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South Korea weighs letting presidents seek a second term

Proposal for a stronger executive faces resistance from a conservative opposition party

The presidential Blue House in Seoul. The Moon administration's proposed constitutional revisions may address the unsettled status of the South Korean capital.   © AP

SEOUL -- The South Korean government is considering a proposal to revise the constitution to allow for re-election of presidents, an idea opposed by conservatives wary of increasing executive power.

In a report presented Tuesday to President Moon Jae-in, a special advisory committee on amending the charter proposes reducing the president's term to four years from five while permitting re-election to an additional term. Any such revisions would not take effect until after Moon leaves office, as the constitution forbids term limit changes that would affect a sitting president.

South Korea has barred re-election since 1987, when a newly democratic country emerged from decades of authoritarian rule. But critics of the one-term limit say it in effect renders the president a lame duck after just a few years, making it hard to govern with an eye toward the long term.

The proposed changes also address the capital's location, a point on which the current constitution is silent. Though committee members declined to discuss the matter in detail at a news conference Tuesday, the panel's report likely calls for having the capital be designated by law.

The Constitutional Court in 2004 rejected a plan by then-President Roh Moo-hyun's administration to relocate the capital to what is now the city of Sejong, citing Seoul's status as the customary seat of power.

Administrative functions were later moved to the purpose-built city, but the presidential Blue House and the National Assembly remained in Seoul. Having lawmakers decide on the capital's location would lay the groundwork for a future move.

Moon plans to submit constitutional amendments to the National Assembly on March 21. The president said that he disagrees with none of the committee's recommendations, but how many of them he will use remains unclear. Changes to the constitution must be approved by a two-thirds parliamentary majority and then put to a referendum.

Opposition parties, including the conservative Liberty Korea Party, are pushing instead for changes that would weaken the presidency. They envision a prime minister picked by the legislature rather than the president and endowed with greater powers.

Given these divergent views, Moon may instead focus on changes with strong public support and less legislative opposition, such as mandating equal pay for equal work and other steps to address inequality.

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