[Viewpoint] No way to bypass the legislature

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[Viewpoint] No way to bypass the legislature

Leaving the fate of Sejong City in the hands of the public is a risky bet. As Seoul’s mayor, Lee Myung-bak was a vehement opponent of the 2005 legislation to build a second administrative city in Chungcheong, pledging that if he could he would raise an army to stop the move.

He supported action to overturn the legislation, but the Supreme Court ruled in November of that year that the creation of Sejong City would not totally decimate the capital and endorsed a plan to move the prime minister’s office and nine other government offices that were unrelated to security and foreign affairs.

The president would be challenging the Supreme Court’s ruling if he were to attempt to detour the recalcitrant legislature and let voters decide whether his plan to make Sejong City a high-tech and corporate hub passes muster.

The opposition will likely hit the ceiling and demand impeachment, a motion that needs approval by half of the National Assembly members. It would call on members of the ruling party who publicly oppose the president’s new proposal to join in. Whether or not the motion goes through, the process itself could be a fatal blow to an administration that is only midway through its five-year term.

The Supreme Court is partly to blame for the Sejong City mess. The National Assembly passed the law on the new city in March 2005. If the court had ruled against the legislation, as it did on President Roh Moo-hyun’s original capital relocation plan, it could have saved the nation from today’s bitter controversy.

Seven out of nine justices determined that the plan to move most government agencies to the new city would not break up the capital’s function. They argued that the president as well as key political and administrative organs and the key security-related and external affairs authorities - the unification, foreign and defense ministries - should remain in Seoul. The offices bound for the city 110 kilometers (68 miles) south of Seoul were mostly concerned with the economy, welfare and culture. The Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Knowledge Economy would be located in the new city, but other key financial policy-making institutions, like the Bank of Korea and the Financial Supervisory Commission, would stay put in Seoul.

Two justices, however, opposed the plan, saying it would undermine the capital’s function. They argued that the government offices subject to the move make up 73 percent of all government organs and account for 68 percent of the total government budget. Moreover, the administration would naturally be fragmented with the president in one city and the prime minister and the economy-related ministries in another.

I side with the two minority voices. But the city plan nevertheless won the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval. In seeking a direct vote on his proposal to revise the city plan with a corporate focus, President Lee argues that relocation of government agencies could undermine Korea’s well-being. The move may not undermine all of the capital’s roles, but it would disrupt administrative operations of state affairs.

Former presidents and prime ministers, along with a host of civilians, including myself, agree with the president. But such a stand is against the Supreme Court’s ruling. The court has backed the idea, saying administrative management won’t be affected if key political, administrative and defense functions remain in Seoul. The Supreme Court is the highest authority on the Constitution. A ruling goes on record and influences decisions to come.

The Supreme Court is not the only challenge. The president must confront the legislature. Whether right or wrong, the Sejong City legislation is the lawmakers’ creation. If it needs fixing, it should return to its originators. But if bypassed by a referendum, the lawmakers are likely to be angry about the weakening of their authority to make laws. They may rush to the Supreme Court to win that power back.

If the court takes the case, the president could be held responsible for trying to override the legislature. Moreover, a referendum can serve as a vote of confidence in the president. Those opposed to the revised plan may vote in favor of the president’s proposal simply to show support for the president. That means the vote would not be a credible test of opinion on Sejong. A public vote is an authoritarian, risky idea. That’s why the U.S. Constitution does not provide for referendums at the federal level.

A legislative process to pass the revised plan is an uphill battle. But no matter how difficult the climb may be, that track is the only way to resolve the Sejong City question.

President Lee Myung-bak alone can’t do it. He will need his partner Park Geun-hye for the climb. The other paths may look easier and shorter, but are headed for dead ends that would leave the administration staring straight into the abyss.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin
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