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President gives assembly deadline on Constitution change

Jan 11,2018
President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday made a strong push for a constitutional amendment in June, telling the National Assembly that his administration will draft a bill if lawmakers don’t by March.

“Holding local elections and a referendum on a constitutional revision on the same day is a pledge to the people,” Moon said in his New Year’s address. “All major parties and their candidates promised that during the last presidential election.”

Moon said the current version of the Constitution, written 30 years ago, is no longer sufficient.

“It is necessary to expand the basic rights of the people and strengthen decentralization and autonomy,” he said. Korea will hold local elections on June 13 and holding a national referendum to amend the Constitution on the same day is the efficient way to do it, Moon said. “Holding the referendum separately after missing this opportunity would cost at least an additional 120 billion won [$112.8 million] in taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Noting there is not much time, Moon urged the National Assembly to take steps to draft an amendment bill. He said he will also make preparations in case the legislature fails to act. “While waiting for the National Assembly to reach an agreement, if necessary, the government will prepare a constitutional amendment bill that reflects the opinions of the people and consult the National Assembly,” he said. After raising that issue in a New Year’s address, Moon discussed more details in a question and answer session.

“In order to hold the referendum in June, I believe an amendment bill should be put forth in March,” Moon said. “To this end, the National Assembly’s special committee must reach a consensus on the bill by the end of February. I will carefully observe the situation.”

A constitutional amendment can be proposed by the president or a majority of the National Assembly. The amendment bill must be made public for at least 20 days. The National Assembly must vote on the amendment within 60 days of the public announcement. Passage requires two-thirds or more support by the legislature. Then a national referendum must take place within 30 days. A majority vote finalizes the amendment and the changes will take effect immediately.

Moon said the country has had enough time to think about the changes needed in the Constitution. “Whether it is decentralization, reinforcement of basic rights or a change of the central governance system, we have all the proposals,” he said. “We can just gather the parts that we can agree on.”

Moon said the constitutional amendment will cover many changes if the National Assembly acts with determination, but the changes will be kept to a minimum if he has to propose an amendment.

Moon said he personally hopes Korea’s five-year, single-term presidency would be changed to a system like America’s, in which a president can have two four-year terms. But he said that he personally will not champion that change. He noted that changing the central power structure is a highly sensitive issue, and it may not be done in this round of constitutional changes if a consensus can’t be won.

Moon is keen not to be seen as changing the Constitution simply to afford himself a second term.

A senior presidential official said Wednesday that the president has a strong will to amend the Constitution in June. “If there is no consensus about introducing a new governing system, the president wants to postpone that change,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that he wants to delay any amendment.”

The ruling and opposition parties are split about the timing of the constitutional amendment. While the ruling Democratic Party (DP) supports Moon’s timeline, the largest opposition Liberty Korea Party insists that it doesn’t want to fix a timeline.

Even if Moon is the one who proposes an amendment bill, the ruling party will need opposition support before a national referendum can be held. As of now, the DP occupies 121 seats in the 297-member legislature. Even with the support of the centrist People’s Party and progressive Justice Party, Moon still does not have the required two-thirds support to pass a bill.

It was Moon’s first New Year’s media conference since being elected in May in a snap election. After issuing an address to the nation to discuss the goals of his administration in its second year, Moon took questions from reporters for about an hour.

“In the New Year of 2018, the goal of my administration is to protect ordinary people and make their lives even better,” Moon said in his speech. “I will take the determination and demands of the people as a guiding principle. I will see to it that citizens can personally feel changes in their lives.”

Moon discussed a wide range of topics including the government’s economic and foreign policies as well as new welfare programs, reform of conglomerates’ ownership structure and measures to bolster the safety of the people.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]