[Robert J. Fouser] Does Korea need an upper house?

Today marks the 20th time that Koreans have gone to the polls to vote for members of the National Assembly. Since the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1948, elections for the National Assembly have been the most regular of all elections. From 1971 to 1987, presidential elections were suspended and elections for local government offices were held for the first time in 1995. National Assembly elections, by contrast, have been held regularly every three to five years, though voter fraud and intimidation was common during the years of dictatorship.

The regularity of elections has made them the main outlet for citizens to choose their representatives. Except for the brief experimentation with a parliamentary system in 1960-1961, Korea has a strong presidency and a weak legislature compared with other advanced democracies. But though it may be relatively weak, the National Assembly remains the most important systemic check on presidential power. The other important check is massive public demonstrations, which forced the resignation of Syngman Rhee in 1960 and the adoption of direct elections in 1987.

The consistency of National Assembly elections has also helped foster future leaders. Korea has six presidents since democratization in 1987, and four of them gained political prominence as leaders in the National Assembly: Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Park Geun-hye. Lee Myung-bak had also been a member of the National Assembly, but built his reputation on his work as mayor of Seoul.

Among major democracies, the National Assembly in Korea has a few peculiarities. Korea is the only populous democracy with a unicameral legislature. Smaller democracies, such as Finland, New Zealand and Sweden, have a unicameral legislature. In most democracies, bicameral legislatures are the norm, though the balance of power often favors the lower house. The idea of an upper house and a lower house is rooted in the British parliament, with the elected House of Commons as the lower house and the appointed House of Lords as the upper house.

The bicameral legislature in Britain developed over time, but in most nations, a bicameral legislature was a choice. One of the most often cited reasons is that a bicameral legislature allows for a better distribution of power. In most cases, the upper house is smaller and elected from larger constituencies than the lower house. The lower house has greater power because it represents smaller constituencies, making it closer to the people. The upper house is often structured as an elitist check on the populist tendencies of lower house and the executive.

Another reason for a bicameral legislature is regional balance. The clearest example is the U.S. Congress, in which the House of Representatives is chosen from districts based on population, whereas every state has the same number of representatives in the Senate. The idea came from the need to protect the interests of less-populous states.

The idea of adopting a bicameral system in Korea may seem odd, particularly at a time when public trust in politicians is low. Creating an upper house that is elected in the middle of each presidential term has several advantages. First, as the upper house, it would represent regional and national interests and would allow the lower house, the current National Assembly, to get rid of seats allocated to parties by proportional representation. This would increase the number of seats elected by local constituencies, which would strengthen the function of the lower house in representing local interests.

Second, the term of office for the upper house could be the same as for the president and the election could be timed for the middle of each presidential term. This would turn the election into the referendum on the president. Alternatively, the upper house election could be timed to coincide with the presidential election so that voters could decide whether to give the new president a friendly legislature or split their votes to limit the power of the new president.

Another alternative, of course, would be to time the upper house election to coincide with the lower house election. This raises the issue of the timing of the current National Assembly election. The term of office is four years versus five years for the president, which means that the National Assembly election falls at different times during each presidential term. Lee Myung-bak, for example, witnessed two elections, one at the beginning and one at the end of his term, forcing the current president to work with a legislature elected at the end of her predecessor셲 time in office. The variable time of elections makes it difficult for them to function as referendums on the president. Whatever the results today, more discussion is needed on the structure of the National Assembly and the timing of elections.

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Ann Arbor, Michigan. — Ed.