As his predecessors did each time a man-made tragedy struck the nation, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won called it quits soon after a ferry sank along with nearly 300 passengers, most of them high school students, off the southwest coast of Korea in April.
Following Chung’s resignation, President Park Geun-hye, who has the right to nominate a prime minister, the second-highest official in the government, looked for a successor. But both of her nominations failed, dealing a severe blow to her presidency.
The first choice was Ahn Dae-hee, a former Supreme Court justice famous for his fight against corruption. But just one week after the nomination, Ahn was forced to resign over his much-criticized high earnings during his time as a lawyer. The second pick was former journalist Moon Chang-keuk. But he followed in Ahn’s footsteps as he bowed to public pressure to quit for his past controversial comments on Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Damaged by the withdrawal of her nominees, Park had to retain Chung, saying it was difficult for her to find a qualified candidate who could pass the “elevated vetting standard.”
Watching the nomination fiasco that has gripped the nation for nearly two months, I mulled over various questions about Korea’s prime ministership.
It is natural to demand high public esteem and integrity as qualifications for a prime minister. But ironically, not much power is given to Korea’s No. 2.
The prime minister’s role has remained largely ceremonial for about half a century, while all the power has gone to the president.
The local news media has long described the powerless prime minister as an “aegis” for the president, a “figurehead” or a “reader of presidential speeches.”
The nation’s Constitution also defines the premiership as serving a supporting function for the omnipotent president. Article 86 states that the prime minister is entitled to assist the president and govern ministries in the administration under the instruction of the president.
Although the Constitution guarantees the prime minister’s power to select minister nominees for the president and to recommend for the top leader to dismiss ministers, few prime ministers have exercised such authority.
In reality, the selection of ministerial candidates is left in the hands of the president and the prime minister merely gives approval. And no prime minister has gone against the president by asking for the dismissal of a minister.
The Korean prime minister seems destined to curry favor with the president as the second-highest government official is “handpicked” by the head of state, unlike some countries with elected prime ministers.
Some ex-presidents and even incumbent President Park promised to endow their prime minister with substantial power and a guarantee of tenure. But no such commitment has been implemented.
Basically, the nation’s weird president-prime minister relationship stems from our presidential government system, which gives too much power to the elected person.
The prime minister’s power should not be guaranteed by the president, but by the legal system. Some European countries like Britain with its parliamentary cabinet system or France and Germany with their dual executive system could serve as examples for Korea.
The political community should now launch talks about how to end the titular premiership and ensure genuine power-sharing between the prime minster and the president.
By Shin Yong-bae
Shin Yong-bae is the digital content editor of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.