South Korean National Assembly Fast-tracks Reform Bills Amid Conservative Opposition
On Tuesday, April 30, 2019, two committees of South Korea’s National Assembly fast-tracked key reform bills amid criticism from the main opposition party — the conservative Liberty Korea Party (LKP) — and Prosecutor-General Moon Moo-il. The bills, backed by the governing liberal Democratic Party (DP) and three minor opposition parties, include proposals to overhaul and revamp the electoral system for parliamentary seats and a call to expand the police’s authority regarding crime investigations.
The National Assembly can ensure a bill will be voted on in 330 days without the need for bipartisan support if it is approved by at least three-fifths of lawmakers in a parliamentary committee, thus “fast-tracking” the bill with the intent of preventing proposals from staying pending in committee for prolonged periods of time.
The election system reform proposal includes the adoption of a new, mixed-member proportional representation system in which parliamentary seats would be directly proportional to the percentage of voters’ support for different parties. The total number of parliamentary seats will be fixed at 300, but the number of proportional representation seats will increase from 47 to 75 alongside a lowering of the eligible voting age from 19 to 18.
If enacted, per the results of a mock election conducted by pollsters, the minor progressive Justice Party would gain up to 10 more parliamentary seats, becoming a key political force, while the LKP may lose up to 20 seats. Currently, out of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, the ruling DP holds 128 seats, of which 115 are directly elected and 13 are allocated by nationwide proportional representation; the main opposition LKP has 114 seats (97/17); the center-right opposition Bareunmirae Party has 28 seats (15/13); and the minor opposition parties hold a combined 22 seats (18/4) alongside 8 independents (all directly elected).
The LKP, ever since the DP struck the agreement with three minor opposition parties to fast-track the reform legislation on April 22, has gone “all out” in opposing the reforms. Amid pledges by LKP lawmakers to boycott National Assembly sittings and impede the functioning of the legislature, lawmakers were embroiled in physical altercations on the floor of the National Assembly and in the National Assembly Speaker’s office while the LKP held a rally at Gwanghwamun in central Seoul on Saturday, April 28.
The ruling DP filed complaints with police against 18 LKP members — including the LKP floor leader — for using violence to stymie legislative work, which garnered a similar retort from the LKP in the form of complaints against 17 DP legislators for allegedly assaulting LKP lawmakers.
With regards to the proposed reforms to policing and prosecution authority, in terms of current law, police are legally allowed to open investigations, but cannot close them without specific and explicit approval from the state prosecution agency, which is also allowed to file indictments and intercede in investigations at any time. The police are also forbidden from requesting court warrants.
If the reform bill is passed, police members would be given the right to investigate and terminate cases without prior approval from the prosecution. Additionally, a new agency to investigate high-ranking government officials would be created and vested with the powers of investigation and indictment — further diluting the Korean prosecution’s current monopoly on criminal indictment. This bill was proposed largely in part due to public consensus that the investigative rights given to prosecutors were overly powerful, often resulting in corruption scandals and abuse of power on behalf of the ruling party.
Prosecutor-General Moon Moo-il made public his opposition to the reform proposals on May 1, remarking that “as Prosecutor-General, I couldn’t help but feel concerned about the ongoing discussions on our criminal justice system at the National Assembly” before calling the bill slated to empower the police as “run[ning] counter to the democratic principles of checks and balances.”
However, the South Korean presidential office did not take kindly to his comment, with one Blue House official stating that the prosecutor-general’s “criticism of the reform bill, under discussion at the National Assembly, is inappropriate.”
Additionally, the Korean National Police Agency shot back at the Prosecutor-General on May 2, claiming that the reforms would strengthen “the prosecution’s neutral and objective control over police investigations” while also barring the police from having excessive power as prosecutors would still retain the authority to involve themselves in police investigations.
Legislators backing the reform bills also criticized the Prosecutor-General’s remarks, with Justice Party chairwoman Lee Jeong-mi claiming “his thoughtless remarks show the reality of the prosecution refusing to give up its vested rights” and calling the Prosecutor-General’s opposition to “the Assembly’s legitimate legislative procedures” as the true act of “forgetting democratic principles of checks and balances.”