There are some issues President Moon Jae-in has been prioritizing in his first weeks as the chief executive. They include job creation, the security threat from North Korea, relations with neighboring powers and overhauling the prosecution. Moon has just added revision of the Constitution to the growing list.
The Constitution was last amended in 1987 in the wake of the pro-democracy movement in that year. Its focus was on ensuring a power structure that can end the vicious cycle of dictatorships and extended rules.
So the new basic law stipulated the five-year single-term presidency, under which Moon became the seventh president. There is no doubt that the supreme law that laid the ground for the successive peaceful transfers of power helped upgrade Korean democracy.
But as public opinion surveys show, a majority of Korans believe that the current Constitution has outlived its mission. Recently, rewriting the Constitution has become a hot political topic.
Then the influence-peddling and corruption scandal perpetrated by ousted President Park Geun-hye and her jailed confidante Choi Soon-sil provided an additional momentum toward the call for constitutional amendment.
The overriding argument was that the basic law still gives too much power to the president and that “imperial presidency” was one of the root causes of the scandal that plunged the nation into an unprecedented political crisis.
But talk of Constitutional amendment was buried by the campaign for the by-election that followed the ouster of Park in March.
So it was encouraging that Moon paved way last week for moves to revise the basic law. The president first mentioned the need to revise the Constitution in a ceremony marking the 1980 May 18 uprising in Gwangju on Thursday, and he reaffirmed his commitment in a Blue House meeting with leaders of five political parties the following day.
During the campaign, Moon proposed that the supreme law be revised in a way to allow the president to serve two successive four-year terms. He also suggested to adopt a run-off vote in the presidential election, give more power of the president to the prime minister and strengthen local autonomy.
Regarding the timetable, Moon said that if elected, he would seek a final proposal to amend the Constitution by early next year, get it through the National Assembly and put it to a referendum on the day of local elections scheduled for June next year.
Moon’s comments drew generally positive reactions, with opposition parties concurring with the timetable. But it won’t be that easy to get the work done as scheduled.
The two conservative opposition parties have already taken issue with Moon’s pledge that he will include the spirit of the Gwangju May 18 pro-democracy uprising in the preamble to the new Constitution.
Both the Liberty Korea Party and Bareun Party said “further discussions” and “national consensus” are needed for such a decision. This alone predicts that the tug-of-war over how to rewrite the basic law will be long and arduous as political parties, social organizations and interest groups will raise their respective voices.
The hottest debate will be on the new power structure, for which there are already several proposals, like the four-year, two-term presidency, semipresidential system which is also called dual executive system and a parliamentary cabinet system.
Moreover, Moon suggested in Friday’s Blue House luncheon with party leaders that it would be better for the parties to discuss how to rezone the electoral districts for the parliamentary election as well.
Given our experience, redrawing the election map is never an easy matter as that could heavily affect the fate of political parties, sitting lawmakers and aspiring politicians. It would be better, therefore, to separate the work to rewrite the Constitution from other politically sensitive issues.
The good point is that all major players, including Moon and ruling and opposition parties, share the view that they should start the work as soon as possible.
The first step should be resuming the operation of the parliamentary panel on Constitutional revision which had been in hiatus due to the political turmoil caused by the Park-Choi scandal. It would be better -- as Moon suggested -- for the parliament to devise ways to reflect public views.