By Ko Seung-kyun Korea Times
The current debate over the issue of constitutional revision in regard to the presidential term requires careful scrutiny. South Korea has already experienced eight revisions of its constitution since its inception in 1948. High frequency of constitutional revision can cause an unhealthy political environment and instability as well as confusion.
Any attempt at constitutional revision should take into consideration not just the presidential term but also a wide range of various factors attributable to democratic principles as well as the maximization of political efficiency and stability. The current proposal under consideration as proposed by the Roh administration appears to be too simplistic to fulfill these conditions.
South Korea today faces unique political problems and challenges. The country has to deal with insurmountable challenges from North Korea in a wide range of issues. It has to overcome economic and financial difficulties as well as social problems _ growing unemployment, low birth rate, the increasing burden of taking care of the elderly, etc.
It has to strive to adjust itself in the rapidly changing international, political and economic environment.
In order to meet these challenges and to solve these problems, the government must be efficient and provide a sense of clear direction and leadership.
The outcome of governmental efficiency and political stability is heavily dependent on the type of political system South Korea has.
South Korea’s current constitution reveals a number of major deficiencies. Thus, the Roh administration is correct in that the constitution should be revised somehow, but the proposal for the revision does not seem to be constructive.
For constitutional revision a number of premises should be examined. First, the presidential leadership must be sustainable.
The current presidential single term limit of five years is not satisfactory.
The Roh administration’s proposal to change the limit and extend it to two terms is understandable and has some merit.
But, the proposal shortens the presidential tenure to four years from five years. There is no guarantee the first-term president would serve the second term. South Korea, first of all, has to determine what type of political system is suitable for the country to meet these challenges. A short term presidency is obviously not the answer.
At this juncture, the best type of political system for South Korea would be a hybrid of the parliamentarian and presidential systems, somewhat similar to the current French model.
France, like South Korea, had experienced turbulent political upheavals prior to the coming of the fifth republic.
But, with the introduction of the fifth republic constitution, France has gained a fair degree of political stability and high degree of political leadership in spite of the diverse political ideologies which exist among various political parties. South Korea has been moving toward a multiparty system too. South Korea already somewhat resembles France in terms of its political system.
What South Korea needs is some modification and refinement geared to Korea’s needs internally as well as externally.
First, a certain degree of division of authority between president and prime minister is necessary.
The major functions of the president should include, primarily, national security affairs _ defense, foreign affairs and national unification while those of prime minister should include internal affairs _ economic, social, health, labor, etc.
Although today some issues dealing with internal and external issues are inseparable, the main focus of responsibility can be identified and allocated to the president and prime minister accordingly. Second, the presidential term should be no less than 6 years and extended to two terms.
The major justification lies in the fact that the most crucial task for the president should be pursuing a credible unification policy with North Korea. Engaging in unification policies with North Korea requires a prolonged, well-planned course of action. The shorter the presidential term is the less credible and less consistent it will be. The North Korean leader’s term is virtually unlimited.
In order to deal with North Korean leadership style, South Korea should be prepared to meet such a challenge. Also, for foreign and defense policies, a longer presidential term is better for the country. For such frequent international forums to which the president is a prime participant, a more experienced president could accomplish more.
The main presidential functions should primarily be chief of state, commander-in-chief and chief diplomat. The prime minister should be either a leader elected by National Assembly or a member of the National Assembly nominated by the president and confirmed by the National Assembly. The term of prime minister should be fixed at four years along with the members of the National Assembly and should be re-elected without term limit.
Third, the president should be a final arbiter between the National Assembly and prime minister. The president, once elected, should be somewhat above partisan politics and be free from partisan political entanglements.
At the same time, the prime minister should be a political leader providing leadership in the National Assembly, a chief administrator and chief of the cabinet. The president should respect the prime minister’s autonomy in his or her leadership and policies.
In sum, the limit of the presidential term to four years and the simultaneous elections of the president and the members of the National Assembly can create political instability and possibly unexpected political turmoil. At this juncture, what South Korea needs is political stability to ensure social stability and economic growth.
The writer is professor of political science & international relations at Hawaii Pacific University.