Unhappy ending for next president?
Political parties are jockeying for the presidential race in December. However, they are losing sight of a broader issue of revising the Constitution to end the single-term imperial presidential system.
Korea’s last nine heads of state had unexceptionally unhappy endings to their presidency. Syngman Rhee went into exile. Park Chung-hee was assassinated.
Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide. Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were jailed for corruption and sedition charges by their successor Kim Young-sam. Corruption involving the children and cronies of pro-democracy fighters Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung marred their leadership.
The previous four presidents since 1988, Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, were kicked out of the parties they had led. Their family members, relatives, and cronies were putt behind bars on charges of accepting bribes and influence-peddling.
President Lee Myung-bak might be no exception. An investigation of his elder brother Rep. Lee Sang-deuk is pending. Rep. Lee has declared he will not run in April’s general election following the arrest of his long-time aide for taking bribes. The President’s right-hand man Choi See-jung, chairman of the Korea Communications Commission, is also a target of the probe. A few of the President’s in-laws are either behind bars or under investigation.
Moon Sung-geun of the Democratic United Party and a loyaist to the late President Roh has threatened to impeach President Lee after the parliamentary election in April.
The President has been unable to promote social harmony. Lee will be remembered as one of the worst presidents for his crony-oriented personnel management. He has been consistent in installing cronies in key government posts.
Former National Assembly Speaker Kim Won-ki says the imperial presidential system is responsible for the unhappy ending of Korean presidents. He says the president has become a source of tension between regions and classes rather than the symbol of integration and unity. The National Assembly is in limbo during an election year, as parties are looking for snatching the “great power” (daegwon in Korean).
Roh had proposed the so-called one-point Constitutional revision to change the form of government during his time but failed to get a consensus.
Open debate is necessary to review whether Korea's five-year single-term presidency is the best fit. The current system is the byproduct of political compromise in 1987 to preclude the possibility of authoritarian rule.
Korea is one of four countries in the 34-member OECD that adopts this presidential system.
Korea had revised its Constitution nine times. The changes were made either by the arbitrary power of authoritarian leaders or through political compromises.
Skeptics argue there is not enough time to rewrite the Constitution. But former National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-o has already completed a study on the constitutional amendment. He proposed alternative power-sharing systems to the current imperial presidential system.
Three options are on the card. One is power sharing between the president and the prime minister. Under this decentralized system, the prime minister would come from the majority party. The president would be in charge of national defense and diplomacy. Germany and many other countries adopt this system. Another option is the parliamentary system whereby the prime minister is the head of state.
The third option is to introduce a U.S.-style presidential system featuring a maximum two terms and a running mate. Under the five-year single-term presidency, the incumbent head of state is unable to chart a long-term strategy.
Kim Choong-nam, author of “The Korean Presidents,” says in his book that nation-building is a long-term phenomenon and that the five-year presidency is too short. It breaks the political process into discontinuous and rigidly demarcated periods, leaving no room for the continuous promotion of long-term policies. He adds that the limited time frame constrains the government’s ability to make good on the promises it made in order to be elected. He notes that if these promises are far-reaching, including major programs of social change, the majority may feel cheated of their realization.
Under the single-term presidency, national goals and policies change, sometimes in opposite directions. For example, President Lee scrapped the engagement policy with North Korea, putting inter-Korean tensions at a new high.
Lee also felt a sense of urgency to refurbish the nation’s four main rivers during his time in office.
The average tenure of presidential staff and Cabinet ministers is around one year.
Presidential candidates need to pledge the revision of the Constitution to replace the current imperial system with one that would lead to a sharing of power. The new National Assembly could revise the Constitution so that the amendment could be put to a national referendum on Dec. 18. People could vote twice on the same day for a president and for constitutional revision. The new Constitution could come into effect under the next head of state after 2017.
The next president, to be elected in December, will face the same unhappy ending of his or her predecessors unless the unworkable power structure in the Constitution is revised.
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. Contact him at email@example.com.