[OUTLOOK]The value of the constitution

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[OUTLOOK]The value of the constitution

July is the month in which Korea’s constitution was created. On July 17, 1948, with the ratification of the document created by the Constitutional Assembly, we restored our sovereign rights and inaugurated a democratic republic ― the Republic of Korea.
But as of this year, Constitution Day is no longer observed as a public holiday. I fear that this will lead to a diminution of public interest in the constitution.
Even more worrisome is the possibility that the people, disappointed and concerned about politics and the general operation of state affairs, will be tempted by the proposition that the constitution be revised, as an easy solution to current problems.
But medicine prescribed without an accurate diagnosis carries the danger of doing more harm than good. We have to keep in mind that constitutional revision is something that should not be rushed through, but considered with discretion.
Why are the people so concerned? There are many difficulties, including the sorry state of the economy, but it is the discrepancies of power and the irresponsibility of the current administration, now past the danger level, that worries people.
Irresponsible politics are becoming commonplace in our society. The constitution stipulates that power must be accompanied by responsibility. Ultimately, politics that know power but not responsibility will end in a constitutional crisis, if nothing is done. The assertion that the dissolution of the Millennium Democratic Party, which succeeded in electing its candidate president, and the sweeping defeat of the governing Uri Party in the by-elections were the responsibility of the governing party, but not the president, is more than enough to confuse the issue of where responsibility for government administration lies. Because of this, Korea cannot be spared the criticism that its democratization has failed to produce a politics of accountability.
We have made great strides in guaranteeing and enhancing the basic rights of the people, which is one of the core ideas of the constitution. But we are still confused about another core constitutional value: how to establish an efficient and democratic structure of governance.
The presidential system that has been maintained for nearly 60 years does not hold the president accountable for his decisions. Because of this, power and political leadership are prone to abuse, and, as has been pointed out repeatedly, party politics and the parliamentary system suffer. If the presidency is strengthened while the representative system, centered around the National Assembly, remains ill-defined, the president will be strongly tempted to exercise arbitrary, dictatorial power over state affairs by appealing directly to the people.
We have often been told that, with the exception of the United States, most advanced democracies ― even India, with its population of more than a billion ― have had success with the parliamentary system. Nevertheless, we have failed to change our current system, for two reasons.
First of all, the tradition of an unaccountable presidency has left the National Assembly and the political parties powerless and invalidated. This has instilled public distrust in the parliamentary system. There is a widespread sentiment that the nation’s lawmakers are even more untrustworthy than the president.
Secondly, a sense of team play in national politics is not to be expected, given our culture’s deep-rooted nostalgia for a strong national leader, and the obsession that many of our national figures have with becoming president themselves.
The public concern about politics and the nation’s uncertain future could lead to discussion of revising the constitution, as a means of easing people’s anxiety. According to an opinion poll carried out in February by the JoongAng Ilbo, 67 percent of the people believed that a constitutional revision to change the political structure was necessary.
But in the absence of a national consensus on the cure for this fundamental problem in the power structure, we should refrain from raising this possibility. The popularity of the recent proposal to adopt a four-year, two-term presidential system is a good example.
If a two-term system is adopted, the president will put all of his efforts during his first four years into getting re-elected. It is clear that state affairs would be easy prey for presidential hopefuls during that period. And if re-elected, the president would suffer from the lame-duck system from the moment he began his second term. How could this be a cure for the current system? It can’t be fixed by electing a vice president.
This is a time to reflect on the history of our constitution, and gather our wisdom. Of prime importance is maintaining a sense of continuity and legitimacy ― something that would be upheld by the preservation of the constitution, not abolition.

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


by Lee Hong-koo
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