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[Weekender] Korea’s teetering presidency

Cheong Wa Dae and its inner workings are mostly veiled, apart from a museum about the history of former presidents and video clips of high-profile meetings aired on TV.

So to many South Koreans, the allegations that Choi Soon-sil, President Park Geun-hye’s civilian friend, had been freely coming and going into the presidential palace are beyond comprehension, not to mention her suspected meddling in state affairs and alleged pocketing of taxpayers’ money. 

Located at the foot of Bugaksan in central Seoul, Cheong Wa Dae is the South Korean presidential office and residency (The Korea Herald)
Located at the foot of Bugaksan in central Seoul, Cheong Wa Dae is the South Korean presidential office and residency (The Korea Herald)
She was reportedly not stopped for security checks and entered through the main gate used by Cabinet ministers or higher ranks.

On the other hand, the scandal captures the formidable power -- to the extent it is sometimes above the law -- bestowed upon South Korean presidents with their single, five-year stint.

The presidential system is meant to ensure the independence of the legislature and judiciary, separate from the executive branch, preventing the concentration of power and sustaining checks and balances.

In Korea, however, the president’s influence overshadows that of the parliament and ruling party. Presidents have a tight grip on every policy, law enforcement and other powerful institutions, especially in their first years in office.

Yet many of them -- along with their families and close associates -- cave in to the temptation to abuse their clout, leaving the presidential office with influence-peddling and graft scandals.

As part of efforts to help sever the vicious circle, a growing number of lawmakers and experts have raised the need for a constitutional amendment to alter the presidential system.

“Over the one year and four months left in Park’s term, the ruling and opposition parties should experiment cooperative governing and explore a chance to reform the single, five-year presidential system, despite all the ongoing confusion,” Rep. Chung Jin-suk, floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, told reporters Friday.

Last week, he said the scandals that often take place late in the president’s term underscore the need for constitutional amendment, as under the current system the president has “too much power and information” which should be shared with the other branches of government.

Rep. Kim Chong-in, former interim chief of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, also called Friday for the initiation of a campaign to set up a “new political system that disperses the president’s absolute power, and a transparent economic management scheme in which the government and businesses forge a back-scratching alliance.”

The roots of the uniquely powerful presidency can be found in the system’s establishment in the authoritarian era. Despite efforts to empower the assembly and political parties ever since, many leaders have been criticized for brandishing power like an emperor, and when Park was sworn in, many pundits feared a return of the ironfisted rule of her late father and strongman Park Chung-hee. 

The presidential office (The Korea Herald)
The presidential office (The Korea Herald)
Since Koreans began to cast ballots to elect their own leaders in 1987, six people including Park have occupied Cheong Wa Dae.

But no one was free from scandals in their final years. Roh Tae-woo was put behind bars. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung saw their family members and aides arrested for taking bribes. Roh Moo-hyun jumped to his death amid a probe into corruption allegations surrounding him and his family. Lee Myung-bak’s term was marred by graft, stock price manipulation and other scandals involving him, his brother, his former company and major conglomerates.

Throughout her nearly four years as president, Park appears to have striven to keep family scandals at bay, giving the cold shoulder to her younger sister and brother.

This has contributed to the explosiveness of the Choi scandal, coupled with the president’s stubborn refusal to discuss policy directions with not only civil society but ruling party lawmakers.

While shunning face-to-face, one-on-one meetings with her own secretaries at Cheong Wa Dae, Park had carried out what was dubbed “notebook politics,” meaning her instructions and choices for senior positions came from her notepad -- a sarcastic metaphor for her obscure decision-making.

Now, she has been found to have covertly relied on the advice of Choi, who has no background or qualifications in state management.

“Ever since the democracy movement of June 1987 that gave birth to the current Constitution, the unity (against the president) has never been that strong,” said Yoon Pyeong-joong, a political philosophy professor at Hanshin University, referring to the nationwide protest.

“It’s bringing together everybody irrespective of their ideological inclinations, hometown, age and gender. It’s a historic experience.”

Ideas for constitutional revision have been floated, including a transformation into a Cabinet government, a dual executive system and two, four-year terms for the president.

A poll last week by Gallup showed that about 54 percent of 1,033 respondents were in favor of the change. Some 40 percent preferred the two, four-year presidential term scheme, while 24 percent supported the dual executive system and 16 percent the Cabinet government plan.

As a stopgap measure to put the nation back on track for now, both the ruling and opposition parties call for the establishment of a neutral Cabinet, though Park opted to propose a new prime minister instead, to the wrath of the opposition.

Even Park’s Prime Minister nominee Kim Byong-joon displayed support for a Cabinet government during a news conference Thursday, citing the deep-rooted problems with the presidential power and assistance mechanisms as the essence of the scandal.

But other experts cautioned against any possible distraction from the debate, saying the focus should be on how to best embrace constitutional change.

“The ongoing discussions seem to concentrate too much on the formalities, rather than how to dilute presidential authority and strike a balance with the Cabinet,” said a retired government official who served as a senior presidential secretary in the Lee Myung-bak administration.

“Even within the present system, you could restructure the power balance such as by having the prime minister oversee the personnel and budgetary affairs.”

Yang Seung-ham, a political science professor at Yonsei University, stressed the need to put priority on a “reinstatement of the rule of law” which he said has been backpedaling in particular under the Park leadership.

“World indexes show that we’ve been going from full democracy to flawed democracy, and the Choi scandal wasn’t even taken into account,” he told The Korea Herald.

“In reestablishing the rule of law, the role of civil society is imperative. The job of civic groups is to keep the government in check, and if the government does wrong, it should heed them and correct it.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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