During the election campaign in spring 2017 the main presidential candidates agreed on the need to curtail the “royal presidency.” All made the same pledge: If elected they would work towards seeing some form of revised constitution through the National Assembly, so that South Koreans could vote on it during the local elections in June 2018.
Here’s what the constitution (1987) says about amendments:
(1) A proposal to amend the Constitution shall be introduced either by a majority of the total members of the National Assembly or by the President.
(2) Amendments to the Constitution for the extension of the term of office of the President or for a change allowing for the reelection of the President shall not be effective for the President in office at the time of the proposal for such amendments to the Constitution.
Proposed amendments to the Constitution shall be put before the public by the President for twenty days or more.
(1) The National Assembly shall decide upon the proposed amendments within sixty days of the public announcement, and passage by the National Assembly shall require the concurrent vote of two thirds or more of the total members of the National Assembly.
(2) The proposed amendments to the Constitution shall be submitted to a national referendum not later than thirty days after passage by the National Assembly, and shall be determined by more than one half of all votes cast by more than one half of voters eligible to vote in elections for members of the National Assembly.
(3) When the proposed amendments to the Constitution receive the concurrence prescribed in paragraph (2), the amendments to the Constitution shall be finalized, and the President shall promulgate it without delay.
In early 2017 a year seemed enough time to wrap up the relevant public discussion and see a draft through the National Assembly to a referendum, in accordance with the stipulations above. But no sooner had Moon been elected than the opposition began telling him not to rush things. In fact it fears the symbiotic effects of holding the referendum and local elections on the same day, June 13; the more important the day’s voting appears, the more young people will turn out. It also wants to postpone the public discussion until Moon’s approval ratings go in the direction all his predecessors’ have.
The opposition has thus ignored requests to present its own proposed amendments to the National Assembly, which may leave Moon with no choice but to introduce his own proposal (as Article 128 allows him to). The conservative press has criticized the opposition for giving the impression of blocking all constitutional reform.
As for the Minjoo, its interest in weakening the Blue House has declined markedly since its own man moved in. Its proposal to have the constitution stipulate American-type term limits (4+4) may enjoy strong public support, but it wouldn’t necessarily make the presidency less “royal.” Moon’s term would not be affected anyway; see the second clause of Article 128.
The ruling party’s push for constitutional revision now presents itself mainly as an effort to decentralize the republic, so as to give the provinces and special cities more power over their own affairs. By calling for decentralization Moon conveys at least the superficial impression of a readiness to curtail his own powers, but his main interest in this change is in facilitating North-South confederation, which could be put over more easily as a coming together of provinces than of states.
Ever since the Pyongyang summit of 2000 the left has sporadically called for a “unification-preparatory” (t’ongil taebi) constitution, and extolled the benefits of greater provincial autonomy in this context. Last year saw an increase in press editorials and public discussions conveying the same message.
For example, at a conference in Daegu in July 2017 one presenter spoke on how constitutional revision could expedite unification.
The greatest ill in South Korean society is the extreme concentration of power…[It] must be spread out among provinces and special cities at the level of a federation if North Korean authorities and intellectuals are to be given the latitude to be able to think about unification. The most realistic proposal for unification is for North and South to create a unified state out of multiple regional governments with a high degree of autonomy.
Naturally the ruling party doesn’t try to sell decentralization to the general public in those terms, but the above is not a fringe opinion in intellectual circles. Our journalists pay too much attention to South Korean polls indicating widespread aversion to unification, or even to aiding the North; they seem to think Moon has to heed them. Does our own government heed the polls on gun control? More attention should be paid to the perhaps disproportionate influence wielded inside the candlelight camp by people who want unification sooner rather than later.
Across the country, town-hall meetings are now taking place to drum up support for the “decentralizing” reform, mainly with arguments of an economic nature. The goal at the moment is to get 10 million citizens to sign a petition urging the National Assembly to vote for it. That may seem a lot, but in one month alone last fall, 10 million signatures were rounded up in favor of enshrining “agricultural values.”
At this point I should warn against assuming that the forces for constitutional reform are neatly divided between a) left-wing supporters of “unification-preparatory” amendments and b) right-wing supporters of assembly-empowering amendments. The situation is more complex.
Many lawmakers and commentators on the left have long supported the shift to a parliamentary system, which — as Yi Hae-ch’an made clear in 2006 when he was premier — is compatible with a “unification-preparatory” constitution. They may intend to push for a second, more substantial constitutional revision at the time of parliamentary elections in spring 2020, in the hope that power can then be more safely shared between Moon and a National Assembly under left control.
By the same token, many conservative advocates of a parliamentary system also support decentralization. The prospect of greater regional autonomy and thousands more civil-service jobs exerts such a strong appeal on the right-leaning southeast that it might overlook even the distinctly left-wing amendments the ruling party is now proposing.
A spokesperson made these public on February 1 at a gathering of Minjoo lawmakers, among whom they had already been discussed. Most conformed to proposals made a month earlier by a (left-stacked) citizens’ advisory committee.
What made headlines on both occasions was the one regarding Article 4.
The original version:
The Republic of Korea shall seek national unification, and shall formulate and carry out a peaceful unification policy based on the free and democratic basic order.
Just as the advisory committee had recommended, the Minjoo spokesperson announced a proposal to amend this to:
The Republic of Korea shall seek national unification, and shall formulate and carry out a peaceful unification policy based on the democratic basic order.
Article 1 has always defined South Korea simply as a “democratic republic,” so the deletion of the word free/liberal (chayu) from Article 4 would not be as dramatic an assault on the nature of the state as all that. Besides, in South Korea as in many other countries the term free/liberal democracy has more distinctly right-leaning or capitalist connotations than it does in the US.
Still, the proposed deletion changes the whole meaning of Article 4. The original version appears to call on the South to seek the extension of its own “free and democratic” order over the whole peninsula. In contrast, the amended version can be read simply as a call to pursue peaceful unification with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the word democracy on its own being open to the loosest interpretations.
Announcing the proposed amendment at 6:45 pm on February 1, the Minjoo’s spokesperson explained that the goal was to broaden the sense of democracy. Having complained for weeks about the advisory committee’s proposed deletion of the same word, the right rushed to make its indignation public.
Almost four hours later, at 10:30 pm, the Minjoo Party released a statement saying that “because there are many articles” the spokesperson had erred. The draft for a new constitution would retain the current wording for Article 4.
More interesting than the excuse for that volte-face was the would-be reassuring information that of 120 Minjoo lawmakers polled, about 70 had expressed opposition to the deletion of “free.” Meaning about 50 had been fine with it.
On the other hand, the ruling party held firm to its proposal to change the preamble. The current version starts off as follows.
We, the people of Korea, proud of a resplendent history and traditions dating from time immemorial, upholding the cause of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919 and the democratic ideals of the April Revolution of 1960….
The Minjoo proposes extending that last bit to include the Busan-Masan uprising against Park Chung Hee’s rule in 1979, the Gwangju uprising of 1980 and the candlelight movement of 2016-2017.
The challenge for me here is to help other Americans understand the discussion without digressing into history. Let’s imagine that the preamble to our constitution explicitly committed the USA to the ideals of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Few of us would find that hugely problematic, the civil rights movement having long since ceased to be identified with any one political camp.
Enshrining the protests against the Vietnam War would be another matter. Even the many Americans (probably a majority) who now agree the war was wrong would not want the constitution taking a side in what is still a lively debate between legitimate political camps.
This is how South Korean conservatives feel about the proposed change to the preamble, and all the more so because the left-wing jealously guards the Gwangju uprising as its very own tragic-heroic hour. (Even center-right politicians have been made to feel unwelcome at the annual ceremonies.) The candlelight protests too – which an important legal document would surely have to admit were LED-light protests – are already remembered as an anti-right movement. The conservative journalists and lawmakers who did so much to oust Park have been written out of the official history.
Other proposed amendments commit the state to do more for equality, workers’ rights, social welfare, etc; the right opposes these as well, claiming that a socialist state is being planned, although they don’t seem to me all that radical, or necessarily relevant to inter-Korean relations.
Also controversial is the proposal to change the word citizen to person throughout the text. Considering how quickly Moon cracked down on illegal immigrants, there’s probably more to it than the party’s professed commitment to a more inclusive society. Critics trace it back to the protest movement’s hostility to the state. They also note that the constitution put out by the self-described “people-centric” regime in Pyongyang also refers to saram and not kungmin.
In short, many conservatives see the ruling party’s proposed amendments as an effort not to make the presidency less “royal,” but rather to identify the constitution with the left, de-legitimize conservatism, and lay the groundwork for North-South confederation. Their fears are easier to understand in view of calls by prominent Minjoo Party members to “wipe out” the conservatives, or at least to ensure that the left stays in power for 20 more years.
Considering that the main opposition party alone has more than enough seats to block any constitutional revision, it’s remarkable how little effort the ruling party is making to win it over. At the very least one would expect less polarizing rhetoric and more emphasis on the benefits of decentralization for all South Koreans.
Instead Kim Min-seok, the chairman of a Minjoo think tank, told a gathering of journalists on February 18 that the constitution must be changed so as to align it with the values represented by “legitimate forces” such as Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. This as opposed to the line and values of “Syngman Rhee, Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae-woo, Park Geun-hye and … Lee Myung Bak,” who together represent “anti-democracy, treason, collaboration with Japan, [North-South] division and the Cold War.”
In other words, the only legitimate South Korean president not distinctly on the left of the spectrum was Kim Young Sam. Note also the familiar insinuation that only progressives carry on the tradition of the anti-colonial struggle. Make that: only progressives and the regime in Pyongyang.
The contrast to divided Germany is thought-provoking. For all the differences between the two West German camps, the social democrats generally felt ideologically closer to the Christian democrats than to East Germany. In contrast, South Korea’s nationalist left has always felt more ideological affinity with ultra-nationalist North Korea than with the “traitorous” right.
The implications for the US-ROK alliance become more obvious and troubling when one keeps in mind that conservatism now boils down here to pro-American security-mindedness.
The in-your-face nature of some of the left’s proposed amendments has had the effect of not only uniting conservatives behind the drive for a parliamentary system, but also inducing them to speed things up. Influential commentators and “non-Lee”/pro-Park lawmakers who had hitherto opposed it are now going with the flow. Their reasoning is that the left’s proposal cannot be effectively countered so long as the right is squabbling over its own vision for change.
There has been much speculation as to whether Moon really wants to get the constitution changed on June 13 or merely to trap conservatives into playing the villains. It’s very hard to tell, especially now that the Minjoo has just announced proposals for giving the National Assembly more say over things like cabinet appointments and the budget. Perhaps it will keep adding proposals in piecemeal fashion to the president’s draft until it feels confident of getting 2/3 of the assembly behind it. The draft is expected to come out in full in mid-March.
If a compromise cannot be reached and the draft is rejected in the National Assembly, a public backlash against the conservative opposition may well ensue, carrying the ruling party to a solid victory in the mid-June local elections. Moon could then present this as a mandate for all his policies.
The danger for him, however, is that supporters of a parliamentary system, perhaps including some Minjoo lawmakers, would continue to push for it regardless. If 2/3 of the National Assembly were to vote later on for the relevant amendments, Moon would become a lame duck at once. Were a majority of citizens to vote for them in the ensuing referendum, the new constitution would go into immediate effect. Some experts go so far as to say the current president would then lose all right to rule, on the grounds that he was elected in 2017 to lead a different system. (With the same logic one could argue that the members of the current, “weak” National Assembly should run again for election before exercising different functions.) At the very least there would be a new and more powerful premier.
Such a turn of events seems unlikely now, but should Moon’s approval rating drop below 50%, there’s no telling what might happen.
Kim Jong Un knows all this as well as Moon does, which is another reason why inter-Korean talks have gone so smoothly. (An Asahi report seems to confirm my earlier assumption that the Olympic activities were agreed upon last year.) Kim Jong Il’s ostentatiously cold reception of Roh Moo Hyun in October 2007 in Pyongyang indicated that he expected the South Korean left to win the ensuing election anyway. Kim Jong Un, whose rule is under greater pressure from sanctions, seems unlikely to make that sort of mistake. Whatever Pyongyang can get from Seoul, it will try to get as fast as sanctions, the alliance, and Moon’s approval ratings permit.