[OUTLOOK]A crisis of Korean democracy

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[OUTLOOK]A crisis of Korean democracy

Now that the president has announced a plan to put his leadership to a public test, who wins the political contest is no longer important. We have to look at the current situation as a crisis of Korean democracy. Having criticized the Korean presidential system as lacking responsible leadership, we appreciate President Roh Moo-hyun’s initiative to let the citizens decide his career, taking responsibility for a series of corruption scandals involving his aides as well as his nosediving approval rating. But no matter how urgent the situation might be, democracy grants legitimacy only when law and order are respected.
The president wishes to be accountable for regrettable incidents, but he cannot avoid criticism for being irresponsible unless he uses the right means and procedures. His introduction of a national referendum is arbitrary at best, and it is absurd to think a vote of confidence could override the constitutional clause that prescribes a five-year single-term presidency.
Korean citizens expect of our president a responsible, reserved execution of power and powerful, effective state management at the same time. Having experienced all sorts of evils that consecutive authoritarian regimes produced in the past, citizens call for a realistic, responsible and reserved chief executive.
At the same time, we can rightfully ask for powerful leadership to deal with pending issues such as the economic slump, labor relations, education and housing policies, and the nuclear threat posed by the North. Korean democracy has been put to the test to create a leadership that can satisfy the complex demands of the citizens.
Before prescribing a one-time extreme measure of asking confidence from the citizens in an effort to overcome the multilayered predicament at once, the president needs to understand what the citizens are asking for. What we need most is the wisdom to solve the problem by principles based on common sense and to follow common sense and reason.
Above all, the Constitution of the Republic of Korea has a “responsible prime minister system” to secure the term of the president while preventing absolute authority, guaranteeing stable state management, and protecting the rights of citizens and the National Assembly.
Instead of holding a national referendum, the president should acknowledge the merits and benefits of the existing system defined by the constitution. A year ago during his campaign, he had promised the full introduction of the responsible prime minister system. Before it is too late, Mr. Roh should spur reform by establishing the system to bring about responsible politics. The Grand National Party candidate also had promised to promote the responsible prime minister system, so Mr. Roh should use the bipartisan interest as a breakthrough for gradual political reform.
The constitution defines “checks and balances” with separation of powers as a precaution to the loophole of the presidential system. But the executive and legislative branches failed to form constructive checks and balances, as many Korean presidents monopolized power. Before proving himself different from his autocratic predecessors, Mr. Roh is igniting more turmoil by bringing up the unprecedented idea of a national referendum on his leadership. Hopefully, the meetings between the president and party leaders over the weekend could sever the vicious cycle of distrust and serve as a chance to create a healthy relationship of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches. A leadership that is capable of maintaining a balanced relationship with the National Assembly can thereby have a short cut to boosting its approval rating. After all, the National Assembly is made up of the representatives of the citizens.
For powerful and effective state management, the key to success is to follow common sense and reason. An inefficient government caught up in chaos means that the president’s authority is running out. It is the nature of politics that if you grab power alone it will diminish, but if you share it with others it will multiply. Ignoring the simple truth will bring about an undesirable outcome.
The best way to amplify political power is to create a productive group management system run by a competent chief executive who shares authority with experienced partners who are trusted by the citizens. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin could reinforce his authority when he named competent economic expert Zhu Rongji as his premier. President Park Chung Hee was able to pull off an economic miracle as he welcomed prime ministers Shin Hyeon-hak and Nam Duck-woo as his partners. There certainly is a lesson to be learned.
Mr. Roh’s solution to hold a national referendum to find a way out of the chaos would be more likely to bring division rather than integration. The roots of Korean democracy are still weak. In order to nourish and strengthen the roots, we desperately need presidential leadership that values patience and tolerance.

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

by Lee Hong-koo
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