It has been 30 years since South Korea became a democracy in 1987, ending decades of military dictatorship that had focused on defending against communist North Korea during the Cold War and spearheading the country’s economic rise.
Throughout the past three decades, the country has seen the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next. Voters chose their leaders every five year at nationwide polls and the elected presidents ranged from pro-democracy fighters to a dictator’s daughter.
But the young democracy had its own issues. Every president elected since 1987 has found themselves embroiled in a corruption scandal near the end of their single five-year term. It was often linked to their family members, relatives or close aides.
In the last two months of 2016, the country witnessed the culmination of this recurring problem.
President Park Geun-hye was once thought to be immune to corruption and nepotism since she had no family of her own, had lost both of her parents (President Park Chung-hee and first lady Yuk Young-soo) in assassinations and was estranged from her siblings.
But she was mired in an unprecedented scandal that many said have fundamentally undermined the country’s core democratic values. Amid massive protests, Park was impeached on Dec. 9.
The debacle has sparked a widespread reevaluation of country’s governance system set out in the Constitution that was written in 1987. Calls for Constitutional amendment are ripe, as the Park fiasco presents to the country a new challenge to build a more resilient democracy.
Marking the 30th year since the 1987 democratic uprising, The Korea Herald interviewed eight prominent leaders at the center of the transitional period who shared their insights on how to build a new governance system for the new era.
Following are the excerpts from the Korea Herald’s interview of eight prominent figures in politics, officialdom and academia. – Ed.
KH: It has been 30 years since South Korea enacted the current Constitution, completing its transition to democracy. What are the successes and failures of the past three decades and what changes are needed?
Former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik: The 1987 system was successful in preventing dictatorship and allowing the people to elect their presidents by themselves. But problems emerged over time. Presidents have often abused their power to achieve their short-term goals within their single, five-year term. The power structure needs to be fixed, so that presidents can manage state affairs with a longer-term vision.
In my view, we should stick to the presidential system but should allow presidents to stand for re-election once. Plus, we should build a more sophisticated system of checks and balances to prevent the abuse of presidential powers.
Former National Assembly Speaker Chung Ui-hwa: It is true that the 1987 Constitution was significant progress for South Korea, but I feel that now the 30-year-old system has become the root cause of many problems we face. Only a few people dominate power under the winner-takes-all election system. There is no middle ground.
Such a system creates a hostile political climate. Politicians and their parties are more likely to fight each other than to find common ground. I think we are in a transitional period. We need to move beyond the 1987 system.
Former National Assembly Speaker Park Kwan-young: Every president elected since 1987 was embroiled in political scandals near the end of their term. This is because the presidents dominate (the government) and abuse their power. We need to find a way to reduce presidential powers. I think a semi-presidential system in which the presidents focus on external affairs and prime ministers deal with internal affairs would be best for Korea.
Former National Assembly Speaker Kim Won-ki: The 1987 system brought an end to an authoritarian era that had persisted since the Cold War. Since 1987, there have been no presidents seeking to extend their term beyond the limit stated by the Constitution.
But focusing too much on preventing a dictatorship, we neglected other values crucial to managing democracies, like how to run political parties. It seems to me there is a broad agreement that the 1987 system needs to be changed.
Former National Assembly Speaker Lim Chae-jung: The 1987 system’s most significant achievement was to end dictatorship and build democracy -- albeit in a procedural sense. As a result, people are able to change their presidents every five years.
But we have failed to build upon the system and many problems have emerged afterward. Even the basic right was not fully protected under the 1987 Constitution. I think it has failed to catch up with the change of time and is now losing its value as the basic law.
However, we have to be cautious about revising the Constitution, because some politicians and parties approach the issue from (the perspective of) their own partisan interests.
Professor emeritus of Kyung Hee University Huh Young: The 1987 Constitution wasn’t a perfect one, but it has worked quite well until now. If we think there is a problem, it is more to do with how we managed the system rather than what the system is about.
When the people overthrew the military dictatorship in 1987, they focused on two things. First, they wanted to elect their presidents by themselves. Second, the presidents had to be limited to a single term to prevent dictatorship.
But things have changed so much since then. In 1987, we still lived in a conventional society, but now we are going through the internet and digital revolution. It is natural for the people to demand a different system for a changed society.
I think there is enough consensus among the public since President Park’s scandal.
Regarding the government type, I think the presidential system suits Korea most because of the security challenges facing Korea. We need a strong leader. But the current single-term five-year presidency should be adjusted. I think a two-term four-year presidency is more ideal.
Former Environment Minister Yoon Yeo-joon: The 1987 Constitution was a reflection of the people’s consensus during turbulent times of the 1980s, which was electing presidents by themselves. But other than that, the 1987 system was a little bit slipshod. It needs to be fixed.
Senior People’s Party adviser Chung Dae-chul: The 1987 system was a call from the people for democracy and it has persisted for 30 years. Now the people want it to be changed. They want to change the way their presidents use power.
KH: Since the presidential scandal erupted in October, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the street to demand her resignation. What is your take on the protests and what they mean for Korean democracy?
Prime Minister Kim: I understand that the people had no choice but to take to the streets. The scandal showed that Korea’s representative democracy did not work at all under the rule of President Park.
Maybe the candlelight protests could help strengthen democracy, but it can’t provide an alternative to representative democracy. We need to solve the problem by incorporating the people’s ideas into the political process under representative democracy.
Speaker Kim: The candlelight protest will be a watershed moment in South Korea’s history. It will have a profound impact not just on politics but on society as a whole. It could be a driving force behind efforts to make Korea a better country.
But it is up to the politicians to channel this energy into national reform. The protests were an opportunity for people to nurture a sense of justice and courage to stand up against wrongful authorities. I hope politicians realize what would happen if they fail to do their jobs.
Huh: The public sentiment shown during the protest is something that we can watch and experience. Such an “empirical experience” is a piece of information that policymakers can use, but not all or an overriding and deciding factor in mapping out a strategy to run the government.
We should regard equally the opinions of those who do not show up at street protests. There are two types of public opinions -- one of the protestors and the other from a more silent group. I think the latter is closer to what the people as a whole think.
One of the problems in South Korean politics is that it gives too much weight to empirical experiences like massive protests and opinion polls. But they will change over time. It is wrong to allow them to influence policies too much. I don’t think it would happen in other advanced democracies.
Senior adviser Chung: I have a positive view of the candlelight protests. It is a new form of direct public participation in the political process
KH: President Park’s scandal brought about a leadership crisis, damaging the public’s confidence in the way the country is run. Do you think Park is solely to blame, or had structural factors played into the current leadership crisis?
Yoon: It is self-evident if you just watch what is happening. If you are in a position to lead the country, you should have leadership skills. I think we elected a president who doesn’t have the ability to lead.
Assembly Speaker Kim: The current leadership crisis is an unprecedented one. But then again, leaders in South Korea have confronted a similar crisis. Though Park’s scandal is much more serious than others, most presidents barely gained the trust of the public.
The current crisis is also linked to our political system. True, political leadership has to do with the individual traits of the leaders. But, more often than not, it has more to do with the established system, as well.
Prime Minister Kim: President Park is the primary reason behind the current crisis. She has allowed unauthorized individuals to meddle in state affairs and neglected her duty to oversee them. Thus, Park is the first one to be held accountable. Then again, her predecessors have suffered from similar nepotism scandals. Presidents have often wielded exclusive power, but there is little method available for us to limit their power abuse.
Senior adviser Chung: I don’t agree with the notion that links the current political turmoil to the failures of the country’s political establishment. What we are seeing is an isolated case of President Park Geun-hye herself. She violated the Constitution and lacked the ability to lead. This is why she was impeached.
Assembly Speaker Chung: Both are to blame. President Park herself has managed the country in a wrongful manner and failed to do what is required of a leader. A dysfunctional political system has also played a part. Under the single-term presidency and single-member constituency system, political parties are prone to partisan standoffs and fractional infighting. It creates a political culture where the winner takes all. There is no middle ground.
Lim: Both are to blame. One thing I want to highlight is that we are beginning to see our history bounce back from the legacy of Park Chung-hee, a military dictator and the father of the current President Park Geun-hye.
The way that President Park Geun-hye’s office worked is exactly the same as her father’s did. It was something that we didn’t expect to see again after the demise of Park Chung-hee. In that regard, I think we are living through the final chapter of Park Chung-hee legacy.
KH: After President Park’s fall, politicians are talking about what kind of leader that the country needs. Some say “cohesive” leaders are needed while others advocate “reformative” ones. What is your take on this?
Prime Minister Kim: I believe that the next leader should be “cohesive,” embracing diverse parts of society through compromise and negotiation.
It does not clash with reformative leadership. Compromise and negotiations make it easier for us to pursue reform. It is not an either A or B issue. Based on bringing together the people’s opinions, we can find a way to overhaul society.
Lim: I think we need reformative leadership. For example, the Constitution cannot fulfill the demands presented by the new era. Now is the time to open up ourselves and reach consensus over what sort of values a new Constitution should represent.
Huh: If I had to choose between the two, I would definitely go for cohesive leadership. We cannot achieve social reform without bringing together the people’s opinions. If we simply push for reform, protests will re-emerge.
Therefore, bringing together the people must come first before pushing for reform. Leaders can achieve their reform after reaching out to the people and building consensus among them. Reform can serve its purpose only when it succeeds. Simply pursuing reform cannot be our goal.
Yoon: Whether it is cohesive or reformative, what is more crucial is the person’s ability to lead the country. We need a leader who comprehends how a true democracy works and has internalized democratize values and rules.
By Yeo Jun-suk (email@example.com)