[VIEWPOINT] Ms. Chang, please fire someone

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[VIEWPOINT] Ms. Chang, please fire someone

The impotent prime minister's office gets a new tenant. Can she change history?

During the late days of the Chun Doo Hwan administration and hemmed in by a political crisis, the president made wholesale changes in his cabinet. On the morning of the announcement, reporters visited the man who had been named prime minister. During the meeting, the prime minister designate asked the press, "Who are the newly appointed ministers?" Then, as now, the prime minister has the constitutional role of recommending cabinet appointees to the president before they are named. But the constitutional procedures have not always been followed. Even though the prime minister-designate in that story was a renowned professor of constitutional law, the procedures were not observed.

There is no other government agency or post like the prime minister's office, which enjoys a good name but has almost no real power despite being dubbed the No. 2 job in the administrative branch. The constitution says, "The prime minister shall assist the President and shall direct the Executive Ministries under order of the President." The prime minister has several powers under the constitution. He or she is entitled to recommend the appointment of members of the cabinet or the removal of them from their offices. The prime minister has the right to endorse the president's actions regarding state affairs, including the right to issue prime ministerial decrees. The prime minister shall be the vice chairman of the State Council, and is the first in the order of succession if the presidency is vacant or if the president is unable to perform his duties for any reason.

Even with such powers, what is the prime minister's stature? His right to recommend candidates for cabinet posts and to propose their removal does not bind the president. The prime minister can refuse to endorse a president's actions only if he is willing to be fired. Among administrative decrees, the presidential decrees are the most important; the prime minister's decrees lack real importance. The cabinet is a consultative institution, not a deliberative institution that binds or limits the president. Most importantly, nobody has a say against the president's power to fire his prime minister.

Taking these realities into consideration, there is not much that the prime minister can do independently. But when people criticize the Korean presidency as imperial, the response thrown back is that the constitution provides for the strict division of the powers of the president and the prime minister. We know that is not true in practice because we have just reviewed the powers of the prime minister as laid out in the constitution. The prime minister can only exercise these rights if the president exercises his presidential powers in moderation. For example, there is no constitutional problem even if the president refuses the prime minister's recommendation of a candidate for the cabinet. That in turn means that the prime minister's right to recommend a candidate is effective only so long as the president accepts it.

It would be ideal if the president delegated power to subordinate government officials, but it is unlikely, given the intoxication that power brings, for a president to do so. At the end of the day, the prime minister's office is a supplementary institution to the president, just as the constitution stipulates.

The real problem is that prime ministers to date have not even played a supplementary role. Put bluntly, they have been scapegoats: the official who takes symbolic responsibility for presidential wrongdoing by resigning. There are two other cases where the prime minister can exercise political influence. One is to veto a presidential action ?which means resigning ?and the other is acting as the president when the president is unable to perform his duties for any reason. Neither situation is a common occurrence, of course.

Chang Sang, the prime minister designate, will soon go to the Assembly for confirmation hearings. She is not paying a cheap price for being named the first woman prime minister. Cabinet members who should be replaced have been retained; and those who should be retained have been replaced. Ms. Chang's appearance is impressive, but she should bear in mind that the cabinet that she supervises is a pre-election group. Does she have the courage to fire anyone?

The writer is dean of the College of Law of Hanyang University.

by Yang Kun

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