Tag Archives: President Moon Jae-in

South Korea – Local and by-elections are a strong endorsement of President Moon

Local and by-elections were held on June 13, 2018. 12 parliamentary seats were up for grabs, in addition to 17 mayoral and provincial governor positions, and 4,016 local administrative, legislative and educational posts. Exit polls show that the ruling Democratic Party (DP) has swept the elections: it has taken 11 of the 12 by-elections and 14 of the 17 local seats. The largest opposition party, the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) has been handed a significant set-back: it is expected to take only one of the by-election seats, and two of the local election races.

This year’s electoral contest is closely-watched as a harbinger of President Moon’s ability to extend the momentum of change that brought him into office more than a year ago and convert his high presidential popularity into electoral success for his party, the  DP. It is also seen as a signal the opposition conservative LKP’s ability to weather the significant political setbacks from the impeachment and subsequent conviction of former President Park Geun-hye on corruption and abuse of power charges on April 6, 2018, and the indictment of former President Lee Myung-bak on April 10, 2018, for 16 counts of embezzlement, corruption, and abuse of power. These results are a strong endorsement of President Moon, who has had a tough time pushing his agenda against the large legislative opposition led by the LKP.

President Moon promised a “major shift” in policies when he took office, and he has delivered on, arguably, the most spotlighted and highly-profiled issue of international interest for the year: the President brought North Korea and the United States together at the negotiations table in Singapore on June 12, 2018. The effort towards and accomplishment of bringing the two mercurial heads of government to discuss peace has seen President Moon’s approval ratings remain at unprecedented levels – exceeding high 70s – in the second year in office. Some of this success has brushed off on the ruling DP: it is enjoying approvals exceeding 50 percent amid falling approvals for the other parties in the legislature. These numbers bode well for the DP going into the elections, and the results have supported expectations.

Relations in the Korean peninsula will likely remain in the news for some time to come, and may continue to generate approvals for the President and the DP. This will be useful, given that the President’s other initiatives have not been as stellar. In particular, President Moon’s effort to realize constitutional revisions died in the legislature, while his push for a income-led growth in the country has been resisted by corporations, and small- and medium enterprises.

Talks of constitutional revision have been ongoing since the promulgation of the 1987 Constitution in South Korea; despite the frequency, constitutional revisions did not progress beyond discussions. The clamour for constitutional revision likely hit a peak with former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, and polls in September 2017 report that 78.4 percent agreed that the referendum on constitutional revisions should be held in conjunction with the June 2018 elections.

President Moon pushed the legislature on the issue but was stymied by the LDP in the legislature. Indeed, when the legislature failed to develop revisions, President Moon submitted a constitutional revision bill to the legislature on March 26, 2018. The revisions, developed by a constitutional committee, included decentralization of government and a two-term limited presidency. However, opposition parties boycotted the bill: only 114 legislators were present for the session, far short of the 192 needed to pass, thus effectively killing the bill. Given popular demand for constitutional revisions, the election results may be a signal for how voters view the resistance by the opposition parties.

Another important initiative that the President has pushed is the wage-led economic growth model. Following on this, in July 2017, the Minimum Wage Commission announced a 16 percent wage rise to 7,530 won ($6.60) per hour from 2018, with the possibility of increasing it to 10,000 won per hour by 2020. To ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises are able to meet the new wage increases, as well as to fund the new wage increases and job creation policies, the President called for new taxes. Despite these efforts, youth unemployment remains high; meanwhile, under pressure by businesses and corporations, the National Assembly and the cabinet have adopted revisions to the minimum wage bill so that calculation of minimum wage includes bonuses and benefits, including health benefits. While employers have welcomed the revisions, labor groups argue that these inclusions will effectively offset the new minimum wage policies and have called on the President to veto the bill.

The by-election and local election results are a clear endorsement for President Moon. Much can happen in the two years leading to the next general elections, but the public support, new electoral wins, and the LDP’s losses may pave the way for legislative support of the President’s policies.

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.

South Korea – The President Wages War to Increase Wages

President Moon Jae-in pledged to “yield the president’s imperial power to the people” when he took office on May 10, 2017, and the first 130 days suggests that the President is making good on his word. In particular, in addition to appointing reformists, critics, and former civil-activists to executive offices, the President has taken by the horns two onerous issues: tax increase and wage increase. Specifically, to fund the President’s initiatives on job creation and wage increases, the President will seek to increase taxes on conglomerates as well as high-income earners. The tax hike will need to pass the National Assembly, where the ruling Democratic Party has only 120 of the 299 total seats. Still, at a time of growing income inequalities, job insecurity, stagnant wages, and loss in political and economic confidences, the President’s “paradigm shift” to push for economic growth through wage increases that will increase consumption, rather than rely on labor reforms such as the wage-peak system advocated by previous conservative-governments that aimed at increasing recruitment, has seen his approval ratings remain at peaks of 80 percent and more. Perhaps what is more notable about President Moon’s initiatives is the transparent, open-discussion of their complementarity and necessity. That may be the distinguishing, all-important step towards a successful policy.

Clearly, President Moon is not the first president to come into office promising equity and support for workers: his disgraced predecessor, the impeached President Park Geun-hye, championed economic democratization following her successful 2012 election that was subsequently diluted to a 474 vision (4 percent GDP growth, 70 percent employment and $40,000 per capita income); before President Park, President Lee Myung-bak’s administration pushed for the 747 goal (7 percent economic growth, $40,000 per capita income and becoming the world’s seventh-largest economy).

But, unlike these predecessors, President Moon has followed through on his plans. The Minimum Wage Commission has announced the 16 percent wage rise to 7,530 won ($6.60) per hour from 2018. To ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises are able to meet the new wage increases, as well as to fund the new wage increases and job creation policies, the President has called for new taxes. Indeed, the President has distinguished himself even from political contemporaries in calling for the tax hikes: by way of contrast, the Liberty Korea Party (formerly Saneuri Party) called the President’s policy a “dreadful tax bomb” while the People’s Party and the Bareun Party – both of which had agreed on the necessity of tax hikes – criticized the government’s plans for the hike.

This departure is significant: across the globe, austerity economics where incumbents or opposition seek to tighten wasteful spending while pledging to control big business has lost credibility with large swaths of the electorate. In South Korea, surveys conducted by Gallup Korea estimated the number of undecided voters at 27 percent in the last election, and that was an increase by six percent from December 2015. Clearly, there is a growing “party”-apathy among voters. This is not synonymous with political apathy: events such as the strong candlelight protest rallies that fueled the former President Park’s impeachment show public passion and involvement. What party-apathy signifies is the lack of outlets for that passion and involvement in the form of issues and platforms of the political parties. President Moon’s initiatives – or, more precisely, his departures from standard party stances – may be the antidote to party-apathy that will ignite political passion and, correspondingly, policy success.