The imperial presidency
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The essence of Blue House Senior Secretary for Civil Affairs Shin Hyun-soo’s resignation controversy is the self-righteousness of an imperial president, who believes, “Only I am right.” The greatest concern of the president at the end of his term next year is blocking the prosecution’s investigations into abuse of power by the Blue House. Justice minister Park Beom-gye correctly read President Moon Jae-in’s intention to keep Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office head Lee Seong-yoon, Moon’s ally, in his position. Justice Minister Park reportedly demanded Shin, the presidential secretary for civil affairs, stand on their side.
Believing the president’s words that “Prosecutor General Yoon was the chief prosecutor of the Moon administration,” Shin tried to mediate between Yoon and Park, the new justice minister, to help ease tension between them. But Shin ended up saying, “I am too embarrassed to serve in my job anymore.” Any hope for changes in state administration to focus on people’s livelihoods with Moon’s appointments of Chief of Staff Yoo Young-min, a former corporate CEO, and Shin, a relatively reasonable figure, collapsed.
After his defeat in the 2012 presidential election, Moon showed some humility. “It is necessary to look back whether we overly took pride in our dedication to democratization and progressive values and drew a line from people with different ideas, or we had a sense of superiority. It is the time to have a humble reflection to see if we became the so-called rude liberal,” said Moon. Obviously the rude liberals still remain the same.
In a democratic country, anyone becomes a target of investigation for committing a crime. Government figures and pro-Moon politicians are being investigated or standing trial for their alleged involvements in fabrication of data on nuclear reactors or involvement in the Ulsan mayoral election, Lime and Optimus Funds cases, Cho Kuk’s family case and charges related to an unlawful travel ban on former Vice Justice Minister Kim Hak-eui. The hidden code in the Shin Hyun-soo controversy is that this situation cannot be tolerated.
The very lawmakers undergoing investigations and trials want to install a separate agency dealing with six types of serious crimes, including corruption. In that case, the prosecution will become a meager legal body handling indictments. Reps. Hwang Un-ha and Choi Kang-wook, who motioned the bizarre bill, attacked the prosecution for launching “selective investigations.” Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk said that the launch of a separate investigation agency focused on serious crimes is “the last button in prosecution reforms.” That constitutes a state power monopoly more brazen than the Choi Soon-sil scandal that led to the ousting of former President Park Geun-hye.
Such irrationality and ignoring of the people has roots in our imperial presidency. Korean “czars” sit in the palace and make important decisions without asking people’s opinions or being checked by anyone. They are elected as a servant but reign as a boss. Most end in tragic fates. President Moon criticized the imperial presidential system when he was a lawmaker. He told Yonhap News, “The parliamentary system is far better than the presidential system. Most countries with advanced democracies have a parliamentary system. The U.S. may be the only successful example of a presidential system.”
But Moon is going the way of an imperial president. No matter how he is willing to serve the people’s will, it becomes impossible to make pluralistic decision in a faulty system.
The origin of the presidential system is the United States. One person has the powers of the head of state and chief executive of the government. There is no need for a coalition government because it is a winner-takes-all system. Actually, it is a perfect system for dictators to emerge. As Moon said, America is the only success case. The United States built the nation based on Polybius’ Separation of Powers and Montesquieu’s tripartite system, and elected the Revolutionary War hero George Washington as founding president.
When he was the chief commander, he refused a request to become a king. While he could have been practically a life-time ruler, he only served two terms and stepped down after eight years. He left the precedence of a peaceful power transition. The United States could become a state of the “democratic presidential system,” not an elected monarchy or imperial presidential system thanks to Washington’s ideals. He stands in comparison to Simon Bolivar, the Liberator who won independence of six Latin American countries from Spanish rule and became a lifetime president a generation later. Washington was different from Syngman Rhee or Park Chung Hee, who stretched their rules. Citizens of the Republic of Korea in the 21st century believe that we should have popular sovereignty. Before it is too late, we have to part with the imperial presidential system.