Minimize the vacuum

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Minimize the vacuum


South Korea achieved democracy at a staggeringly fast pace compared with Western societies. Emboldened by its rapid rags-to-riches transformation, civilian-led Constitutional reform was hastily established in 1987 to speed the transition from a dictatorship to a representative democracy. Korea has grown into arguably the most mature democratic system in Asia over just a quarter of a century. But a spectacular façade hid many structural problems and dysfunctions that trace back to a hasty evolution.

The current leadership crisis stems not only from President Park Geun-hye’s resorting to — and reliance on — a secretive inner circle exercising power in many realms. It can also be regarded as the structural fallout of an outmoded constitutional system. The crisis calls for immediate action to fill the vacuum in governance and leadership to prevent disorder. At the same time, it is imperative to find a solution that establishes a new political system through changes in the constitution.

What is most needed now is to minimize the unavoidable power vacuum and to resolve the current crisis.

The security and economic conditions these days cannot afford further disruption of state management. The economy is in perilous waters with challenges in deeply troubled industries and companies, snowballing household debt, and ever-subsiding domestic demand. The economy needs to be quickly retooled through an infrastructure and educational makeover oriented towards the so-called fourth industrial revolution. External economic conditions are turning more unfavorable due to increasing signs of protectionism abroad and volatility in financial markets.

Amidst the worsening geopolitical risks due to the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the United States is gearing up for a new administration under the unconventional and unpredictable President Donald J. Trump, whose leadership is expected to bring about sweeping changes in the traditional Korea-U.S. alliance on both the security and economic fronts.

Trump’s transition team has been formed. Policymakers must do their best to contact the key figures and advisory groups through both formal and informal channels as well as public and private networks. As the real estate tycoon-turned-president-elect has no experience in statesmanship — unlike his election opponent Hillary Clinton — he will inevitably have to rely on a group of experts in the early stages of his administration. It is therefore crucial to pitch to his advisers the importance of the relationship with Korea on security and the economy.

The businessman-turned-president could treat security and economic issues as a business deal between companies. The talk of making Seoul pay a bigger share in defense costs and revisiting the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement that came up during Trump’s campaign may require serious intergovernment negotiations. Considering his impromptu ways, Trump could suggest out of the blue to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a meal — a hamburger, perhaps. All this unpredictability calls for immediate restoration of state leadership and authority.

What is our best option in such precarious circumstances? Solutions other than the impeachment of the president call for her to step back from the frontlines of government and hand over her executive power to prevent a longer vacuum in leadership. This scenario could be possible if the opposition parties — a majority in the legislature — demonstrate maturity in leadership.

In order not to miss the “golden time” to come up with policy strategies to guard against multiple challenges on the economic and security fronts and avoid a lapse in executive authority during her remaining 15 months in office, a new prime minister installed in agreement with the rival parties should act on behalf of the president. The scope of legitimate power of the acting prime minister can be defined through a grand agreement between the president and leaders of the political parities without undermining the basic spirit of our Constitution before announcing the details to the people at home and abroad.

And then we must commit the 15 months to reforming our political system — the power structure under our current Constitution, the five-year single-term presidency, legislative elections and electorate systems, and the mismatching cycle of the presidential, legislative and local elections.

The country overcame the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s through national endeavors and sacrifice — including individuals’ donations of their gold — and a subsequent international bailout. In the process, financial institutions and companies endured stringent austerity and restructuring. The crisis eventually helped the nation advance.

The president, legislature and leaders of the rival parties must work together with a common and determined goal to save the country. The peaceful protest rally in Gwanghwamun Square over the weekend underscored not only public disgruntlement and fury against mainstream politics, but also how mature our society has become. It is the political leaders and politicians’ turn to show how mature and responsible they can be. We must not let another crisis go to waste.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 16, Page 28

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

SaKong Il
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