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Saenuri chief apologizes over constitutional debate

South Korea’s ruling party chief on Friday made a rare public apology to President Park Geun-hye for broaching the highly sensitive topic of a constitutional revision that would likely reduce the role of the president.

“I sincerely apologize to the president for bringing up the topic of changing the Constitution,” Saenuri Party chair Rep. Kim Moo-sung said. “The statement was careless on my part.”

Kim is widely regarded as a strong contender for the 2017 presidential elections, and his remark on a constitutional amendment ― even after President Park earlier said the topic should not be discussed ― was seen as an early sign of conflict and confrontation between the two political heavyweights. 
Saenuri Party chief Kim Moo-sung (right) and floor leader Lee Wan-koo attend a party meeting Friday. (Yonhap)
Saenuri Party chief Kim Moo-sung (right) and floor leader Lee Wan-koo attend a party meeting Friday. (Yonhap)

Kim said on Thursday there would be an “outpouring” of talks over constitutional amendments aimed at tackling political deadlocks, sometime after the current parliamentary session. Reform proposals would include plans to create a coalition government, and to remodel the executive branch on Austria’s, in which a president and chancellor share powers.

The presidential office did not publicly respond to Kim’s comments.

Experts said Kim likely brought the subject up to “test the waters” ― or to see how the public reacted to his comments on Thursday.

“When Kim brings up the topic of constitutional reforms, he knows he’s not going to start changing the Constitution any time soon,” said Choi Young-jin, professor of Korean politics at Chung-ang University in Seoul. “By broaching a controversial topic, he can decorate the top news headlines, and steal the political spotlight away from the president.”

On Friday, opposition lawmakers pounced on Kim’s apology, claiming that it’s designed to appease the president, who only 11 days before had expressed a strong desire to suspend any debate over constitutional amendments.

Park called such talks a political “black hole,” as they were likely to derail her economic initiatives by refocusing public attention on constitutional reform.

Kim’s statements also reignited debates over the allegedly distorted relationship between the president and the legislature, with opposition party members asking why a lawmaker had to say sorry to the president for bringing up an old topic.

Rep. Park Jie-won of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy said Kim’s apologies show that the ruling party chair is moving according to the president’s orders.

NPAD floor leader Rep. Woo Yoon-keun attacked President Park: “Rep. Kim (Moo-sung) proved that the current president enjoys an emperor-like authority over the legislature.”

“This is exactly why we have to start talks over fixing our Constitution,” he added.

Saenuri chair Kim is a five-term lawmaker expected to run in the next presidential race as a conservative candidate. He is not a member of a faction closely affiliated with President Park, so when he took the helm of the ruling party in July, observers expected him to start distancing himself further from Park, who is still a member of the Saenuri Party, to build up his own political image and clout.

In Korean politics, leading presidential-hopefuls of the same political party traditionally distance themselves from the incumbent president once the top executive’s term reaches its half-way point. Park’s term ends in early 2018. She has served out 19 months of her 60-month term.

By Jeong Hunny (