Words that speak volumes

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Words that speak volumes

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorialwriter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Voting day has arrived. This presidential race run had been the most boisterous and contentious of the eight presidential elections since the direct voting system was institutionalized by a constitutional amendment in 1987 as a result of the democracy movement. The unprecedented negative campaigning went beyond mere competition to elevate hatred and hostility between the rivals. The National Election Commission (NEC) added to the shameful campaign with badly run early voting. Now that whom to vote for is no longer a question, we must ponder other fundamental questions raised during the campaign.

Phrases such as “runners for presidential power” or “race for presidential power” appeared frequently in newspapers in the last presidential election five years ago. But those idioms were rarely mentioned in this election though they did not vanish entirely. That may be due to growing social disapproval of the definition of a mighty presidential power defined in our Constitution, which does not rightfully fit a democratic republic. Such belief has finally gained ground after 35 years of democracy.

Although some contend that democracy has actually receded in this country, one thing is for sure. People are beginning to realize that a mighty presidential power and a democratic republic are not compatible. The upheavals over the last 35 years cumulated in the awakening.

Still, we have a long way to go to become a mature democracy. For instance, people casually talk about “kingmakers.” Supreme presidential power also still appears in newspapers. Language is cognitive expressions. In our heads, a president is still a de facto monarch. Language also redefines cognition. Although it might have been used as a simple English expression, referring to a person as a kingmaker cannot be appropriate. Calling someone a president-maker also cannot be right since a president is elected by the people, not a certain individual. An influential strategist and mentor in a political party can groom a candidate, but cannot make a president.
President Moon Jae-in, right, accompanies North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to an official ceremony hall at Panmunjom with the traditional honor guard on April 27, 2018. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

Recent news from the Blue House was bewildering. The presidential office said that the newly replaced presidential plane was adorned the words “Republic of Korea” in the Hangeul calligraphy used in Yongbieocheonga — the eulogy for kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), which was written in the 15th century. Borrowing something from a work glorifying monarchs cannot be suitable for a transportation means for a modern president. The matching suggests the Blue House staff’s underlying regard of the president as a monarch. Presidential aides and ruling party lawmakers used to compare President Moon Jae-in to reputable monarchs of the Joseon era like King Taejong and King Sejong.

How can we bring the presidency back to modern democratic standards? One is through constitutional reforms and the other through systematic reforms. Separation of power and institutionalization of the mechanism to keep presidential power in check through a constitutional amendment can help solve many of the adverse effects from the mighty presidential power. Although such work has been repeatedly promised in presidential races, no action followed. No president would willingly surrender the power he or she had fought for so ardently. Even if a president proposes a constitutional reform to lessen the mighty power, the opposition may suspect an ulterior motive. Amending the Constitution requires a very rigid and complicated process.

System reform will help raise the standards of our democracy, but it won’t solve all problems. Democracy involves not just a system, but the people and culture embodying it. It is unclear what comes first — the system or culture. But if democratic soil becomes solid enough across the board, reforms and system changes will be easier.

Today’s voting day should give us a chance to ponder how much we have democratized in our everyday lives.
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