Candlelight Revolution Part 2: South Korea’s Constitutional Reform
By Dae-Han Song (The [su:p], chief editor)
“The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people, and all state authority shall emanate from the people.” — Article 1 of the Republic of Korea Constitution
A democracy is founded upon the consent and power of the people. Its fundamental compact is the constitution which establishes the rules and government that shape and determine the lives of its people. Yet, rarely is a constitution drawn up by them or with their consultation. Rather, it is done by a political regime mediating the interests of the ruling class. The world’s first completely written constitution was established in 1789. To “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” it created the United States Senate 1.
In 1948, directly after being established as a separate country, the South Korean constitution was similarly written by the ruling class – albeit under the pressure cooker of a popular left that had just finished fighting for independence against the Japanese. The 1960 student revolution and 1987 June democratic uprising expanded democracy within the constitution in much the same way that the U.S. civil rights movement created the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made real the 15th Amendment.
Last year saw another democratic milestone, as for nearly six months candlelight protests of a cumulative 10 million people prodded a timid and reluctant National Assembly and Constitutional Court to impeach and remove a clearly corrupt, abusive and autocratic president.
Nearly a year after the first candlelight protest, the former president, Park Geun Hye, remains behind bars, and the new president, Moon Jae-in, fights to expose and remove the rest of the deep-rooted corruption and abuse. With Park in jail, people have demobilized. Yet, despite the news headlines about rooting out corruption and changing government, people’s lives don’t seem to have improved. Thus, there is a growing demand for a constitutional reform to consolidate the gains, demands and spirit of the candlelight protests before this democratic opening closes.
While politicians’ publicly support people’s participation, the current constitutional amendment process is driven by a special committee in the National Assembly. The process has stirred rumblings in civil society for a people-led constitutional amendment. People’s participation doesn’t just guarantee amendments reflect popular will but is also an essential education and experience on becoming society’s protagonists, a democracy ruled by people.
Korea’s constitutional amendments
Korea’s constitution has had nine sets of amendments 2. Excepting the ones in 1960 and 1987, all of them were introduced and driven by those in power. These expanded, deepened and prolonged the dictatorships that ruled Korea until 1987. The 1960 and 1987 amendments differed in that they emerged out of democratic uprisings. Emerging out of student protests that drove out the repressive Syngman Rhee government, the 1960 amendment strengthened people’s basic rights and increased people’s liberties (freedoms of press, print, protest, and association). Sparked by Chun Doo-hwan’s attempt to remain in power for another term after a seven year presidency, the 1987 June Democratic Uprising brought millions to the streets demanding direct presidential elections, which were amended into the constitution and then carried out in 1988. However, despite advancing democracy, these amendments were still carried out in negotiations among the political elite. Though progressive, the reforms were tepid and instead of propelling these movements forward, attempted to dampen and appease and pacify the people.
Crowdsourcing and participatory democracy
Not all constitutions have been written by the elite. Two recent exceptions stand out: Iceland’s crowdsourced constitution and Venezuela’s participatory democracy constitution.
Despite being stuck in the legislature based on technicalities, Iceland’s crowdsourcing stirred the world’s imagination about harnessing technology to create a people-centered constitution. Following the 2008 financial crisis, when trust in the legislature was low, a constitutional amendment process was started centered around 950 people with feedback and participation from 3,500 others through social networking sites. Together, they came up with honesty, respect, equality and justice as the guiding values for the constitution.
Then, out of 500 candidates, 25 were elected to draft the proposal. In 2012, the proposal was passed by a two-thirds vote of the electorate in a non-binding referendum.
Nonetheless, legislators accused the process as unconstitutional based on technicalities in the process, and the Supreme Court agreed. The legislature served as gatekeepers for the ruling economic class, in particular those threatened by the nationalization of Iceland’s natural resources including fishing rights. Yet, even if the document had passed these gatekeepers, the existing constitution required a new constitution to pass two elections to be implemented. Ultimately, Iceland’s crowdsourced constitution is an innovative example of technology at the service of democracy. Yet, its inability to overcome the inertia and friction of the status quo point to the importance of mobilization 3.
In contrast, Venezuela’s participatory democracy constitution actively puts the whole population at the center of the process. Its first constitutional assembly was established in 1999 after the election of President Hugo Chavez. 128 representatives (elected for the task) spent six months drafting a constitution that was directly put to a people’s vote, passing by 71.8 percent. State oil funds that had gone to the pockets of the wealthy now started to flow toward social missions to eradicate poverty, illiteracy and illness. Voters now had the power to recall elected officials and set up participatory democratic community councils. In addition to creating a people-centered constitution, the process educated people about the constitution and openly discussed its provisions.
People were put at the center of the process and actively encouraged to see themselves as the protagonists and guardians of the constitution. It’s not unusual to see people discussing laws and provisions out of a pocket-sized constitution. The 2017 National Constituent Assembly has upgraded the process. 545 people were elected to draft the constitution – 364 representing communities and 173 representing social sectors (e.g. farmers, workers, students and the disabled).
For the next two years, these representatives will spend Mondays and Tuesdays in the capital city Caracas drafting the constitution and then Wednesdays to Fridays reporting and discussing with those they represent. Once finished, the proposal will go straight to a people’s vote.
Venezuelans are not crowdsourcing the constitution. They are effectively writing it. Elected representatives may draft the constitution, but the level of ongoing consultation and accountability with the general population makes it as close to the people writing it as practicably possible. While corporate Venezuelan and the mainstream global media decries the process as undemocratic, it’s clear that with eight million (out of 19 million voters) voting for the members of the Constituent Assembly – despite the opposition’s widespread terrorism during the elections – indicates a democratic victory. With the governor’s election less than three months afterwards, the country has signed off on the victory. 18 out of 23 governorships went to the government’s party.
The Venezuelan constitutional amendment processes reveal the importance of people’s mobilization. While Iceland’s process remains stuck in Parliament without any public outcry or protests, the Venezuelan process continues with an empowered and ever-demanding populace.
Network for a people-led constitutional amendment process
In response to the current constitutional amendment process, Korean civil society groups have formed the Network for a People-led Constitutional Amendment Process calling for the guarantee of people’s participation. Though the government’s process involved 11 public hearings across Korea’s major cities and an advisory committee of civil society representatives and experts, the recommendations by both bodies lack compulsory power. A special committee made up of National Assembly members from the four parties is drafting the bill. Then, another round of negotiations will ensue primarily with the main conservative party that is not represented in the special committee in order to achieve the two-thirds approval to pass the National Assembly. before even going to a vote by the citizenry on June.
The provisions discussed in the network would not only expand and deepen existing basic rights, they would also change government structure and inject the spirit of the candlelight protests into the constitution. Some of the more democratically salient provision include voters’ ability to recall National Assembly members 4 for malfeasance and the ability to propose laws in a citizen’s referendum. A provision would also ensure the National Assembly’s political party composition reflects people’s political party vote 5. This would break the stranglehold on politics of the two dominant parties (already discredited by their actions during the impeachment of the president) by ensuring more seats to smaller parties 6.
To realize their goals, the network will carry out educational workshops throughout the country through its national network and hold rallies demanding a guarantee of people’s participation. The Icelandic and Venezuelan constitutional amendment processes reveal the importance of not simply a people centered content but also a people driven process. Likewise, in Korea, it was not the politicians or the judges that toppled a president, it was people. While demobilized, the memory of the candlelight protests still burns in people’s hearts. Social movements must open political spaces in rallies, the streets, the unions to mobilize people and rekindle the spirit of the candlelight protests. Beyond the final content of the constitutional amendments, whether or not people are mobilized into this process will determine whether this constitutional reform is the next stage of the candlelight revolution or its epilogue.
Thanks to Lee Seung-hoon of the Network for a People Led Constitutional Amendment Process for his time, knowledge and insights.
- While a president can be recalled, National Assembly members are simply reprimanded.
- This is the German proportional democratic representative system. In this system, the number of seats allotted to a particular party in the National Assembly would reflect the percentage of votes received by that party. This would be a change to Korea’s current National Assembly in which only a small number of seats are assigned based on a party’s support ratings, the rest of the seats are determined by representatives voted by the districts they represent. Like the Korean system, the German system also allows both for representatives directly elected by their districts and also through the percentage of votes attained by the party. However, the German system instead of simply allotting a set number of seats based on the party’s vote, creates a system in which the number of seats in the legislature reflects the proportion of a party’s vote. In other words, in Germany, greater or fewer seats are given to a party so that its total number of seats including deputies directly elected by their districts reflects the portion of their party vote.
- Smaller parties are at a disadvantage in district based elections where they have to beat candidates from the mainstream parties. However, a proportional representative system allows them to consolidate support across the country for their parties into seats in the National Assembly.