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Senior politicians call for people-led constitutional reform on Constitution Day

Senior politicians and lawmakers called for a constitutional reform plan that reflects the opinions of the people during a debate at the National Assembly on Monday, the 69th Constitution Day.

“Constitutional reform is now an order from the people and the duty of lawmakers. The amending procedures should also be led by the people, not by a specific authority or political factions,” National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun said, opening the debate.

National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun delivers a congratulatory address at the senior politician debate on constitutional reform at the National Assembly on Monday. (Yonhap)
National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun delivers a congratulatory address at the senior politician debate on constitutional reform at the National Assembly on Monday. (Yonhap)

He also urged the parliament to ensure that the revision be carried out smoothly in order to be completed by next year. 

“We should motion the revision bill next March, put it to a parliamentary vote in May and make sure the referendum is run smoothly on June 13, on the sidelines of the local elections,” Chung said.

Calls have risen for reform of the Constitution last amended 30 years ago, in 1987. It was promulgated on July 17, 1948. President Moon Jae-in has vowed to complete the revision and conduct a referendum on it for June 13 next year, when the nation goes to polls for local elections.

Participating in Monday’s debate were five former assembly speakers: Kim Won-ki, Kim Hyung-o, Park Kwan-yong, Lim Chae-jung and Chung Ui-hwa. Former President of the Constitutional Court Lee Kang-kuk and former Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo were also present.

The debate mainly revolved around the need for the revision and the need to better reflect the views of citizens to enhance their quality of life.

They also talked about ways to disperse authority with the country’s “imperial presidency,” suggesting ideas such as reinforcing the decentralization system and different forms of government.

Former speaker Kim Hyung-o contended that the current presidential system gives the president too many powers and that it does not fit the nation’s principle of separating legislative, administrative and judicial powers.

“The president and the administration have excessive power compared to the parliament and Supreme Court. But the system to watch over their powers has not been developed,” Kim said. “To disperse the president’s authority, we should pursue a different form of government such as a semipresidential system.”

Kim also criticized the current single-term, five-year presidency, saying it leads to the government’s failure to come up with long-term visions for the country. That goes in line with what President Moon had suggested -- to revise the law to implement a double-term, four-year presidency.

Park voiced concerns over how a semipresidential system would be able to completely separate the duties of the president and prime minister. He also added that they need a thorough review of each suggestion.

“I also want to stress that it is important to match the time of the presidential and general elections, because its mismatch leads to a lot of confusion,” Park said. 

Senior politicians pose for camera in a debate on Constitutional reform at the National Assembly on Monday. (Yonhap)
Senior politicians pose for camera in a debate on Constitutional reform at the National Assembly on Monday. (Yonhap)

Mindful of the four political parties constantly clashing over state affairs, Kim Won-ki highlighted the importance of cooperation among lawmakers.

“We now know political reform is impossible without the fundamental law changed to properly reflect the current society,” Kim said.

For the constitutional revision to pass the parliament, more than two-thirds of the 299-member parliament should vote to pass it.

A special committee on constitutional reform, consisting of 36 lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties, kicked off at the National Assembly on Jan. 5 to review the Constitution and come up with a common reformation proposal.

A political reform panel with 13 lawmakers was also set up in late June to motion bills to make improvements in the electoral system. While the consensus is that a constitutional amendment is needed, opinions are divided over the details.

Lim, who focused his speech on the need for revision of the law, underlined that the demand comes from the people. He referred to how previous attempts to revise the Constitution were only means to maintain regimes.

Big changes were made twice to the Constitution before 1987, in which the reform drives were promoted unilaterally under dictator regimes: Syngman Rhee in 1954 and Park Chung-hee in 1972, the father of ousted former President Park Geun-hye.

“This time, the demand for change comes from the people. It will be the people, the masters of the Constitution, who lead the revision,” he said.

According to a poll released Sunday by Korea Research, 75.4 percent of 1,000 respondents said they agree with revising the Constitution, while 72.8 percent also said the reform would help enhance their quality of life.

In the same poll, 79.8 percent said that presidential power should be dispersed, while the law should reinforce a decentralized system.

On the preferred forms of government, 46 percent supported a semipresidential system in which the president is elected by a national vote to focus on foreign policies while the prime minister is elected by the parliament to look over domestic affairs. The current presidency system followed in the list with 38.2 percent, while 13 percent of respondents said they prefer a parliamentary government.

Constitution Day was previously designated as a national holiday in 1950, but it was eliminated from the list of holidays in 2008.

By Jo He-rim (