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The Presidential System in Korea: Is It a Little Too Old?
Yoon Se Young  |  nacynh@korea.ac.kr
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승인 2014.09.05  21:28:52
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The United States of America, The Russian Federation, and Argentina are some of the countries that enable the president to be reappointed. When looking at the world-wide level, more than 80 countries implement the two-term presidency system, whereas only 12 countries implement the one-term presidency system. With over 50 years of history of the presidential system in Korea, some claim that it is the time we need to discuss constitutional amendments that could enable the president to be re-elected for one more term, or that we should shift to the parliamentary governmental system.

The presidential system of the Republic of Korea changed many times. The history of the presidential system began with the governmental formation in 1948. At first, the presidential system was no different from that of America’s; the constitution of Korea enabled that the president could be re-elected for an additional term, and that the term in office would be four years. However, after President Rhee Syng-Man amended the constitution in order to maintain his authority, he dictated the country until the 4.19 revolution occurred.

After 4.19, however, despite the desires of the citizens for democracy, the 5.16 coup d’etat occurred, and President Park Chung-Hee dictated the country for more than 18 years. At first, he also claimed that he would be a president for only two terms, but his words changed afterward. It took hundreds of people’s lives and several pro-democracy movements until democracy got settled in Korea. It was not until the 1987 June Democratic Uprising that the amendment of the constitution took place, and the direct election system was settled down. 

Since then, the discussion for a two-term presidential system and reappointment of presidents became a taboo in Korean politics, and no one dared to bring the matter to light. One more problem to the amendment is that the president who proposes the amendment can be viewed as someone who is only interested in a way to extend his term in office. In addition, whenever the amendment of the constitution for reappointment of presidents is shed upon, the immediate repulsion due to national emotions, built by historical factors, also play a significant role to suppress the discussion.

According to Professor Nam Kwang Kyu (College of Political Science and Economics), one of the main reasons the Korean presidential system remains unchanged is because the adverse effects from dictatorship in the 1970s, which occurred because the president could be re-elected, was too massive. “Normally, countries that adopted the presidential system would go for the two-term presidential system.” he said. “Korea has adopted single term presidential system because of the distinct characteristics of Korean history. I believe under the archetypal presidential system, two-term presidency is more desirable.”

It was not until President Roh Moo-Hyun that the discussions about redesigning the presidential system in Korea came on the stage. In 2007, president Roh suggested the constitutional amendments, which would enable the president to be re-elected for more than one term. Yet he was met with huge oppositions, all claiming that the amendments were only designed to prolong his term in office.

The discussion of amendment to the constitution came into light again in 2014, since President Park Geun-Hye proposed the amendment as one of her pledges. The discussion for it has been actively progressing, until recently, when the scandals about National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the Saewol tragedy occurred. The discussion has been put on hold.

The advantages and disadvantages of the two-term presidency and single-term presidential system are distinct. One advantage of the single-term presidential system can guarantee the prevention of the long-term seizure of power.

However, one weakness of the single-term presidential system is that the term is too short, and that it is not easy for the president to implement national projects that need a substantial period of time. The early lame-duck phenomenon and seepage of power at the end of his term are also problems. Professor Nam points out, that it is for these reasons that the power of the president becomes weak, and it is difficult for the president to administer affairs of state without problems. 

On the other hand, the two-term presidency is not subjected to such problems. Because the term of the president is guaranteed, and he can prolong the term once, the president can view the affairs of state in a long term and practice responsible politics. In addition, it is also easier for the citizens to keep the president in check, since if the president’s policies do not fulfill their standards, they can simple unseat him in the next election. While it is the widely accepted theory that the odds of getting reelection is higher, the public can still influence the president and lead him in a way that benefits them the most. Furthermore, it is more viable to implement huge national projects.

For example, Obama Care, the major reformation of the American health insurance system, took more than six years to complete, and it could only be done because President Obama was reelected in the 2012 election. Moreover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) could lead America into victory in World War II and could overcome the Great Depression because he could remain in office until his project came to fruition.

Yet the weaknesses of the two-term presidency are also apparent. The most definite one is that the president might administer the affairs of state in a way that could benefit his party and himself, so that the reelection could be easier for them. Also, populism can be a problem in this kind of presidential system. In other words, the president might offer policies that can only fit into the pubic’s interest, without considering whether they are viable or not.

Despite such weaknesses, the experts claim that the two-term presidency is more suitable for the Korean political system. Professor Nam claims although some claim that the single term presidential system is more favorable, because it can serve as a means to check the power of the president, and because it provides the possibilities for regime changes, if Korea is to remain in the presidential system, it is more suitable to modify it into a two-term presidential system. The biggest problem in the current presidential system, he says, is the absence of responsible government as the biggest problem. “Due to the current one-term presidential system, most presidents do not see themselves as the ones that should bear the responsibilities.”

The opinions for ideal form of government for Korea vary from specialists to specialists. According to the research done by The Segye Times, 38 percent of the politicians believe the two-term presidential system is desirable, while 18 percent believed the parliamentary government is more ideal. Professor Nam claims the parliamentary government is more suitable for Korea. “When considering about the unification of Korea, the current system nor the two-term presidential system can bring mutual consent from the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The parliamentary government, on the other hand, can bring consents from the both sides and converge the political powers more effectively.” He adds that the settlement of the responsible politics based on parliaments and flexibility of transfer of power is another advantage of the parliamentary government. 

 

It is true that the public emotions toward the amendment of the constitution is not 100 percent favorable, but the current presidential system is not of a high level and is also not suited to the situation we are in. It is true that the amendment itself is burdensome for the one who is carrying it forward, but someone has to do the job, and it is inevitable for us to change the system. Rather than reacting emotionally to the amendment, it is required of us to view the matter rationally and consider the matter seriously.

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