Korea Moves to Curb Presidential Powers After Park Scandal

  • Lawmakers propose first constitution overhaul since 1987
  • British, French models of government under consideration

Light shines from a stage as protesters gather in Gwanghwamun square during a candlight rally in Seoul, on Nov. 26, 2016.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

South Korean lawmakers are moving to ensure the nation never again has a leader as powerful as Park Geun-hye.

A bipartisan parliamentary committee began meeting in January to rewrite the constitution for the first time since 1987, when mass protests forced a military junta to adopt a direct presidential vote. In recent months, hundreds of thousands of Koreans have hit the streets to call for Park’s removal over an influence-peddling scandal that led to her impeachment.

Suggestions to the committee have included everything from a British-style parliamentary government to France’s system, where the president handles foreign affairs and the prime minister deals with domestic issues. The panel aims to release a proposal in a few months, which would need support from two-thirds of the 300-member parliament and then face a national referendum.

“Proposals vary, but the idea is the same: divide the powers of the president,” said Chun Jung-bae, a former justice minister and People’s Party lawmaker who sits on the committee. “We live in an extraordinary time, and the task of that time is to end the winner-takes-it-all system.”

Cozy Ties

The move to revise the constitution is part of efforts to curtail the cozy ties between the president and family-run conglomerates that dominate Asia’s fourth-biggest economy. That could impact the economy, which is already weakening over the discord as consumer confidence falls near an eight-year low.

“Decision-making and policy implementation would become slower in lieu of a single person with overwhelming power to push forward agendas,” said Jang Sang-hwan, who teaches economics at South Korea’s Gyeongsang National University. “That means more debate among lawmakers, but more responsible crafting of policies in the long run.”

South Korean presidents have traditionally flexed their muscles with parliament, a legacy of the dictatorship that ran the country until the 1980s. They could influence which party members ran as lawmakers, appoint prosecutors, propose and veto legislation, sign agreements with foreign nations and appoint senior officials without parliamentary consent.

Park was impeached on Dec. 9 after prosecutors charged her friend Choi Soon-sil with abuse of power for allegedly pressuring companies into donating to her foundations. She’s been suspended from power while the Constitutional Court deliberates on whether to approve the motion, which would trigger an election. Even if she survives the impeachment bid, Park -- who denies wrongdoing -- would leave office after her single five-year expires in February 2018.

Power Sharing

Almost every presidential candidate has pledged to make the executive more transparent and accountable. Both front-runner Moon Jae-in and former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon -- before he unexpectedly dropped out on Wednesday -- had promised to share power with others if they succeed Park while also pushing for the end of a rule limiting the president to a single five-year term.

“The right way to improve the power structure for our times is to have a presidential office that shares its power," Ban said at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday, offering to accept a shorter presidential term. He exited the race soon afterward, saying he had been subject to “defamation close to personality murder.”

Moon said he’d move the presidential office from the Blue House -- South Korea’s traditional seat of power similar to the White House -- to a lower-profile government building. He also said he’d make his around-the-clock whereabouts public to reduce the secrecy surrounding executive power.

Polls show a majority of voters want to see the constitution revised one way or another. Some 65 percent of respondents in a December survey by Korea Research supported overhauling the presidential office.

Corruption Scandals

Still, doing so won’t be easy. Candidates often speak in favor of reducing presidential powers only to ignore the issue once elections end.

The same is true with suggestions to give more power to regions even though South Korea’s “highly centralized” decision-making process has “enhanced perceptions of a seemingly monarchical ‘court politics’ in the Blue House,” said David Fedman, who teaches Korean history at the University of California, Irvine.

“South Korea is no stranger to crises, which usually have the effect of re-concentrating power at the center,” Fedman said.

For now, however, the committee is looking to stop the cycle of malfeasance among the country’s top leaders. Before Park, former presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were convicted after they stepped down for taking hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from companies, while Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung apologized for corruption scandals involving their sons.

“The Park scandal has shown how easily presidential powers can be abused and how desperately we need to limit those powers,” said Lee Un-ju, an opposition Democratic Party of Korea lawmaker and member of the committee. “The big challenge is how to divide the power so more people can use it.”

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