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SEOUL — In private, even his friends acknowledge that South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has passed the peak of his term. With the opposition increasingly less inclined to cooperate, it has become ever more difficult for the “government of the people” to enact domestic reforms.

“Our society is in a state of civil war, only without guns and swords,” a leading vernacular newspaper said recently of the deteriorating political climate in South Korea a good 18 months ahead of the next presidential elections. Kim’s newly launched coalition, bringing together three ideologically diverse parties (his own Millennium Democratic Party, the United Liberal Democrats and the tiny Democratic People’s Party), has arguably strengthened the conservative element at the very heart of the government. It is doubtful whether this new political constellation holds the key to the political, social and economic reforms many Koreans are waiting for.

To make matters worse for the Blue House, there is little good news on the diplomatic front. People have almost forgotten the glorious days when Kim rushed from one diplomatic triumph to the other, with dignitaries from far and near lining up for photo sessions with the South Korean statesman. Perhaps the most notable setback for the president has been the recent stalemate in inter-Korean relations. Unlike the difficulties he confronts domestically, the deadlock here is definitely not of his own making, but the fault of Seoul’s main ally, Washington, which, wittingly or not, has effectively killed the momentum of North-South rapprochement.

The debacle suffered by the main ruling party in local by-elections last month is just one sign of the government’s weakness. Popular support is eroding: One recent poll had Kim’s public-approval rating at just 27 percent. The term “lame duck” is heard more and more frequently, though the president’s term runs till February 2003. One explanation for this gradual weakening of presidential authority is the fact that the constitution bars the incumbent from running again: “The term of office of the President is five years, and the President cannot be re-elected,” Article 70 states. This restriction is a response to South Korea’s authoritarian past, when a certain ruler adjusted the presidential term according to his personal preferences.

Once again, a constitutional debate is taking place. Proponents of a revision of the Republic’s basic law argue that a single five-year term is inadequate, effectively weakening the president in the latter part of his term. They favor copying the U.S. model, in which the president may serve two terms, aided by a vice president who is elected together with him in a popular vote. It must be emphasized that South Korea’s constitutional debate has not been initiated by the incumbent. In any case, the constitution is crystal-clear in this regard, stipulating that “amendments to the constitution for the extension of the term of office of the President or for a change allowing the re-election of the President are not effective for the President in office at the time of the proposal for such amendments.” (Article 128)

So far, Kim has refrained even from commenting on the issue. At present, the main promoters of the debate are those with ambitions to succeed him. But, for good reason, the obstacles to constitutional revision are substantial. Not only must two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly support the revision, a majority of the electorate must also approve the change in a referendum. However, there is no majority support for the idea either in Parliament or among the public.

Then why are the presidential hopefuls pushing what one South Korean commentator has termed this “phony debate”? Politically, there are at least three reasons: First, if elected with the new provisions in force, the next president could possibly prolong his stay in power by three years — provided of course, that he (or she), manages to get re-elected after the first four-year term.

Second, for presidential candidates busy mapping out their strategies, the institution of a vice-presidential running mate may seem attractive. In the United States, many South Korean politicians’ point of reference, the vice-presidential candidate is usually selected with the aim of balancing a ticket, either politically or geographically. I cannot think of another democracy in the world where regional criteria are so important politically as in South Korea. With this in mind, a running mate from another region would offer a welcome chance to round out a ticket. To be specific: It appears inconceivable that the next president will hail from the Cholla provinces, Kim’s home area. This means that all hopefuls from the southwest — and there is at least one with serious ambitions — would stand no chance from the start. The situation could change if the election system were altered to include vice-presidential candidates.

These are the two arguments usually heard in the debate over constitutional revision. But there is another consideration, not much discussed publicly, but perhaps the most important. Political support for the revision is strongest in the government camp, and the mainstream membership of the opposition Grand National Party, under the leadership of Lee Hoi Chang, rejects the idea. But a group of reformist assemblymen belonging to the opposition support revision. According to one report, one out of five members of the GNP parliamentary group favors constitutional change. For government strategists, this lack of unity in the opposition provides a tempting option: an attempt to realign the political landscape. “The government side will prepare plans to split the opposition, and the constitutional question will be the tool,” one NGO activist says. “With a split, Lee would lose everything.”

It would not be the first time that political parties were rearranged ahead of important elections in this country. South Korean politicians are experts in creating and renaming parties, to the point where even political scientists have trouble keeping track. But these Machiavellian schemes have surely entered a whole new dimension when their authors are ready to consider doctoring the constitution for partisan gains.

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