(13) Constitution and democracy

South Korea marked the 60th anniversary of the proclamation of its Constitution on July 17. The National Assembly held various events to celebrate Constitution Day, and the speaker of the Assembly appointed a Constitution Study Advisory Committee to examine the necessity of constitutional amendments.

Because the U.S. had to fight the Revolutionary War after declaring independence from the British, it took 11 years after the declaration (Sept. 17, 1787) for the American Constitution to be adopted.

The whole world was surprised by this Constitution; at the time, every country was a monarchy, so a Constitution where the people would elect a President every four years was a very novel concept.

It was also difficult to imagine that the people would elect representatives to its legislative branch, and that the President would only execute the laws that Congress made.

At the time, the concept of elections was almost totally new; the word of the King was law, and inheriting the throne was the only form of political movement.

Even in America, there were those who opposed the ideology of the new Constitution, wanting instead to bring in a member of the Russian royalty to be the King of the United States.

The U.S. Constitution was born in the midst of these controversies, but that birth brought the true sense of democracy, such as the sovereignty of the people and common elections, to the attention of the world.

The spirit of the Constitution, which respected human rights and established the sovereignty of the people and democratic principles, was a truly astounding miracle in world history. This constitutional framework helped make the U.S. of today the strongest nation in the world.

The foundation of today’s democracy in Korea was laid through the Gwangju Democratization Movement by thousands of students and citizens in 1980.

Once mayors and governors were directly elected by the people and transfers of power took place peacefully, democracy in Korea (learned from the U.S. Constitution) truly took hold.

History has proven that the democratic system emphasized in the U.S. Constitution is the best political system; however, even this system is not without its problems.

The U.S. has attempted to solve this by passing hundreds of laws under the Constitution to continue to pursue true democratic principles. This keeps the democratic system fresh with the changing times.

What are the principles that make the U.S. Constitution so strong? First, every human being is born equal, and nobody is above the law. Second, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

Third, the separation of powers of the branches of government are clearly established, as well as the checks and balances between them.

Fourth, the nation belongs to the people. These days, those principles may seem entirely obvious, but the process for this ideology to take hold was not easy.

The Korean Constitution is almost the same as the U.S., but it specifies the rights of the people in greater detail. It clarifies the fact that the nation belongs to the people, which is the most important and fundamental principle of democracy.

Most nations nowadays imitate the U.S. Constitution, even to the point where Communist stronghold Russia has embraced democracy and China is also slowly phasing out communism.

It is a pity that North Korea has ignored this global trend, continuing to privatize its governance through the inheritance of power, and becoming a nation of poverty and tragedy where millions of people have starved to death.

To emphasize again, the most important items of the U.S. and Korean Constitution are the articles about the rights of the people. The rights of the people are strictly guaranteed by the Constitution; so many lives were sacrificed to protect these rights in so many countries.

Twenty-eight rights and two duties (the duties of tax payment and national defense) are specified from Article 10 to 39 of Chapter 2 of the Constitution of Korea; meanwhile, in the U.S. Constitution, the rights of the people were specified in the first 10 of 27 Amendments, which are called Bill of Rights because they deal with the fundamental rights of the people.

It should be noted that the freedom of assembly, unlike the other rights, has the condition that the assembly should be peaceful. Every time I watch the violence of protesters against policemen in the streets of Seoul, I feel like that freedom of assembly has been misunderstood.

Jay Kim is a former U.S. Congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).


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