Korea at a crossroads

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Korea at a crossroads

A country is a living organism. It must be constantly pruned, cared for and nourished in order for it to grow strong. If the people becomes negligent in their care for a democratic republic, for which they are the legal owner, the country’s future could be endangered. An election is like a routine medical checkup to keep the country’s health in check. A health checkup that lets the people examine the state of a nation should not be passed off lightly.

The April 13 general election to form the 20th National Assembly takes place at a time when dark clouds loom heavily over the country. The geopolitical circumstances amid a changing power equilibrium and tense relations among global powers have heightened instability on the security front. The global economy that flourished through market liberalization and globalization following the Cold War is now sinking deeper into a pit of slow growth or outright recession, pulling Korea down with it. North Korea’s extreme and dangerous gamble of accelerating its development of nuclear weapons and missiles has jeopardized the entire Korean race’s future.

We have a legacy of many crises in our thousands of years of history. We need not be overly anxious or swept up in defeatism. Instead, we should hope for a new political system and leadership that could navigate us out of current stormy seas.

Our biggest trouble is that the state of the country has become too weak to triumph over the myriad problems of our age. We have already diagnosed our problem. Regardless of political and ideological propensity, generation or region, people across the spectrum have grown skeptical of the legislature and political parties who should be representing them. They have become disappointed and frustrated in the way state and government affairs are managed. The fact that conservative and liberal media reflect the same concerns underscore how broad public disgruntlement has become. Korea’s disappointment extends across the aisle.

It is a relief to see that we have not seen the usual blame game over who is more at fault in aggravating national difficulties on the campaign trail leading up to the April 13 election. The people have become politically mature enough to understand that Korean politics — or weakened social fundamentals — cannot be fixed by simply blaming the other side or replacing one set of power-wielders with another. What is more imperative is restructuring such mechanisms to retool the fundamentals of our society. The impetus to strengthen and reinvigorate the country should come from the people — the constitutionally legitimate owner of the country.

We would have hope if all concerned parties in the election refrain from slander and criticism and instead use the momentum of democracy to speed up structural reforms of state management. More than ever, we the people stand at the center of a turning point hinging on the people’s exercise of constitutional rights and obligations. A book entitled “Making We the People: Democratic Constitutional Founding in Postwar Japan and South Korea” co-authored by Professors Hahm Chai-hark and Kim Sung-ho of Yonsei University was published by the Cambridge University Press. There are two theories from this excellent research work that we should pay heed to.

First of all, the book reminds us that we the people have the ultimate authority to uphold — and fix — the constitution under a democratic constitutional system, although lawmaking is up to the legislature.

Second, the legitimacy of the constitutional rules can be decided upon whether they have been made willingly by the people or by outside influence. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was able to restore sovereignty in military power through a reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution, which was written in 1945 under the supervision of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces following Japan’s surrender in World War II. Abe pointed to the outside influence present in the making of the constitution. Korea, on the other hand, was established through a constitution drawn up by a parliament elected in a free vote in 1948 with the aspiration of building the state from the rubble of colonial rule.

Several modifications to our Constitution came about from the people’s will to strengthen democratic features through democracy movements in April 1960 and June 1987. If people are seriously doubtful of the 1987 constitutional framework in ensuring their participation in state affairs and governance, they are faced with another fundamental challenge to restore the health of the country.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Apr. 4, Page 31

*The author, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Hong-koo
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