[Editorial] Constitutional amendment needs careful consideration, and public support

Posted on : 2016-06-17 15:46 KST Modified on : 2016-06-17 15:46 KST
National Assembly speaker Chung Sye-kyun (far right) accepts a petition from victims’ families affected by humidifier disinfectant
National Assembly speaker Chung Sye-kyun (far right) accepts a petition from victims’ families affected by humidifier disinfectant

The amendment of South Korea’s Constitution has become one of the single biggest political issues since the start of the 20th National Assembly. Politicians on all sides - most prominently Speaker Chung Sye-kyun - have been pushing to express their own opinions on the issue. Each has different ideas about the specific ways the Constitution should be changed and the scope and timing of the amendment, and that means we can only wait to see how the discussions proceed from here. But if we are going to pursue an amendment, there are a few conditions and principles that should be observed.

First, it is paramount that the amendment should have the public’s support. A recent opinion poll claimed around seven out of ten South Koreans support amending the Constitution - but it’s less clear how urgent they actually perceive the issue as being. Quite a lot of people are lukewarm on the issue, and skeptical of a debate that is being steered by politicians. Those politicians ought to start by convincing the public that the discussion is a genuine one and winning their consent. That means they will have to be clear about what values they hope to embody in the amended Constitution and what kind of changes it is capable of bringing to the framework of South Korean society. Civil society and academics will also need to be a more active part of the debate.

Second, the amendments to the Constitution can’t just be a simple reshuffling of the power structure. The document needs new garments to suit new times. It needs to reflect historical change by including the values of the future: stronger civil rights, changes to its provisions on reunification and the national territory, economic democratization, protections for minorities, and an eco-welfare society for better quality of life. Some are even talking about a stepwise approach to amendment, citing concerns that a full-scale change could bring upheaval to South Korea as a whole, while efforts to buy time could result in the whole things coming to naught. We must not forget that the core aim of amending the Constitution is to change the basic framework of South Korean society - and that another opportunity to do that may not come again.

Third, we need to look at things in terms of the bigger picture when reworking the power structure, rather than focusing too much on “forms of government.” Right now, it’s a veritable hundred schools of thought with politicians - some arguing for a four-year presidency with the possibility of re-election, others for a semi-presidential system, others for a parliamentary system. All of those systems have their strengths and limitations. It’s not clear, for example, whether a four-year presidency with a maximum of two terms is really the right path away from the “imperial presidency” system. A semi-presidential system creates the problem of potential ongoing conflict between the President and Prime Minister, while the parliamentary system would have to overcome the serious obstacle of disregard for popular feeling. Choosing any one of these forms doesn’t guarantee South Korea’s political culture will be reformed overnight, either. Instead of focusing too much on picking from a menu of governments, we should approach things in a way that allows for the practical separation of powers and a system of checks and balances across the entire power structure, from the central government to the legislature, judiciary, and local governments.

Fourth and most important, politicians need to get beyond their tactical and factional interests. If the amendment becomes too much about immediate political interests, not only will it fail to gain the public’s acceptance, but any real agreement is out of the question. If it isn’t going to be approached as a matter of redesigning the next South Korean century, then it is better off not approached at all.

Beyond all that, it’s time now for the Blue House to start considering the amendment issue again too. Neither the parroted “black hole claims” nor the “let the National Assembly sort it out” attitude is a very good look. The Blue House should be showing a more forward-thinking stance on the matter. Of course, it should go without saying that any kind of tactical attempts to prolong its grip on power are out of the question.

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

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