The presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae has distanced itself from a brewing debate on revising the Constitution, which was last amended in 1987 to end military-backed authoritarian rule. Presidential aides have refrained from commenting on the agreement made by leaders of the ruling and main opposition parties last week to form a bipartisan body to discuss rewriting the basic law.
On the surface, they make the point that it is inappropriate for the presidential office to get involved in the highly sensitive political matter. But apparently underlying this ostensible posture is a feeling of displeasure with the issue coming to the fore without prior consultation with them.
They also seem to be concerned that the constitutional discussion would steal the spotlight from efforts of President Park Geun-hye to push for her key policy agenda during the initial phase of her five-year presidency that began in February. After getting off to a rocky start over a string of bungled personnel appointments, her administration is taking steps to reinvigorate the economy and set the tone for relations with North Korea.
Park herself came forward Tuesday to express her cautious stance. In a meeting with a group of opposition lawmakers, she said there would be an opportunity to discuss the issue after coping with other pressing tasks and gaining public trust.
It is undesirable for her policy initiatives to lose steam in the heat of the constitutional debate. But this concern cannot ― and should not ― be a pretext for shelving the discussion on how to rewrite the fundamental law to better reflect changes over the past decades in the country’s political, social, economic and security conditions.
While campaigning for last December’s presidential election, Park of the ruling Saenuri Party promised to consider revising the Constitution during her presidency, if public consensus was formed. Rep. Moon Jae-in, her rival contender from the main opposition Democratic United Party, also made a similar pledge. At the time, they were not so specific on details of the constitutional revision, but made clear their preference for changing the presidential tenure from the current single five-year term to two four-year terms.
Our view is that sincere steps should be taken toward amending the Constitution, especially to alter the presidential term to fit the demands of the time. The limitation of the presidential tenure was designed to reflect the public anxiety caused by previous leaders’ attempts to extend their rule by oppressive means. Now, more attention should be paid to the problems the single five-year term causes.
Presidents have focused on things that can be attained within their single term, making it hard to work out and implement policies from a long-term perspective. This tendency can be worrisome, especially in dealing with North Korea at a time when its leadership remains precarious. With a second presidential bid barred, presidents tend to lose their grip on power early, while figures around them are likely to be tempted into hurrying to secure personal interests.
It may be necessary to disperse presidential powers further by giving more authority to the parliament, the Cabinet and regional governments, with a president still being guaranteed to exercise effective power in the fields of foreign affairs, defense and security.
It was natural for top officials from the rival parties to agree to launch a bipartisan framework for discussing constitutional reform as part of efforts to follow up with common pledges made by their candidates during last year’s presidential campaign. It would be unreasonable to complain about the lack of prior consultation.
Some presidential and ruling party officials have speculated that the constitutional debate may lose momentum when the current floor leaders of the two main parties, who have been active on starting it, complete their terms next month. But it is just insensible to expect the brewing debate will fizzle out when more than two-thirds of the 300 parliamentary members stand in favor of rewriting the basic law and a series of surveys show that a majority of voters support the constitutional amendment.
It would help reduce unnecessary confusion to funnel differing views and voices into the envisioned bipartisan consultative channel. The rival parties now need to undertake the work toward the constitutional revision in an earnest manner. But it may be necessary to ensure the debate will be held in a cautious and measured way to avoid being overheated.
What should be reminded is that constitutional reform can be achieved only by maximizing the momentum at the early stage of a presidency. Park’s two immediate predecessors ― Lee Myung-bak and the late Roh Moo-hyun ― pushed for revising the Constitution in the latter part of their terms. Despite some merit, their proposals were met with skepticism, with the public regarding them as politically motivated. There is no need for Park to follow this path.