[Viewpoint] Korea’s lame ducks

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[Viewpoint] Korea’s lame ducks

If there was a practice of giving special privileges to our former presidents, how would our history be different? Would former President Roh Moo-hyun have gone up to Owl Rock and leapt to his death? Or would he be writing his memoirs at his home in Bongha Village, South Gyeongsang? If we had such a tradition, former President Chun Doo Hwan wouldn’t have had to go into self-imposed exile at Baekdam Temple and he probably wouldn’t have had to face a National Assembly hearing and be scolded by then Representative Roh, a political rookie at the time.

It is, of course, a sensitive issue as to how far we can go in providing special treatment to a former president. It would be impossible to allow illegally accumulated wealth to be held. If the special treatment was allowed to cover up influence-peddling scandals, such as the Kim Dae-jung administration’s money-for-summit scandal, as well as the alleged corruptions of the presidents’ sons and relatives, the public wouldn’t accept it. And if the special treatment was too generous, then a president wouldn’t hesitate to be corrupt during his term.

Since Korea introduced the single, five-year presidency in 1987, no president has avoided scandals that became crises in his fourth year. That is the reality that prompts the “what if?” questions. All our presidents have been embarrassed by relatives’ corruptions and repeatedly offered apologies. The apologies were not accepted, and they were brutally attacked by rival politicians and became paralyzed. It is the routine course of a Korean president. It didn’t matter whether the ruling party was conservative or liberal. Former President Chun was confined, while former President Roh Tae-woo was imprisoned. Former President Kim Young-sam was obsessed with the arranging of a pardon for his son.

When Roh Tae-woo announced the June 29 Declaration in 1987 to introduce the democratic presidential system, it was a scenario created by Chun Doo Hwan to support Roh’s victory. But the situation has worsened since then, and incumbent presidents face serious crises at their term’s end and before power is handed over to the successor. At the end of his term, Kim Young-sam had to endure a doll representing him being beaten and burned at a campaign event of the ruling party’s presidential candidate.

Presidential terms are, in fact, shrinking faster and faster. Roh Moo-hyun faced impeachment only one year into his term, and Lee Myung-bak faced candlelight protests about U.S. beef imports right after his inauguration, forcing him to seek the public’s sympathy by confessing his difficulties.

The vicious tradition of attacking the incumbent doesn’t only shorten a sitting president’s term. When a president-elect is despised by his predecessor, it hinders the process of transition. Even an ordinary office worker benefits when his or her predecessor hands over the job gracefully. Without that, he or she suffers from the start.

At the beginning of the Lee administration, a Blue House aide was furious, complaining that the presidential office was completely empty. He said all the documents were gone. It was unclear what should be sent to the government archives as confidential and what should be handed over to the next government. But when a predecessor believes his successor will look for weaknesses in his records, he will never hand over the documents.

Even if the records are forcibly seized, it won’t help the successor greatly. It’s most important to have the records and a description of the subtle details not written down, particularly on foreign affairs and North Korean issues. That’s why an amicable transition is extremely important.

Kim Dae-jung sometimes invited former presidents to the Blue House and listened to their opinions. It didn’t seem to be effective because the former presidents attended the event in a group and had a public discussion. It appeared to be a political show. Even so, since the Kim presidency, no such meeting has taken place.

The attempt by former President Chun to be treated as an elder statesmen, perhaps to play the role of an abdicated king, is undesirable. But it is a national waste that each administration is isolated and every five years all the work of the previous administration is reversed.

It’s the president’s fault that he became a lame duck. Although his aides may be responsible for hanky-panky or the implementation of wrong policies, the president appointed them. But we cannot blame any individual president for an identical crisis repeating every five years.

The rapid decline of power is a reaction to the mighty power of the president. The valley is deep because the mountain is high. Even if the ruling party has the majority in the legislature, it can’t do much if the power of the president is weak.

That is why politicians prepare for the next presidential election immediately after a new president is elected. During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, those who argued that the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement was crucial for the country’s economy completely changed their view after they become the opposition party and now fiercely protest it.

It all comes down to the reality that we have to reconsider the presidential system adopted in 1987. Without tying this issue to a presidential election, it will just become a futile debate. But once again, the possibility seems high that we will lose the opportune time for the most important discussion because politicians are too busy chasing votes.


The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin-kook
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