‘We need a new governing and election system,’ says Woo
The National Assembly passed the appointment of Woo as the new secretary general on June 21. The former three-term lawmaker met with the JoongAng Ilbo on June 22 in his office to discuss a wide range of political issues.
A native of Gwangyang, South Jeolla, Woo was first elected to represent his hometown in 2004 as a member of the Uri Party, a political experiment established by the late President Roh Moo-hyun. He was reelected for two more terms and ran as a candidate of the Minjoo Party of Korea in the April 13 general election. However, he was defeated by a rival from the People’s Party, newly found by Ahn Cheol-soo.
A graduate of Chonnam National University’s law school, Woo passed the bar exam in 1990. He entered politics in 2004 at the recommendation of then-Justice Minister Kim Seung-kyu of the Roh administration. Kim was Woo’s hometown friend. After becoming a lawmaker, he served as the chairman of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly from 2014 to 2016. He also served as the chief policymaker and floor leader of the Minjoo Party.
In the interview, Woo expressed his strong support for a change in the Constitution to introduce a new governing system, adding momentum to the latest drive to end Korea’s five-year, single-term presidency. He also discussed the political arena’s latest reform initiatives.
Asked about his defeat, Woo said he had many shortcomings. “I was not enough,” he said. “I was a little too arrogant. I worked hard in the central party, but I was mistaken that voters in my district would understand my work. It was a miscalculation. I should have done my best for my district until the end, but I couldn’t.
“It may sound lame, but in my defense,” he said,“in Gwangju and South Jeolla, the People’s Party was extremely strong. Those who supported me urged me to leave the party, but I told them that I would not act like the captain of the Sewol ferry, who escaped the ship first and deserted the passengers on board.”
Woo said the Minjoo Party of Korea is something of a local establishment in the Honam region, which comprises Gwangju and North and South Jeolla provinces. “The voters think they supported us several times to reach 90 percent, but we failed to meet their expectations,” Woo said. “The voters were disappointed that we failed to win the presidential election while we continue to serve as lawmakers. The changed of sentiment in Honam was the punishment for that.”
Woo said the primary goal for the Minjoo Party will be winning the next presidential election to satisfy voters in Honam.
After losing the April election, Woo had planned to leave for Johns Hopkins University as a visiting scholar, but he was then named secretary general of the National Assembly.
Woo is a well-known advocate of the constitutional amendment. His master’s degree thesis in 1991 focused on the parliamentary cabinet system of Germany. During the 19th National Assembly, he served as a chief representative of the lawmakers’ group that was pushing for a constitutional amendment. He also wrote three books on the subject.
Shortly after his appointment, Woo said in a radio interview that a referendum must take place next April with a by-election. While many politicians began raising the issue, Woo’s argument was by far the most aggressive.
“The 1987 system was a temporary system,” he said. “[Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil] agreed that the direct election of a president to a single term should be temporary because such a system has its limit, and that limit was passed long ago.”
The last constitutional amendment to be passed was in October 1987 to end the country’s decades-long authoritarian dictatorships and introduce direct presidential elections. A single-term, five-year presidency was introduced, and the president’s right to dismiss the National Assembly was abolished.
Woo said the public’s daily troubles will be resolved when politics operate smoothly. “How can the people’s lives get better when politicians are always fighting?” he asked. “Fights are unavoidable in our politics. It’s almost instinctive thanks to the 1987 system.”
Woo denied the operation of the system is the issue, as opposed to the system itself. “We experienced it for 30 years. We changed the operators endlessly. Korea replaced nearly 50 percent of the lawmakers in every election,” he said. “But nothing has changed. This shows that the problem lies with the system itself.”
Among the 34 OECD member countries, Mexico and Korea are the only winner-takes-all presidential democracies, he added. “The United States is a federal system,” he said, “Chile is planning a constitutional amendment and the other 29 countries are parliamentary systems.”
Asked about his proposal to hold a referendum next April, Woo explained the logic behind the timetable.
“I demanded a constitutional amendment after I became a lawmaker, and many lawmakers also did,” he said. “The Blue House always considered an amendment, but realistically, passing a constitutional amendment as soon as you become president is unrealistic. The president doesn’t want to lose power. And at the end of one’s presidency, you cannot talk about a constitutional amendment because of the next
“So for the past 12 years, we only talked about change behind closed doors. It became a presidential pledge, but was never realized. The president will become a lame duck around April of next year. Strong contenders will start to appear. That’s why the April by-election is the Maginot Line.”
While Woo promotes a cabinet system, public surveys show that the people want a U.S.-style presidential system.
“Of course, we must respect public sentiment, but a different conclusion can be found if we study more. A four-year presidency with the possibility of reelection is a unique U.S. system,” he said. “Karl Loewenstein, a political scientist who is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in constitutional law, made a very sharp comment that any country that imports the U.S. presidential system will taste the kiss of death. All countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America that have tried have all failed, with no exception.”
Woo then turned his attention to the 18th National Assembly’s failed attempt to amend the Constitution.
“I was the chairman of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee at the end of Lee’s term,” Woo said. “Rep. Lee Jae-oh, [a key confidant of President Lee], came to me for the constitutional amendment. President Lee realized successfully performing the job was extremely difficult under the current system, so the Blue House wanted to make a change. But there was already a strong presidential frontrunner. Park Geun-hye was the chairwoman of the ruling party at the time.”
Asked if the 20th National Assembly will succeed this time, Woo became sanguine.
“I don’t know what the Blue House is thinking, but we have a different National Assembly now,” he said. “The ruling party is largely outnumbered by the opposition. The Saenuri Party overwhelmingly agreed to the need. The Blue House cannot do much in the remaining 18 months. It’s natural that she will become a lame duck next year. I think by now, the Blue House knows the president cannot work properly under the current system.”
Woo said the trigger is the Blue House.
“Acting Chairman Kim Chong-in of the Minjoo Party proposed a special committee, and floor leader Park Jie-won of the People’s Party agreed to it. Saenuri floor leader Chung Jin-suk is just a little hesitant,” he said. “I think the ruling party did not have enough communication with the Blue House on this issue. If the Blue House just says ‘okay,’ then we will see a flood of discussion.”
Woo added that with this constitutional amendment, Korea should try to introduce a new governing system as well as new election system. Recently changed basic rights regarding information and communication, as well as environmental issues, should also be reflected, he said, along with more measures to reinforce local autonomy.
Quoting a 2013 survey, Woo said Korea’s social conflict is the second most serious among OECD member states, after Turkey. He then cited political scientist Arend Lijphart concerning the power structure of a country that has serious social conflict.
“He said cooperative governance is the key,” Woo said. “Germany and Austria were ridden with social conflict. Although parliamentary democracy was difficult, they established the constructive vote of no confidence.
“Germany’s prosperity is because of the superiority of its system,” Woo said. “We are a great people, but the limit of our system has worsened. The time has come to end it.”
BY KIM JIN-KOOK [firstname.lastname@example.org ]