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[Op-Ed] Debate Over Federalism

Posted September. 03, 2009 08:22,   


The homepage of the minor conservative Liberty Forward Party has the party’s pledge to pursue “warm conservatism for the people” and proposal to transform Korea into a federation of “small but strong states.” The 2007 presidential campaign slogan of party leader Lee Hoi-chang is the party’s key platform. The party held symposiums on federalism in October last year and June this year to make it a publicly debated issue. Lee has also advocated federalism at every opportunity.

In an unexpected twist of events, the call for federalism has hindered President Lee Myung-bak’s plan to nominate his next prime minister. Yesterday, Lee Hoi-chang spoke of behind-the-scene talks between him and the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae over the proposal that the party’s No. 2 man Shim Dae-pyung be appointed prime minster. Lee Hoi-chang said the presidential office rejected his proposal for a federal system while the government builds the new administrative city in the central region. Last week, President Lee also talked of how he could not commit himself to the demand.

While the explanations from the two sides differ, it is clear that Lee Hoi-chang is strongly committed to adopting the federal system. He wants Korea to become a federation of five to seven small but strong states, such as Singapore and Finland. Under his proposal, the central government would head state integration and coordination including diplomacy and national defense, while provincial and municipal governments would handle domestic affairs such as legislation, law enforcement, administration, finances and education.

The party leader says he wants to reform Korea’s government structure and system from a long-term perspective. Dividing the country into small but transparent and efficient states each with a population of five million to 10 million would enhance national competitiveness, he adds.

Korea is just about 1/100th of the size of the U.S. Why is it necessary to further split a country that is already small enough? In European countries with federal systems, local autonomous regions are strong enough to survive on their own thanks to their long history of feudalism. By comparison, provincial and municipal governments in Korea depend on the central government for about half of their finances. Federalism could also aggravate chronic regional friction in Korea. Shim’s secession from the party clearly shows how unrealistic Lee Hoi-chang’s proposal is.

Editorial Writer Bhang Hyeong-nam (hnbhang@donga.com)