President of South Korea announces constitutional reform proposal

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has announced his support for amending the South Korean Constitution to allow presidents to serve two four-year terms, instead of the current non-renewable five-year term. Moon, of course, came to office following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, who became embroiled in a corruption scandal at the end of her non-renewable term: a similar fate befell her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who was recently arrested for a wide range of corruption charges.

Presumably, the idea behind this proposal is that it will encourage presidents to improve their behaviour at the end of their terms, given that they will be entitled to seek re-election. The proposal would also mean that members of the National Assembly would serve terms of the same lengths as the President, although elections to the two offices would not become concurrent–indeed, given that Moon’s term expires in 2022, and that the National Assembly’s term expires in 2020, it would shift South Korea to having legislative elections consistently in the middle of presidential terms.

The proposal has a number of other features. The Prime Minister will no longer be expected to act “under order of the President”, the voting age will be lowered from 19 to 18, and the President is no longer able to appoint the head of the Constitutional Court. However, there would appear to be no change in how the Prime Minister is appointed or removed: the Assembly can only pass a motion recommending that the PM or a minister may be removed, which both Samuels and Shugart (2010) and Robert Elgie have interpreted as not being sufficient for semi-presidentialism. The Prime Minister will also remain nominated only by the President (subject to Assembly confirmation).

Passage of the amendments requires approval of two-thirds of the National Assembly and majority support at a referendum with a majority turnout threshold. Moon’s Democratic Party only holds 121 seats in the 300-member assembly, and the opposition right-wing Liberty Korea Party holds 116, giving that party veto power over any potential amendment. That party appears to oppose the amendment proposal, instead apparently supporting a switch to semi-presidentialism, although the Democratic Party could block that. Moon’s proposal has greater public support, although the vast majority of the electorate support at least some change.

8 thoughts on “President of South Korea announces constitutional reform proposal

  1. The lack of attention by the reformers to the relative timing of elections is troubling. Why not go all the way and make them concurrent? (Or at least consistent.)

    This would make it a rare case like the Dominican Republic for a while, in which all elections are midterm. The DR has recently gone back to concurrent.

    • IIRC under the current constitutional arrangement, if the president resigns, dies in office or is impeached, a new presidential election is held early. So if this provision is not changed under Moon’s proposal, the relative timing of presidential and legislative elections is actually not fixed, is it? (It also means even if the elections are made concurrent, they will not stay concurrent forever?)

      • Good point. You are right about the provision for early presidential elections (that’s how Moon got there). So unless the constitution were changed to mandate early National Assembly elections, too, when a president has resigned or otherwise left office, concurrent elections (or any other set cycle) could not be guaranteed over the long haul.

        However, an intermediate solution would be to require that the president elected in an interim election serve only the remainder of the term of the departed president. Then the clock would automatically reset to concurrent (or whatever) at the end of the term.

        Under the provision I am suggesting, if the presidential vacancy occurs late in the term, the PM (or another designated successor) could take over till the next regularly scheduled election instead of having an early presidential election.

        (South Korea has no vice presidency; creating one would be another option, but I actually rather like the idea of not having such a position, and requiring an interim election instead. Also worth noting that while S. Korea has a PM, the system is not semi-presidential because there is no collective cabinet accountability to the assembly majority.)

  2. Can a constitutional amendment synchronise both terms, by making the current assembly term once one year longer and the current presidential term one year shorter, to have both elections in 2021?

    • It’s theoretically possible (the Constitution only prohibits a sitting President extending their term or allowing for their own re-election), but it would involve Moon shortening his own term in office in order to extend the term of the opposition controlled National Assembly.

  3. Will a 2 round system be introduced for the election of the President? Considering that this President was elected by 41% of the vote.

    Is the national assembly elected by a fixed term or provisions for early elections?

    • No, a two-round system won’t be included in this particular proposal. The National Assembly has, as I understand it, no provisions for early elections (though, as John points out above, early elections could take place for the Presidency if a President died, resigned or was impeached)

      • A Vice President should be introduce to avoid the early President election bug, and for the legislature and Presidency from having out of sync elections. Since the legislature has fix terms, is there any country in the world where the President can call for early Presidential elections, there are recalls as a substitute?

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