[VIEWPOINT]No more 'great supreme' leaders

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[VIEWPOINT]No more 'great supreme' leaders

Some would contend that to say the Korean government is run by a "supreme leader" is anachronistic since this suggests a dictatorship or authoritarian ruler. This would be the same if we call the head of the Korean government a consul, governor-general, chieftain or generalissimo. These terms refer to a leader who sits on the people, rules over them and exercises sovereign power over his nation.

The Korean translation of "president" is daetongnyeong, "supreme leader," to which is affixed "great." So the governance of a country whose sovereignty rests with the people is under "great supreme leadership." The presidential system originated in the United States, and daetongnyeong was adopted as a translation of the word "president" into Chinese, but the reverse translation would not be "president."

Asian countries began translating Western thinking and ideas in the middle of the 19th century. Translation of the word "president" into "great supreme leader" in Chinese characters first appeared in the written Treaty of Kanagawa between Japan and the United States in 1854.

In 1844, however, the Qing Dynasty used Chinese characters whose pronunciation was similar to that of the word "president" in English.

Korea also used the same transliteration for "president," starting in 1876, with the signing of the Treaty of Ganghwa, a one-sided pact between the Joseon Dynasty and Japan. The use of the Chinese transliteration was in official documents until 1901.

Linsho Miskuri, who translated many English legal terms into Chinese characters, first translated "president" into the Chinese characters for daetongnyeong in his 1873 publication on the French constitution, drafted in 1791, and other constitutions legislated during this revolutionary period. Afterward, King Gojong of Joseon Dynasty used "daetongnyeong" when he was briefed by Hong Yeong-sik, on his return from his sojourn to the United States.

The United States also used the Chinese characters for daetongnyeong in diplomatic papers it sent to King Gojong in 1895. Yu Gil-jun, one of the late Joseon Dynasty scholars who advocated a selective acceptance of Western ways, said in his book "Seoyugyeonmun," published in 1895, that the leader of the United States, where people exercise sovereignty, is not a king but a "daetongnyeong." Seoyugyeonmun is the account of the scholar's experience in the United States and introduces Western customs. "Daetong-nyeong" appears in the constitution legislated in September 1919 by the Korean Provisional Government established in Shanghai. The constitution states that Korea shall be under a presidential system.

The power of words greatly influences people's thinking. Language is the vehicle through which the packaging and distribution of ideas is made. Those who seek to overhaul society try to gain hegemony of language to control ideas. Sometimes words are distorted from their true meaning.

In Korea, the original meaning of "president" has been bleached due to the slow progress of political awareness of the people. In a constitutional democracy the president is of the same rank as the president of the Constitutional Court, the speaker of the legislature and the chief justice, and represents the nation overseas. But in Korea, the president is as the Chinese characters denote: the "great supreme leader."

The former Korean presidents seemed to regard themselves as supreme leaders, misusing the right to grant parole as soon as they were sworn in. They committed the mistakes of not listening to advice and trying to tailor the thoughts of people and intellectuals for their purposes. The reason all our former presidents have been regarded as "failed" presidents is that they have taken the wrong path, which inevitably led to their doom.

The people also harbor the misunderstanding that the president has a free hand in almost everything. Therefore, all the people are desperate over the result of presidential elections.

Intellectuals and experts do not try to persuade the people, they appeal to the president. The police, prosecutors and the court, who should monitor social order by enforcing laws, wait for the decision of the president instead of following legal protocol. That the president is omnipotent is an anachronistic way of thinking. The constitution of Korea does not allow the president to exercise such power.

The press uses the term daegweon, which literally means great power, to address the president. We must amend the meaning of the word "president" to emphasize "servant of the people" before we hold another presidential election.


The writer is a professor of constitutional law at Seoul National University.

by Chung Jong-won

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