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Korea - Constitutional Revision

South Korea on 17 July 2020 celebrated the establishment of its Constitution 72 years ago. He said the revision should be done before the 2022 presidential election. During the main state event at the National Assembly, the parliamentary speaker proposed revising the Constitution, which was last amended 33 years ago. The speaker said ruling and opposition parties need to discuss the issue as soon as the coronavirus pandemic lets up. National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug said South Korea's constitution does not represent the spirit of the time anymore.

"The zeitgeist of the current constitution revised in 1987 is democratization. To remove authoritarianism, it focuses on ensuring the five-year single term presidency and the basic rights of freedom. Now that 33 years have passed, the current constitution of the past generation cannot fully reflect the spirit of the time.... The issue of the nation's power structure was already discussed sufficiently during the [previous] 20th National Assembly and only a decision is left to be made."

The main opposition United Future Party(UFP) interim leader Kim Chong-in said he is open to discussing a revision. The opposition leader, however, hinted at his preference for a parliamentary-cabinet system led by a prime minister.

The fate of the president's proposal for amending the Constitution was decided in the negative. With the situation back at square one, the pressure on lawmakers was raised to see if they keep their promise to come up with a proposal within this year especially with the mandate of the special parliamentary committee coming to an end in June 2018. The Cheongadae wanted to hold a referendum on amending the Constitution alongside the June local elections. But that proposal was met with some opposition in Parliament.

Opposition parties boycotted the vote during a plenary session on 25 May 2018, resulting in a lack of a quorum. Only 114 of the 288 lawmakers in the National Assembly took part in the vote -- far short of the two-thirds majority required to pass. "Although the president's proposal has been turned down, progress is still being made at the National Assembly. The rival parties need to quickly reach an agreement to craft their own proposal. We formed a special parliamentary committee on the matter and held talks for a year and a half. As speaker, I am sorry that it led to nothing."

This was the legal deadline for parliament to vote on the president's proposal as the Constitution stipulates that a vote be held within 60 days after the bill is put forward. President Moon Jae-in submitted his proposal on March 26th. It entailed changing the current five-year presidency to a four-year term that's once renewable, also, promoting decentralization and strengthening basic rights. The president's bill was widely seen as a means to pressure parliament into quickly crafting a proposal of its own.

President Moon Jae-in's proposal for constitutional revision was submitted to the National Assembly on 26 March 2018. The revision proposes a four-year, two-term presidency replacing the current five-year single term. It also lowers the legal voting age to 18 from the current 19 and grants more autonomy to local governments. The government included changes to respond to a public outcry over the high concentration of power in the presidency and the corruption seen to result from that.

The president's power will be curtailed, while the prime minister and the National Assembly will be given more power. Policy sustainability will be ensured by giving presidents the opportunity to seek re-election by implementing a four-year, two-term presidency. The new system will be applied starting with President Moon Jae-in's successor; the government's proposal stipulates that Moon's term will end, as currently scheduled, on May 9th, 2022. The government's proposal will have the Presidential and local elections take place concurrently, starting four years from now, the general election serving as a mid-term evaluation.

When the South Korean Constitution was last amended in 1987, the President's term of office was limited to five years with no possibility of reelection. That stipulation was put in as South Korea came out of a long period of military dictatorship. The special advisory council on the Constitution under the Presidential Commission for Policy Planning has completed its final draft of a proposed amendment bill 12 March 2018. At the core of the amendment is South Korea's government structure -- the introduction of a four-year, two-term presidency. Currently, South Korean presidents serve a single, five-year term, and there have been debates that this limitation hurts chances of long-term policy continuity and leaves presidents as lame ducks before their terms run out. Another revision is on the nation's capital, which is not stipulated in the current Constitution. The council said it is looking to add the capital by legislating it through law instead of directly stipulating it in the Constitution. Some other issues include decentralization of power. boosting regional autonomy so that municipalities can co-prosper with the capital area, as well as boosting people's basic rights such as rights to safety, healthcare and information.

South Korea's rival parties failed to reach a compromise over how to revise the Constitution regarding the country's governing structure. During a plenary meeting of the special parliamentary committee on constitutional revision and political reform on 06 March 2018, the ruling Democratic Party(DP) repeated its demand for a four-year, two-term presidential system, while the largest opposition Liberty Korea Party(LPK) continued to insist upon a dual executive system. Representative Choi In-ho of the DP dismissed the dual executive system as an unrealistic option, saying the National Assembly does not have an environment conducive to choosing a prime minister. Representative Chong Jong-sup of the LKP argued that merely adapting the current system will not reduce the power of the president, calling for a constitutional amendment that reduces the power of the president.

As long as the basic law bestows omnipotent power on the president, there is no way to prevent arbitrary rule and extreme opposition, lame duck syndrome and corruption of aides. The presidential power in South Korea is stronger than that of any other countries, deserving to be called an “imperial” presidency. The executive branch has steadily expanded its authority over the years. It now overshadows the legislative function of the National Assembly which has little authority.

Because the present Constitution was hurriedly written in the wake of the 1987 pro-democracy movement, several provisions do not fit reality or have proven to be inadequate to cope with evolving developments. The executive branch has steadily expanded its authority over the years. It now overshadows the legislative function of the National Assembly which has little authority to check the chief executive. Annual inspection of the administration and interpellation of cabinet members are just about all the power the enfeebled legislature currently has.

Surveys suggest that an overwhelming majority of South Koreans support the need for a constitutional revision. A poll in October 2016 by Gallup showed that about 54 percent of 1,033 respondents were in favor of the change. Some 40 percent preferred the two, four-year presidential term scheme like the US , while 24 percent supported the dual executive system and 16 percent the parliamentary Cabinet government plan.

Those who insisted on keeping the existing Constitution intact claim that many of the problems seen by revisionists stem not from flaws in the basic law but from its mismanagement. But since the present Constitution was adopted in 1987, South Korea had elected six presidents, each with a five-year single term. But, five of them suffered unfortunate experiences involving their offspring, if not themselves, in the closing days of their tenures.

The five-year, single-term presidency originated from the historical sentiment aimed at preventing a military government from abusing the law for long-term rule. In 1972, under then president Park Chung-hee (who is the father of the current president) the 7th constitutional amendment took away limitations on re-elections after his six-year presidency.

Past prime ministers and presidents, including Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak, have proposed various options such as a four-year, two-term presidency, a semi-presidential system, or a cabinet system. But all of these attempts failed, due in large part because they were proposed when administrations were nearing their end, and more often than not, surrounded an unrelated politicized circumstance.

The scandals that often take place late in the president’s term seemed to underscore the need for constitutional amendment. No one was free from scandals in their final years. Roh Tae-woo was put behind bars. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung saw their family members and aides arrested for taking bribes. Roh Moo-hyun jumped to his death amid a probe into corruption allegations surrounding him and his family. Lee Myung-bak’s term was marred by graft, stock price manipulation and other scandals involving him, his brother, his former company and major conglomerates.

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 February 2006 Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan said a constitutional revision to allow for a two-term presidency is necessary before the 2007 presidential poll. The prime minister said the envisaged revision should be applied from the next administration. Lee was responding to ruling Uri Party lawmaker Lee Ki-woo’s question on whether the revision was necessary. The prime minister also stressed the need to sort out discrepancies in the current electoral system, which comprises a single-term, five-year presidency and four-year terms for parliamentarians, with local elections held in between parliamentary polls. Lee argued that a constitutional amendment to allow for a two-term presidency was needed due to the difficulty of stably overseeing state affairs within a single five-year term.

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, some 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.

By 2016 there were a number of proposals being discussed among constitutional amendment advocates. One is adopting a semi-presidential system in which a president wields power over foreign affairs while a prime minister and the cabinet are in charge of domestic affairs. France has a form of this system. Another idea is to follow Britain’s Westminster system. Yet another alternative is the U.S.-style presidential system that allows a president to seek a second term and to shorten the term to four years. Some said said revising the current winner-takes-all single member-district system for parliamentary elections should have priority over revising the constitution. Under the current single member system, only a candidate who won the most votes from an electoral district becomes a lawmaker, and votes cast for other candidates are ignored.

Calls to change the system had been made for years, but they gained new impetus from the power abuse and influence-peddling scandal involving President Park Geun-hye and her close friend Choi Soon-sil.

National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun repeated calls for a constitutional revision, saying that it is a historical task that must be fulfilled by the 20th National Assembly. Amid widespread debates on the need to weaken the so-called "monarchical" presidency, Chung said many people agree on the necessity of a constitutional revision. Chung said the Constitution needs to be revised to change the current political structure in which power is centralized into a new one that will ensure the coexistence of the central and provincial governments. He also proposed the introduction of a multiple-seat electoral constituency system and a new proportional representation system which he said will better reflect the public's opinion.

The assembly speaker said 13 July 2016 that there was a need to break outdated frames that have ruled society in order to improve politics and present new visions for the country. Chung said that there is a strong demand for overhauling the national system through a new constitution, stressing that it’s time to reflect rapid changes of the times and prepare for the future. He said that many people also agree to a constitutional revision and that the political circle is ready to answer the calls.

On 24 October 2016, South Korean President Park Geun-hye proposed a constitutional amendment to replace the current five-year, single-term presidency. The single five-year presidency forces South Korean presidents to focus on legacy issues from their first day in the office. Rather than having time to build consensus and listen to the views of the opposition and a cross-section of the community they are elected to represent, the race to pass legislation, institute new programs, and leave their mark on history has become more of a sprint than a marathon.

The National Assembly launched an ad hoc panel entrusted to amend the Constitution in January 2017. The Special Committee for Revising the Constitution, elected Lee Ju-young of the ruling Saenuri Party as its chairman, planned to hold the first of a series of public hearings.

The National Assembly had planned to draw up a proposal to revise the constitution by February 2018. The goal was to have the bill prepared for submission to parliament by March 2018 and ready for a full floor vote in May 2018. A dedicated bipartisan committee was expected to speed up discussions in November 2017, after the National Assembly was done with its audit of government bodies in October 2017. Public debates could be held on contentious issues, to take into account the voices of constitutional and governmental institutions. If all goes according to plan, a referendum was expected to take place in June 2018 in tandem with local elections.

The members of the parliamentary committee agreed to expand fundamental human rights and bolster the self-government system, but the central government structure was a main disputed point. President Moon's Democratic Party (DP) camp prefered a US-style four-year, two-term presidency, while the opposition bloc was in favor of a semi-presidential system that empowered the prime minister to take control of internal affairs.

Four parties - the Democratic Party of Korea, the People's Party, the Bareun Party and the Justice Party - backed the major and medium constituency system that can facilitate a multiparty system, but the Liberty Korea Party [LKP] was against it. The Liberty Korea Party, the splinter conservative Bareun Party, and the minor opposition People's Party leaned towards a semi-presidential system under which the president would be responsible for foreign and national security affairs while the prime minister would be responsible for domestic affairs.

The proposed constitutional revision would split the president’s current duties. The president, chosen by popular vote, would be in charge of the nation’s external affairs, such as foreign relations and national defense, while a prime minister chosen by the legislature managed internal affairs. Pending amendments to the Constitution will focus on limiting presidential authority, as part of efforts to ensure executive power is shared with the prime minister and to root out corruption. The New Year's Press Conference was held 10 January 2018 in a free-style manner -- with neither questions nor questioners chosen in advance. President Moon said the Constitution, last revised thirty years ago, is no longer up to the task of upholding the thoughts and rights of the people today. He called on the National Assembly to reach agreement soon and reiterated his determination to hold a national referendum concurrently with local elections scheduled for 13 June 2018.

"The Constitution is a bowl that holds the daily lives of the people. Our people's thoughts about the government's responsibility and role and the people's rights have changed dramatically from 30 years ago. We cannot uphold the thoughts of the people with an old constitution that is 30 years old," the president said in the opening speech during his new year's press conference. "Holding the vote on a constitutional amendment along with the local elections is a promise we made to the people."

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Page last modified: 13-09-2021 14:44:24 ZULU