Korea’s democracy looking creaky after 27 years

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Korea’s democracy looking creaky after 27 years


151 days. That’s how long the National Assembly was forced into paralysis as the ruling and opposition parties argued over the terms of a bill to investigate the Sewol ferry disaster.

Before a basic - though not final - agreement on that bill was reached Sept. 30, no legislation had been passed since May 2.

Sixty billion won ($56.1 million). That’s how much taxpayers spent for their 300 lawmakers to do nothing for four months. The 60 billion won includes salaries for lawmakers and their staffs, and rents for their offices in their constituencies.

It does not include the 1.1 billion won bonus paid to each lawmaker for the Chuseok holiday in September.

For many in Korea, the numbers are not adding up: the cost of maintaining a functioning democracy is starting to look like it exceeds the benefits when an entire legislature can shut down for months over a disagreement on one bill.

One of the biggest ripples of the Sewol catastrophe is a profound questioning of the state of Korea’s democracy, formerly a point of national pride that set it apart from other prosperous but not very free Asian nations like Singapore, Malaysia, China or even Hong Kong, where students took to the streets demanding the right to choose their leader. In the 27 years since dictatorship was vanquished by robust and tenacious street protests, has the democracy that replaced it kept pace with the progress Korean society has made in other realms like technology and the arts?

Or has Korea’s democracy let the nation down and become both a disappointment and an embarrassment?

“If we idly stand by the current, ineffective National Assembly that has failed to catch up with the progress of our society as a whole, the country could very soon face a much bigger crisis [than the Sewol crisis],” said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University.

“Before it is too late, we need to carry out a reform of the Assembly as a top priority.”

As the recent referendum over independence for Scotland showed, even the world’s oldest democracy needs constant evolution to keep up with the times. The 238-year-old electoral democracy in the United States shows similar signs of gridlock as Korea’s.

But Korea’s recent tinkering with its legislative processes has actually made matters worse. And that has led some people to call for more substantial overhauls of the system.

Korea is often credited as one of only a handful countries that achieved both rapid economic growth and a democracy through the turbulent 1970s and ’80s.

The re-introduction of direct presidential elections in 1987, which was the first time Koreans elected their leader in 16 years, planted the seeds of a greater democracy in a country that had no experience with democracy before 1948, shortly after 36 years of Japanese colonial rule came to an end in 1945.

But the dictatorship and the democracy movement that destroyed it left a stubborn legacy in a highly polarized society. On one side are the so-called conservatives: pro-business, pro-military and police, with ties to the dictatorships. Faraway on the other are the liberals, who align themselves with the democracy movement, human rights and labor unions, and distrust anything to do with the chaebol. Some liberals are unreconstructed leftists who supported North Korea over South Korea - and insist that the South’s democracy is nothing but a sham, an elaborate puppet show by the forces of dictatorship in league with the chaebol and the conservative press.

So far apart are these loyalties and belief systems that compromise - the heart of a legislative democracy - has been in short supply. It was replaced by conflict of a highly physical sort. The ruling party, which has been controlled by the conservatives for 17 years since 1987 and the liberals for 10, used its majority to push bills through the parliament without trying very hard to get the support of the opposition. The opposition cried “Tyranny of the majority!” and resorted to physical standoffs in the main chamber of the legislature, outside its doors and even outside the building, to prevent the vote process from taking place. Fists flew, red faces reigned on television broadcasts and one opposition lawmaker in November 2011 set off a tear gas canister in the main chamber to block the passage of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The lawmaker admitted he had the canister left over from his student days in the democracy movement of the 1980s.

Foreigners started calling the brawls “Korean filibusters” (although they are also common in Taiwan, due to its similar ideological divide and passionate politics). Koreans don’t like to be laughed at, especially over their democracy.

So legislators got to grips with the problem in 2012 by passing the National Assembly Advancement Act with broad, bipartisan support. It limited the majority party’s ability to railroad bills through the parliament. A contested bill can only be put up for a parliamentary vote when three-fifths of lawmakers, or 180, consent to it. The speaker is only entitled to unilaterally send bills for a vote in the case of a national emergency such as a natural disaster, wartime conditions or an agreement reached by party leaders. The advancement act engineered the need for compromise into Korea’s parliamentary process.

Not a punch has been thrown in the Assembly since. But engineering a democracy is an intricate art: solving one problem might create a bigger one, which is what occurred. After the Sewol sank in April, killing more than 300 people, the main opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), refused to pass any bills before it had an agreeable special Sewol law to investigate the sinking and the appalling rescue operation without political interference. The Saenuri, which commands a majority in the 300-member Assembly with 158 lawmakers, could not move any bills to a vote. What was intended to force lawmakers to seek compromise became an instrument used by the NPAD to indulge in some tyranny of the minority, causing the five-month parliamentary paralysis.

Increasingly agitated about the impasse, there are growing calls from hardliners in the Saenuri to revise the advancement act, which was proposed by its former party chairman, Hwang Woo-yeah.

Analysts say the Saenuri should be prudent and introspective.

“A parliamentary democracy is by definition an arduous process of negotiation and compromise,” said Cho Kwang-hwan, a former aide to the national affairs presidential secretary in the Kim Dae-jung government. “The Saenuri needs to ask itself if it merely wants to remove a barrier to its ramming through bills as it used to.”

Beyond the mechanics, there’s a philosophical gap, Cho said. “In format, we may have achieved democracy. But we still have a long way to go before we achieve a sense of democracy in mindset,” he said. “What we witnessed with the political gridlock this year was a lack of democratic principles, which merely exist as formalities.”

Constitutional Amendment

Some argue that the very basis of Korea’s democracy, the Constitution and its 1987 amendments that restored direct presidential elections after 26 years of military rule by Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, need an overhaul. The last 27 years have shown its shortcomings, they say.

The call for constitutional change has crossed party lines. Of 300 lawmakers, 148 belong to a bipartisan group that is pushing for an amendment.

Under the 1987 Constitution, a president is barred from re-election after a single five-year presidential term but is invested with vast powers.

Some are calling for a less centralized system in which a president is empowered with diplomatic authority while a prime minister is in charge of administering national affairs. They say the presidency is too powerful under the current Constitution.

“Under the current Constitution, which bestows so much power on the president, we tend to view a president as a person with omnipotent authority who can fix all evils of society,” said Cho. “And that brings all kinds of troubles.”

“At the root of the problem is the concentration of power,” said Lee Chung-hee, a professor of political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. Because of the huge authority granted to the president, Lee said, “all the political power relationships and dynamics revolve around who is going to be the next president.”

But it remains to be seen whether the momentum for constitutional change will get big enough, especially in the face of President Park Geun-hye’s lukewarm response to the idea.

“It has been proven that presidents do not want any discussions on amending the Constitution,” according to Lee of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “They think it would distract and weaken their influence as commander in chief because the main political discussion will be about changing the Constitution, pushing the president off center stage.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]
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