By Jung Da-min
Since the first Constitution was established in 1948, it has undergone nine revisions. The latest amendment was made in 1987 after the June 10 pro-democracy movement that year, introducing a direct presidential election system in which the president serves a single five-year term.
Thirty-three years have passed since then, but no additional amendments have been made to the Constitution despite a broad consensus among the people for the necessity of changing the current political system. Discussions for a 10th constitutional amendment have been made many times in politics since the 1990s, but none of them have yielded a substantial outcome, while different political camps have remained far from reaching an agreement over details of changes.
Political watchers, regardless of their political inclination, agree that it is about time for a revision as the country's current presidential system is not efficient in terms of keeping the principle of separation of powers between the legislative, judiciary and administrative branches.
Too much power given to president
In South Korea, the president is the top leader of every sector of the national administration, including politics, diplomacy, economy, society and culture. Political experts say the country's presidential system has led to an imbalanced distribution of power.
"In South Korea, the direction of the ruling party is decided based on whether it gets its candidate elected as president, which means the ruler of the country is not a political party but the president," said Kim Man-heum, director of the Korean Academy of Politics and Leadership. "Under such a system, the separation of powers among the three branches ― the legislative, the judiciary and the administrative ― cannot be realized. The ruling party, which produces the president, follows the president's policies."
Kim said the legislative National Assembly cannot play an independent role in politics under the current presidential system in which the ruling party and the president work as one team, which was why former speakers of the Assembly have talked about the necessity of change in the political system through a constitutional amendment.
"If the ruling party takes a majority in the Assembly, it cannot keep the president and the government in check. On the other hand, if the main opposition party takes a majority of Assembly seats, it tends to oppose policies pushed by the president only for the sake of opposition to hold the ruling bloc in check," Kim said.
Once-powerful president becomes lame duck too soon
Another problem with the current presidential system is that it is hard for presidents to push forward policies with long-term goals when they can serve for a single term of five years only, according to political watchers. For example, policies pushed ahead by a president from the liberal camp are likely to be scrapped and replaced by those in a completely different direction if the next president is elected from the conservative camp.
Such discontinuities in policies have often brought inefficiency and confusion to politics and the economy. The South Korean government's policies on North Korea and real estate are examples. Inter-Korean relations have seen ups and downs under the liberal and conservative South Korean governments which pursued engagement and hardline stances toward North Korea, respectively, while not bringing substantial results in terms of easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The real estate policy of the current Moon Jae-in government, which tightened market regulations, is also blamed for only bringing bigger confusion with housing prices still soaring.
In an attempt to solve such problems of the single-term presidency, President Moon submitted a proposal for a constitutional amendment in March 2018. The proposed bill entailed introduction of a four-year, two-term presidency to enable a president to serve for up to two terms of eight years in total.
Moon's proposal bill, however, was scrapped at the Assembly after two months, as the vote for its passage was canceled due to a lack of a quorum with a boycott from the main opposition party.
Dispute over timing, amendment model
Political experts say delays of constitutional amendments to change the political system often stem from a difficulty finding the right timing with opposing political interests of different political camps.
"Political parties have different standards as for when would be the right time for a constitutional amendment, based on their political interests or gains," political commentator Choi Young-il said.
Choi said President Moon's ill-fated attempt for the constitutional revision to introduce a four-year, two-term presidency was due to strong protest from the main opposition party which believed a constitutional amendment would put the conservative bloc in a more disadvantageous situation when it had already lost in the presidential election the previous year.
Choi said different ideas over which political system could work better are also leading to the delays.
"People have different opinions as for which would be the next political system after a constitutional amendment. There are three main opinions: keeping the current presidential system; replacing it with a parliamentary cabinet system, which is supported by a considerable number of veteran politicians; and introducing a two-government system by giving the Assembly the right to elect a prime minister who would take over some roles from the president," Choi said.
Step-by-step approach needed
Chang Young-soo, a professor at the Korea University School of Law who was a member of a now-disbanded special committee of the Assembly which engaged in discussions for a constitutional amendment in 2017, said a step-by-step approach is needed to realize an actual amendment, when people have different thoughts on the ideal political system.
"Previous attempts for a constitutional revision have failed as there were people who took extreme stances that they would not agree with any parts of it if their opinions are not accepted," Chang said. "As it is impossible to draw an agreement from all involved parties on every detail, we need to divide major issues into two groups ― those for which different parties could reach an agreement and others over which parties are likely to remain far from agreement."
Chang said the next amendment should be made in the near future as the current Constitution presents a presidential system in which the presidential office leads every sector of the country.
"In the past, a developmental dictatorship of Cheong Wa Dae had effectively led development of the country through a strategy of choice and concentration amid shortage of human resources and capital. But the current situation of the country is much different from then because now different organizations play their own roles for development of each sector of the country," Chang said.
"While there were only two cases of constitutional amendments by the people ― through the April 19 pro-democracy movement in 1960 and the June 10 pro-democracy movement in 1987 ― the two revisions were made by revolutionary movements of the people. It is about time for a constitutional amendment which is achieved while in a normal state through rational discussion, rather than revolution."