[Viewpoint] Time to burnish the Constitution

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[Viewpoint] Time to burnish the Constitution

This year’s Constitution Day comes during an unusually gloomy time. It has been 61 years since we declared that the Republic of Korea was a democratic republic. And it has been 22 years since Koreans returned to the principle that “all power comes from the citizens,” voting for the president through a direct election.

Today, Koreans are troubled by the notion that democracy has retreated and Korean politics is beset with problems. In short, Korea’s democratic politics is faced with very serious danger. Most Koreans feel the symptoms of the crisis, but disagree on its cause and remedy. Predictably, they are split along ideological lines - lines that have become increasingly aggravated.

When everyone blames others, the fate of the nation is driven to a point of collapse. For some time, we might have been captivated by the illusion that democracy without a Constitution was possible. And so Koreans have routinely encouraged discord while being oblivious to the Constitution, the very base of the nation.

However, we can no longer let the collective evasion of responsibility continue.

It is always best to return to the basics, especially in difficult times. What we need is an official discussion of the Constitution where all Koreans can contemplate and discuss the essential framework of Korean democracy.

In time for Constitution Day in July, we are beginning to see some willingness to talk about the Constitution.

The Korea Dialogue Academy, formerly the Christian Academy, has led the discussion on the Constitution at every critical juncture in our history. It has announced a proposed constitutional revision and is having some 100 experts review the Constitution over three years.

Also, the Constitutional Studies Advisory Committee appointed by the speaker of the National Assembly is set to soon present a report on constitutional revisions.

Meanwhile, Future Korea Constitutional Research Society has begun to work. The non-partisan group with a membership of 186 National Assemblymen was organized after the 18th National Assembly session opened. But is had been inactive due to the lukewarm attitudes of party leaders.

The series of moves suggests that the best way to bring a breakthrough to the paralyzed Korean political system is to have a discussion to revise the Constitution. In doing so, we will review the fundamental values and norms of the Republic of Korea as well as the principles and rules of democracy.

I hope that a special committee on the Constitution is formed and operating when the regular National Assembly session opens in September.

Refreshing our determination to promote democracy, the ruling and opposition parties will be able to agree at once on the launch a special committee to bring politics and the National Assembly back to equilibrium.

The National Assembly should hold hearings where leaders and representatives of various organizations and classes have an opportunity to participate. They can offer responsible criticisms and suggestions for the improvement of Korean politics, and answer questions by the assembly members.

Granted, the hearings might require a considerable amount of time. But allowing for and keeping a record of the expressions of various positions and interests of the citizens will be a meaningful way to respect the principles of participatory democracy and minimizing political exclusion.

Citizens have already expressed different opinions on the constitutional revision. Korean society has gone through dramatic changes in the 21st century. Now, many of us say that the basic civil rights defined in the Constitution should be given new meaning.

The right to life, environmental rights, equal rights for women and the right to protest need to be given new weight in our evolving civil society. The constitutional clause on the economy maintaining a balance of national economic growth, stability and distribution of profits needs a new interpretation as the country is faced with an economic crisis. Some suggest that the organizational structure of the state needs a drastic overhaul to address local autonomy, decentralization of power and regionalism.

And overall, what Koreans are most interested in are the form of the government and its power structure.

Most citizens feel that it’s about time to reconsider contradictory national sentiments. We admit the evils of the system of an imperialistic president who exercises centralized power, while wanting to rely on decisions of a strong leader rather than reaching a collective decision.

It has been proven worldwide that democratic politics works best when the legislature that represents the citizens and asks the citizens to be accountable operates as the center of politics.

Koreans are not so narrow-minded to believe in a Korean exception.

Bringing together the will and wisdom of the citizens to begin a constitutional discussion is the calling of the National Assembly and it would be the first step toward reestablishing its authority and dignity.

*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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