Constitutional Reforms in East Asia, Part III: Progress and Possibility in South Korea

Talks of constitutional reforms are sweeping across the presidential and semi-presidential systems in East Asia: the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. Constitutions capture the principles – some say, the most sacred principles – around which institutions, legislation, rules, and processes of a country are built.[1] Constitutional reforms, then, are generally significant and painstaking undertakings, often requiring supermajorities in the legislature or the electorate or both to ratify. And, this may be rightfully so: if they are to amend or revise principles that underpin the political, economic, and social structures of a country, the process should not be based on changeable and changing attitudes. Given the significance, the concomitant grip of constitutional reforms across several of the East Asian with a president as head or co-head of government is interesting, if not curious. What level of public support is there for these reforms? And, how likely are these reforms to pass?

In previous instalments, I discussed the level of public support in the Philippines and Taiwan for constitutional reform.[2] In this article, I examine the level of public support for reforms in South Korea. Article 130 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, enacted in the 1987 Constitution, which is sometimes referred to as the 1987 constitutional amendments, stipulates that constitutional revisions require two-thirds support of the total members of the National Assembly; once approved, the revisions must be submitted to the Korean electorate for approval in a referendum within 30 days. Constitutional revisions are passed if approved by a majority of more than 50 percent of eligible voters.

Calls for Constitutional revisions have ebbed and flowed in the country since the 1987 Constitution was adopted. This partly reflects the dissatisfaction among the leading political candidates and parties at the outcome of a single term, five-year non-reelectable presidential system with legislators elected every four years: although the Constitution was passed by an overwhelming 93.3 percent of the turnout, the constitutional committee constituted in 1986 to recommend changes ended in deadlock and the discussion was suspended before resuming again in July 1987 to create a document within an accelerated time frame. The frequent revival of the possibility of constitutional revisions also reflects dissatisfaction with the effect of the term-limited president and unmatched terms on executive-legislature relations and policymaking in the medium- and long-term.

Former President Park Geun-hye’s tenure illustrates these policy effects and executive-legislature tensions in practice. For instance, prior to the 2016 general elections, the executive-leader – in the tradition of presidentialized parties in South Korea – refused to cede the nomination process to the party in order to maintain her personal agenda rather than shift focus away to the party’s agenda.[3] It may be probably surprising to learn that she – together with the other presidential candidates – made a multiparty pledge during the 2012 campaign to reform the nomination process. She also stonewalled her party on the issue of constitutional reforms, which she had also pledged to change on the campaign trail, citing the need to tackle urgent or pressing tasks such as economic recovery for the country over longer-term considerations such as constitutional reforms. These tensions and conflicts between the executive and her party in the legislature that were often resolved in favour of the executive served to undermine party-development and institutionalization.

President Park’s impeachment has flung open the door for constitutional changes: immediately following the Constitutional Court’s ruling in support of her  impeachment, three parties in the legislature tried to bring constitutional reforms for the presidential election in May. The tight timeline doomed that discussion, but current President Moon Jae-in has maintained a commitment to actualize reforms: the President has set a timeline for constitutional reforms to be brought up for referendum by the next local elections in June 2018. The good news is that public surveys and polls of the legislature report high support for constitutional revisions: almost 69 percent of the public and 94 percent of the legislature are in favour of changes. Less clear is what reforms will be adopted. Nevertheless, given the commitment of the president, support from the legislature, and public support, there is reason to believe that constitutional changes will be adopted in Korea before the next presidential election.

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[1] Strauss, David. 2010. The Living Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press

[2] Yap, O. Fiona. 2017. “Constitutional Reforms in East Asia, Part I: Progress and Possibility in the Philippines.”  “Constitutional Reforms in East Asia, Part 2: Progress and Possibility in Taiwan.

[3] Elgie, Robert. 2011. “Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, and Semi-Presidentialism: Bringing Parties Back In.” Government and Opposition vol 46 no 2: 392-408; D. J. Samuels and M. S. Shugart. 2010. Presidents, Parties, Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Powers Affects Party Organization and Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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