The Korean economy is reeling from the shock of the novel coronavirus. Its first-quarter growth marked minus 1.4 percent quarter-on-quarter, the lowest in 11 years and three months. Korea had a trade deficit for the first time in 99 months in April. The overseas situation is difficult, too. In the first quarter, the US economy suffered its sharpest decline since the Great Recession -- 4.8 percent, while China contracted 6.8 percent.
In this situation, the ruling party is raising issues about amending the Constitution.
The floor leader of the Democratic Party of Korea proposed a parliamentary vote on a bill allowing the public to suggest a constitutional amendment if they secure more than 1 million signatures. The National Assembly speaker is reportedly considering convening the Assembly on Friday for the vote.
Reportedly this bill has a slim chance of passing the Assembly. The ruling party appears to be trying to kindle a debate on revising the Constitution. It looks intent on pushing ahead with constitutional amendments in the next parliament. The party and its sister party won 180 out of 300 seats in the April 15 general election, and expect 10 more left-of-center lawmakers-elect to side with it. It takes 200 seats to put forward a motion on a constitutional amendment.
In media interviews, several party members disclosed their proposals for a constitutional revision.
Lawmaker-elect Lee Yong-sun, a former senior secretary for civic and social affairs under President Moon Jae-in, argued that the Constitution should be revised to adopt the “public concept of land ownership.” This concept, if adopted, will serve as the foundation for limiting real estate possession and sale under the pretext of preventing speculation.
Rep. Song Young-gil argued for multiple-term presidency. According to the current law, the Korean president serves a single five-year term.
Rep. Kim Tae-nyeon, who announced his candidacy for DP floor leader, vowed to push for a “social grand compromise” that calls for profit-making businesses or industries to share their profits with loss-making ones.”
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun added weight to their arguments, saying that “the next year is the golden time for amending the Constitution.”
With a huge majority in the next parliament, the ruling party may well fall into the temptation to change the Constitution to its liking.
Changing the Constitution is a sensitive and grave issue requiring national debate. Viewpoints of conservatives and liberals on constitutional issues are starkly different. It is highly likely that public opinion will be split.
This is a time to focus national resources on finding a solution to the problem of the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19.
If lawmakers begin a debate on constitutional amendments, the top priority of discussion must be given to how to reform the imperial presidency which threatens the separation of powers between three branches of government in Korea. Not a few Koreans would oppose justifications for the dispersion of presidential power.
But the ruling party did not mention this. It brought up worrisome topics such as a profit-sharing system and the public concept of land ownership. These go against private ownership of property and free-market system. It is questionable if these anti-market frameworks are conducive to reviving the economy.
Other arguments such as multiple-term presidency and people’s proposal for constitutional amendment need in-depth discussions. They look untimely, too.
The ruling party says it will not seek to change the Constitution immediately, but it will likely try to push it in the new parliament on the strength of its near absolute majority.
People and companies are struggling to overcome the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. During its campaign for the general election, the party never said a word about constitutional change. The issue is not among its election promises, either.
There are piles of urgent and high-priority works to do to resuscitate the economy. Now, Korea cannot afford to sit back and spend its national resources on the divisive issue of amending the Constitution.