[Outlook]Political ceremonies lend meaningPresident Roh Moo-hyun gave a speech on Jan. 23. On the same day, the president of the United States also gave a speech.
The U.S. president holds a State of the Union address before Congress early every year, a tradition originating from Great Britain.
However, there is a huge difference. In Great Britain, the Queen only reads a report written by the Cabinet. In the United States, the federal Constitution stipulates that the president has a duty to inform Congress about the state of the union and ask for its opinions on policies.
Since 1790, when the first U.S. President George Washington gave the first address, U.S. presidents have never skipped their State of the Union addresses.
That is because the address is not the president’s individual statement but is viewed as a national institution that is the president’s responsibility to carry out.
Thus, a U.S. State of the Union address is a political event that symbolizes the division of power between Congress and the president. First, the president receives permission from Congress before delivering his address.
At the beginning of every year, Congress sends an official invitation to the White House.
The venue for the address is the House of Representatives, which represents the people, not the White House, the president’s residence, or the Senate, which imitates the Senate of ancient Rome.
This is because the president’s State of the Union address is regarded as the White House’s courtesy to the people.
A guard at the House briefly introduces the president to the speaker of the House as “the president of the United States,” without specifying the president’s name when the president enters. This also demonstrates that when the president carries out his or her rights or duties according to the Constitution, he or she is not acting as an individual but as an institution.
During the president’s speech, he or she gets applause at several different points, but figures of the judiciary, who attend as guests, do not applaud during the speech.
It may look like a discourtesy to the president that members of the judiciary have their arms folded when all others applaud the president. But such behavior symbolizes the political neutrality and the independence of the judiciary, which does not support certain political views. Seeming disrespect for the president is respect for democracy.
High military officials, including joint chiefs of staff, refrain from applauding when the president talks about domestic political affairs, not issues of diplomacy or defense.
That is because soldiers take pride in not intervening in politics.
These examples show that democracy is not about loud speeches or debate. Through quiet tradition, ceremonial events and etiquette, democracy is inscribed in people’s minds.
The Korean president also gives speeches on the state of the administration. However, there is no refined system that symbolizes the separation of the three powers. The president’s speech is a special occasion that may or may not take place, depending on the Blue House’s decision.
That’s why the president gave a speech on a Constitutional revision on Jan. 9 and another on Jan. 23 at the Blue House, the president’s home ground, instead of at the National Assembly. He did not prepare scripts in advance but spoke impromptu before TV cameras. All major broadcasters aired his speeches instead of popular TV series, a holdover from authoritarian eras. This made the president’s words that he has successfully abandoned authoritarianism sound empty.
The ruling party did not mind working as his attack dogs shortly after the president entered office. But at the end of the presidential term, the same party attacks the president. Korean political parties have notoriously short lifespans, but that is not because of a single-term presidency. It is because the National Assembly cannot keep the Blue House in check. In the National Assembly, the ruling and opposition parties are busy fighting. Such a malformed parliament results from the tradition of the unification of the three powers. That means the president creates and fosters a party, instead of a political party producing the president.
There are many more urgent issues than a revision of the Constitution.
It is undemocratic to presume that to have presidential elections and National Assembly elections in the same years is a very critical issue.
The president and the administration have been obsessed with grand discourses on history and national identity, while they are ignorant about precious democracy in everyday life.
Instead of talking about such grave issues, the administration should turn the president’s speech to the people into a refined ceremonial event that declares and symbolizes the separation of powers. This is the first step that they need to take when implementing reforms.
*The writer is a professor of international relations at Kyungsung University.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Gweon Yong-lib