An undemocratic presidency
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Yoon Seok-youl, the presidential frontrunner of the opposition People Power Party (PPP), faces controversy for a Chinese character meaning “king” written on his palm. After the controversy, one thing emerged clearly. We still live with the pre-modern perception that this country’s president is equal to a king. Although Yoon explained that a supporter had written the letter on his palm, it made no difference. Yoon’s enthusiastic fans share the perception that the president is a king in this country.
About a year ago, an opposition lawmaker likened President Moon Jae-in, who compared his experience with the democratization movement to King Taejong, a symbol of reform for the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Then, a presidential spokesman replied that, “If Moon was King Taejong over the past three years, I hope he will be remembered as King Sejong [a symbol of warm-hearted and caring leaders] in the next two years.” His remark was shameless flattery. It is wrong to compare a president of a democratic republic to a monarch even if Taejong and Sejong were great kings. And I have never heard Moon reprimand the spokesman for that remark.
Recent events are actually making me wonder what time period we are living in. Public servants were indicted one after another over allegation of manipulating an economic efficiency assessment report on the government’s plan to shut down the Wolseong nuclear reactor. After Moon asked when they were going to close down the reactor, the energy minister pressured ministry officials and the reactor was shut down quickly.
Key members of the administration frequently say that Moon is an “elected leader.” The idea that the people must submit to the power of an elected leader is an outcome of the perception that the president is the king. It is the basic principle of representative democracy that an elected official is delegated with power by the people and exercise it on behalf of them. Based on this idea, Moon aides insist that protesting Moon’s plan is against the principle of democracy.
Power delegated to an elected official is different from the absolute power of a king. An elected power is restricted by laws. In a true democracy, an elected leader acts according to the consensus and norms of a society. Those who stress that Moon is an elected leader are actually saying, “If you feel bitter, you better win the election.”
The ruling Democratic Party’s candidate Lee Jae-myung, currently embroiled in the Daejang-dong land development scandal, has only one way to survive. That’s winning the presidential election. In Korea, as the president is king, no one will dare to question any corruption the king committed earlier. Furthermore, Lee will be exempt from criminal prosecution after his presidential term begins. That’s why Lee, the Gyeonggi Governor, is trying to disguise one of the largest corruption scandals in history as “the biggest public project in history to return profits to the local government” and blame opposition politicians for the scandal.
If Lee makes a false statement during the election campaign including in a TV debate, he can be indicted on charges of election law violations. But if he wins the presidential election, it is unlikely that the prosecution will launch any probe against the presidential-elect.
Some say that the Constitution must be amended to introduce a new governing system to end the imperial presidential system. But the harm we suffer now is only the problems of operation rather than the system itself, as a wrong political culture is at the center of the problem.
“Korea’s presidential system is never imperial,” said Professor Ham Sung-deuk, well known for his studies on presidents. “We, however, had presidents who wielded powers as if they were an emperor.”
We are about to elect the eighth president since the country introduced the direct presidential election system in 1987. We must end the pre-modern spirit of an imperial president. To this end, we should exorcise obsolete ideas in our brains about a president. Candidates and voters both must do so. A president is not a king, and voters are not subjects.