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Can A Constitutional Revision Fix South Korea’s Presidential Woes?

November 9, 2016

By Jongbeom Choi

avarabannerpicfinalOn October 24, South Korean President Park Geun-hye proposed a constitutional amendment to replace the current five-year, single-term presidency. Although 80 percent of the current Parliament Members agree on the need for reform, many opposition leaders accused Park of attempting to divert attention from a developing power corruption scandal involving an old-time acquaintance, Choi Soon-sil, a “Rasputin-like figure” widely seen as Park’s secret adviser, that has seen the president’s approval rating drop to a historic low of 5 percent (1 percent among those in their 20s and 30s).

South Korean President Park Geun-hye

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has proposed a constitutional amendment to replace the current five-year, single-term presidency. Photo/Flickr user Republic of Korea

Surveys suggest that an overwhelming majority of South Koreans support the need for a constitutional revision, but the timing of Park’s announcement has largely been viewed negatively. She proposed that she would revise the constitution by the end of her term in February 2018. However, many are skeptical that the current administration will not have enough time and political support to implement such a grand plan.

The announcement comes at a particularly difficult time for the Park administration, not only for recent revelations about Park’s questionable advisor,  but because they are also still facing extreme criticism from the public regarding a lack of national safety measures that led to the tragic sinking of the Sewol Ferry in 2014, as well as for excessive suppression by the national police against public criticism of the administration’s performance. Meanwhile, Korea is struggling with a number of domestic challenges, including youth unemployment, which climbed to 12.5 percent earlier this year; a rapidly aging society, which is estimated to see 40.7 percent of the population over 65 by 2060; and one of the lowest fertility rates (1.19) in the world.

In fact, this is not the first time the nation has debated constitutional reform for presidential terms. The current five-year, single-term presidency dates back to the 9th amendment of the constitution in 1987, and since then, 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. Given all of these political struggles, why do politicians, and the public, still feel constitutional reform surrounding the presidency is necessary?

The biggest and most obvious argument for reform surrounds the inability of any administration to achieve long-term national policy impact in just one term. In a recent blog, Benjamin Ascione from Australian National University, points out that 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 for the long distance,” he writes. This also means the current system does not allow time for public feedback on proposed legislation, and the ability to then adjust the policies to reflect the societal need.

Many also argue that extending the term would help prevent overly centralized power of the presidency. The five-year, single-term presidency originates 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, and also gave the president the right to appoint a large portion of the National Assembly, which ensured a permanent majority for the ruling party. After his assassination, two more amendments were made until the current 9th version of the constitution, countering this centralized control by cutting off the possibility of re-election and limiting the term to five years.

Looking at the current political situation in Korea, its unique presidential system does seem to have its flaws. For example, late confessions are being made by members of the parliament, the Blue House, the press, and conglomerates that they already knew about the recently revealed scandal of the president far in advance, but the issue was left mostly untouched for the past four years. What some refer to as an “Imperial Presidency,” which lacks any interim evaluation or checks on power, may have led to the current crisis, ultimately allowing an estimated $200 million per year worth of national policies to be planned or influenced under the direction of Choi Soon-sil.

Many now say that lessening the power of the president can be achieved through a change in the presidential system that will ultimately lead to an improvement in the state of democracy in South Korea. (In 2015, South Korea’s status as a “full democracy” on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index was lowered to “flawed democracy” status.) Freedom House also gave South Korea a downward trend arrow in 2015. Those international expert analyses may continue to decline if improvements to the system are not made in the near future.

Although gaining political momentum may not be an option for the current president, some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle see the political scandal currently gripping the nation as an opportunity to reform a presidential system. Whenever it happens and whatever form it takes, maintaining long-term national policies and improving government transparency is essential to lead South Korea forward.

Jongbeom Choi (JB) is The Asia Foundation’s Program Assistant in Korea. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

This post is a look ahead at the issues examined in the forthcoming Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: The Future of the Rebalance—Strategic Recommendations for the Incoming U.S. President on Foreign Policy Towards Asia. The Asia Foundation’s quadrennial project convenes a series of closed-door, high-level working groups of Asian and American thought leaders across the Asia Pacific that culminate in specific foreign policy recommendations for the incoming U.S. Administration to coincide with the U.S. November presidential election. Read more.

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