All four of South Korea’s living former presidents are either being tried or punished for corruption.‬

Just wow.

Is proclivity for corruption a characteristically Korean trait? That would be far too reductive and such claims often whiff of racism.

This startling fact about the living former Presidents is the best advocate for changing the Korean Constitution and allow two four year terms (like the US) rather than one single five year stint.

The single-term limit was intended to stymie an aspiring authoritarian by booting them out after they fulfilled their mandated term.

As South Korea is still technically at war, the President has sweeping powers that would enable them to make quick, unilateral decisions in the face of an invasion. Such an over-concentration of power may help in war time but has fed into the culture of short-term political acts that unduly benefit the President and their allies.

The current calls for sweeping constitutional amendment to enable Presidents to run for multiple presidential terms (probably two) is now long overdue. The threat of creeping authoritarianism is overwhelmingly dwarfed by the real corruption culture that has led to the disgraced downfall of so many political leaders.

Without the incentive of re-election and the absence of Presidential elections as a referendum on the administration, this may encourage those in the President’s office to use their position of power for self-enrichment and satisfying their supporters (people from their home locality or people who helped them to the top). Single term presidency encourages policy myopia and selfish decisions to enrich those in the immediate circle at the expense of the greater population.


A brief history of corruption


As outlined in an article in East Asia Form, Former president Roh Moo-hyun also faced an impeachment challenge and committed suicide shortly after his term ended. Park Geun-hye’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, spent much of his term embroiled in corruption scandals involving stock price manipulation, illicit land purchases, tax evasion and nepotism that resulted in the jailing of his elder brother, Lee Sang-deuk.

During Kim Dae-jung’s final year as president, all three of his sons were involved in a bribery and influence-peddling case. Kim was forced to apologise to the nation and resign from the Millennium Democratic Party that he founded. South Korea’s first civilian president under the current constitution, Kim Young-sam, ended his term in an approval ratings crisis in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis. His son was also imprisoned for bribery.


Moon Jae-in’s plan to weaken the Presidency

Current President of Korea, Moon Jae-in, campaigned on the promise to reform the Constitution. In late March 2018, Moon proposed a sweeping package of constitutional reforms. These include weakening the powers of his office, giving Parliament a say over decisions previously made by presidential decree. lowering the voting age and allowing the President to run for office a second time. A referendum has been proposed for June to bring the text to the people of Korea for approval.


Korean Parliament not immune to politicking and opposition push-back.

Despite the wide consensus among the Korean population and Korean political parties on the need to reform the Constitution, the current ammendments proposed by Moon and his political party, the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).

The main opposition bloc in the Korean National Assembly, the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), have accused Moon of disrespecting the process and rail-roading through change the National Assembly. Moon’s fellow DPK politicians counter that LKP is only raising these vocal objectives for political gain without showing sincerity.

Moon is reportedly considering a phased revision of the Constitution that may push back additional amendments to 2020. Watch this space.

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