21 March 2019
South Korea's President Moon Jae-in has seen an opportunity to press ahead with his constitutional reforms. Photo: Reuters
South Korea's President Moon Jae-in has seen an opportunity to press ahead with his constitutional reforms. Photo: Reuters

Moon Jae-in’s ambitious constitutional reforms

With the North Korea nuclear crisis taking an unexpected turn for the better, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has seen a new opportunity to press ahead with his radical constitutional reform.

He wants to hold a national referendum on the proposed constitutional amendments alongside the country’s local elections on June 13.

At the heart of Moon’s proposed reform is his bid to remove presidential term limits while reducing the length of each term.

Under the current constitution, the president of South Korea can only serve a single five-year term.

Moon wants the country’s leader to be able to seek re-election once, but he also wants to cut the term of the president to four years from the current five.

In other words, once the amendments become part of the constitution, his successors will be able to remain in office for a maximum of eight years. (Moon has already announced that he won’t seek a second term.)

The current single term was originally intended to prevent the abuse of power and corruption by the president.

However, the fact that former president Park Geun-hye has been convicted of abuse of power and another former leader, Lee Myung-bak is also facing corruption charges indicates that the well-intentioned single term limit has failed to fulfill its purpose.

Worse, the short tenure in office has prompted many of Moon’s predecessors to secure perks and benefits while they were in power.

Moon believes that by easing the constitutional restriction on presidential term limits, the situation may improve.

The South Korean leader is also proposing other amendments. He wants to enshrine in the constitution the relocation of the country’s capital from Seoul to Sejong.

More than a decade ago, former president Roh Moo-hyun decided to declare Sejong city as the country’s new “administrative capital”. But his move was declared unconstitutional by the South Korean constitutional court.

Only by changing the constitution can President Moon establish the legal foundation to expedite the implementation of the relocation plan, which has ground to a halt due to the court ruling.

Moon is looking forward to moving all the key government institutions, including the presidential palace Cheongwadae, to the city of Sejong in the days ahead.

The South Korean government is desperate to move the capital to Sejong because relying overwhelmingly on Seoul as the country’s economic and political capital is like putting all the eggs in one basket.

Seoul is home to over half of the country’s population and accounts for 70 percent of its gross domestic product.

But the capital is only about 40 kilometers away from the demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel, which means it is within perfect range of North Korea’s artillery fire at any given time.

Moving the capital to Sejong city, which lies 120 kilometers south of Seoul, can provide the South Korean government with strategic distance and room for maneuvering in case of war.

In fact, South Korea is not alone in seeking to hedge its political and economic bets by relocating its capital.

China, too, has made a similar effort by designating the newly established Xiongan region in the city of Baoding in Hebei province as its new administrative capital in order to ease the challenges of an overcrowded Beijing.

As far as Hong Kong is concerned, perhaps our government can also some insights from the experiences of mainland China and South Korea in this regard, and consider moving some of its administrative offices to new towns such as the Hung Shui Kiu new development area in Yuen Long.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 3

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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