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Korea - Government

The Republic of Korea is governed by a directly elected president and a unicameral legislature. The Republic of Korea (commonly known as "South Korea") is a republic with powers nominally shared among the presidency, the legislature, and the judiciary, but traditionally dominated by the president. The president is chief of state and is elected for a single term of 5 years. The 299 members of the unicameral National Assembly are elected to 4-year terms; elections for the assembly were held on April 9, 2008. South Korea's judicial system comprises a Supreme Court, appellate courts, and a Constitutional Court. The judiciary is independent under the constitution. The country has nine provinces and seven administratively separate cities--the capital of Seoul, along with Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju, Incheon and Ulsan.

The constitution, proclaimed in 1948, has been revised nine times, most recently in 1987. The 1987 revision, which is regarded as having established Korean democracy, allowed for direct election of the president, but left in place a system of governance that was part presidential and part parliamentary. This mixed system has resulted in insufficient checks on executive power and an overly majoritarian legislature. These problems came home to roost and have caused continued inter-party fighting, deadlock, and public derision. Critics argued the current constitution failed to maintain a balance of power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. In November 2009, President Lee Myung-bak and Prime Minister Chung Un-chan expressed their support for constitutional revision within a year. According to a poll conducted in July 2009, 62.1 percent of respondents were in favor of amendment. More than 55 percent said the sooner revision happened, the better. The persistently dysfunctional National Assembly had convinced many that change was necessary.

The President is the head of the executive branch, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In case of the President's death or disability, the Prime Minister will temporarily act as the President according to an order of succession provided by law. The President is elected for a single five-year term by popular vote through universal, equal, direct, secret balloting. The power and duties of the President are defined in the following six areas.

First, the President, as head of state, symbolizes and represents the whole nation in both the governmental system and foreign relations. He receives foreign diplomats, awards decorations and other honors, and performs pardoning functions. Upon inauguration, he is to take the oath of his duties to safeguard the independence, territorial integrity, and continuity of the state, as well as to protect the Constitution. In addition, he is entrusted with the unique duty to pursue the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula.

Second, the President, in his capacity as chief executive, enforces all laws passed by the legislature and issues orders and decrees for the enforcement of these laws. The President has the full power to direct the State Council and oversee a varying number of advisory organs and executive agencies. He is authorized to appoint public officials, including the Prime Minister and heads of executive agencies. Third, the President, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has extensive authority over military policy, including the power to declare war.

Fourth, the President is chief policy maker and chief lawmaker. He may propose legislative bills to the National Assembly or express his views to the legislature in person or in writing. The President cannot dissolve the National Assembly; rather, it is the National Assembly that may hold the President accountable under the Constitution by means of the impeachment process.

Fifth, the President is vested with extensive emergency powers. In case of internal turmoil, external menace, natural disaster or severe financial or economic crisis, the President can take emergency financial and economic actions or issue orders that have the effect of law. The President can exercise these powers only when there is insufficient time to convene the National Assembly, and the actions or orders are absolutely essential to maintaining national security or public order. The President must subsequently notify, and obtain the concurrence of, the National Assembly. If he is unsuccessful in doing so, the measures will be nullified.

Sixth, the President is also empowered to declare a state of martial law in accordance with the provisions of the law in time of war, armed rebellion, or similar national emergency. The exercise of such emergency power is, however, subject to subsequent approval of the National Assembly.

Typically, one of the strengths of majoritarian systems is that a relatively small swing in the electorate can bring the other party into power. In Korea the President is elected to a five-year term and the unicameral National Assembly is elected to a four-year term. In 2008 these terms aligned so that, for the first time in Korea's short democratic history, a mere four months after electing a new president, the country also elected an entirely new National Assembly. Consequently, the power alignment favoring the GNP would be in place for at least four years, without the public having an opportunity to pass any kind of meaningful judgment on the party's performance.

In most majoritarian systems there is a particularly close relationship between representatives and constituents, because there is a significant incentive for constituency service in single-member districts. This close relationship provides citizens with a voice in the nation's affairs and holds elected officials accountable to constituency concerns. In Korea's case, political parties are still highly personality driven and demand almost complete factional loyalty. Consequently, a politician's success is more dependent on personal connections within the party than on constituent service. Additionally, the party decides which candidates will run for election in which district, often moving candidates into districts where they have no personal connection. This fluidity results in representatives with weak or no ties to the community they represent.

One strength of majoritarian governments is that they tend to be more efficient -- the winner-takes-all system creates clear winners and losers. In Korea there is no doubt that the GNP held the reigns of power in both the National Assembly and in the executive office, however the public had very little trust in the system's ability to check that power. Korea's long (and recent) experience with authoritarian governments and short history with democracy have resulted in a fundamental mistrust among the populace and a constant fear of a return to an authoritarian regime. This fear is particularly pervasive after 10 years of liberal rule, the conservatives -- and heirs to the authoritarian governments' legacy -- are back in power. Not surprising, liberals and progressives saw every move of President Lee Myung-bak as an attempt to turn the clock back to what they view as the bad old days.

Koreans, scarred by a colonial history and the authoritarian governments that followed, have a deep-seated fear of an overly strong central government, a commitment to the protection of individual rights, and a growing expectation that the people will play a role in the country's political and governing processes. The current Korean constitution -- by 2008 in its tenth incarnation since the founding of the Republic in 1948 -- was intended to provide a strong executive, but prohibit authoritarian leaders like Park Chung-hee (1963-1979) and Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988); hence the single, five-year term for president. The National Assembly was based on a majoritarian system, but was not supposed to yield much power or authority. However, the role of the legislature increased steadily, reflecting the society's demand for more democracy.

The 18th National Assembly, plagued by bickering since its inception in 2008, proved its inefficiency time and again and faced widespread public pessimism about the legislature's functionality. The inter-party conflict that has so frequently ground proceedings to a halt is, in fact, part of a larger debate about the proper role of the opposition in the legislative process -- a debate that is just starting to take shape among lawmakers. An important cause of the problem is the dichotomy between Korean culture, which values consensus, and the current political system, which is strongly majoritarian in its structure. The Korean public overwhelmingly wants greater consensus in decision making and the opposition parties clearly feel entitled to this power -- hence the frequent breakdown in the National Assembly. There were reform proposals that could bring more efficiency to the Korean political process, including term limits, enhanced proportional representation, primaries, two terms for president, and changes in cloture rules.




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