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(News Focus) New Nat'l Assembly begins work as it tackles slew of challenges

2016/05/30 10:00

By Kang Yoon-seung

SEOUL, May 30 (Yonhap) -- The 20th National Assembly with no single party holding a majority in parliament, opened for business Monday, amid rising concerns over how long-bickering political parties and the government will manage to join forces to overcome the myriad challenges facing South Korea.

Following the April 13 polls, the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea became the No. 1 party in parliament, although it only managed to secure one more lawmaker compared with the ruling Saenuri Party's 122 in the unicameral 300-seat National Assembly.

The People's Party, another liberal group led by entrepreneur-turned-politician Ahn Cheol-soo, who apparently is seeking to run in next year's presidential race, also grabbed 38 seats up for grabs to become the third-largest force.

The strong presence of the opposition will invariably alter the way the ruling party, which held a majority in the last parliament, and the government interact with the opposition parties.

South Korea's National Assembly in Seoul (Yonhap) South Korea's National Assembly in Seoul (Yonhap)

As the new National Assembly will be a hung parliament it is now vital for all parties to seek cooperation. The presidential office also is now required to try to talk to the opposition and make compromises.

As shown through last month's elections, which left no party with a distinct advantage, the public remains angered at both the government and lawmakers, as all failed to come up with clear solutions to various key problems of the country, including the slowing national economy, and other pressing economic and social issues.

The Korea Development Institute said Asia's fourth-largest economy was expected to expand 2.6 percent this year, down from a 3 percent forecast six months earlier. The latest projection is the most pessimistic outlook yet offered this year by a local institute, although the government has said that such growth is better than most industrialized countries.

The new parliament will moreover be tasked with finding a solution to such pressing matters as the need to restructure the country's shipbuilding industry that could lead to large scale layoffs.

South Korea's top three shipyards suffered a combined operating loss of 8.5 trillion won (US$7.2 billion) last year, due largely to increased costs stemming from a delay in the construction of offshore facilities and a worldwide dearth in demand.

The nation has also been rocked by the unfolding scandal involving deadly household products made by Britain's Oxy Reckitt Benckiser. The so-called humidifier disinfectant case came to light after four pregnant women died of lung problems from unknown causes in 2011. Among the 221 victims confirmed by South Korea, 177 had used Oxy products. Out of 90 deaths, 70 are believed to have been caused by products made by the British company.

The incident came to the forefront several years ago, but it has generated new interest, with some blaming government policymakers for responding too slowly to punish those involved and compensate victims.

Overall parties and the government got failing grades related to such issues connected closely to people's everyday lives. This inability to resolve outstanding issues resulted in the new power structure in parliament.

Accordingly, President Park Geun-hye, who has been attacked by her critics as being aloof and one-sided, agreed earlier this month to organize regular meetings with top local party officials, in a bid to better meet public expectations after the ruling party's defeat.

But Park's efforts to improve her relationships with the opposition parties have been slow to come, especially as the government and the parties again showed their penchant for clashing on outstanding issues, such as the status of the song "March for the Beloved" at the ceremony to commemorate the May 18 democracy movement.

Liberal elements and the opposition have favored making the song an official part of the annual event, but conservatives have balked at such a move with many still viewing the incident as an armed revolt against the government.

On May 18, 1980, more than 200,000 citizens of Gwangju, 329 kilometers south of Seoul, rose up against the military junta led by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who took power following the turmoil left by the assassination of then-President Park Chung-hee the previous year.

Park also ruffled feathers in the opposition camp by vetoing a controversial bill last week that paved the way for the parliament to hold hearings on the administration more often. The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae has maintained the bill will heavily burden state affairs, and that hearings will be used as a political tool and paralyze the executive branch.

The opposition parties strongly protested the move, adding the issue will again be carried out by the 20th National Assembly.

The ruling Saenuri Party, on the other hand, pointed out that the veto is a legitimate act, casting further clouds over whether the new parliament will get along and address issues that directly impact ordinary people instead of fighting over politics.

The badges for the lawmakers of the 20th National Assembly (Yonhap) The badges for the lawmakers of the 20th National Assembly (Yonhap)

Amid the icy relationship among the ruling and opposition parties, as well as the government, experts say there is still room for hope, especially as this is not the first time for the parliament to be confronted by a smaller ruling party. In 1988, the National Assembly's ruling party of then-President Roh Tae-woo failed to secure a majority.

The 13th National Assembly still made several achievements, including revealing the truth on the May 18 democracy movement and adopting the autonomous local government system that still remains today.

Accordingly, policy watchers say the 20th National Assembly can still make achievements given that the parties seek to expand cooperation, rather than just struggling for competition. They added the president must take more time to listen to and work with lawmakers.

"The most important thing in a hung parliament with a smaller ruling and greater number of opposition lawmakers is to revitalize politics of cooperation and conversation," said Lee Nae-young, a professor of politics at Korea University.

"If they expand conversation and cooperation, the presidential office and the parliament do not have to fight on every single issue. If they join forces and think together, they can establish true democratic politics," Lee added.

Shin Yul, a professor of Myongji University, echoed the view, adding the 20th National Assembly must refrain from following in the footprints of past parliaments.

"If they consider counterparts as enemies to be eliminated and not as political partners, there will be no future," Shin said. "The 20th National Assembly must take lessons from the 13th and 14th predecessors."

   "Last month's election showed that the public desire two things: a productive parliament based on cooperation and a National Assembly that can form a balance with the president," said Yu Yong-wha, a political expert.

He warned that if the current situation is not handled carefully, politics may fall into a deeper confusion amid a power struggle among the president and parties.

The National Assembly Advancement Law also makes it vital for the presidential office and ruling camp to maintain a sound relationship with the opposition lawmakers of the 20th National Assembly.

In January 2015, 19 lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party filed the petition, saying that the clause goes against the Constitution and simple majority rule. South Korea's Constitutional Court, however, rejected the petition last week.

The law requires at least 180 lawmakers to approve a bill before it can move to the plenary session and be voted on. As no single party boasts enough lawmakers to make the cut, it is vital for both ruling and opposition parties to seek cooperation over competition.

"Even when the Saenuri held a majority, no laws could be passed without approval from the opposition, so the situation is now more complicated making it critical for all sides to engage in dialogue," a political pundit said.