&#91OUTLOOK&#93Elevate the prime minister's role

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&#91OUTLOOK&#93Elevate the prime minister's role

I have pointed out on many previous occasions that the confusion in Korean politics is created by Korea's presidential system in which the president is immune from any accountability. It is needless to explain how much damage the presidency has brought to the nation. Our system allows a president who holds a lot of power in his hands but who cannot be called to account to rule the country single-handedly. And Korean politics has been under such a presidential system for the past 50 years.

With the presidential inauguration ceremony and confirmation hearings for the newly appointed prime minister just around the corner, we are obliged to reflect on the issue once again.

A peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear row, as well as the renovation of battered U.S.-Korea relations, are gaining added urgency even before the launching of the new administration. For this country to work actively on these formidable tasks, a national consensus not to delay the diagnosis and treatment of our political and economic problems must come first. If we fail to draw a national consensus on which direction we will go and how to manage ourselves, how can we succeed in gaining an edge in international negotiations and win in fierce global competition?

During the financial crisis five years ago, a national consensus along the theme "We have to reform our economy" was formed in a short time, providing a starting point for structural reform of the Korean economy. The six months between Korea's advance into the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup in June and the December presidential elections created another national consensus. This time, it was: "We cannot leave our politics as they are." Even as tensions on the Korean Peninsula escalate, calls for political reform can no longer be delayed.

But reform, especially of a radical nature, can do more harm than good by splitting national opinion. People agree on the general goal of political reform, but when the question reaches the how, what and which stage, rancor and discord arise among the numerous interest groups and the different positions of various social strata. A sound democratic system at work harmonizes and integrates these conflicting voices by minimizing the divisive elements and drawing from shared values to reach common reform goals. "Concessions to achieve reform" may sound contradictive, yet harbor the political wisdom needed to guide our age.

Last year's presidential contenders spoke with a single voice in pledging to reform the "presidency without accountability," namely by bestowing the prime minister with more powers and responsibilities already codified in the constitution yet undercut by political customs. Such promises came from both sides of the aisle, rest within the established constitutional framework and therefore should easily draw public consensus. This issue has become the centerpiece and litmus test of any serious political reform drive. Herein lies the reason why the confirmation hearings this week take on a new significance, vis-a-vis past ordeals.

Strengthening the office of prime minister should signify the first step in reforming the presidency. It must be recognized that institutionalizing responsibilities and transparency while elevating the government's effectiveness can come hand in hand.

The prime minister should be assured of his full constitutional powers, specifically his right to nominate cabinet members.

In light of the recent North Korean nuclear standoff and another war looming in the Gulf region, this issue appears to have silently slid to the back burner during the past few weeks. The new president, however, must grant it his full attention and priority.

The president determines many of Korea's impressions for foreign observers. But another image that affects our national credibility is that of the cabinet. One that abounds in talent, international recognition and trust will bode well for efforts to successfully navigate these trying times.

Our nation deeply wishes for the new president to combine his efforts with those of the parliamentary and cabinet members. A combined task team may be the only recourse to whether out of the current storm.

* The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hong-koo
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