SOUTH KOREA: ANALYSIS
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Park Geun-hye

South Korea's leader Park proposes reform that could open door to two-term presidencies

A single five-year term limit was set back in 1987 as South Korea transitioned to democracy after decades of military rule, and sought to pre-empt any return to extended periods of authoritarian control

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 1:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 9:13pm

South Korea’s president on Monday proposed revising the country’s constitution, which limits leaders to a single five-year term. Critics immediately called it an attempt to divert attention from corruption scandals involving her associates.

It wasn’t immediately clear if President Park Geun-hye intended the change to allow her to run for office again, though analysts said that was unlikely. Park pledged during her presidential campaign four years ago to try to change the system.

South Korea adopted the current system in 1987, ending decades of military-backed dictatorships, including one by Park’s father, Park Chung-hee. Under the current system, a president is barred by law from seeking a second term. Park’s five-year term ends in early 2018.

Park said in a speech before parliament that the current system makes it difficult for the government to maintain a continuity of its policies, including those dealing with rival North Korea, which regularly threatens nuclear war against its southern rival.

“The constitution on a five-year single term presidency may have been appropriate in the past during democratisation,” Park told lawmakers.

“But now it has turned into a jacket that does not fit.”

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Park said her government would launch an organisation to create a draft revision.

Park’s proposal came as her approval ratings have dropped to new lows amid allegations that a purported longtime confidant used her connection to Park to push companies to make massive contributions to set up two non-profit foundations. Park has also faced a separate corruption scandal involving a senior aide.

The main liberal opposition party issued a statement criticising Park’s proposal, saying it won’t take part in any discussions on a constitutional change that appears meant to distract from the scandals.

“What matters is the timing. Why does President Park propose a constitutional change at a time when she faces so many problems (involving her associates)?” said Kim Sung-joo, an honorary professor at Seoul’s Sungkyunkwan University.

Her presidential office stressed that there was no possibility of Park herself running for a second term.

“Under the current constitution, the revision will not apply to the current president,” presidential spokesman Kim Dong-jo said.

Talk of amending the constitution is a divisive issue in South Korea. There are camps that favour a parliamentary Cabinet system or a US-style system in which a president can have a second four-year term, or a system in which a president and a prime minister split key state responsibilities.

Critics of a strong presidency want to create a system in which a prime minister would have more executive power than the country’s president.

A Realmeter poll released in June found 70 per cent of South Koreans think the existing constitution should be revised and 40 per cent say allowing a president to serve two four-year terms would be more desirable.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters