By Kim Jong-chan
There have been many forums recently in the country on constitutional change. Those forums, organized by lawmakers' groups and sometimes jointly held by academic organizations and government offices, provided an opportunity to see the campaign to materialize constitutional reform to fit contemporary Korea.
The Constitution has changed nine times since its proclamation in 1948. The last change was made 23 years ago to revive direct presidential voting, among others. A lot of things have changed since then in a society where things are diversifying faster than ever before.
There have been discussions of rights. New type of rights could be added to the agenda on constitutional change such as environmental rights, consumers' rights and information rights in this modern, 21st-century digital era.
And it could also be the Constitution's role to ensure rights for the disabled and underprivileged people and senior citizens. The grey population has grown as people live longer. Life expectancy has risen and could increase further.
Besides, it is time for the basic law to address low-carbon, "green" growth to help preserve environment and facilitate sustainable development, which has emerged as a global issue.
France has adopted the Environment Charter which says that the environment is a common asset of mankind and stipulates the rights and duties of people to attain sustainable development.
Apart from them, the 62nd Constitution Day, which falls on July 17, is expected to revive a years-old debate on whether the power structure should be changed or not. There has long been a consensus among law professors, civil groups and the public as well as National Assemblymen on the need to introduce a four-year presidency, which allows the President to seek reelection, to replace the current five-year, single-term presidency.
The single-term presidency, which tends to make a President an early lame duck, was adopted 30 years ago, following about nearly two decades of rule by former President Park Chung-hee in the 1960s and 1970s.
Amid consensus on the need for inception of the American-style presidency, discussions have concentrated on whether presidential power should be reduced or not. Critics say under the current Constitution, the President wields too much power, which makes him an emperor-like head of state.
Such an imperial reigning brought tragedies. The first President Syngman Rhee stepped down in 1960 after students' massive rallies to protest election rigging. Park Chung-hee was assassinated by Kim Jae-kyu, the nation's spy chief, in 1979, which put an end to his 18-year authoritarian rule. In the 1990s, scandals involving the presidential family made headlines in newspapers.
The introduction of a parliamentary system of government is regarded as a solution to reduce presidential power. Such a scheme, now adopted by Germany, is preferred in a long-term perspective but is vulnerable to security threats by North Korea.
It is also doubtful whether either a parliamentary scheme or combined power-sharing system would help ensure political stabilization.
The four-year presidency with the possibility of reelection will help maintain policy consistency. In addition, election of the vice president to replace the prime minister is expected to contribute to the promotion of national harmony.
The holding of a runoff election will help the president- and vice president-elect get more democratic justification.
Electoral reform under which two lawmakers or more are picked from each constituency may help ease regionally-based politics. Currently, one lawmaker is chosen from each district.
The previous Roh Moo-hyun administration scrapped a proposal to introduce the U.S.-style presidency in 2007, following an inter-party agreement to address the issue during the next government.
It was too late to rewrite the Constitution to that effect as Roh made the proposal in the last year of his five-year tenure, a time when political parties are usually bent on soliciting voter support ahead of the presidential election. There have since been no inter-party talks on specifics, including timetable.
As President Lee Myung-bak has entered his third year in office, this year might be the last chance for the Lee administration to start a push for inter-party talks to tackle pending issues facing the Constitution. And then, if things go well, ask people whether they want to adopt the new presidential system, yes or no, in a referendum next year.