Category Archives: South Korea

Why South Korea is not semi-presidential

This blog defines semi-presidentialism in terms of the collective responsibility of the PM and cabinet to the legislature. As noted in a post a couple of weeks ago, according to the current South Korean constitution there is only individual PM responsibility. This has been demonstrated very neatly in the last few days.

PM Chung Un Chan resigned some weeks ago. President Lee Myung-bak nominated Kim Tae-ho as the new PM. However, Korea Herald reports that Kim withdrew his nomination on Sunday in the face of corruption accusations. However, even though two other ministerial appointments also resigned for the same reason, other ministerial appointments have been made.

In other words, the withdrawal of the PM’s nomination did not result in the withdrawal/resignation of the government as a whole. This is a clear sign that responsibility at appointment is individual. Therefore, for the purposes of this blog, South Korea under the 1987 constitution is not classed as semi-presidential.

Historic cases of semi-presidentialism – South Korea

As regular readers of this blog will know, the classification of South Korea has often caused me problems. I have now managed to obtain the texts of all but one of the six de facto South Korean constitutions since 1948. (Technically, there has been one constitution – the 1948 constitution – that has been repeatedly amended. In practice, though, they can be treated as different constitutions). This post is an attempt to classify South Korea on the basis of the texts that I have. (This post replaces a previous one on South Korea).

The 1948 constitution (available in Amos J. Peaslee, Constitutions of Nations, 1950, pp. 338-348.)

Initially, Art. 53 stated that the President was elected by the legislature. However, an amendment in 1952 established the direct election of the president. I do not have the text of the amendment, but there were direct presidential elections in May 1952, May 1956 and March 1960.

In Chapter III of this constitution, there is no mention of the National Assembly being able to vote down a PM or a govt. However, Art. 69 does state: “The President shall appoint the Prime Minister with the consent of the National Assembly. When the National Assembly convenes after a general election the appointment of the Prime Minister shall be confirmed by the National Assembly.” Thus, there is only individual PM responsibility at the point of appointment. Thereafter, the Assembly cannot dismiss the PM individually or the government collectively.

Given the individual nature of accountability, I do not class South Korea as semi-presidential in the period after the 1952 amendment.

The 1960 constitution – I do not have a copy of this text. If anyone can supply it, then I would be grateful.

The 1962 constitution (available in Amos J. Peaslee, Constitutions of Nations, 1966, pp. 581-597)

Art. 64 states that the president shall be elected by universal suffrage.

There is no mention of the PM being appointed with the consent of the Assembly. However, Art. 59 states that on the basis of an absolute majority vote the Assembly may recommend to the President of the Republic the dismissal of the PM and any Minister and that the President shall agree to the recommendation unless there is a special reason not to do so. So, while there is accountability to the legislature once the government has been appointed by the President, the accountability is only individual.

Given the individual nature of accountability, I do not class South Korea as semi-presidential under this constitution.

The 1972 constitution (available from the National Library of Australia, document supply service – identifiable on the library’s catalogue)

In this Constitution, there was, in theory if not in practice, the opportunity for collective responsibility of the government to the National Assembly.

Art. 63 (1) states that the PM “shall be appointed by the President with the consent of the National Assembly”. So, this is individual responsibility.
However, Art 97 (1) allows the National Assembly to pass a motion for the removal of the PM or a minister on the basis of an absolute majority vote. Art. 97 (3) then indicates that if a motion to remove the PM is successful, the President shall remove the PM and all ministers. So, the president has no choice in the matter and there is collective responsibility.

The catch with the 1972 constitution comes in the form of the election of the president. This constitution is dominated by the presence of the National Conference for Unification (NCU). This institution was composed of over 2,000 directly elected representatives. According to Art. 38 (2), one of the tasks of the NCU was to elect the president. Indeed, on 23 December 1972 President Park was elected by all but two of the 2,359 votes of the NCU. (See Sugjoo Han in Asian Survey, vol. 14, no. 1, 1974, pp. 43-51).

The NCU was much more than just a once-off electoral college like the US or former Finnish electoral college. Art. 37 (4) stated that the term of office of NCU representatives was six years. They elected one-third of the members of the National Assembly. They were an advisory council and could be delegated other powers by an organic law.

The bottom line is that the president was not directly elected under the 1972 constitution, nor was the president elected by a US-style electoral college. Instead, there was an indirect election by a permanent institution. So, I do not class South Korea as semi-presidential under this constitution.

The 1980 constitution (available in Amos J. Peaslee, Constitutions of Nations, 1985, pp. 549-570)

In terms of semi-presidentialism, aspects of this constitution are very similar to the 1972 constitution.

Art. 62 states that the PM “shall be appointed by the President with the consent of the National Assembly”. Crucially, Art. 99 states that National Assembly may on the basis of an absolute majority vote pass a motion for the removal of the PM or any Minister from office. Art 99-3 then states that if a motion to remove the PM is passed then “the President shall remove the Prime Minister and all members of the State Council [government] from office”. Therefore, there is very clear collective responsibility.

In the 1980 constitution, the NCU was abolished. In terms of the election of the president, Art. 39 states that the president shall be elected by an electoral college. Art. 40 states that the electoral college shall be composed of electors elected by universal suffrage. Art. 41-5 states that the electoral college shall dissolve on the day the elected president assumes office. This system, therefore, closely resembles the one in the US. For me, this counts as a direct election.

Given the collective nature of accountability and the direct-like election, then I class South Korea as semi-presidential under this constitution.

The 1987 constitution (commonly available)

Art. 67 states that the president shall be elected by universal suffrage.

Art. 86 states that the PM “shall be appointed by the President with the consent of the National Assembly”. Art. 63 states that on the basis of an absolute majority vote the Assembly may recommend to the President of the Republic the dismissal of the PM and any Minister. There is no further qualification. Therefore, the assumption is that the President may ignore the recommendation.

Given the individual nature of accountability and the fact that, once the PM has been appointed, the President would seem to have the final say on whether or not to dismiss the PM, then I do not class South Korea as semi-presidential under this constitution.

Conclusion

Leaving aside the period 1960-1962, the texts show that South Korea was semi-presidential, on the basis of the definition used in this blog, from 1980-1987.

South Korea – Semi-presidentialism on the constitutional agenda

I admit freely that I have changed my mind about the classification of South Korea as semi-presidential. Now, I do not include it in my list of semi-presidential countries.

Why? Article 63 (1) states: “The National Assembly may pass a recommendation for the removal of the Prime Minister or a State Council member from office”. So, responsibility to the legislature is individual (as in a number of Latin American countries that are not classed as semi-presidential) and the National Assembly may only “recommend” the dismissal of the person concerned. The president can refuse the recommendation. So, for me, that article is not sufficient for South Korea to be classed as semi-presidential.

In addition, Article 86 (1) states: “The Prime Minister shall be appointed by the President with the consent of the National Assembly”. For me, this clause provides a more substantive reason for classing South Korea as semi-presidential. However, again, the consent is only personal, not collective.

The bottom line is that South Korea, constitutionally, is on the cusp of semi-presidentialism. Obviously, in practice, the president is very strong. On balance, I decided to exclude South Korea from my list of semi-presidential countries, though clearly others may wish to include it and on the basis of Art. 86 (1) with some justification.

Anyway, it is possible that the situation may soon become a little clearer. For over a year, the South Korean National Assembly has been considering constitutional reforms. In August last year, the Assembly’s report recommended that the country should adopt either semi-presidentialism or presidentialism. There is a more detailed report here.

Then, on 6 April this year Ahn Sang-soo, parliamentary leader of the Grand National Party (GNP), which currently holds a majority of seats in the Assembly, proposed that parliament initiate constitutional revisions after the local elections on 2 June.

Obviously, whether or not it does, whether or not there is agreement if it were to do so, and whether or not there is then agreement on semi-presidentialism means that there is a long way between South Korea discussing the introduction of a clear semi-presidential regime and it actually happening. However, as in Italy, at least semi-presidentialism is currently on the political agenda.