Constitution must be changed, says Park

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Constitution must be changed, says Park

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President Park Geun-hye gives a speech at the National Assembly on Monday in which she proposed a constitutional amendment to replace the current five-year, single-term presidency. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

President Park Geun-hye on Monday proposed a constitutional amendment to replace the current five-year, single-term presidency, an abrupt 180-degree change in her position - and a possible attempt to divert attention from a scandal surrounding a longtime friend.

“As I look back on my three years and eight months in office, I felt deeply that a few changes of policies and reform initiatives are not enough to fundamentally resolve the problems we are facing right now,” Park said in a speech at the National Assembly.

She said a new framework is needed for the country’s sustainable advancement.

“Because the next presidential race begins the day after a presidential election, extreme political conflict and confrontation have become a part of our daily lives,” Park said. “A vicious cycle of political fighting to win the next presidency, not to serve the people, is repeated.”

Admitting that the current five-year, single-term presidency leads to major policies being altered or discontinued - even making a consistent foreign policy nearly impossible - Park said it is imperative for the National Assembly to introduce a new governing system by revising the constitution.

Park said she has discouraged discussion of a constitutional amendment in the past because she wanted to concentrate all her efforts on the country’s security and economic challenges. “But I have thought deeply and reached the conclusion that the discussion cannot be delayed any further,” she said.

Park defended the timing of her abrupt proposal by saying now is the best time to amend the constitution. She said most lawmakers support the need to change the constitution and about 70 percent of the public wants such a change.

She made clear that the amendment will be made under her initiative and before her term ends in Feb. 2018. “Starting from today, I will accept the demands of the public and National Assembly for a constitutional amendment as a state project and start preparations to make the change,” she said. “In order to amend the constitution before my term ends, I will create an organization inside the government and draft a bill.”

She urged the National Assembly to create a special committee to amend the constitution and decide on the scope of the change.

Park included constitutional change as an election pledge during the 2012 campaign, but since taking office has repeatedly stressed that the timing is not right because there were more urgent challenges including the economy and North Korea’s nuclear program.

Since April 2013, Park has repeatedly called the constitutional amendment as a “black hole” that will absorb all other pending issues and forbade any attempt to discuss it. “We cannot be sucked into a black hole,” she said at a press conference in January, “and I cannot even dare to mention the constitutional amendment because we cannot see beyond our nose right now.”

When her loyalists in the ruling Saenuri Party started discussing the need for a constitutional amendment earlier this month, the Blue House again shot the idea down. As recently as Oct. 12, presidential spokesman Jung Youn-kuk said the president’s position remained unchanged.

Her position abruptly changed as a need for a political breakthrough arose over recent weeks. Due to a snowballing influence-peddling and corruption scandal involving her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, her approval rating plummeted to its lowest-ever level of 25 percent.

The last constitutional amendment was passed in October 1987 to end the country’s decades of 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. The single term was meant to prevent any drift to authoritarianism.

Replacing the 1987 system is an idea that has been pushed by many leaders but never succeeded.

Park shot down attempts by two previous presidents to amend the constitution. President Roh Moo-hyun proposed a constitutional amendment in January 2007. Park condemned him by saying, “What a bad president he is. The people are unlucky.” Park, a presidential frontrunner at the time, treated Roh’s proposal to introduce a U.S.-style presidential system as an attempt to keep his party in power.

President Lee Myung-bak also promoted the need to amend the constitution in a Liberation Day speech in 2009. The idea, aimed at ending bitter partisan battles and to introduce a power-sharing arrangement between the president and the prime minister, gained support of many lawmakers at the time. Park adamantly rejected it.

Following Park’s speech, the ruling Saenuri Party enthusiastically welcomed her proposal. The opposition Minjoo Party of Korea and the People’s Party, however, questioned Park’s motives.

“I was reminded of her father [the late President Park Chung Hee]’s constitutional amendment for his third term,” Minjoo Chairwoman Choo Mi-ae said. “It seems like a conspiracy to extend her administration.”

In 1969, the strongman Park Chung Hee amended the constitution to allow himself a third term. The bill was voted through by the National Assembly without opposition lawmakers’ participation.

“The president herself should be excluded in the discussion of a constitutional amendment,” Choo said. “I am not opposing the constitutional amendment itself. I am opposing the timing.”

Moon Jae-in, former chairman of the Minjoo Party and a presidential frontrunner, also questioned Park’s agenda. “I wonder if the time has come that we need a black hole now,” he said sarcastically.

Rep. Youn Kwan-suk, Minjoo spokesman, said the main opposition party cannot happily agree with the president’s political proposal. “Her proposal is out of the blue,” he said. “There is a strong suspicion that she is trying to clear the air to cover up the corruption scandals involving Choi Soon-sil and Woo Byung-woo [Park’s senior civil affairs secretary].”

Ahn Cheol-soo, former chairman of the People’s Party and a presidential hopeful, also suspected that Park is diverting attention from scandals.

Presidential senior secretary for political affairs Kim Jae-won said Monday that Park has ordered him last month to start preparations for a constitutional amendment. He dismissed the opposition parties’ criticisms on the timing. “We considered it for a long time,” Kim said. “It is not something you can propose overnight… It’s not something that will influence the prosecution’s investigation. That’s an unnecessary worry.”

“She made the specific order at the end of the Chuseok holidays,” he said, stressing that the president must lead the initiative. “A constitutional amendment can be proposed by the president or more than half of the sitting lawmakers in the legislature,” he said. “While observing the discussion at the National Assembly, the president, of course, can sponsor a bill if necessary.”

He said the Blue House has created a basic draft of the amendment and it was reported to the president, but refused to share it with the public. Kim also said Park does not have a specific system in mind to replace the current presidential system.

“In the past, Park supported a four-year presidency with a two-term limit. But the National Assembly’s composition right now does not allow her to propose a political system and push it forward. Right now, we do not have a specific plan.”

Of the 300-member National Assembly, the Saenuri Party occupies only 129 seats. A constitutional amendment requires at least 200 lawmakers’ supports.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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