19.11.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Future of South Korea’s Domestic Policy

4324234234234Besides the scandal surrounding the confidante of the President, other events have also been occurring in the political life of South Korea.

Firstly, the South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, has proposed introducing amendments to the Constitution that allow the president to be elected for a second term.  Speaking in the National Assembly, she stated that this reform would be her main objective for the remainder of her term. At the moment, the presidential term is limited to 5 years without the right to re-election, which is widely criticized. Although, the concept of the one five-year term was established in 1987, prior to South Korea’s democratization as a “preventative measure against tyranny”, it now significantly denies the President the chance to carry out large-scale reforms that require a considerable period of time. As history shows, after coming to power, the President of Korea usually spends his/her first year (or year and a half) assigning people to key positions thus ensuring support in the administration. During the last year of the term he/she plays the role of “lame duck”, because the logic of factional fight in Korea dictates that each new president ignore the greater part of his/her predecessor’s achievements. Meanwhile, a long-term reform programme requires unchanged leadership and stable policy and there is nothing worse than a reform that has been started but not finished as the old structure has been destroyed while the new one has not been established yet. Finally, a limited term promotes the idea that the President’s circle should “take what you can while you can” and not worry about the future since all the problems generated by them will be solved by others. This does not destroy corruption and irresponsibility but reinforces them.

It was these arguments that President Park highlighted – due to the change in the political course every five years, the country sees no steady development. It hinders the solution of the North Korean nuclear problem and the development of the South Korean economy. However, the opposition stated that President Park was thus trying to divert public attention from the corruption scandal around her key allies, especially since Roh Moo-hyun was trying to test the waters in relation to introducing amendments to the Constitution when he was in the same “last-year crisis”. Diversions and talks about the second term despite the fact that the benefits of the reform will not be enjoyed by the initiator, but its successor is a typical trick used in the political struggle in Korea.

On October 28, the Gallup Korea Agency published the results of a survey concerning changes in the presidential regimen, conducted on October 23-27 among 1033 adult citizens. 54% of respondents voted for the introduction of amendments to the Constitution in connection with the shortcomings of the current presidential regimen. 33% voted against such amendments, considering that the problem is not in the system but how it is implemented. 14% of respondents abstained. Since polls have been taken on the subject, the number of those who support the introduction of amendments to the Constitution has exceeded 50% for the first time.

Secondly, the crisis in the main opposition Democratic Party hasn’t yet been overcome. Sohn Hak-kyu, an influential politician, has left the Party and other well-known figures began leaving too. As former prime minister and prominent figure in the left-wing movement, he hesitated for two years but then decided to leave the Party and to become an independent presidential candidate. His supporters such as Lee Chan-yeol, Kim Byung-wook and Park Chan-dae have left the Party with him.

Against this background, a topic that could have turned into a scandal comparable to the story of Choi Soon-sil was almost buried. It was related to an extract from the recently published memoirs of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Song Min-soon about how in 2007, the government of Roh Moo-hyun had abstained from voting for the UN resolution on human rights in North Korea, after agreeing this decision with Pyongyang. The memoirs state that the proposal for consultations with the North had come from Kim Man-bok, who held the position of head of the National Intelligence Service. After that, the head of the presidential administration, Moon Jae-in, had promised to clarify Pyongyang’s position via the inter-Korean communication channel. As a result, the Republic of Korea abstained from voting.

It should be noted, that the accusation of defeatist policy toward North Korea is quite damning, especially since the issue directly concerns the most influential presidential candidate of the opposition – Moon Jae-in, who then served as the head of the presidential administration. To establish the truth, the incumbent Saenuri Party even set up a special group and then completely added the matter to the task list of its Committee. The leader of the party faction, Chung Jin-suk, has submitted 10 suspicious points from the published book and demanded an explanation from Moon Jae-in. The opposition Toburo Party believes that these accusations are nothing more than a typical attempt to attack the leading opposition figure. Moon Jae-in himself has also criticized these actions, though he has not confirmed the memoirs’ verity.

Something similar has already happened in South Korean politics prior to the presidential election in 2012, when disputes erupted over the northern boundary line and its annulment, which was allegedly announced by President Roh Moo-hyun. Most likely, the issue, just like the previous time, will be drowned out in debates over whether the government of Roh Moo-hyun really sought the opinion of the North or made a decision on its own.

However, the Democratic Party has been partially renamed – while previously in English they were the Minjoo Party of Korea (“Minjoo” means “democracy” in Korean), now they are the Democratic Party of Korea. As a rule, this is done either when a merger (or division) takes place, or when it is necessary to “clear the karma” and show that we are no longer the same before and we are free from past mistakes. So, it’s no wonder that experts are guessing how soon the Saenuri Party will undergo the same transformation.

Thirdly, the Prime Minister, Kim Byong-joon, appointed by Park Geun-hye, is not going to voluntarily quit the position offered to him. As he mentioned himself, Kim Byong-joon is not even considering the possibility of quitting despite the demands of the opposition made to the head of the state to cancel his appointment. The head of the state has carried out a staff reshuffle in response to the demands of the National Assembly to form a neutral government with representatives of all political powers and transfer some of the presidential authority to the head of the government. It does not matter that she appointed the wrong representative of the left-wing, ignoring the suggestions given to her. However, in order to take the position of the Prime Minister Kim Byong-joon must be approved by the majority of deputies, and the opposition is threatening to boycott the hearings.

Fourthly, in spite of demands of the management to return to work, South Korean railway workers have been on strike for over a month – the longest period that trade unions have demonstrated. The Korean Railways Corporation announced that as of October 28, railway timetables have been 100% complied with in the suburbs and 88.4% in the metropolitan area. This is due to the fact that strikers are not aiming at disrupting the interests of ordinary citizens. However, freight train timetables have only been 45% complied with. At the moment, the strikes involve 7,753 people and the overall participation level of union members in the protest is 39.9%.

In general, we should not exaggerate the scale of the political crisis, the increased pre-election political in-fighting is par for the course in South Korea’s hectic political life.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”




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