The Tyranny of the Minority in South Korea
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Tyranny of the Minority in South Korea


A recent adjustment to the rules of South Korea’s National Assembly has made passing legislation has become a herculean effort.

The National Assembly Advancement Act requires three-fifths consent from lawmakers before a bill can be put up for a vote during a plenary session. The act was passed in 2012 with the intention of preventing any one political party from riding roughshod over the opposition with a simple majority. It went into effect last year.

The act also limits the power of the assembly speaker to bring a bill to a vote. Only under conditions of war, natural disaster, or with an agreement between the ruling and opposition parties can the speaker bring a bill to pass.

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One could argue, quite convincingly, that the national assembly needed this sort of institutional reform. The assembly had become well known as a place for occasional brawls between ruling and opposition lawmakers. One extreme, but appropriate, example is opposition lawmaker Kim Sun-dong setting off a teargas grenade inside the assembly chamber in a futile effort to stop the ruling party from ratifying the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

However, rather than promote cooperation, the act has created parliamentary gridlock.

During Park Geun-hye’s administration, the National Assembly has been about as (in)effective as the U.S. Congress. In fact, a good parallel to the act is the U.S. filibuster. There are differences, of course, but the effect is basically the same: it gives a powerful “veto possibility” to the opposition.

Political scientists James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen show how veto possibilities explain political change. One key concern of theirs is whether the “political context affords defenders of the status quo strong or weak veto possibilities.”

In the South Korean context, the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) is using the veto possibility given to it by the Advancement Act to stonewall the ruling Saenuri Party, who only holds a slight majority in the assembly (155/300 seats). Without ruling-opposition party cooperation, or a significant defection from the opposition bloc, Saenuri is incapable of passing legislation. Furthermore, NPAD is using the Sewol bill to increase its leverage, demanding agreement on the formation of a special investigative committee (the Sewol bill) before any other legislation is addressed. No agreement has been made and cooperation is at a standstill, although the new NPAD interim chair has promised greater flexibility in Sewol bill talks.

There is also some disagreement amongst analysts and between the parties as to whether one of the conditions under the act (agreement between parties) has in fact been fulfilled. Saenuri leadership argues that other bills (other than the Sewol bill) have been agreed upon in the National Assembly Standing Committee, and, as such, should be brought to a vote. NPAD disagrees, maintaining that no other bills can be put up for a vote until the two parties resolve all their disagreements on the Sewol bill. This is a technical matter that has yet to be resolved. Despite opposition from NPAD, Saenuri will call upon the Assembly Speaker to adjudicate the dispute.

There is, in all of this, no small irony. The National Assembly Advancement Act is being used against the party that approved its passage; in other words, majoritarianism has been replaced with a tyranny of the minority. One only hopes that cooler heads prevail and that South Korea’s National Assembly does not forever stay like the U.S. Senate.

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