the executive branch. The prime minister is elected as the representative of the political party who holds majority of the seats in the National Assembly. Under the parliamentary system, the executive branch is prevented from resorting to certain powers such as the majority party. Currently, countries such as Japan and the United Kingdom have adopted the parliamentary system.
The other alternative is the semi-presidential system, which is a compromise between the presidential system and the cabinet system. Under the semi-presidential system, the president takes charge of foreign affairs, unification, and defense, while the prime minister takes charge of the economy and society. The semi-presidential system, like the cabinet system, minimizes confrontation between the legislative and the executive branch, allowing the operation of a stable government. However, situations, in which the majority party monopolizes the president and the cabinet, may occur during this governmental system. Australia, France, and Greece has adopted the system.

Can political parties achieve consensus?
After the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, major political parties have been discussing the possibility of a political reform through constitutional amendment. Central political leaders agree that the presidents hold too much power under the current Constitution, which allows gateway to corruption. In order to carry out the amendment, political leaders must debate and come up with an agreement regarding issues such as reorganizing the power structure, strengthening the basic rights of the people, achieving economic reform, and decentralizing the executive branch.
Among the political parties, the *Saenuri* Party is the most willing to carry out a constitutional amendment. During the "Conference of Constitutional Amendment on Promotion of National Reform" on December 2016, major political leaders expressed the need for a constitutional reform in South Korea. The head of the National Assembly's emergency committee, In Myeong-jin, expressed that "We must promote the constitutional amendment as soon as possible. It is what the public wants." Chung Woo-taek, the representative of the *Saenuri* Party, also said, "Amending the constitution is the most important task for our party right this moment.”
Meanwhile, the People's Party also supports the constitutional reform and has adopted the presidential run-off voting system* as their party platform. The People's Party proposed a way to amend the constitution by referendum in local elections in 2018, as it is difficult to amend the constitution immediately. Park Ji-won, the head of the ruling coalition, met with former head Sohn Hak-kyu and immediately agreed to push for amendments.
However, there is much skepticism as to whether or not the constitutional amendment can really be carried out because political leaders’ opinions are often in conflict with those of their party members.
The Democratic Party is not very supportive of the constitutional amendment. The party claims that there is not enough time left to carry out the amendment before the presidential elections. In particular, the party members believe that the *Saenuri* Party has impure intentions towards constitutional amendment such as to extend the period of ruling and to switch phases of their disadvantageous situation under former president Park. Moon Jae-In, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, did address the necessity to amend the constitution, but looking at the current situation in South Korean politics, "the constitution reform before the presidential election is simply impossible." Critics argue that the constitutional amendment may only be used as a tool to restructure political forces, rather than reducing future political corruptions. Constitutional amendment is only possible when political parties reach a consensus.
According to Lee Hyo-won (Prof., Dept. of International Commerce), “Most people agree on the need for constitutional amendment, but opinions on the direction of reform vary. I think it is necessary to look for the most appropriate constitution of our country. At the center of power restructuring is the establishment of a political system that can effectively regulate the authority of the president.”

* * *
The constitutional amendment is necessary in today’s society in order to mitigate corruption and decentralize the power of the president. It should not be simply carried out under personal or political interests. The public should carefully watch the pledges and policies related to the constitutional amendment that the candidates of the presidential election set forth.

Box 1: Procedures for the Constitution Amendment
Article 128 [Initiative]
(1) A proposal to amend the Constitution shall be introduced either by a majority of the total members of the National Assembly or by the President.
(2) Amendments to the Constitution for the extension of the term of office of the President or for a change allowing for the reelection of the President shall not be effective for the President in office at the time of the proposal for such amendments to the Constitution.
Article 129 [Publication]
Proposed amendments to the Constitution shall be put before the public by the President for twenty days or more.
Article 130 [Majority, Referendum]
(1) The National Assembly shall decide upon the proposed amendments within sixty days of the public announcement, and passage by the National Assembly shall require the concurrent vote of two thirds or more of the total members of the National Assembly.
(2) The proposed amendments to the Constitution shall be submitted to a national referendum not later than thirty days after passage by the National Assembly, and shall be determined by more than one half of all votes cast by more than one half of voters eligible to vote in elections for members of the National Assembly.
(3) When the proposed amendments to the Constitution receive the concurrence prescribed in paragraph (2), the amendments to the Constitution shall be finalized, and the President shall promulgate it without delay.
*Runoff voting system: This system takes place in two rounds of voting. The first round is processed in the same way as majority election. A candidate that receives a specified proportion of vote is elected immediately, without a second ballot. However, if none of the candidates receive an absolute majority, and the winner of the second round of voting is elected.

Kim Ji-hye

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