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South Korea’s 1987 constitution introduced the direct popular election of the president for a non-renewable five-year term. The constitution grants the state's highest office holder de facto imperial powers with regard to domestic and foreign policy making. Concentrating political power in the presidency – a feature of South Korean regimes since the foundation of the polity – severely curtails the work of the other political institutions, including its parliament, the National Assembly. Every time the presidency changes hands, the leadership of all other public institutions are subjected to major restructuring according to political loyalty, which interrupts their routine functioning. But despite lengthy debate of shortcomings of South Korea’s presidentialism, comprehensive constitutional reform has failed to materialise.
The post-1987 presidential system
The 1987 Constitution was drafted as part of a transition agreement between the outgoing military regime, its civilian supporters and democratic reformers. Under previous regimes (1961-1987) the presidency was acquired by means of single candidate faux elections or indirect voting in parliaments largely controlled by the military.
Under the 1987 Constitution, legislative bills can be put forward directly by the president-led executive or by groups of at least ten parliamentarians. As long as the president's party controls the majority of parliamentary seats, the president enjoys full agenda-setting power.
South Korea’s presidential powers continue to be more far-reaching in comparison to all other liberal democratic OECD countries with presidential systems. Comparative research suggests that the power resources of South Korea's presidency are comparable with authoritarian or semi-democratic presidential regimes in Latin America. Such less than complimentary observations suggest that further constitutional reform in favour of a more balanced political system remains desirable – but is it possible?
There are significant countervailing factors on presidential authority. Firstly, presidential power declines in later stages of the tenure. In particular, the overlap of interest between the president and his/her appointees diminishes over time. The strength of presidential patronage is almost unlimited in early stages before collapsing close to the end of term. This phenomenon is referred to as the lame duck syndrome and has been in evidence during every post-1987 presidency.
Secondly, the most important structural factor limiting presidential powers is that presidents depend on the collaboration of longstanding networks of influence. In this sense, the president is little more than a mediator between the permanent stakeholders in South Korea's system, namely the industrial conglomerates, higher echelons of the civil service and other semi-closed elite groups.
Thirdly, political reforms have strengthened the role of parliament and of political parties. The liberal president Kim Dae-jung (1998–2003) declared that he would no longer interfere in the selection of parliamentary candidates of the president’s party. His successor Roh Moo-hyun (2003–2008) gave up the chairmanship of the presidential party. These steps amounted to a voluntary reduction of presidential influence over other parts of the political system.
Finally, entrenched regionalism between the liberal-voting south western Honam region and the conservative south eastern Yeongnam region works since 1987 as a limiting factor in efforts at national agenda setting. Thus, it may be concluded that the presidency is no longer as imperial as it once was.
The Moon Jae-in presidency (2017–2022)
In fact, the trajectory of the liberal Moon presidency illustrates the political cycle associated with Korea's highest state office. Moon’s success in the 2017 presidential election came with the expectation that he would advance constitutional reform downscaling the imperial presidency. He proposed introducing two consecutive four-year presidential terms in line with the US example and strengthening the role of parliament and local government vis-à-vis the presidency. Moreover, Moon’s proposals favoured proportional representation principles in parliamentary elections and extending the right to vote to eighteen (the previous age limit was nineteen).
Around the same time, a parliamentary reform commission and the conservative opposition also put forward reform proposals to cut down the imperial presidency. Realistically, however, there was no incentive for the conservative opposition to agree to any compromise on constitutional reform with Moon, since the president would have taken the lion's share of credit. Instead, the conservatives boycotted the relevant parliamentary session. In the end, all three proposals failed, since the statutory deadline passed without any vote in parliament. Ultimately, only the lowering of the voting age and very minor changes in the parliamentary electoral formula were adopted.
The current Yoon Suk-yeol presidency
Moon was succeeded in the 2022 presidential election by conservative contender Yoon Suk-yeol. The Yoon administration immediately reversed the policies of the Moon administration, and many people who had held positions during earlier conservative presidencies were re-appointed. In his campaign, Yoon cultivated the posture of a ‘non-political politician’. One year into office, his ambitions remain ambivalent. Driven by events such as the global economic crisis, his administration focused on issues such as deregulating working times, cutting corporate taxes and questioning trade union rights. In parallel, Yoon has engaged in direct interventions in the economy. Most notably, he promised a large-scale apartment construction programme to allow young people to purchase property at reduced rates.
At present, Yoon’s domestic agenda-setting power is limited since the liberal opposition controls the majority of seats in parliament at least until the next general election in April 2024. Nevertheless, Yoon has aggressively exercised his office powers. In particular, he visibly interfered in the management of the conservative party by replacing its leadership personnel with his own followers. In terms of foreign policy, his administration is bound to follow US leadership by joining efforts to contain China economically and by improving the relationship with Japan, the other major US ally in East Asia.
Since taking office, president Yoon’s standing in opinion polls has been consistently low. The public seems to recognize that the structural problems of South Korea, namely the demographic collapse due to the lowest birth rate in the OECD and the growing economic polarization remains unaddressed. Merely shifting from reform to counter reform, i.e. reversing the policies of the previous Moon administration, is not going to address the structural problems of South Korea.
Better the devil they know
Under the Moon presidency, the constitutional reform debate delivered only minor outcomes. The legal voting age was lowered to eighteen from nineteen and the method of distributing seats in parliamentary elections was slightly reformed. The latter change was presented to better reflect the vote share and increase the presence of minor parties. However, this proclaimed purpose was immediately subverted by both major parties, both of which founded so-called ‘satellite parties’ in order to maximise their seats under the new electoral formula. Post-reform, the representation of minor parties in parliament declined further, highlighting how the two main parties are keen to avoid changes in electoral rules that would affect them negatively.
Any efforts at changing the electoral formula to increase the representativeness of parliament would immediately activate latent political cleavages in the country. In particular, regional and ideological parties would become electorally more viable, issuing in a new multiparty system and coalition governments. Under such a scenario, the presidency would no longer act as the ultimate referee in national policy making.
Major constitutional reform – reducing the role of the president and/or changing the electoral formula decisively in the direction of proportional representation – could produce a more functional and inclusive South Korean democracy. However, the relevant actors lack the courage to change and ultimately prefer the ‘devil they know’. In essence, the imperial presidency still works as a shield for the existing stakeholders to fight off challenges to the status quo. Thus, prospects for turning South Korea into a less centralized polity during the Yoon presidency appear very poor indeed.