Rethinking the Constitution

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Rethinking the Constitution

While watching the televised New Year’s press conference by President Park Geun-hye, I wondered why she presented a three-year plan for economic reform. The economy requires urgent attention. So why three years? Since the industrialization days under President Park Chung Hee, we have become used to the idea of a five-year blueprint for economic development. A five-year plan is a catchphrase for all policies as the Korean president is given a single five-year term. I thought it was strange that a president going into her second year would suddenly come up with a three-year plan.

Maybe she regrets having wasted her first year with very little to boast about. Maybe she needed specific targets. Maybe she left out the final year of her term, figuring it will be the customary lame-duck period.

While I thought this through following Park’s speech, I suddenly realized that Korean presidents really don’t have sufficient time to prove themselves.

Past track records show that presidents don’t have a lot of time to get things done. Former President Roh Moo-hyun spent nearly a year under impeachment proceedings. Successor Lee Myung-bak also lost a year helplessly watching national protests over the easing of U.S. beef imports, which became a frantic mad cow disease scare. Park is challenged by some opposition members and civic groups questioning the legitimacy of her presidential victory because of alleged dirty tricks by the National Intelligence Service and also the Cyber Warfare Command. Even without the dubious activities of those two state agencies, the opposition camp would have found some other reasons to challenge the president.

It seems to me Koreans simply hate to accept a president they didn’t vote for. It doesn’t matter if the accusations, protests and lack of acceptance hurt the country. They will eventually build up to the opposition’s advantage in future elections. These tactics are used by both the conservatives and the liberals. Once they gain power, everything turns into a zero-sum game. The lame-duck period just gets longer and longer. When can the president get some actual work done?

The legislature wants to debate a constitutional amendment to revise the five-year, single-presidential system. President Park is against it.

“Once that process starts grinding,” she said, “everyone and everything will be pulled into it.”

Her worry is understandable. She does not wish to waste her precious single term in political wrangling over constitutional reform. The economy has always been the top priority in all administrations.

But we are in transitional times. The economy is led more by the private sector than the public. The time has come to fix the wasteful time gap in elections and align the tenures of the president and the legislature.

The next presidential election is in 2017. It will be the 30th year since the country went to the polls to vote for a president in 1987, after the Constitution was amended. Can the Constitution outlive a generation?

The 1987 constitutional reform was a political compromise. The seeds for the 1987 reforms were planted by a mass democratization movement, but the fruits were reaped by Roh Tae-woo and his political opponents, the three Kims - Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil. They did not much care about the presidential term’s correlation with the terms of lawmakers. The three who aspired to become presidents one day, despite their advanced ages, made sure they had their chances improved.

The era of the three Kims is long gone. The people today have different needs and demands. The people are unhappy about their leaders’ inability to communicate with the public. President Park, commenting on public complaints about her lack of connection, rejected the notion and said that communication should not be confused with demands that go against the public interest. But few ask that much from the president.

Social issues are complicated. Many must involve compromise. A leader with a historical sense should think beyond the law and, if necessary, fix the law.

The president is wrong if she thinks she is connecting with the people by mingling with street merchants and dining with businessmen. Poring over various reports and asking questions on the phone does not make her informed about the people’s needs.

The president cannot connect if the only people she trusts are her chief of staff and senior secretaries. Even they cannot speak frankly to her, and party executives have a hard time meeting her. The problem is that policies come from the head of one person and appointments from the notes of the same person. Worse, few can complain or protest. It is not Park’s fault. It has more to do with all the mighty powers invested in the president under the current Constitution.

All the debates about political reforms point to constitutional changes. Kim Chul-soo, professor emeritus at Seoul National University and a constitutional expert, said Korean political parities remain underdeveloped because they do not have real power.

Strong presidential leadership may be important under our unique situation of being technically at war with North Korea. But we may have to seriously think about the appropriation of power if we don’t want to spend our years wrangling over issues as we did last year. The debate has been long studied. We just have to ensure that the incumbent president’s term and authority remain intact.

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin-kook

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