[Viewpoint] Electing another failed president?The president of Korea does not, in fact, have much power. While the president is often criticized for being imperial; such mighty presidential authority is a thing of the past. The law does not entrust the president with extensive power, but many previous leaders have exercised authority above the law through alliances with businesses and the unlawful operation of government agencies. As the ruling party’s head, the president used to pocket and spend the party’s funds and monopolize its nomination system.
The president once dominated the party and turned the National Assembly into his puppet. Illegal intelligence agencies pried into the political opposition, journalists and outspoken figures to threaten them or bring them down. Through a lengthy political career, the president was supported by a so-called crony group, and their unconditional loyalty was useful for political subjugations. The consultation between the government and the party was a nominal procedure in order to have the National Assembly pass the policies that the Blue House wanted.
But since the foreign currency crisis, the corporate, financial and market environments have drastically changed, and the Blue House can no longer serve as the financial sponsor of political parties. The era of crony politics ended in the Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung administrations, and the current Lee Myung-bak administration is paying a heavy price for attempting to use government agencies to suppress those critical of the government. In that sense, the Korean politics is headed in the right direction.
In the course of development, however, the actual power structure has also changed drastically. As the dynamics among the president, the ruling party and the National Assembly have changed, the legislation process has grown increasingly difficult. Even if a policy proposed by the president is beneficial, the party will turn it down if it is not likely to attract votes.
Meanwhile, the authority of the National Assembly has come alive as the law defines it. The National Assembly is entrusted with exceptionally strong authority. It has the power to inspect the national governance, and various cases that are generally processed through a prime ministerial or executive order now require its legislative approval.
Under the presidential system, the most key element for smooth national administration is cooperation between the president and the Assembly. When the Assembly has such broad authority, the president has little to do, and the link between the president and the Assembly is the political party.
The major cause of weak power structure in Korea is the vulnerability of political parties. The president and the ruling party have failed to jointly generate and share the values, principles and policies that their society pursues, and the existence of all political parties relies more on regional bases than policy or vision.
Today, the rivalry among countries means a competition of state governance structures. Whether a country can select an appropriate policy and system according to the changing domestic and international environment depends more on the efficiency of the decision-making system than the knowledge gap between countries.
For the last 25 years, Korea has made great progress in political democratization, but the policy making has gotten slower and necessary systematic reform has been delayed. While domestic and international environments are changing rapidly and drastically, Korean policies have failed to adapt to the changes amidst constant political strife and conflict.
The last four presidents since democratization have left the party and the Blue House as failures, and the incumbent president is also likely to face a similar fate. The president can serve a single term of five years, and he can lead the national administration properly for not much more than three years. The first year is inevitably a learning period as the chief executive, and for the last year, the president becomes a lame duck. In Korea, it takes a policy an average of three years from drafting to completion of the legislation process in the National Assembly. It will take even longer for the policy to take effect. A single-term president does not get enough time to get proper evaluation for their job or take responsibility for failures or mistakes before they exit.
The attention of the citizens and media in Korea is focused on who will become the next president and repeat this same experience. However, it is more important to review whether we should continue the current state governance structure, which is a byproduct of compromise between the military regime and three opposition leaders in 1987. We need to think more about what the president can do rather than who will be elected president.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is a professor of economics at Sogang University.
by Cho Yoon-jae