Shortly after South Korean lawmakers passed a motion to impeach now-ousted President Park Geun-hye last December, National Assembly Speaker Rep. Chung Sye-kyun stepped up to deliver a speech to mark the historic occasion.
“What we’ve witnessed here today is a constitutional tragedy. … We must now gather our strength to move on,” a solemn Chung said, as realization started to sink in that this country of 50 million must now navigate its way through tough domestic and foreign challenges without a president, at least for a while.
Three months later, the ouster of former President Park has been confirmed by the Constitutional Court and the nation’s political parties are in full swing to prepare for the presidential election, less than two months away.
Still, some people are apparently not ready to accept reality and move on, sympathizing with the disgraced leader who insists that she has done nothing to deserve this.
“In the past several months, I felt like I had a heavy burden on my shoulders,” recalled Speaker Chung as he sat down with The Korea Herald last week at his office in the Nation Assembly building in Seoul.
“It was painful because it was not just one person’s problem. It was a problem that (was made possible by our collective failure to monitor presidential powers) -- something that the entire political establishment must do serious soul-searching on,” the sixth-term lawmaker said.
|Speaker Chung. Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald|
The silver lining to all that, he went on, was that the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court managed to uphold the people’s mandate and were able to put an end to the turmoil before it was too late.
“We’re now given a chance to start anew,” he said, adding that the country must learn its lesson and build a more resilient and mature democracy.
Former President Park, a longtime conservative icon, was expelled from power on March 10, after months of a humiliating scandal involving her 60-year-old friend Choi Soon-sil.
On Tuesday, she will be grilled by state prosecutors over allegations of corruption and influence-peddling.
If there is one thing that the former state chief can do for the country, it is to admit that she has failed the people and to concede to the Constitutional Court’s decision to fire her, Rep. Chung said.
“Park should promptly accept what needs to be accepted. If she continues to drag her feet, the country cannot move forward. She already owes a great deal to the people.”
|Speaker Chung. Park Hae-mook|
Parliamentarians, too, must change, the speaker stressed, as they have often failed to act as responsible and trusted partners in running the state.
The Park scandal and the ensuing leadership vacuum called for the parliament and its members to ditch partisan calculations and make concerted efforts to put the nation back on track.
“At least until the arrival of the new administration, and hopefully afterward, the parliament must take the lead in solving problems that this country faces pertaining to people’s livelihood, national security and future economic growth,” he said.
The Assembly playing a bigger role is also a key to ensuring the division of power in South Korea, where a president often wields too much power.
“The Assembly should act like a legislative branch, (which the Constitution states is on an equal footing with the executive and judicial branches). It needs to stop being overly conscious about what Cheong Wa Dae thinks,” said Chung, criticizing the relations between the president and his or her ruling party as something of a command hierarchy.
More specifically, the speaker called on lawmakers to lead efforts to fix the current single-term five-year presidency, which many say allows presidents to monopolize control over government management, push their agenda before their term ends and ignore dissenting voices from opposition camps.
While some presidential hopefuls have suggested that constitutional amendment should be completed before the presidential election on May 9, Chung said such a timeline is “unrealistic” because there is no consensus yet about which clauses should be fixed and added.
“If we let the problems of the current presidential system persist, there will be no future for us. We should fix the Constitution before a local election in 2018 … but changing the Constitution before the upcoming presidential election is impossible because it would take at least 40 days for preparation.”
|Speaker Chung. Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald|
Unlike many parliamentary speakers of the past who avoided expressing opinions on controversial issues, Rep. Chung has often spoken out against Park and her policies since being elected last year as a speaker. Before assuming the job, Chung was a member of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.
He has sharply rebuked the government’s decision to deploy a US advanced anti-missile shield known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. In a parliamentary address last September, Chung blamed the government’s lack of communication for creating national division over THAAD.
Although he reserved his judgment over whether the controversial weapon system should be deployed, Chung asserted that the issue is subject to parliamentary approval because it is an international treaty that imposes a significant financial burden on taxpayers.
“I think it’s a matter that the government should have brought up to the Assembly in the first place, even if we didn’t want it,” said Chung, citing Article 60 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the Assembly has the right to ratify treaties that would incur grave financial burden on the state or people.
“I’m not talking about whether I agree with THAAD or not. I just want to point out that the government makes matters all the more complicated when they could have solved the problem in a much easier way. It’s all about observing democratic rules,” he added.
Nicknamed “Mr. Smile” for his gentleman-like attitude and mild temper, the speaker held many leadership positions in his political party and was often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.
Before joining politics at age 44, he had a high-flying career at one of the country’s largest trading companies.
His fame as a legendary figure who started off as a salaried worker in a chaebol and climbed up the corporate ladder with stellar performance threw him into the political limelight and attracted attention from the then opposition leader, late President Kim Dae-Jung.
“I think I’m the only politician who has a student activist background and experience in the real business world,” said Chung. “I was a perfect fit for what former President Kim was looking for. The experience that I built at a private company also helped me better play my role as a speaker.”
When asked about his plan after finishing his term, in particular whether he would run for the presidential race after the one this year, Chung said his primary focus is to complete his job as a top lawmaker on a sound note.
“In fact, having an opposition politician elected as a speaker is much more difficult than having one elected as a president,” said Chung. “I really want to do very well in my job as a speaker.”
By Yeo Jun-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org)