Korea’s presidency in crisis

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Korea’s presidency in crisis

Lee Hyun-sang
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The role model for U.S. presidents was once European monarchs. Though the presidents were elected heads of state, they behaved like monarchs. They did not rule as tyrants, but adhered to maintaining prestige. They thought their integrity would be hurt if they directly explain their policy. It was a taboo for a presidential candidate to engage in campaigns, including stump speeches. In 1912, President Woodrow Wilson broke the custom. In presidency, a politician and a state leader coexist. In his book “How Democratic Is the American Constitution?,” Robert Dahl, an American political theorist, wrote, “We expect them to live in both the real world of daily politics and an imaginary world above politics.”

Such disparate expectations are no different in Korea, which borrowed the presidential system from the United States. But mostly, the expectations have not been met in Korea. It could be unrealizable expectations from the start — or due to a dearth of ability, virtue and will. But Korea’s past presidents at least feigned to represent the people, not a faction. In a crusade for the big cause, Korean presidents sometimes turned their backs on supporters. They could be just feigning, but even that sort of pretension helped our presidential system.

In that respect, outgoing President Moon Jae-in is unique. I wonder if he has ever pretended to go beyond the expectations of supporters. Even his decision to pardon former president Park Geun-hye was apparently intended to help the ruling Democratic Party (DP) get more votes in the March 9 presidential election. His pledge to become a “president for all” has been gathering dust in the inauguration speech he made five years ago.

The problem is that while he avoided all risks as president, the presidency faces a crisis. After public expectations for a head of state beyond factions vanished, the presidential system itself has degenerated into an object for public skepticism.

Moon’s last Cabinet meeting at the Blue House last week exemplified the Korean presidency at crisis. The scene of the president delaying the meeting by a few hours after the DP unilaterally passed two controversial revisions to strip the prosecution of its investigative authority once and for all made the presidency look shabbier than ever. Moon turned away from the justice minister nominee’s insulting comments about his government’s “last-minute getaway” from a plethora of allegations against him and his aides to effectively defend against the incoming administration’s investigations into their dirt. The outgoing president also transferred the political burden for granting pardons to former president Lee Myung-bak and corporate leaders to incoming President Yoon Suk-yeol. Hopes for a dramatic turnaround at the last minute were dashed, as expected. Moon’s attacks on the prosecution over “concerns about the political independence, fairness and selective justice of the prosecution” will surely boomerang. How about replacing “the prosecution” with “the president” here?

During the past five years under Moon, many constitutional institutions lost their raison d’être. An exemplary case is the National Assembly. The founding fathers of the United States regarded the House of Representatives as an institution that really represent the people, rather than the president or the Senate. The two-year terms of congressmen compared to the four-year terms of the president or the six-year terms of senators is intended to maximize their representation of the people. If Korea had adopted two-year terms of the representatives in America, what would have happened to our legislative power? Despite the DP’s defeat in the last presidential election, it wields nearly absolute power just like the monarchs in Europe after being elated by its gaining of 171 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. Given the domineering legislation by the DP in the legislature over the past, it lost its appropriate representation long ago. And yet, the outgoing president nonchalantly hides behind the party.

About the complicated nature of American presidents who are both politicians and state leaders, Robert Dahl famously said, “Because no mortal can meet these exalted standards, we have often savaged a president while he is in office and then exalted him in memory.” What about President Moon who wants to be “forgotten after retirement”? Could the word “savaged” really change to “exalted”?

One thing is clear. Whenever all the loopholes within the the contentious revisions to the Prosecution Act and the Criminal Procedure Act are revealed, Moon’s last Cabinet meeting will be summoned.

President Moon said, “The next administration’s achievements will be compared to ours.” Given his signature narrow-mindedness, he could be right. President-elect Yoon faces an uphill battle to put the country back on track in the next five years.

The new president cannot avoid being savaged during his term, but can be “exalted” after retirement. Yoon must learn lessons from Moon before it’s too late.
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