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Opinions Mixed on Revisions to Sejong City Project

Posted November. 04, 2009 08:47,   


Ruling Grand National Party members close to President Lee Myung-bak have suggested that the implementation of the disputed Sejong City project, or the proposed administrative district in the country’s central region, should be decided through a referendum.

Their stance has raised criticism not only among politicians, but also among legal experts and scholars. While delivering a speech at the National Assembly, the party’s floor leader Ahn Sang-soo said the “fruitless controversy” should be halted until the government suggests an alternative plan.

In an interview with The Dong-A Ilbo, however, party supreme council member Gong Sung-jin said, “It is clear that the bill on building an administrative-centered comprehensive city was the product of political compromise, not a farsighted policy for Korea’s future. A referendum, in which people participate in the process of decision-making should be in place to rectify the incorrect decision of politicians and prevent exhaustive disputes.”

In a radio interview with KBS, Lee Hoi-chang, the chairman of the minor progressive Liberty Forward Party, said, “A referendum can be held only if it concerns national security. The Grand National Party’s suggestion of a referendum is an unpleasant idea to push through their own opinions by overwhelming Chungcheong province residents, who account for a smaller share of the population.”

The spokesman of the main opposition Democratic Party Woo Sang-ho also said, “It is improbable and impossible to put a bill to a referendum not to follow the bill on which the ruling and opposition parties reached agreement on after a long discussion.”

○ Legal grounds for referendum?

Certain pro-President Lee lawmakers support the idea of a referendum, citing Article 72 of the Constitution as legal grounds. The article stipulates that the president can call a referendum on significant policies on diplomacy, defense, unification and other security issues when needed. They say the Sejong City project can be considered a major policy related to national security.

Constitutional scholars have shown mixed responses, however.

Seoul National University professor Seong Nak-in said, “Regardless of the Constitution, it is possible to call a referendum on the Sejong City project, which can be considered a significant national policy, since Korea is a direct democracy.”

Sogang University professor Lim Ji-bong said, “Article 72 of the Constitution gives the president the right to submit a bill for consideration and discretion. That means it is possible for the president to call a referendum on the Sejong City project. Issues surrounding the city are also one of Korea’s major state affairs since they are about moving government functions to an administrative capital.”

Among skeptics, however, Heo Yeong, the director of the Constitutional Trial Research Center, said, “The Sejong City project has nothing to do with significant issues related to national security. Even if Article 72 is broadly interpreted, it cannot satisfy the requirements for a referendum.”

He warned that a referendum on the project could result in another ruling by the Constitutional Court, which recently upheld the passage of media reform bills.

Seoul National University professor Jeong Jong-seop said, “Korea has no system under which a referendum on policies can be called. Therefore, the Sejong City project cannot be put to a referendum.”

○ Referendum could cause problems

The results of a public opinion poll said 36.3 percent favors sticking to the original plan for the project, while a slightly larger share supported changes. It is hard to predict, however, what results a referendum will bring.

Even if a referendum is held, the results are expected to invite more disputes. A National Election Commission official said, “Given the National Referendum Act, even if the Sejong City project is put to a referendum, the results will definitely be interpreted in a political way.”

When the government wants to amend the Constitution, it must put its amendment proposal to a referendum. No such rule exists for a referendum on major policies, however. The Constitution simply states that the president should proclaim the results of a referendum.

Accordingly, certain experts predict that a referendum on the Sejong City project will definitely cause another political controversy.