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The European Union and Beyond

‘Imperial’ President and ‘Lame Duck’ President: Development of the Presidentialism of South Korea


South Korea has employed a 5-year single term presidential system since democratization in 1987. Five presidents have been since legitimately elected, and a fairly ‘smooth’ progress toward democracy has been made. A primary political task in the wake of democratization 25 years ago was how to reform the dictatorial presidentialism. Many were eager to check the arbitrary power of the president. In this regard, institutional power of the National Assembly has been strengthened, and various civil watchdog organizations have been also activated, though a majority of the people tends to think that the president is still very powerful.
However, a 5-year single term presidential system has inherent institutional weaknesses. Five years may be too short to push through a grand project or comprehensive economic and social reforms. A president who is not constitutionally allowed to seek re-election may easily fall into a lame duck president as the tenure is close to terminate. Besides, presidential and legislative elections are not concurrent, which often produces a divided government. However, there are no institutional, conventional, or even political solutions to settle the conflicts from the dual legitimacy. Political disagreements often developed into serious showdowns between the president and the legislature, resulting in protracted stalemates. In terms of governability, the South Korean presidential system seems vulnerable.
The purposes of this paper are twofold. First, this paper will illustrate the important characteristics of the South Korean presidentialism, and analyze how five-year single term presidents successfully governed without causing serious system malfunctions. Second, this paper will seek how to enhance governability of the president. This paper will focus on political capital of the president.
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