[Guest essay] Amending the Constitution is Yoon’s key to leaving office in public’s good graces

Posted on : 2024-04-16 17:21 KST Modified on : 2024-04-16 17:21 KST
An amendment to the Constitution that would allow for two four-year terms for the president rather than a single five-year one could be the key to Yoon leaving the stage to applause rather than boos
President Yoon Suk-yeol (center) and first lady Kim Keon-hee return to Korea after a state visit to the Netherlands on Dec. 15, 2023. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol (center) and first lady Kim Keon-hee return to Korea after a state visit to the Netherlands on Dec. 15, 2023. (Yonhap)

By Lee Seog-yeon, distinguished professor at Dongseo University and former minister of government legislation

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that for the past two years, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has focused his politics on retribution against the opposition and undoing the policies of his predecessors to enact revenge on behalf of his support base. 

The highest virtue of any president is an inclusive attitude toward the defeated opposition, but Yoon has shown no such thing. As if thirsty for vengeance after winning by a mere margin of 0.7 points, Yoon became drunk on the winner-takes-all mentality. A leader needs to be conscious of his own confirmation bias — seeing only what you want to see and hearing only what you want to hear — but Yoon took the opposite route by doubling down and cutting off dialogue with the other side. 

He seems to have forgotten the constitutional principle that dictates freedom and the pursuit of elevating the status and livelihood of all citizens. The Republic of Korea Constitution specifically forbids the centralization of power around a “privileged caste,” yet Yoon seems to be striving for the consolidation of power within a caste of prosecutors. A mere few hundred meters from the presidential office, around 160 innocent lives were lost in the Itaewon crowd crush, yet he demonstrates no intention of taking responsibility or even apologizing.

To rub salt in the wound, he exercised his presidential authority to veto a bill that would assign a special counsel to investigate the failed response to the Itaewon tragedy. As the country’s highest elected leader, Yoon has neglected his constitutional duties. He has caused an indescribable amount of stress to the Korean people. The recent general election reflected the people’s dissatisfaction with Yoon. It was a judgment by the people — the true rulers of the country — and a demonstration of the “victor’s curse.”

Where does Yoon go from here? Perhaps the president and his close aides rest easy in knowing that they can always veto bills they don’t like while holding the line against impeachment and constitutional amendments. He could also adopt a humble posture, declare that he will accept the will of the people and implement change and reform — right before he goes back to my way or the highway. As he’s done before, he could also exercise his right to request a reconsideration of any undesirable bills that pass the National Assembly, effectively kneecapping them. 

Yet the general election clearly signaled that the people will no longer stand for this sort of governance. Recent constitutional history tells us that the people have the ability to both propel the boat and capsize it. If the latter happens, it will bring chaos and a repetition of a tragic pattern in the history of Korea’s constitutional republic.

As a person who has studied constitutional theory and constitutional applications for over 40 years, I offer a suggestion to our president. It’s time to revisit and rework the 1987 version of our Constitution, which has been our republic’s foundation for the past 50 years, and legally shorten the presidential term by one year so that presidents can carry out their governance without major obstacles in the time they’re afforded. 

But I’m suggesting more than just a revision of our power structure. I think we are in dire need of an overhaul of the entire Constitution, a strengthening of our national identity, legal guarantees of modern basic rights, a reformation of the Board of Audit and Inspection and other agencies, increased autonomy of local governments — including educational autonomy, and economic policy revisions. 

If it takes too much time to secure public approval for these constitutional revisions, we can settle on a single amendment that allows a two-term presidency, with one term being four years. The only constitutional republic other than South Korea that limits a president to a single term is Uruguay. The single-term system was originally put in place to prevent a long-term dictatorship. Yet in a direct democracy like ours, it limits the right of the people to judge its president, and is therefore in opposition to the principles of democracy. Empirical evidence suggests that our system of single five-year presidential terms has failed. It is embarrassing that time and again, we’ve failed to produce a president that leaves office to applause rather than boos.

The Constitution also gives the president the right to propose a constitutional revision. Yoon could propose a revision that shortens his term by one year, effectively ending it in May 2026, and implements local elections and another presidential election in the first half of the same year. This would simplify our current three-pronged election cycle of local elections, National Assembly elections, and presidential elections into a two-pronged system.

As long as an elected president is guaranteed at least one four-year term, the majority of National Assembly lawmakers will not oppose the revision I’m proposing. If a president is allowed to reshuffle their Cabinet with a balanced group of experts and govern for the remainder of their term, a reduction of one year still gives them plenty of time to implement their style of governance. In fact, they may become South Korea’s first president to leave office while in the people’s good graces.

Our society is ideologically skewed and fragmented, with both individuals and groups moving in radicalized directions. This is quickly eroding the sense of community among people. It’s truly worrisome. We need to resurrect the sense of community based on tolerance and truth through our constitutional values. The president can no longer be allowed to run this country while clouded by his own confirmation bias. The engine that has powered the Yoon presidency needs to be replaced. A rotten engine makes for a dysfunctional vehicle. 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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