“Imperial presidential system” is a term often used—mostly by critics—to describe South Korean governance. From first appearances, the South Korean system doesn’t seem too different from other presidential systems around the globe. Well, it has a president and a parliament, no?
The president of the Republic of Korea, however, wields far greater power than those of other democracies. (I’m sure you agree that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, aka North Korea, is no democracy.) The National Assembly’s power to keep administrations in check is quite limited. There are lots of examples.
“When someone becomes president, there are five thousand government positions above vice-ministerial level which the President can give,” a former Saenuri assemblywoman famously said in a leaked 2012 dialog with a businessman. She was trying to persuade him to buy her off. With a short list of exceptions a president can appoint anyone she wants to any position in government even if the Assembly opposes.
“Another power of the Korean presidency is its ability to direct ﬁnancial subsidies to various non-governmental organizations,” former US diplomat David Straub wrote in his book Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea. It’s no secret that previous administrations, both left and right, subsidized NGOs in order to engineer public opinion in favor of the (then) current administration.
What about the politicization of powerful inspection agencies like the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and the National Intelligence Service? In principle, they are independent from administration authority. In practice, they are faithful dogs of authority, willing to bite and rip apart opponents of a regime in exchange for personal advancement.
Every single politically ambitious leader has called for reform of the state’s power structure, the current state of which allows the president all too much (or, imperial) authority. But it is like a Tolkien ring: the promise of absolute power turns even the most sincere of us blind.
Moon has promised lots of changes in power structure but will he really be able to deliver on his pledges? Take a look at what he said when challenged by other candidates.
Ahn Cheol-soo: All authoritative agencies have to be based on the decentralization of power and a system to check the power. First, a [Korean] president is an imperial president. Too much authority is given to them. We need to reduce and check the their authority through constitutional amendment. It’s the same for the National Intelligence Service. The NIS must be prohibited from interfering in domestic politics. And the same applies to the prosecution service. [Prosecutors] have a lot of power, and it’s become a problem for every administration. It needs to be reformed. We have to aim for the separation of investigatory power and indictment power.
Hong Joon-pyo: Actually, the problem is not because the president has extensive authority according to the constitution. This kind of criticism against the president would not come about if the president followed the constitutional procedures properly when exercising power. Now is practically the era of the prosecution’s dictatorship. It is not checked. In the past, the prosecution service was a just organization, but now it bows down even before the wind blows. The prosecution is on eggshells. When we reform the prosecution and the police, we need to put them on equal footing in order to create a mutual monitoring system. The prosecutor general should not be promoted from within, but instead we need to acquire [the prosecution] independence by bringing in an outsider. Cheong Wa Dae needs to be turned into a smaller Cheong Wa Dae. It is wrong for Cheong Wa Dae to appoint a bureau chief for the Ministry of Interior when these appointments should be made by the Minister of Interior. It’s right to have a “minister responsibility system” and Cheong Wa Dae should only appoint the ministers and vice-ministers. The NIS couldn’t be weaker. The most important thing is that now is the time to strengthen the NIS functions of collecting information on North Korea and conducting anticommunist investigations. Look how pro-North forces are running amok within South Korea. Instead of investigating this properly, people keep on saying we should reduce the NIS’s power, but we need to strengthen the domestic security investigatory function to track down the pro-North forces.
Moon Jae-in: The current constitution stipulates the separation of three branches. If we follow the constitution, an imperial president would not be able to emerge. President Park did not abide by the constitution, and that’s why she became an imperial president who had monopoly over state affairs and privatized governmental power. In reforming the instruments of power, Cheong Wa Dae needs to break up the power concentrated on the president through the “prime minister responsibility system” and the “minister responsibility system”. Moreover, we need to respect the National Assembly and ensure its function to check [the power of the president]. For the prosecution service, the investigatory power and indictment power should be separated, and I believe we need to establish an independent investigatory agency for the crimes of high-ranking officials (gongsucheo) to keep the prosecution service in check and hold them responsible for their wrongdoings. As for the NIS, I will abolish the domestic intelligence department. I will restructure the NIS into a foreign security intelligence service so that it becomes an intelligence service for the people.
Sim Sang-jung: Our people need to know in detail what the president and Cheong Wa Dae are doing. If I become president, I will institute three measures immediately. First, the president will give a live weekly briefing. There is no sanctuary from journalists’ questions. Second, I will eliminate the president’s special activity expenses, which come to over 20 billion won. Moreover, I will reassess the special activity expenses for each authoritative agency. At the White House, aside from banquets, the president pays out of their own pocket for everything including the first family’s food expenses and daily necessities such as toothpaste. And I will reform the prosecution service. I will reform the political prosecution service by establishing an independent investigatory agency for the crimes of high-ranking officials and also institute a direct election system for the directors of the Prosecutors’ Office. I will reorganize the NIS into a foreign intelligence service. I will abolish the NIS, which interfered in the election, fabricated espionage charges, and surveiled civilians.
Yoo Seong-min: I will drastically downsize Cheong Wa Dae. I will get rid of senior presidential secretaries and just go with a secretary system. If I become the president, I will work with the ministers. Secretaries are liaisons. This would scale down Cheong Wa Dae. I will also reform the National Assembly. I think 300 assembly members are too many. I will reduce it to 200. And I will make every effort to abolish the party nomination system for local government heads and local council members. For the prosecution service reform, I will establish an independent investigatory agency for the crimes of high-ranking officials. But, as for the separation of investigatory power and indictment powers of the prosecution service and the police, I will establish a new investigatory agency. I will establish an investigatory agency, consisting of the investigatory personnel from the prosecution service and the police who are only in charge of investigation. Next, it doesn’t make sense in this situation with the division of North and South to stop the NIS from gathering domestic intelligence. I will certainly allow domestic intelligence gathering, but the targets [of intelligence] must be limited to terrorist activities by spies, and I will never let [the NIS] engage in politics. Lastly, I will reform the economic authorities, such as the National Tax Service, Fair Trade Commission, and Financial Supervisory Service, so that they will never be able to abuse their power or be corrupted.
Cleaning up the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office
Hong Joon-pyo: I’ll ask a question to Mr. Moon. What do you think about establishing an independent investigatory agency for the crimes of high-ranking officials (gongsucheo) and giving the police the right to request warrants?
Moon Jae-in: That’s my campaign promise.
Hong Joon-pyo: [Establishing] a gongsucheo is creating a new Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. And the president would appoint the head. How’s that different from the current prosecution service?
Moon Jae-in: Our Prosecutor Hong, you’re a former prosecutor. When a prosecutor does something wrong, like abusing their authority, not indicting someone who should be indicted, or abusing indictment powers by fabricating a case, what measures for reprimand do we have?
Hong Joon-pyo: For that, we should give the police the power to request warrants. Make the police and the prosecution service into equal investigatory agencies and have them monitor each other. The gongsucheo wouldn’t have that function. It would focus on crimes committed by high-ranking officials. Letting the gongsucheo investigate instead of the prosecution service would make it nothing more than a new Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
Moon Jae-in: Its targets include the prosecution service. [The prosecution service] would be a subject of investigation.
Hong Joon-pyo: So if you place the prosecution service and the police on equal footing, then it becomes a mutual monitoring system and there would be no need for the gongsucheo.
Moon Jae-in: The gongsucheo is a separate institution. [But] Mr. Yoo Seong-min’s idea of establishing an investigatory agency, that’s just establishing one more Supreme Prosecutors’ Office.
Hong Joon-pyo: Those words have no value, and [you] think the gongsucheo is all-powerful but it’s just creating a new Supreme Prosecutors’ Office that solely investigates government officials’ crimes. That’s not keeping the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in check. If you want to keep them in check properly, the police is just as competent at investigation, so we should give them both the right to warrants so they can monitor each other. Then crimes in the prosecution service will disappear.
Moon Jae-in: That’s another one of my pledges. Shared indictment powers is my promise.
Hong Joon-pyo: Isn’t your promise to separate the investigatory power and the indictment power?
Moon Jae-in: To have the investigatory power, you need to have a separate right to warrants. But this needs to be preceded by constitutional amendment.
Hong Joon-pyo: That’s right.
Ahn’s political reform pledges
Sim Sang-jung: I would like to ask a question to Mr. Ahn. I looked at your pledges and it seems that your political reform pledges have changed a lot. You said you’d adopt Germany’s mixed-member proportional representation system. I really welcome that. Is it correct?
Ahn Cheol-soo: Yes.
Sim Sang-jung: What I wanted to confirm was, when you started your political career with the “new politics” initiative, from then to now, your thoughts on political reform have changed so much. At first you said there were too many members [of the National Assembly] and argued for cutting the numbers down to 200 and abolishing the central body of each party. When you were the co-chairman of the United Democratic Party, you said you wouldn’t nominate local council members. And during the by-elections after fraud and corruption scandals involving politicians, [you said] affected parties could not make nominations. All four parties here said that. But all four parties did let people run for by-elections where there were charges of fraud and corruption. Since the major parties are all accomplices, no one criticized each other. The people don’t know. What promises have you held on to without changing your mind?
Ahn Cheol-soo: There are several misunderstandings here. Let me talk about the number of members [of the National Assembly]. I remember I said it at Inha University five years ago during the presidential election. It will be difficult for the next president regardless of whoever becomes the next president. So he or she can ask the people to share the suffering. But in order to do that, people in politics should first let go of their vested rights and show that to the people, and only then would the people believe them again. That’s what I said. So I looked it up, and during the Asian Financial Crisis in the past, after President Kim Dae-jung was inaugurated, the number of assembly members was reduced by about ten percent. Since there was a precedence in terms of sharing the burden, I said we should do that.
Sim Sang-jung: You haven’t changed your position on that?
Ahn Cheol-soo: Even now, to ask people to share the burden, I believe that politicians should really let go of their vested rights.
Sim Sang-jung: Should we reduce the number of assembly members?
Ahn Cheol-soo: I believe that’s one of the ways. Two hundred was a misunderstanding. I didn’t say we should reduce the number to 200.
Sim Sang-jung: Reducing [the number of assembly members] is in conflict with the German style party-list proportional representation system. You change your position every time, so I can’t trust you even when you do have good ideas.
Ahn Cheol-soo: I’ll take that as a political attack. I have engaged in politics by my beliefs until now. I didn’t do something because other politicians were doing it, and I didn’t do something for my approval rating. I would like to say that I’ve held onto my own visions, beliefs, and values, and I engaged in politics by showing the people what I do and having them make their own assessments of what I’ve done.
Moon Jae-in: Ms. Sim is mistaken. When Mr. Ahn talks about a regional proportional representation system, he means he wants to have open primaries. He’s saying we should hold elections for proportional representation candidates. That would actually hinder women, the disabled and minorities from becoming proportional representatives. So I believe it’s not the right system.
Ahn Cheol-soo: I would like to answer that. First, now the people think that the intent of the proportional representation system is really desirable, but there’s a lot of distrust. Some people believe that parties decide who to pick and then shove them on the people. Some believe that is the breeding ground of corruption. That’s why I argued for an open primary. When I did that, I had to think about women, people with disabilities, and other socially disadvantaged people. To resolve that issue, we have to divide them into sections. Women, socially disadvantaged people, if we divide the sections in that way, it would be transparent, and the people would be able to exercise their power directly. It seems that you didn’t understand those parts.
Yoo Seong-min: The reason I said to reduce the number of the members of the National Assembly to 200 is that the number needs to be reduced. And if we reduce the number to 200, and then to 100, then the proportional [representatives] would be reduced from about 50 now to around 20, and we can consider the people with disabilities and minorities just mentioned within the ten percent. And we can change urban areas into multi-member district systems while the rural areas maintain a single-member district system. Mr. Ahn said he never said the number was 200, but Mr. Moon in the past said we should increase the number [of Assembly members] to 400 and sort of turned it into a joke the next day. Didn’t Mr. Ahn agree to reducing the number to 200?
Ahn Cheol-soo: During the Asian Financial Crisis, President Kim Dae-jung reduced membership by about 10% in order to share the budgetary burden. I think that’s something we could try. Besides that, when politicians give up their vested rights, we’ll be able to focus the will of the people on overcoming the crisis that the nation is facing.
Yoo Seong-min: Are you saying we should reduce the number or not?
Ahn Cheol-soo: It must be preceded by social consensus.
Yoo Seong-min: It seems that you said you’d cut down the number last time and maintained that position for a while, but recently that was completely taken out of your campaign promises.
Ahn Cheol-soo: I already answered that. Politicians must let go of their vested rights in order to share the budgetary burden. I said that would be one method.
The Dissolve is publishing extracts from all six presidential debates.
The Korean transcript for this third debate is at The Kyunghyang Shinmun.
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