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[Editorial] Amending basic law

Changing the republic’s Constitution needs a national consensus. As we perceive it, what stands in the way to constitutional amendment now is national indifference. In his televised roundtable a week ago, President Lee Myung-bak revealed his wishes to have the basic law revised during his tenure, but his political desire is not shared by a significant number of lawmakers even in his own party.

People have other preoccupations ― a belligerent North Korea after the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island provocations last year, the foot-and-mouth disease that forced the burial of nearly a quarter of the nation’s cattle and pigs, and rising prices. They know President Lee has no direct stake in a constitutional revision ― no amendment can affect his tenure ― so they want him just to concentrate his energy on the economy until he leaves office in February 2013.

The opposition forces do not like to allow the ruling camp to dominate the political agenda with constitutional debates prior to the National Assembly elections in April 2012 and the presidential vote eight months later. The Democratic Party is seeking to lure the pro-Park Geun-hye faction in the Grand National Party into taking joint steps in stopping the pro-Lee group’s amendment project.

History truly repeats itself, in short cycles in this country. We recall that former President Roh Moo-hyun as he passed the halfway point in his term suddenly proposed a constitutional amendment to change the presidential tenure to four years renewable just once from the current single five-year system. Snubbed instantly by then opposition Grand National Party, the proposal quickly evaporated.

Now President Lee finds more reasons for rewriting the basic charter which was adopted in 1987 as a result of long pro-democracy movements. He said in the Feb. 1 roundtable that constitutional amendment was necessary not only to change the government power structure but to introduce new concepts such as gender equality and climate change as well as provisions on inter-Korean problems. “Constitutional debate is appropriate now; it will be too late next year,” he remarked.

Following the presidential cue, the ruling party starts a three-day caucus devoted to the amendment program today. The mainstream faction led by Rep. Lee Jae-oh, who now calls himself “the amendment evangelist,” held a meeting Sunday to review strategies to spur internal support and stimulate public interest.

The proponents of constitutional revision have said there are wide-ranging problems in the basic law, citing academic studies. They assert that the six-year tenure of the Chief Justice is too long and gives the head of the judiciary too much power. That the present law only mentions the “physically-handicapped” and lacks any provision about the “mentally-handicapped” signifies that our Constitution is outdated, they argue.

We will have to wait and see how Rep. Lee and his colleagues will carry on their amendment program using all their political wisdom and proper logic. But the biggest hurdle is the passive attitude of the GNP dissenters around Rep. Park Geun-hye, who have proved their power by destroying the Sejong City revision plan in alliance with the opposition last year.

Constitutional amendment in Korea, as in any other country, is not a legal matter but a fundamentally political one. Without creating the necessary political foundation for it, no attempt to amend the basic law can be successful, whatever the academic or historical justifications. President Lee should see the reality surrounding this nation, his party and himself before further pushing a constitutional amendment. He may well understand that the 24-year-old law is not quite obsolete, after all.
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