[Outlook]What ails the republicWhat is the state of health of the Republic of Korea? Robust, requiring attention or poor? In order to build a peaceful partnership between South and North Korea and to ensure the security and future of the Korean Peninsula in the midst of turbulent international power struggles, the Republic of Korea should be healthy enough in the first place. That’s why I raise the question of Korea’s health, especially in politics.
Instead of national harmony or unity, symptoms of feud and disruption are evident. Instead of orderly or systematic procedures, rough-and- tumble power battles are prevalent. The illness keeps getting worse by the day, with no accurate prescription or appropriate medical treatment. The situation is grave, but Korean politics, with just 70 days left before the presidential election, is still lost in confusion, hardly showing any sign of recovery. In other words, Korea’s democratic politics is facing a crisis.
The main reason for this political ailment can be found not in individual leaders and politicians, but in unfair institutions. Korea’s politics is in a quagmire, but not because our former presidents or presidential hopefuls have not been qualified. They are all able people whose love of the nation is second to none. Nor is there any reason to complain that their qualifications are worse than those of politicians in other democratic states.
The limitations of Korean politics must have originated not from personalities, but from institutions. That is, under the current institutions, a tremendous change in political power cannot be expected, whomever takes the helm. This simple fact should be made clear to Yeouido and our citizens. Unless accompanied by appropriate reforms in the system, the morass of Korean politics is likely to persist regardless of the results of the presidential election.
Democracy is built upon the principles of the rule of the majority and respect for the rights of the minority. Although we may take pride in our respect for minority rights since the success of democratization, we still expose serious problems with regard to the majority rule principle. As our political culture allows power to be concentrated solely in the Blue House, presidents with minority support have frequently ruled the government: Roh Tae-woo won the presidential election with 36.7 percent of the vote, and Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun managed to rule based on coalitions and compromise among parties with differing political ideals and supporters.
Moreover, the current institution does not stipulate any measures to make a president accountable for his deeds during his term, however great his faults or how low support from citizens falls, unless an extreme step -the voluntary resignation of the president-is taken. Therefore, the reason why irresponsible politics has been routinized lies not in the particular character or qualifications of a president but in the political system.
Just as we change our clothes in accord with changing temperatures in different seasons, certain modifications and adjustments are necessary. The recent predicament of Korean politics requires such a modification.
Next year is the 60th year of the foundation of the Republic of Korea and its Constitution, and thus a timely moment to discuss institutional reform, including a constitutional amendment. Considering that the issue of a constitutional amendment has been a highly sensitive subject in our political history, it would not be suitable to raise the issue at the end of a president’s term or immediately before a presidential election until a national consensus has been reached. Hence, prudent judgment is required of the person to lead the debate and when and how it should be held. What positions at this point should be taken by the presidential candidates and parties who seek to lead the government from next year?
They need not hurry to announce specific positions or policies for constitutional change. A responsible presidential candidate and political party should state firmly and clearly the principles for such a constitutional amendment and its schedule. Complex issues such as shifting to a cabinet system and adjusting systems in preparation for unification must be avoided now in order to not compound the flurry in the presidential election.
Each political party should provide specific suggestions for constitutional change between next year’s presidential and general elections. Such institutional reform should be completed by establishing a special committee for constitutional amendments from the start of the 18th National Assembly. Presidential candidates and both ruling and opposition parties must promise these to the citizens. That way, this presidential election can be the platform for a monumental institutional change which will bring about responsible politics.
*The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo