Korean politics is being hit hard by raging disputes over several Cabinet nominees and the consequent confrontation between President Moon Jae-in and the opposition.
The standoff is so severe that parliamentary business, other than the confirmation of the nominees, has been virtually paralyzed. In other words, the nomination battles are overshadowing all other political agenda.
In light of the situation, it was encouraging that Moon -- despite taking heat over his nominees -- called attention last week to a crucial issue: amendment of the Constitution.
Almost simultaneously, National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun, another strong advocate of the revision of the basic law, also reaffirmed his commitment to putting a new Constitution to a national referendum in June next year.
The current Constitution was last revised 31 years ago, in the wake of a popular pro-democracy movement that ended decades of dictatorships by military strongmen.
Writers of the 1987 Constitution were therefore focused on reviving the direct popular election of the president and limiting the chief executive’s term to a single five-year one.
Now the national consensus is that the power structure and some outdated clauses of the 31-year-old supreme law should be changed. The impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye also raised the need to curb the power of the chief executive.
During the election campaign, Moon, along with other major candidates, promised to put a new Constitution to a referendum on the day of the local elections slated for June 13 next year.
About one year to go before the deadline, Moon reaffirmed his commitment to the Constitutional revision in a meeting with major governors and mayors last week.
What is noteworthy is that the president drew fresh attention to the proposal for the new Constitution to prescribe a high level of decentralization. He mentioned a level that is close to a “federal system.”
It was timely that Moon stressed the importance of delegating the power of the central government to local governments, which is closely related to efforts to curb power concentrated in the president.
Indeed, redistribution of power under a new Constitution should ensure fair and efficient power sharing, not only among the president, the prime minister and other authorities, but also between the central and local governments.
As Moon suggested during the election, a high level of local autonomy could be achieved by entrusting local governments with autonomous powers on such key areas as legislation, administration, finance and welfare.
Moon’s proposal to form a “second Cabinet” that includes governors and mayors of the nation’s largest provinces and cities would also be able to foster cooperation between the central and local governments.
One day before Moon mentioned constitutional revision and decentralization, Speaker Chung renewed his commitment to completing the work by the deadline of June next year -- which coincides with the expiration of his two-year tenure as head of the legislative branch.
Chung rightfully stressed that the writing of a new Constitution should ensure public participation and transparency. One way to do that would be to open the parliamentary ad-hoc panel for amending the Constitution to outside experts and civic leaders.
As Chung noted, the panel’s work should not be affected by other political issues such as the current confrontation over Moon’s nominees. This is one of the areas where Chung needs to exercise his leadership as the chief legislator.
The consensus in the political community is that the parliamentary panel should draft a new Constitution by the end of February next year, considering the time needed to get it through the National Assembly vote and the national referendum.
Given the divisiveness of Korean politics, it would not be easy to gain agreement from all parties and social groups in the country. The National Assembly panel ought to speed up its work. It is never too early.