[Outlook] Reviving Korea’s democracy

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[Outlook] Reviving Korea’s democracy

There has been a drastic change in the Korean power structure over the past two decades. The driving force behind it was a shift in the economic system and the democratization of the country.

Since the Asian financial crisis, large scale inter- and intra-sector adjustments and the introduction of global standards to the financial sector have spurred substantial financial liberalization and have seen huge progress in the structure of conglomerates. Now, conglomerates see no need to depend on bank loans for survival, and banks are nearly free from government interference and control over lending affairs. Households and small and mid-sized enterprises became major loan consumers, and the proportion of banks’ clientele represented by conglomerates fell to less than 10 percent.

The process of obtaining authorization from the government regarding penetration into the market has become largely transparent. In the past, the administration had an effect on the very existence of a company through a government-controlled financial system and the limitations it placed on entering the market.

However, companies have become more concerned about their reputation when analyses are conducted on the marketplace, resulting in the collapse of the cozy relationship between business and politics.

Former presidents have provided subsidies to their parties and exercised their right to nominate candidates based on funds collected from companies. They therefore enjoyed a huge influence over political parties and members of the National Assembly. In addition, they had various means to threaten major figures in all areas of society by abusing the power of investigative agencies.

The power of the president over political parties and the National Assembly has shrunk, as the close link between politicians, companies and influential regional figures has disappeared. In addition, former President Roh Moo-hyun declared that he would not make political use of investigation agencies, and such institutions have largely lost their power over political parties, the National Assembly, conglomerates, the media and the legal circle.

On the other hand, the National Assembly enjoys much more power, as rights explicitly written in the Constitution are revived. In the past, the president has degraded the Assembly to the status of lady-in-waiting for the administration.

However, the National Assembly has now changed enough to render the president and the administration ineffective in implementing their policies, and we have seen such cases occur frequently.

The rights enjoyed by Korea’s National Assembly, including the authority to inspect government offices, are as powerful as those of any parliament of any nation. Presidents had a free hand to incapacitate the National Assembly in the era of dictatorship and repression. Against this backdrop, presidents have accepted the expansion of the National Assembly’s authority as a reflection of their wrongdoings.

The cardinal attributes of the democratic political system are representation, responsibility and efficiency.

However, Korea’s current governance leaves much to be desired in terms of each of these three. Although the president is elected by a direct election and thus enjoys democratic legitimacy, he can be kept in check by the National Assembly, which is also elected by the people through direct elections. Therefore, Korea suffers doubly from democratic legitimacy-related problems than other countries, as the national administration sometimes gets stuck with enemies on all sides. State affairs lose their direction and go adrift despite the current structure of a big ruling party and a small opposition. If the opposition grows any bigger, the inefficiency of state affairs will get even worse.

The four presidents who have come to power since the democratization of 1987 have all been evaluated as failures. Have our people continued to elect incompetent presidents? Or does our national governance have fundamental flaws in its structure? It is high time to think about this issue and to explore the possibility of a more appropriate system.

Today, competition among countries is directly linked to the competence of the national government. Who become the winners and the losers will depend on whether a country copes with the dramatically changing face of the global economy in a timely manner.

Korea’s economic structure cannot and should not go back to how it was in the past. In addition, the political practices of the past should not be allowed to survive. Power must be exercised in a transparent manner.

Now, the Constitution should play a pivotal role in organizing a new power structure. The current irresponsible politics and inefficient administration should cease to exist, whether it results in a parliamentary government or a strengthened presidential system.

I believe that this is the greatest burden of the 18th National Assembly and our people as a whole.

*The writer is a professor of economics at Sogang University’s Graduate School of International Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Cho Yoon-je

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