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Korea - The National Assembly

The National Assembly is composed of 253 members elected in single-member local constituencies and 46 members elected by political parties for the purpose of proportional representation. The latter are meant for vocational representation. All members serve a four-year term.

The National Assembly is the venue for representative democracy. Only when the parliament gives hope to people who are suffering from economic difficulty and achieves national unity, will it be able to win public support and acclaim. Under the “majority ruling party and minority opposition” structure, sharp confrontation between the two sides could cripple the operation of the National Assembly session. It is natural that the ruling and opposition parties express different views and face some confrontation in a democratic country. The problem is that the National Assembly should be a forum for policies, not political strife, and lawmakers should demonstrate a spirit and culture of compromise essential to democracy. A generation shift in legislators means a new political paradigm and the possibility of efficient parliamentary operation, but at the same time might signal lack of experiences and coordinating capabilities.

Legislative power is vested in the National Assembly, a unicameral body. The organizational components of the National Assembly are the individual members, the presiding officers, the plenary, the committees, the negotiation groups, and the administrative organs for legislative assistance. To be eligible for election, a candidate must be at least 25 years of age. One candidate from each electoral district is chosen by a plurality of votes. Unless convicted of a crime, a member cannot be apprehended or detained without the consent of the National Assembly. A member is also exempt from liability for speech or voting performed in relation to his/her duties in the National Assembly.

The very first such election, in 1948, took place even before the Republic of Korea existed. In creating the first National Assembly, or the "Constitutional Assembly," that election laid the foundation for the South Korean state and political system. It was anything but a straightforward process, however, and thus the complex legacy of that vote remains strong today. Paramilitary forces, along with army troops, terrorized the population and brutally killed thousands over the ensuing months. This was part of a general cleansing of leftist and even moderate elements who expressed opposition to the election and to the nascent southern system coming into form. Communist guerrillas in southern Korea continued their efforts to sabotage the elections, but for the most part, they could not hinder the process of registering the people to vote.

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 was 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.

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 17th National Assembly opened its first 100-day regular session on 01 September 2004. One crucial task was that the new National Assembly prove to be productive enough to meet people's expectation. The lawmakers, many of whom were legislative rookies, should be fully aware of the faults of their predecessors and the tasks that lay before them in parliament. In the past, the regular session often degenerated into full-out partisan bickering as the ruling and opposition parties refused to reach compromise on various issues. If the National Assembly again fell into such unproductive internal strife, it will weaken the nation by imposing greater burdens on the public. The 17th National Assembly was launched amid much hoopla about “a new era” of fresh politics and non-partisan cooperation: The ruling Uri Party had wrested control of the Assembly from the conservative wing for the first time in the nation’s history, and had been expected to take the lead in practicing inter-party détente and compromise the new National Assembly was filled with fresh faces, a clear sign of a generational shift in the nation’s legislature. People expected the new National Assembly would become a productive one. But the results fell far short – to put it mildly - of original expectations.

The pro-government Grand National Party won a majority in the 18th general elections, gaining control of the National Assembly and paving the way for a full implementation of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s policies. The progressive front, represented by the United Democratic Party, New Progressive Party, and the Renewal of Korea Party, suffered quite a blow. Compared to the 17th National Assembly, these liberal parties not only have fewer representatives, but also face great confusions in party identity. The progressive United Democratic Party failed to win 100 parliamentary seats, the minimum number of seats to block any constitutional revision. The party faced great turmoil, as its leadership headed by former GNP member Sohn Hak-kyu was blamed for the crushing loss. The UDP lost nearly half of its 150 seats despite the falling support rate for President Lee Myung-bak. Some critics inside the UDP called for the replacement of the entire leadership, hinting at the intensifying conflicts among different sects.

The belated opening of the 18th National Assembly came 1 July 2008, some 42 days into the legislature’s term, as the Assembly finally opened its first plenary session. The new Assembly returned to normal operations, ending a month of legislative paralysis. A total of 283 members from the ruling and opposition parties attended the plenary session and celebrated the opening of the legislative house. But the lawmakers’ faces didn’t look bright, since the National Assembly had been adrift for more than a month. Due to controversy over the government’s decision to resume US beef imports, the body just recently elected a new speaker.

The National Assembly faced its greatest ruling-opposition ratio unbalance since the nation started the process of democratization in 1987. If the governing Grand National Party accepted all supporters of former Chairwoman Park Geun-hye and other independent lawmakers loyal to the pro-government party, it would be able to secure more than 180 seats in the legislature. There were worries that the self-righteous ruling party may control the Assembly on its own authority. The GNP must embrace opposition parties through dialogue and compromise, while opposition parties needed to shake off inferiority in numbers and engage in legislative activities more confidently. Panned as the worst parliamentary ever, the 18th National Assembly took 42 days and 89 days after the start of its tenure to respectively elect the committee leaders and conclude talks on committee membership. The National Assembly squandered away nearly three months bickering over who got the bigger piece of the pie.

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.

In the 19th National Assembly the opposition parties together outnumbered the ruling party. The 19th National Assembly failed to open as scheduled on 06 June 2012, giving rise to concern that the parliamentary absence may become prolonged. Parliamentary leadership was to be determined during the first plenary session of the 19th National Assembly, but the meeting never took place because the feuding parties failed to narrow their difference on such issues as the sharing of standing committee leadership, illegal surveillance of civilians, and ongoing media strikes. The original plan was for the ruling Saenuri Party and the opposition United Democratic Party to open the plenary session and select the leaders of parliamentary standing committees. Tuesday was supposed to mark the beginning of the 19th National Assembly, but disputes over committee leadership and a slew of other issues undermined the parliamentary inauguration. The legislators at one point pondered over the possibility of putting aside discussions on all other matters and only electing parliamentary officials at the plenary session. Following tradition, the Saenuri Party had already chosen its floor leader and deputy floor leader, and the DUP its own deputy floor leader. All they needed to avoid the delay in opening of the National Assembly was to merely rubber-stamp the nominees in the plenary session. But the DUP’s refusal to even show up for the session before the parties come to an agreement on committee leadership rendered it impossible to hold the plenary session.

The 19th National Assembly launched its last 30-day session 24 April 2016. The extraordinary session came after the floor leaders of the governing Saenuri Party, the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK) and the minor opposition People’s Party agreed to launch their last efforts to handle pending bills. Despite the gesture by the parties to get things done, some political pundits were skeptical about the result. They point out that the dynamics of the parliament had changed significantly after the general elections and some worry about the parliament’s ability to end the four-year term on a positive note. The Saenuri Party, for instance, saw its leadership collapse due to a crushing loss in the April 13th elections. The expectation was low that two major opposition parties that posted significant wins in the elections would follow the initiatives by the ruling party. The 19th National Assembly had passed 43 percent of the bills submitted to the parliament during its term. The passing rate of bills is lower than those of any other preceding parliament, and the incumbent parliament is already labeled as the worst parliament in South Korean history. It appears to be difficult for the parliament to clear its name.

On 31 March 2016, the first day of the official campaigns for the 13 April 2016 parliamentary elections and also the dawn of a thirteen-day "battle," ruling and opposition parties sent out a call for all their people to come together. All three parties call for the people to pass judgment on the current state of affairs, but the target of the judgment is different. The Saenuri Party called for judgment on the "opposition parties that hold the National Assembly back".

The 20th National Assembly began its four-year term on 30 May 2016. Ruling and opposition parties respectively held a general meeting of their lawmakers and vowed to create a hard-working parliament. However, clashes had already emerged as rival parties had differences in opinion over who would lead parliamentary committees. Saenuri Floor Leader Chung Jin-suk stressed that the 20th National Assembly must become hard-working and productive by pursuing dialogue and compromise.

In September 2016 the ruling Saenuri Party filed petitions with the Constitutional Court and the prosecution against the Assembly speaker of the Minjoo Party, alleging that he abandoned his political neutrality by supporting a motion by the opposition Minjoo Party to dismiss the new agriculture minister. The current parliamentary law did not include specific rules on neutrality except that the speaker is not allowed to be affiliated with any party while in the post.

Speaker Chung, however, refused to express regret over allowing the vote on the dismissal motion to go through, arguing that all procedures were respected. The ruling party chief, Lee Jung-hyun, had been on a hunger strike since 25 September 2016, demanding the Speaker of the National Assembly, Chung Sye-kyun, step down. According to Saenuri Party floor leader Chung Jin-seok, Chairman Lee asked his fellow lawmakers to end their boycott of the parliamentary audit and will look for another way to keep up the pressure on Speaker Chung. Speaker Chung welcomed the ruling party's decision to return to parliament and apologized for causing concern. Though the political parties would continue to clash over the Assembly speaker's recent actions it appears lawmakers can for now get back to the business of the government audit.

The unrest in politics, business and industry was mirrored by growing dissatisfaction among the public. There have been some high profile problems at Hanjin, Lotte and Samsung, but a lot of the larger problems are more structural in nature and relate to the social expectations of this generation after the era of rapid economic growth in South Korea. President Park responded by issuing a public apology for improperly sharing sensitive government documents with Choi when collaborating on some presidential speeches. The furor over “Choi Sun-sil gate” indicated a deep distrust between Park and the opposition parties.

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Page last modified: 14-01-2018 18:38:23 ZULU