[NOTEBOOK]Amendment game no longer fun

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[NOTEBOOK]Amendment game no longer fun

In Korea, only recently have the politically weak proposed revion of the constitution. The first such case took place during the Chun Doo-hwan regime in 1987, when Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung - then staunch dissenters - pushed for a constitutional change for direct and democratic presidential elections to end decades of military dictatorship.

Most previous attempts to amend the constitution were seen as a means for the governing groups to strengthen their power. For example, President Roh Tae-woo and the opposition leaders, Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil, reached a secret accord in 1990 to revise the constitution to adopt the parliamentary cabinet system, citing the need for political stability; In 1997, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil, opposition leaders, made the same agreement as the condition for Kim Jong-pil's endorsement of Kim Dae-jung for president. But the promises were never kept, as these leaders canceled the pacts, arguing that people did not want the amendment.

The most recent argument for a constitutional revision is different from those in the past in that its proponents are in the political minority. Leaders of nonmainstream factions - such as Kim Keun-tae and Chung Dong-young of the governing Millenni-um Democratic Party and Kim Duck-ryong and Lee Boo-young of the opposition Grand National Party - are calling for a constitutional revision to install a four-year double-term presidency and vice presidency before the elections for heads of regional governments in June. Han Kwang-ok, the MDP chairman, and Rhee In-je, the front-runner among the party's presidential hopefuls, echoed the argument. They apparently want to woo the leader of the United Liberal Democrats, Kim Jong-pil, who said that if elected president, he would revise the constitution for the parliamentary system in his first year on the job and resign from the presidency. Park Geun-hye, a GNP vice president, also is on the amendment bandwagon.

These politicians have a common goal in their arguments for a constitutional amendment: They want to change the political situation to undermine the foundation of the strongest - the GNP leader, Lee Hoi-chang, who has the edge over all other potential presidential candidates, including those from the governing party, in various opinion polls. Mr. Lee also has acknowledged the need for a four-year double-term presidency. In an interview with a local news organization about two years ago, he said he thought the amendment was necessary, only to retract the statement soon after. He thought he should not play into the hands of revisionists, knowing what they were up to. Mr. Lee's aides oppose the idea, saying other factors, such as the vice presidency or the parliamentary system, might prevent constructive discussions. The opposition leader also said, "A revision is not urgent. The five-year, single-term presidency and the proposed four-year, double-term system have advantages and disadvantages." He simply does not want to rock the boat.

Both proponents and opponents of a proposed constitutional revision are doing their political calculations, regardless of the causes they champion. If the electorate are in favor of an amendment, advocates will have the driving force for their campaign. But a series of recent polls indicates that Korean voters do not feel a constitutional revision is urgent. With events of national significance scheduled to take place this year, including the World Cup games, Asian Games and regional and presidential elections, the time is not appropriate for rekindling the amendment debates. Overhauling the system and having presidential hopefuls promise to let the prime minister fully exercise his constitutional authority would be a better way to prevent the evil effects of an imperial presidency.

We should also consider the potential harm to the nation while an amendment is debated. Even if politicians manage to reach an agreement on a constitutional overhaul, it would take about four months to finish the necessary working-level tasks. If they really want to have serious debates on a constitutional revision, it would be more realistic for them to set up a task force, consisting of politicians, academics and civic-group activists, and let it discuss the issue after the next administration is launched.


The writer is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Du-woo

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