Monday, February 22, 2010

Interview: Mr. Kim Hyong-O, Speaker of the National Assembly

Among the dozens of new democracies born during the so-called third wave of global democratization that began in the mid-1970s, Korea is often considered one of the most analytically interesting. It offers an interesting case on the institutionalization of representative democracy in a country that started off as a pure administrative state.

Developments in the Korean Parliament have not been smooth during the past 60 years, and this body has undergone several dramatic changes in major functions, political composition and administrative infrastructure since the establishment of the First Republic in 1948.
The Korean people have engraved democratic values and faith in their hearts and built up their potential through numerous failures and frustrations in history. The “miraculous” quality of South Korea’s democratic development arises from the fact that the very events and features which critics point to as signs and symptoms of weakness were time and again turned into opportunities to enact far-reaching reforms. As a result, a polity that was suffering from poverty, political unrest, and dictatorship as recently as twenty years ago has now joined the ranks of industrialized democracies. To be sure, there are still areas in which democratization and liberalization need to make more progress, but the foundations of a democratic order have been consolidated.
In an exclusive interview, Mr. Kim Hyong-O, Speaker of the National Assembly spoke on the political system in the country and the task ahead to make it a more mature democracy. The fiollowign are excerpts
-Korea has achieved economic development and realized democracy over a relatively short period of slightly more than 60 years. This has been made possible thanks to the Korean people’s spirit of “Everything is Possible” and the achievement has been even more remarkable since it came while we were rising from the ashes of the Korean War.
But there has been a high price that Korea has had to pay as well. For example, Korea was under dictatorship for a long period of time and some aspects of democracy have not been fully implemented yet. This heritage and legacy have left us quite aggressive with a warrior-like attitude even more than 20 years after military rule came to an end. I believe that now is the time for us to change all that. We should make dialogue, reconciliation, tolerance and acceptance of differences become the norms of our political practices.
Among other things we need to address, we should improve the overall system of government. First, the Constitution should be amended. In 1987 when the Constitution was last revised, introduction of the direct election system of President meant the introduction of democracy itself. However, this step marked just the beginning of democracy, not its completion. The independence of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary branches of government should be completely ensured and the constitutional form of government needs to be fully respected. The current system puts a concentration of powers in the President’s hands and has led to a number of unfavorable side effects. One President after another has been mired in misfortune. In addition, the National Assembly Hall has become an arena for conflict to grab power. Refurbishing some of the systems on the edges cannot complete needed repairs at the heart. We need to change the main engine of the political system by ensuring the fair division and distribution of powers.
Second, operation of the National Assembly needs to be improved. It is shameful to admit that there is still offensive language and physical violence used in National Assembly meetings. Such violence should be put to a complete halt. I believe that a bicameral system such as that used by other advanced nations based on a parliamentary system could be a good option for us. If there are guarantees of the chance to raise objections and discuss issues thoroughly, there will be less room for justifying the practice of using physical force or abusive words. Another issue is the limited power given to the Speaker of the National Assembly. Once negotiations between the ruling and opposition parties break down, all activities of the National Assembly are put to a halt. The powerless Speaker is left with no option but just to wish the leadership of the ruling and opposition party would come to an agreement. This needs to change to allow the ruling and opposition parties to focus on policy-making and leave the overall proceedings of the National Assembly in the hands of the Speaker.
Last but not the least, National Assembly members should be freed from the yoke of their party platform. This means that an environment that allows them to confer and decide based on their beliefs as independent representatives of their constituents should be created. This doesn’t mean that I would deny the value in having a party platform itself. In party politics, a platform is what determines the identity of a party and the criteria on which the public base their selection. The problem comes, however, when the platform is too rigid. The days when dogmatic party limitations dominated the National Assembly should come to an end very soon.
-As all of you are well aware, the global financial crisis, sparked off by Lehman Brothers of the USA in September 2008, dealt a strong blow to the Korean economy. Since the global financial system is very closely intertwined, no country is free from the shock of the current crisis. However, Korea was more vulnerable than many other countries since its industrial structure has been heavily dependent on exports.
The foreign exchange market in Korea was directly hit by shock waves as we saw the value of the Korean won drop to more than 1,500 won to the U.S. dollar from an earlier 900 won to the dollar exchange rate. Every sector of the Korean economy was exposed to the shock. Foreign capital was poised to flee the country while domestic consumption and investment were basically frozen. Among other difficulties, skyrocketing oil prices were a huge burden to Korea, which has few natural energy resources of its own.
Notwithstanding such difficulties, all players in every different sector of the economy wisely dealt with the situation. It is true that the lessons that we got from experiences we had in 1997, which forced Korea to rely on a relief package from the International Monetary Fund, helped us greatly. While stabilizing the fluctuating exchange rate by putting in place a currency swapping system with the USA and Japan, the Korean government made efforts to revive the market by lowering interest rates and expanding government spending. In addition, the National Assembly passed a supplementary budget package in time to boost the economy putting aside longstanding conflicts that the different parties had faced over the Media Bill.
I remember that the supplementary budget volume reached around 30 trillion won, which was the largest in Korean history. Jobs for young people were created with the budget to hire interns in administrative departments while increased subsidies were provided to the poorest Koreans who did not even earn the minimum cost of living. Budgetary assistance for corporate restructuring and large-scale construction projects in the public sector were very timely and necessary at that time.
In these areas, I think political leaders have a big role to play in creating jobs and coming up with policies for the poor. Making steady efforts to ease regulation and boost regional economies are what we should be doing as well. We need to protect the economically weak because that is what is required from a representative of the people and devote ourselves to creating policies that boost the country’s growth. A good example of success in this way was the supplementary budget for 2009, which was approved with collaboration between the ruling and opposition parties that transcended all their political differences and interests. Continuing to get things done in the same way will do a lot to help the general public recover confidence in Korean politics.
-The first initiative I announced after inauguration was a call for revision of the Constitution. I did so because I have long had a strong belief that revising the Constitution is a necessary prerequisite for the development of Korean politics and Korea as a nation. The Constitution should be revised into a highly advanced set of principles that fully guarantee the division of powers.
By this, I mean that the current major trends of globalization, localization and informatization should be integrated into the values of the Constitution. In other words, the trends that have swept the world since 1987 when our Constitution was last revised should be reflected so that it can provide a new national vision better fitting the 21st century. Another challenge that I have made to the current system is the demand that we get rid of the evils of the current Presidential system, which gives too much concentrated power to the President. We can only have a well-functioning democracy in place when our political system is fully established on the strong foundation of a clear and fair division of governmental power.
It goes without saying that a move to revise the Constitution must be led by the National Assembly. As an organization that represents the people and a sanctuary of the public’s will, the National Assembly should collect opinions and win the sympathy of the people on this issue. What should be done first and foremost in order to achieve needed change is to form a commission for Constitutional revision at the National Assembly. If we miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, our failure will be long remembered, both by the general public today and throughout history.
-Balanced regional development is aimed at enhancing Korea’s national competitiveness by achieving coordinated development of its metropolitan areas and rural regions, as well as resolving the problem of excessive population in metropolitan areas, which has been such a great burden for us. Given the fact that a quarter of the nation’s population lives in Seoul – more than half of it in the Seoul Metropolitan area – it should be no surprise that we consider it a number one issue to tackle. This has also been a problem that every administration has committed to solve, but none have yet succeeded.
However, in reality, the original intent has often been distorted by conflicts of power among different regions and in some cases, it has even degenerated into an emotional war of attrition. Political leaders, including National Assembly members, must put their best efforts into solving this problem. Striving to bring more profit to one’s own region can only worsen the chronic disease that we have suffered from for so long, regionalism.
Reform of the regional administrative system has focused on the integration of different nearby areas. Currently, the special committee on reform of the regional administrative system at the National Assembly is working on system improvement while procedures are under way to integrate Seongnam, Gwangju, and Hanam into one administrative unit and Masan, Changwon and Jinhae into another.
In a nutshell, we can no longer live in the old regional administrative system, which was formed 500 years ago when carts pulled by horses and oxen were the main means of transport in our nation. By integrating the municipalities, public office buildings can be more efficiently shared and utilized and the number of government officials can be cut by integrating general affairs departments and other functions that can be shared.
The reform of the regional administrative system is part of our responses to prepare for an aging society. Japan has also been making efforts to solve a similar problem it is facing – a drastic decline in regional tax income – by integrating its basic small administrative units. The challenges posed by an aging society are perhaps the most urgent and serious issues that Korea faces today.
One thing, however, that we have to keep in mind in the process of integrating local areas is that it should not harm or damage the traditions or values of local municipalities that have been handed down over hundreds of years. This is the main reason why we should carry out the integration process by first gaining the consent of residents living in the affected areas and generating their voluntary participation.