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The balance of powers is shaken

Apr 24,2019
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Judges Moon Hyung-bae, left, and Lee Mi-sun, newly appointed Constitutional Court justices, move to their inauguration ceremony at the top court in central Seoul on April 19. President Moon pushed ahead with Lee’s appointment despite strong public opposition due to her suspicious stock trading. [NEWS1]
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Chun Young-gi
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

A pollster should be objective and neutral in wording its questions to avoid the suspicion of a masked design to sway public opinion. This has been the rule of thumb for polling organizations over the past 100 years. This raises questions about whether the 14-year-old agency Realmeter could have bent the rule to conduct a poll on Lee Mi-sun — a former controversial justice nominee to the Constitutional Court — in order to contradict its earlier finding. The agency ended up justifying the president’s endorsement of the nominee, despite strong opposition.

In an April 12 survey, Realmeter asked people whether they thought Lee was fit to become a Constitutional Court justice, and just 28.8 percent of people gave positive answers. Five days later, it carried out another poll on her, but posed an entirely different question this time. It asked people what they thought of President Moon Jae-in appointing Lee as a Constitutional Court justice, and the approval rate was 43.3 percent. The first question queried on public thoughts on Lee’s eligibility and the second on the presidential authority to appoint a court justice. Anyone who supported Moon would have given a positive answer, regardless of their thoughts on Lee.

After the second poll, Realmeter claimed that public sentiment toward Lee had significantly improved following her behaviors and remarks about her alleged insider trading of stocks. The April 17 Realmeter survey was dishonest and seems like it was designed to manipulate public opinion.

President Moon Jae-in signed off on Lee’s appointment electronically on April 19 during an overseas visit, raising suspicions that the results of the Realmeter poll, released on April 18, would have served to justify Moon’s decision to appoint Lee as a Constitutional Court justice. The president’s move is controversial, as it was made in spite of the legislature’s refusal to confirm Lee and disregards the separation of three powers.

The Constitutional Court is the highest court that sets the guidelines for judicial rulings. It defines the practices of justice in Korea. A judge under prosecutorial investigation for insider trading and for possible violation of investment and corruption laws has now joined the bench. Lee must be deaf-eared to not hear cries from lower court judges questioning her eligibility to be seated in the top court.

The courts could come under challenge. The grounds of a judicial ruling can be questioned when a person suspected of favoritism and foul play judges another under the same charges. The Constitutional Court’s rulings would weaken if the majority of the population cannot trust one of the justices. The division will deepen, and a divided nation will inevitably wither.

Moon and those around the president have pushed the country into harm’s way. Upon winning the ruling power in the administration and legislature, they have stretched dominance to the judiciary branch by seating liberals in the Supreme Court, National Election Commission, and Constitutional Court. Never since the constitutional reform to institutionalize democracy in 1987 have public powers come under such great influence from the president.

The country is turning into a league of progressives. The destabilization of confirmation hearings and legislative roles will make it impossible to keep the executive branch in check. Due to weakened oversights, wrongdoing can proliferate. Well-intended governance could end up being wasteful.

Because of the dysfunctional separation of three powers, the mighty presidential authority could taste sweet for a while. Yet rebels could surface if the balance of power is wrecked.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 22, Page 30