South Korea: A Different Kind of Coup Attempt

Seoul, South Korea (NEO) – Usually, speaking about a political struggle in the Republic of Korea, we pay attention to either the suppression of the opposition forces or attempts of President Park Geun-hye to strengthen her position in the struggle against the neoconservatives. This struggle has been lingering with a variable success.

Seoul, South Korea Image Source: Bridget Coila, Flickr, Creative Commons

Seoul, South Korea
Image Source: Bridget Coila, Flickr, Creative Commons

On the one hand, the faction that supports ex-President Lee Myung-bak has received a knock: his “diplomacy of natural resources” was finally declared as an absolute failure and an unprofitable project. On the other hand, corruption scandals, which we covered before, have not yet brought success to either party. Investigation is underway, but no new scandalous evidence has been discovered so far. Besides, the mass media is inclined to pay more attention to another scandal that has to do with new exposures in the ranks of the National Intelligence Service.

It is in this context that the conservatives launched their attack and took quite a serious step. First, a person from “their” camp, ex-Minister of Justice Hwang Kyo-ahn, whom our audience knows very well due to his role in the liquidation of the United Progressive Party, was appointed to the position of the Prime Minister of the country. Once Park Geun-hye ran out of candidates from her “substitute bench,” she had to introduce his candidacy for the position.

278 parliamentarians attended the plenary session on June 10, 2015, dedicated to the Hwang’s approval. 156 parliamentarians voted in favor, 120 against and 2 abstained from voting.

Unlike the debates concerning other candidates, hearings during which Hwang’s merits and “skeletons in a cupboard” were reviewed, went surprisingly smoothly.

First, the majority of those summoned with a purpose of playing the key role in the discreditation of Hwang Kyo-ahn were absent. Secondly, this time uncomfortable questions were fudged, rather than exaggerated. Was he guilty of evading military service? A former medical officer invited to the hearings stated that Hwang’s medical examination was carried out in compliance with the rules, and that decisions were taken based on its results. Maybe he was involved in the scandal, which broke out in 2005 in connection with the Samsung Group, when records exposing presumable corruption in the relations between the company and some politicians leaked to the mass media? Mr. Hwang used to serve in the position of the Prosecutor, and decided to cease the investigation since the recorded event took place back in 1997. This question was dismissed as ungrounded, as it was confirmed that his decision did not violate the law and that its limitation period for the case ended, indeed. The scrutiny to which Mr. Hwang was subjected was much milder in comparison with what candidates supporters of Park Geun-hye had to go through.

But that was just the first step. And then, the floor leader of the Saenuri Party (the ruling party) Yu Seung-min, who is also a member of the Conservative Party, attempted to initiate a constitutional reform, which would considerably restrict authorities of the President of the country. Technically, the issue concerned the introduction of amendments to the National Assembly law, which would give the representatives a right to request amendments or revisions of administrative regulations that in their opinion contradict the purpose and content of the legislation of the country. In fact, the wording was elaborated in such a way that the parliament would be granted power allowing it to seriously limit legislative initiatives of the executive branch of the government and de facto disapprove presidential decrees.

The situation when administrative bodies have to comply with the requirements of the legislative branch significantly changes the balance of power. It actually concerned an inconspicuous constitutional revolution; in case it was successful, the presidential republic would become a parliamentary one.

Park Geun-hye sternly criticized the idea of the reform, as the passing of the bill could paralyze the government. The reading of many important bills related to the improvement of living conditions in the country (for example, reform of the state employee retirement benefit plan taking place at the initiative of Park Geun-hye) was postponed only because of confrontations among the political circles. If the parliamentarians are vested with the right to change government decrees, the authorities will essentially lose the ability to implement their policy. That would cripple the economy of the country and harm its citizens.

Nevertheless, on May 29, the amendments to the National Assembly law were adopted. However, in early June, Park Geun-hye vetoed the bill, having applied this right for the first time after her accession to the position of the President of the Republic of Korea in 2013.

Speaking at the government session, the leader of the state noted that the parliament was looking to appropriate some of the powers of the judicial authority in order to interfere with cases assigned solely to the competencies of the government. Thus, the bill is unconstitutional and violates the principle of separation of powers of the legislative, administrative and judicial bodies.

The bill was submitted to the National Assembly for the second time. But during the July 6’s plenary session, debates over the initiative were cancelled because the ruling Saenuri Party refused to participate in voting. Technically, that means that until the end of the work of the National Assembly of this convocation (May 2016), this bill will continue to be automatically rejected. Only after the election of a new Parliament, it would be reasonable to lobby for the bill again.

Apparently, the position of the representatives changed under the influence of Park Geun-hye, who, on June 25, openly qualified the actions of Yu Seung-min as “treacherous.” She noted that politicians must represent the interests of people and not to use their power for achieving the goals of their personal political philosophy and political logic. It should not be forgotten that at the time when Yu Seung-min was starting his career of a representative, he used to be a member of Park Geun-hye’s faction, and that he joined the right wing later, when Lee Myung-bak was in office. This is when he started his critical rhetoric aimed at her community-minded initiatives, and first of all her policy of the improvement of welfare, while preserving the same level of taxes.

A crisis broke out in the ruling party, and its leader Kim Moo-sung stated that in the conditions of an exacerbating conflict resignation of Yu Son Min from the position of the leader of the parliamentary faction of the Saenuri Party was inevitable. On July 8, after he received a corresponding recommendation from representatives, Yu Seung-min satisfied their request. However, he noted that all he wished for when he “put at risk his political career,” was to “preserve the indisputable significance of paragraph one of article one of the Constitution,” in which South Korea is identified as a democratic state. He also submitted apologies to the citizens of the country for ceasing his activities, not having fulfilled all his promises.

It is expected that now the intraparty confrontation would either reduce or cease. The President’s administration reacted to the statement made by Yu Seung-min about his resignation by expressing hopes for the improvement of relations between him and the ruling party, and noted that technically President does not belong to any party. It is not surprising since the struggle between the proponents and opponents of the President has just entered into a new phase, as the time for the nomination of candidates for the 2016 parliamentary elections is approaching.

Konstantin Asmolov, candidate of historical sciences, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.