Revising Korea's Constitution Viewed as Necessary and with Suspicion
SEOUL, Oct. 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's political parties mostly agreed with President Park Geun-hye's plan Monday to push forward a constitutional revision, while the opposition maintained the stance that the announcement should not be used to hide the on-going allegations surrounding government irregularities.
While the ruling Saenuri Party cheered the remark, adding it came at the right moment, the opposition parties said although South Korea needs a revision, the government should not take this as an opportunity to dodge the public's attention from potential ethical lapses.
"Park has been listening to opinions on the revision through various routes, and the constitutional revision debate, already under way in parliament, is generating support from the people," the Saenuri Party said, adding the change can help South Korea make the next leap forward.
Targeting the opposition, Saenuri said lawmakers should join the discussion on the revision by concentrating on the country's future instead of engaging in political infighting.
"Park's remark on the revision came as the president believes the existing system established in 1987 cannot sustain the future of South Korea," said Rep. Chung Jin-suk, the Saenuri floor leader.
"Through the revision, we need to reorganize the overall system of constitutions, including the basic rights of the people, to suit the current era," Chung added.
Rep. Kim Moo-sung, a former head of Saenuri, also cheered the decision saying it will help rebuild the country.
"No political or personal interests should intervene in the revision procedures. A separate discussion led by the administration may also lead to controversies," Kim said, adding he wishes to propose the establishment of a special committee including the ruling and opposition parties, the administrations, and experts.
The Democratic Party, formerly the Minjoo Party of Korea, claimed that the government should not move ahead with the constitutional revision if its aim is to dodge public scrutiny for alleged wrongdoings by acquaintances of the president.
The party and its lawmakers have generally favored a change in the Constitution.
"We cannot agree to have discussions on constitutional revisions that would help hide the unfolding corruption scandals," Rep. Youn Kwan-suk from the main opposition party said, adding the proposal lacks sincerity.
"Park's proposal on the revision came out of nowhere. Two years ago, Park clearly said she opposes the revision, citing negative impacts on the economy," he said.
"We point out that the existing political tension is derived from the president's lack of communication and stubbornness," the official from the Democratic Party said. He added Park should have commented on the on-going allegations involving Choi during the speech.
The main opposition parties have been urging an investigation of Choi Soon-sil, a figure who is presumed by the opposition bloc to be a secretive heavyweight that holds great influence over Park and her administration.
Choi, a daughter of a late pastor who is widely known to be Park's close confidant, has been in the spotlight amid allegations she was behind suspicious fundraising activities involving the K-Sports foundation.
According to the opposition parties, the government forced conglomerates to chip in for the establishment of the foundation while some of the money went to paper companies established by Choi. The presidential office has countered that such allegations are groundless and the 800 billion won (US$70.6 million) provided to the foundation has for the most part not been spent.
"The president should stay out of the constitutional revision," said Choo Mi-ae, the head of the Democratic Party.
Choo added Park's proposal may be understood by some as an intention to prolong her term, adding the president should leave the discussion to parliament, and just focus on improving the livelihood of the people.
The minor Justice Party echoed the view, adding that Park's proposed constitutional revision is a mere act of opportunism.
Political pundits, accordingly, said the National Assembly is set to face tough hurdles in pushing the revision ahead. Even if a committee is established, parties are still far from narrowing differences on details of any revision, they added.
Under the South Korean law, a constitutional revision must win the majority vote at the parliament. If the revision is proposed by the president, two-thirds of the lawmakers must concede. Accordingly, no single party can currently make a revision independently.
Moon Jae-in, a liberal contender for next year's presidential race, who had previously lost against Park, condemned the president's bid, comparing the move to her father's Yushin Constitution announced in 1972.
Park Chung-hee, who ruled the nation from 1961-1979 after seizing power in a military coup, paved the way for his long-term rule through the Yushin.
"There can be no revision led by Park. The revision should focus on improving the life of the people," Moon said, adding that he also acknowledges the importance of seeking a revision.
National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun welcomed the announcement, but also emphasized that the people should lead the constitutional revision.
"All constitutional revisions led by authorities in the past have failed," Chung said, adding the ruling and opposition parties will join forces to implement a "bottom-to-top" revision.
The main opposition Party and minor People's Party, meanwhile, failed to see eye-to-eye over the possible revision.
While the Democratic Party refrained from making an official stance on joining the special committee on the revision, the People's Party said it will participate in the discussion.
Pundits said the controversy over the revision is set to spark the battle among the opposition parties.'
However, overshadowing such accusations is the ultimate goal of the revision shared by most lawmakers across the political aisle -- a rare case of bipartisanship that has boosted the likelihood of a change in the country's governing structure that has been left intact despite a slew of social and political changes since the last amendment in 1987.
To finish the revision process before the end of Park's presidency, observers largely agree that a national referendum should be timed to coincide with parliamentary by-elections slated to occur in April next year.
According to the Constitution, a series of necessary procedures for a revision takes some 110 days, which means a bill for a revision must be submitted by early January to hold a referendum in April.
The amendment procedures begin with the tabling of a bill by a president or lawmakers. A president can submit a bill through Cabinet deliberations, while a bill can be submitted with the approval from at least half of the total 300 lawmakers.
After submission, the bill should be put on public notice for at least 20 days. The National Assembly should put it to a vote within 60 days of the public notification. The bill can be passed with the endorsement from at least two thirds of the total lawmakers, or 200 legislators.'
When the bill is approved by the legislature, it should be put to a vote in a referendum within 30 days. A majority of eligible voters are required to cast ballots in the referendum, and more than half of the participating voters should vote in favor of the revision.
Following the referendum, the president is to immediately promulgate it to have it go into force.
Woo Yoon-keun, the National Assembly's secretary-general, has been at the forefront of the efforts to hold a referendum in April next year.
"I will seek to promptly arrange a meeting among the leaders of the three major parties to discuss the matters (related to the constitutional revision)," Woo told Yonhap News Agency over the phone.
"My stance that the referendum should be held in tandem with the by-elections in April remains unchanged."
Some officials at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said that a referendum should be held by September next year, after which building a political consensus would be difficult as each party would be engrossed in preparing for the presidential election slated for December.
One presidential aide also raised the possibility of holding a referendum on the presidential election day if the country fails to reach a consensus over the revision at an earlier point next year.
"The Maginot Line is December when the referendum can be held together with the presidential vote," the official said on condition of anonymity. "But we should craft plans that presidential contenders would not oppose, and build a national consensus on them."
Aside from the time schedule for the revision, the major bone of contention is expected to be the scope and direction of the envisioned alteration.
Stressing the need to spread out power that has hitherto been concentrated on what they call the "imperial" president, some argue that the revision should focus on changing the way the country is governed.
On this issue, some favor adopting a semi-presidential system -- a mixture of the presidential system and parliamentary cabinet system -- under which more power is assigned to the prime minister. Others have espoused a purely parliamentary Cabinet system like the one in Japan.
Some also have called for reshaping the current single five-year presidential term into two four-year terms, which pundits say would help ensure a more stable, responsible and farsighted policy implementation.
During Monday's speech, Park also stressed the need to alter the current single presidential term, saying it has made politics extremely confrontational and policymakers unable to pursue consistent and sustainable policy goals.
"The current single-term presidency was an exceptional system designed to prevent a president from seeking to prolong his or her grip on power," said Korea University Law School Professor Chang young-soo.
"But the danger of dictatorship has been reduced now, and thus (the single-term presidency) has been mentioned as one that needs a revision."
Noting that a change in the power structure is not what the general populace is interested in, some observers emphasize that a constitutional revamp should focus on strengthening people's basic rights such as human rights for children and senior citizens.
To lead the revision debate, the government plans to set up a body dedicated to preparing for the amendment.
Observers say that a pan-governmental panel, consisting of key officials from related agencies such as the ministries of policy coordination, justice and legislation and constitutional scholars, is likely to be formed.
The legislature is also moving to establish its own panel to further discuss the revision.
It was not the first time the debate over a revision surfaced ahead of a presidential election.
In 2006, a year ahead of the presidential poll, then-President Roh Moo-hyun suggested an amendment, though the debate died down after it failed to gain any further significant political traction.'