New National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang has reignited the issue of amending the Constitution, asking the rival parties to write a bipartisan bill by the end of this year. The call couldn’t come from a more appropriate authority or at a better time.
It is desirable for the speaker who will head the parliament for the latter half of its four-year term to call for a constitutional revision based on a bipartisan agreement.
The timeline also makes sense in that the coming year would be a rare “election-free” year. The next major polls come at the quadrennial parliament election to be held in April of 2020, but political parties and candidates usually enter into election mode as early as a year before the actual vote.
When an election comes up, parties and candidates are obsessed with victory, gearing everything toward enhancing their chances. One good example is the main opposition Liberty Korea Party’s objection to President Moon Jae-in’s proposal to amend the basic law through a referendum to be put to a vote alongside the local elections held in June this year.
The opposition party and its former leader Hong Joon-pyo, who ran against Moon in the 2017 presidential election, had promised to support the proposal to revise the Constitution simultaneously with the local elections. But they reversed their position, arguing that doing so could distract voters from what it said should be the focal point of the election -- delivering a fair judgement on the Moon government and his ruling Democratic Party of Korea on their first year in power.
Now the Liberty Korea Party and minor opposition Bareunmirae Party generally agree with the speaker about the need to revise the supreme law to address, among other things, concentration of power in the presidency.
The problem this time lies with the ruling party, which only expressed a lukewarm attitude toward the speaker’s proposal. That President Moon and his aides -- who usually do not fail to put their hands on major political issues -- have kept silent toward the speaker’s proposal, made in his address marking the 70th Constitution Day on July 17, also makes one believe the ruling camp is reluctant to revive discussions on the Constitution.
The reluctance must be based on yet another political calculation that talk of such a heavy issue as constitutional revision could divert public attention away from the Moon government’s ongoing reform drive that has been buffeting nearly every sector of Korean society.
But what they overlook is that nothing is more urgent than reforming politics, for which amending the Constitution that was last revised in 1987 is essential.
What the writers of the 1987 Constitution focused on was ending the military-backed dictatorship, which led them to adopt a five-year single term for the president, who is to be elected in a direct vote.
What they failed to do, however, was address the problems of the basic law giving the president excessive power. As Moon and his supporters pointed out, concentration of power in the president resulted in the corruption and abuse of power that ousted former President Park Geun-hye.
Moon won power riding the wave of the people’s power that was demonstrated by months of massive candlelight vigils. They called for not only punishment of the Park government but also termination of what is often called the “imperial presidency.”
It is against this backdrop that any foot-dragging by the president and his ruling party should raise suspicion that it does not intend to part with the sweetness of absolute power exercised by the president under the current Constitution.
The time remaining before the end of the year is not long. But neither is it short, given the fact that a parliamentary ad-hoc panel has discussed key elements of a new Constitution since early last year. Some of the proposals in President Moon’s bill could also be included in the bill to be worked out by the rival parties.
What’s essential is commitment and support from Moon and the ruling party. Speaker Moon, pointing to the problem of power concentrated in the president, said it is time for the nation to take off old clothes and wear new ones. He is right in every respect.