[FOUNTAIN]Office politicsWe can trace the first use of the title of prime minister in Korea to 1880. On Dec. 21, according to the lunar calendar, to be precise. After the Joseon Dynasty was forced to open its doors to foreign nations, a Tongnigiguamun, or government agency, was set up to deal with foreign affairs. The dynasty's highest court official, or yeonguijeong, Lee Choi-eung, served as the country's first prime minister, or chongnidaesin. Lee Choi-eung was the elder brother of Daewongun, the father of the penultimate King Gojong and the dynasty's regent.
In a book titled "Gyeongje-mungam," Chung Do-jeon, one of the founding fathers of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), defines jaesang, which translates into a modern prime minister: "It is a post that oversees and sifts through all affairs." He goes on to add that the jaesang "serves for the feudal king while ruling over the array of officials and subjects." It is an important position, needless to say, with only the king above him and all others below. Mr. Chung was saying that since the king is an inherited position, the king may or may not be wise. But the office of the prime minister is appointive, invariably mandating that the most capable person be named. The prime minister's authority is delegated by the king, and based on that authority, the prime minister assists the king to ensure a smooth run of state affairs. Such was the founding principle on which the Joseon Dynasty, the last Korean kingdom, ruled for 500 years.
But in modern Korean history, the prime minister is an office created as a by-product of sheer political negotiations. Under the Japanese rule, the 1919 Shanghai Interim Government created the prime minister, who would be charged with the real administrative powers while Syngman Rhee in the United States acted as the president. It was a political concoction stringing together a presidency and a prime minister.
After Korea's liberation, the 1948 Constituent Assembly adopted the parliamentary cabinet system. However, Syngman Rhee, who was then speaker of the first National Assembly, opposed the idea, thus the form of government became a combination of both the presidential and parliamentary cabinet systems.
President Kim Dae-jung recently designated Chang Sang who, if approved by the National Assembly, would become the first female prime minister in Korea's history. But the fate of Ms. Chang may well be subject, once again, to political negotiations among the main political parties, an event which took root 54 years ago.
The writer is a deputy cultural editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Oh Byung-sang