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(LEAD) (News Focus) Prospect of constitutional revision brightens with Park's endorsement

2016/10/24 18:21

(ATTN: RECASTS paras 9, 16; ADDS more info in paras 17-19)

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Oct. 24 (Yonhap) -- The prospects of a long-overdue constitutional revision got brighter on Monday after President Park Geun-hye gave the green light in an unexpected reversal of her earlier position on the highly sensitive issue.

Though interpretations vary over why the president veered towards the amendment, ruling and opposition parties largely agree on the need for a major shift in the basic law that was written some three decades ago.

During her parliamentary speech on 2017 budget plans earlier in the day, Park made a surprise appeal for the revision, expressing her hopes to complete it before her five-year term ends in February 2018.

"I hope that (we) will craft the future-oriented 2017 system of the Constitution that will lead the nation for 50 years, or 100 years ahead, not in pursuit of political gains or partisan purposes," the president said in the speech.

President Park Geun-hye speaks during a speech on 2017 budget plans at the National Assembly in Seoul on Oct. 24, 2016. (Yonhap) President Park Geun-hye speaks during a speech on 2017 budget plans at the National Assembly in Seoul on Oct. 24, 2016. (Yonhap)

The appeal marked a sharp shift from her past position that any in-depth discussions on the revision would hobble the ongoing efforts to address a series of economic and security challenges such as North Korea's evolving nuclear and missile threats.

Although Park's proposal for the revision was welcomed by the ruling Saenuri Party, opposition lawmakers accused Park of seeking to deflect public attention from a set of burgeoning corruption scandals, involving some controversial figures with ties to the president.

However, overshadowing such accusations is the ultimate goal of the revision shared by most lawmakers across the political aisle -- a rare case of bipartisanship that has boosted the likelihood of a change in the country's governing structure that has been left intact despite a slew of social and political changes since the last amendment in 1987.

To finish the revision process before the end of Park's presidency, observers largely agree that a national referendum should be timed to coincide with parliamentary by-elections slated to occur in April next year.

According to the Constitution, a series of necessary procedures for a revision takes some 110 days, which means a bill for a revision must be submitted by early January to hold a referendum in April.

The amendment procedures begin with the tabling of a bill by a president or lawmakers. A president can submit a bill through Cabinet deliberations, while a bill can be submitted with the approval from at least half of the total 300 lawmakers.

After submission, the bill should be put on public notice for at least 20 days. The National Assembly should put it to a vote within 60 days of the public notification. The bill can be passed with the endorsement from at least two thirds of the total lawmakers, or 200 legislators.

The National Assembly holds a plenary session to listen to President Park Geun-hye's speech on 2017 budget plans at the main chamber of the legislature in Seoul on Oct. 24, 2016. (Yonhap) The National Assembly holds a plenary session to listen to President Park Geun-hye's speech on 2017 budget plans at the main chamber of the legislature in Seoul on Oct. 24, 2016. (Yonhap)

When the bill is approved by the legislature, it should be put to a vote in a referendum within 30 days. A majority of eligible voters are required to cast ballots in the referendum, and more than half of the participating voters should vote in favor of the revision.

Following the referendum, the president is to immediately promulgate it to have it go into force.

Woo Yoon-keun, the National Assembly's secretary-general, has been at the forefront of the efforts to hold a referendum in April next year.

"I will seek to promptly arrange a meeting among the leaders of the three major parties to discuss the matters (related to the constitutional revision)," Woo told Yonhap News Agency over the phone.

"My stance that the referendum should be held in tandem with the by-elections in April remains unchanged."

   Some officials at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said that a referendum should be held by September next year, after which building a political consensus would be difficult as each party would be engrossed in preparing for the presidential election slated for December.

One presidential aide also raised the possibility of holding a referendum on the presidential election day if the country fails to reach a consensus over the revision at an earlier point next year.

"The Maginot Line is December when the referendum can be held together with the presidential vote," the official said on condition of anonymity. "But we should craft plans that presidential contenders would not oppose, and build a national consensus on them."

   Aside from the time schedule for the revision, the major bone of contention is expected to be the scope and direction of the envisioned alteration.

Stressing the need to spread out power that has hitherto been concentrated on what they call the "imperial" president, some argue that the revision should focus on changing the way the country is governed.

On this issue, some favor adopting a semi-presidential system -- a mixture of the presidential system and parliamentary cabinet system -- under which more power is assigned to the prime minister. Others have espoused a purely parliamentary Cabinet system like the one in Japan.

Some also have called for reshaping the current single five-year presidential term into two four-year terms, which pundits say would help ensure a more stable, responsible and farsighted policy implementation.

During Monday's speech, Park also stressed the need to alter the current single presidential term, saying it has made politics extremely confrontational and policymakers unable to pursue consistent and sustainable policy goals.

"The current single-term presidency was an exceptional system designed to prevent a president from seeking to prolong his or her grip on power," said Korea University Law School Professor Chang young-soo.

"But the danger of dictatorship has been reduced now, and thus (the single-term presidency) has been mentioned as one that needs a revision."

   Noting that a change in the power structure is not what the general populace is interested in, some observers emphasize that a constitutional revamp should focus on strengthening people's basic rights such as human rights for children and senior citizens.

To lead the revision debate, the government plans to set up a body dedicated to preparing for the amendment.

Observers say that a pan-governmental panel, consisting of key officials from related agencies such as the ministries of policy coordination, justice and legislation and constitutional scholars, is likely to be formed.

The legislature is also moving to establish its own panel to further discuss the revision.

It was not the first time the debate over a revision surfaced ahead of a presidential election.

In 2006, a year ahead of the presidential poll, then-President Roh Moo-hyun suggested an amendment, though the debate died down after it failed to gain any further significant political traction.

A visitor looks at a law book at the National Assembly Library in Seoul on Oct. 24, 2016. (Yonhap) A visitor looks at a law book at the National Assembly Library in Seoul on Oct. 24, 2016. (Yonhap)

sshluck@yna.co.kr

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