Jörg Michael Dostal – South Korea: New President Moon Jae-in Promotes Constitutional Reform

This is  guest post by Jörg Michael Dostal, Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University, Korea.

Introduction: The ‘Imperial Presidency’

There is consensus in writings about South Korean politics (subsequently referred to as Korea) suggesting that the country’s ‘imperial presidency’ constitutes the major power centre. In the Korean context, the term ‘imperial’ is used to signify that the institution of the presidency, namely the president and his/her presidential office, enjoy dominance over the other political institutions, such as the prime minister (appointed by the president and approved by parliament), ministries and other state agencies. In the relationship between the presidency and Korea’s parliament (the National Assembly), the president also exercises strong direct and indirect control over legislation, via his right to appoint the state council (the government) which can put forward legislation and his ability to directly issue presidential decrees. Although parliament performs the role of principal legislator and must agree on the annual national budget as submitted by the executive branch headed by the president, its supervisory role is much diminished if the president’s party holds a parliamentary majority. In addition, the Korean president controls foreign policy-making, the state security institutions and the national military. Thus, in the Korean context the term ‘imperial presidency’ suggests the president’s concurrent control of domestic and foreign policy-making for which the current Korean Constitution of 1987 provides the enabling framework [1].

The Korean use of the term therefore differs from Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s famous description of the US ‘imperial presidency’ that hinted at ‘executive excess’, namely offences against the balance of power as outlined in the US Constitution, such as presidential foreign policy-making based on inner circle decision-making without the involvement of Congress – e.g. the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. In the Korean case, the 1987 Constitution in fact facilitates presidential dominance and would require amendments in order to create a more balanced political system.

Korea’s Constitutional History

Overall, Korea’s political and constitutional history since 1948 can be divided into the periods of authoritarian rule – strongmen backed up by the military – between 1948 and 1987, briefly punctuated between 1960 and 1961 by a parliamentary republic, and the period since the transition to democracy in 1987. The earlier authoritarian periods are referred to as the First and the Third to Fifth Republics. The Second Republic, lasting for less than a year between 1960 and 1961, was Korea’s first effort at democratic governance while the current democratic Korea is referred to as the Sixth Republic. The first Korean Constitution was issued in 1948 and is partially influenced by the US example, although sections about the rights of the individual and the people as the source of all political authority have been ignored under the authoritarian regimes.

The 1948 Constitution has been amended nine times and revised four times, most recently in 1987. The earlier revisions mostly concerned procedural issues such as how the president should be elected and the duration of his time in office. The major past event in this respect was the 1972 ‘Yushin Constitution’ that facilitated the continuation of the rule of President Park Chung-hee for an unlimited number of six-year terms that came to an end due to his assassination in 1979. All constitutional provisions between 1948 and 1960 and from 1961 to 1987 were fictitious in providing a thin veneer of façade democracy while unchecked presidential power was always the dominant element in the authoritarian system.

Because of this, the most crucial constitutional amendment was the latest one dating from 1987 that provided for the competitive direct election of the president by the people in a single round plurality vote for a non-renewable five-year term in office. Since then, six presidents have entered and left office in five-year spells with the exception of the last one, Park Geun-hye (the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee). Her term in office started in 2013 and came to an end due to a citizens’ protest movement that took off in the autumn of 2016 in reaction to revelations about her abuse of office, namely allowing her confidante Choi Soon-sil to collect ‘donations’ from chaebols (Korean business conglomerates) for ‘foundations’, i.e. monies were extracted in exchange for influence paddling. This revelation, currently still under investigation alongside other charges, resulted in her impeachment by the National Assembly on 9 December 2016, a decision that was upheld by the Constitutional Court on 10 March 2017, ending her presidency. She was subsequently, on 30 March 2017, arrested to facilitate ongoing investigations by the prosecutor, and her arrest was extended for another six-month period on 13 October 2017.

Constitutional Reform

The new liberal President Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, elected on 9 May 2017, has announced that he intends to push for constitutional changes to reform the political system to uproot ‘deep-rooted irregularities accumulated over the last nine years’ [2]. He has further specified that he expects such changes to be subject to a popular referendum to be run concurrently with the next local government election that is scheduled for the July of 2018.

Significantly, talk about constitutional reform has been something of an evergreen in recent Korean politics. There was debate about reform under the last four presidencies, namely the ones led by the liberals Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) and the conservatives Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017). These debates focused on reforming the presidency in a way that would strengthen other political institutions, perhaps in exchange for removing the single-term limit on the presidency to make the system conform with the US example allowing for two consecutive four-year terms in office. In this context, the most commonly voiced reform scenarios concerned semi-presidentialism (dividing authority between domestic and foreign policy-making and handing the former to the prime minister), or strengthening of the role of the National Assembly vis-à-vis the president. However, these debates were somehow academic and/or journalistic in the sense that other countries and their systems were presented to a Korean audience that took note, but was still not strongly committed to any particular reform course. No action was taken.

However, the new President Moon is more strongly committed to constitutional reform in comparison to his predecessors, and his high popular approval rates backed up by a narrow majority of liberal forces in the National Assembly (his own party holds 121 out of 299 seats in parliament while another liberal parties hold 40 seats) makes for a more enabling reform environment. Yet the liberal camp is short of the required two-third majority in parliament that is necessary to pass a constitutional reform bill, which would in turn enable the president to submit such proposal to a popular referendum next year. In other words, President Moon needs cooperation from at least some conservatives to find enough votes in parliament to ensure passage [3]. If this is in fact possible is currently an entirely open question. After all, the normal behavioural pattern of liberals and conservatives in Korea has been all-out confrontation rather than cooperation.

Nevertheless, thirty years after the last constitutional reform that issued in democracy in 1987, another round of reform appears at least plausible. But what are we to expect? In terms of potential reform scenarios, the options include the already mentioned semi-presidentialism, although this idea has so far not triggered much support. Other conceivable changes would concern the relationship between the presidency and the ensemble of the other political institutions mentioned in the 1987 Constitution, making the former less ‘imperial’ and strengthening the latter. For example, the presidential office that is currently made up of presidential appointees and controls the other institutions could hand over some powers to other actors. Another option would be to make the political system less centralised, by expanding the decision-making power of local governments. One could also think of efforts to change the way the legislature is elected, by changing the voting system from the currently dominant plurality system to a system that expands proportional representation. Such change would have the potential to transform the party system and could perhaps overcome the current patterns of political behaviour that is mostly based on personal loyalties to individual leaders and regionalism rather than political programmes and ideology.

The Future of Korean Democracy

Any constitutional reform scenario ultimately poses hard questions about the actual state of the country’s democratic capabilities. While the current mainstream view is the optimistic assertion that the unseating of Park Geun-hye, due to the popular protests in 2016 and 2017 with millions of participants in peaceful street rallies, has proven the resilience of democratic values and popular engagement in Korea, this view has not been universally shared. One observer has suggested that Koreans in all socio-economic groups mostly prefer paternalistic leadership over liberal democracy. The author further holds that ‘socioeconomic modernization has failed to emancipate the people from illiberal norms’, arguing that the ‘internalization of norms promoting hierarchism, collectivism, conformism, and [cultural] monism in social life … [promote] affinity for paternalistic autocracy’. These assertions, based on data from the 2015 Asian Barometer Korean survey, point back to the problem of the relationship between Confucian values and pluralist democracy [4].

In a similar vein, the current writer has suggested that Korean democracy suffers from clashes between constitutional, Confucian and hyper-capitalistic norms and values. Such competition produces a permanent state of flux; each of the three normative orientations have moments of dominance. As a result, interpersonal trust is low, which facilitates a highly competitive individualism taking advantage of weak institutional checks and balances. Any reform path would require overcoming the ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality in order to consolidate institutions of political participation based on deliberation and coalition-building [5].

The reality of Korean democracy is that there has been limited progress in terms of strengthening of formal institutions. Namely, the chaebols and their economic interests have always dominated the political agenda, while civil society actors have been weakly institutionalised and usually powerless. In turn, political parties also display little by way of an internal life beyond the leader-follower relationship. This spills over into the way the parties conduct parliamentary business. If institutions other than the presidency are expected to acquire a larger role in the future, their capabilities would have to be strengthened from the bottom up as much as from the top down.

Clearly, one of the paradoxes of President Moon’s plan of making the presidency surrender some of its power in favour of other institutions is that the current system would still demand him to assume leadership on devolving such power. This is necessary because the other potential actor of devolution, namely parliament, might be gridlocked if liberals and conservatives fail to agree on joined-up reform. In case of failure, President Moon could have a second shot at constitutional reform in 2020 when the next national parliamentary elections are due and the liberals could theoretically gain a two-thirds majority enabling them to act without the backing of conservatives. Yet such a surge in a president’s popularity at a later stage of his/her tenure has not happened so far in the post-1987 democratic system. Instead, presidents usually lose some of their previous support in parliament during later stages of their tenure, and their agenda-setting power is subsequently much diminished. Thus, whether the current round of constitutional reform debate is going to produce results is still an open question.


[1] Yong-duck Jung, The Korean State, Public Administration, and Development: Past, Present and Future Challenges, Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 2014, pp. 67-119.

[2] No stated author, ‘What Moon Jae-in pledged to do as president’, Korea Herald, 10 May 2017, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170509000521.

[3] Hyo-jin Kim, ‘Constitutional talks may lose steam’, Korea Times, 16 October 2017, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/10/356_237679.html.

[4] Doh-chull Shin, ‘President Park Geun-hye and the Deconsolidation of Liberal Democracy in South Korea: Exploring its Cultural Roots’, Center for the Study of Democracy, UC Irvine, 14 July 2017, pp. 9, 13, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1t68c47v.

[5] Jörg Michael Dostal, ‘South Korean Presidential Politics Turns Liberal: Transformative Change or Business as Usual?’, The Political Quarterly, 88, 3, 2017: 480-491, http://gspa.snu.ac.kr/sites/gspa.snu.ac.kr/files/Dostal-2017-The_Political_Quarterly%2088%283%29.pdf.

About the author

Jörg Michael Dostal (jmdostal@snu.ac.kr) is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University, Korea. He teaches comparative politics and has recently published on the politics of Germany, Switzerland, Syria and South Korea. His publications are available here: http://gspa.snu.ac.kr/node/76.

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