South Korea

Constitutional Background

The Constitution was adopted on 17 July 1948 and amended in 1952, 1954, 1960 (twice), 1962, 1969, 1972, 1980, and on 29 Oct 1987 (cf. History and News). The 1987 Constitution, including direct presidential elections, was unanimously approved by the National Assembly and supported in a national referendum. A special feature of the Constitution is the duty to work (Art. 32 II 1).

With its Western name deriving from the kingdom of Koryò (918-1392), Korea has a long history of political, economic and social development. The political culture is strongly influenced by the legacy of Neo-Confucianism, which was the determining standard for daily life and public administration for several centuries. Preference of formal learning over practical skills, a highly centralized administration, factional strife and a lack of political compromise are only some features of traditional Korean politics.

It took until the opening at end of the 19th century for Western ideas to come to Korea on a broad basis. The current system of legislation and the first Korean constitution originated from the Kabo reforms of 1894, but what followed was the loss of independence to Japan after the treaties of protection (1905) and annexation (1910). After the liberalization in 1945, the country was divided into two spheres of influence by the Soviet Union and the USA roughly along the 38th parallel. In the midst of the Cold War between the superpowers, the division became permanent with the foundation of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the North. The antagonism between the two parts of Korea and their supporters led to the Korean War (1950-1953), which is seen in Korea as the biggest national tragedy and overshadowing the relations on the Korean peninsula until the present day.

Regionalism poses the most serious threat to the development of a working democracy in the ROK. Political parties are very unstable, since they are usually formed around single leaders, not on the foundation of a set of common political ideas. Successful politicians have to please their supporters, who usually hail from a clearly identifiable region. The strongest antagonism developed between the Honam region in the Southwest (mainly the two Chòlla provinces) and the neighboring Yòngnam region in the Southeast (mainly the two Kyòngsang provinces). Local autonomy, allowing for a less biased regional development, was reintroduced only in 1995 and is far away from being firmly established. Most of the important decisions on budget and personnel are still being made centrally in the capital Seoul. Article 118 of the constitution delegates all important matters concerning the organization and operation of local councils to subordinate acts.

The parliament (Art. 40 to 65 of the constitution) still plays a minor role in actual political decisions; the ROK is ruled by the executive with a strong president (Art. 66 to 85) at its top. The president is supported by Senior Secretaries, who in fact form a second cabinet and exert a strong influence on the president's policy. For many years, a change of the presidential system to a parliamentary system has been discussed in the ROK. The former president Kim Dae-jung made this change after half of his term one of his electoral promises, but still there is no change to the 1987 constitution. The executive branch (Art. 86-100) is frequently subject to major overhauls, both of its structure and the personnel. While structural adjustments or administrative reforms are more likely to take place in the first half of a president's term, a minister can lose his seat anytime. The Prime Minister's post is equally volatile; the average period in office of the 23 PM's since December 1979 was 11.9 months.

Economically, the ROK is on its long way to liberalization and a market economy in which the state plays a minor role. There has been substantial progress after the Uruguay Round and following the rescue measures coordinated by the IMF. In the wake of strong nationalist tendencies, especially but not exclusively directed against Japanese influence, there are still many formal and informal obstacles to the activities of foreign companies in the ROK. Given the traditional preference of a strong and almighty state, supported by an elite and self-conscious bureaucracy, and under the current state of conflict on the Korean peninsula, in spite of very encouraging tendencies a fast change seems to be unrealistic. The interventionist role of the state in the economy is supported by Chapter IX (Art. 119-127). In Art. 119, macroeconomic goals like stable and balanced growth rates as well as a balanced income distribution are explicitly identified, market domination and abuse of economic power shall be actively avoided. The regulatory goal to "democratize the economy through harmony among economic agents" in the same article reflects the strong prevalence of traditional Korean values and the close relationship between politics and the economy. Foreign trade is designated as a strategic area which is to be fostered, regulated and coordinated by the state (Art. 125). This stands in some contrast to the officially proclaimed hands-off economic policy and can be seen as the constitutional backing of tariff and non-tariff trade barriers.

Democracy and market economy are solidly established in the ROK and will develop further on a constant basis. Fast change in rhetoric and formalities is followed by slow but steady real progress. The strongest momentum for any reform is prevalent right after the beginning of a new presidential term, which will be the case in February 2003 after the elections in December 2002. In its development to a mature democracy and market economy, the expansion of a stable social security network becomes ultimate (the state's duty to promote social security and welfare is laid down in Article 34). A normalization of the relationship between North and South Korea or even a reunification will provide a substantial potential for the future, but also incalculable risks. The existence of a highly militarized DPRK only about 60 kilometers away from the capital Seoul with about 12 million inhabitants strongly influences all aspects of life and is reflected in politics and economic policy as well as in the constitution, laws and statutes and subordinate acts of the ROK.

History and News

  • April 2004: Parliamentary Elections
  • February 2003: Roh Moo-hyun inaugurated as President of the ROK
  • June 2000: First summit meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea; Kim Dae-jung is awarded the Nobel Peace prize.
  • April 2000: Parliamentary elections
  • 1997: Financial and economic crisis, triggered by the badly prepared liberalization after joining the OECD. Kim Dae-jung wins the 1997 presidential election and takes office in 1998.
  • Aug 1996: 5000 students protesting for reunification with North Korea are arrested by the Army storming their University stronghold. President Kim Young-sam announced taking leaders to court under the anti-communist national security law.
  • 1996: ROK joins the OECD as its 29th member. The reforms of Kim Young-sam are partially successful, but eventually backfire when wrongdoings of his closest aides and his son are uncovered.
  • Oct 1995: Former President Roh Tae-woo publicly confirms his involvement in party financing scandal.
  • 27 June 1995, Seoul: Ruling DLP and President Kim Young-sam are defeated in first local elections since 35 years by Kim Dae-jungs' DP (Democratic Party) and the newly founded ULP (United Liberal Party) of long-time politician Kim Jong-pil.
  • 1993: The law about government approval for ownership of land by foreigners is abolished; however, many other restrictions for foreigners remain.
  • 1992: Kim Young-sam of the DLP (Democratic Liberal Party) wins presidential elections and takes office in 1993. His "first civilian government" starts a large-scale reform movement, trying to eliminate the wide-spread corruption and to integrate the ROK economically and politically into global frameworks.
  • 29 Oct 1987: Major amendments to the constitution (Sixth Republic), resulting in a substantial increase of democratic rights and the further reduction of the single presidential term to five years. It is the result of a desperate move by Chun Doo-hwan to secure the success in the upcoming presidential elections of his political friend and Ex-general Roh Tae-woo. Since the two opposition candidates, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, cannot agree on a single candidacy, Roh Tae-woo wins the 1987 election and becomes president in 1988.
  • 1981: Constitution amended (Fifth Republic); Chun Doo-hwan becomes President, limited to only one 7 year term; Chun is infamous for the massacre after the Kwangju uprising in 1980, when the military killed hundreds or even thousands of its own citizens who were demonstrating for more political freedom.
  • 1979: Military coup by General Chun Doo-hwan following the assassination of Park Chung-hee; the country is left with hardly any significant political opposition, the economy is dominated by big conglomerates, the financial system does not work properly but is a tool of industrial policy.
  • 1972: Constitution amended (Fourth Republic), called the Yusin (Revitalization) Constitution; after an economic crisis resulting in public unrest, Park increased the suppression of democratic rights; this secures his livelong presidency.
  • 1969: Constitution amended
  • 1962: Constitution amended (Third Republic).
  • 1961-1979: Park Chung Hee gains power in a military coup and becomes President; he installs a law that forces foreigners to seek government approval for continued ownership of land; anti-communism is used to suppress any signs of democratic movement, directing all resources of the ROK into an economic development program; military dominates the whole society, including politics and the economy.
  • 1960: Constitution amended (Student Revolution); the first president Rhee Syngman has to step down and go into exile after massive student protests against the corruption under his leadership; the constitution establishes a parliamentary system with a Prime Minister; under the new liberal conditions, chaos rules, catalyzed by a lack of external support for the government of Chang Myon.
  • 1954: Constitution amended.
  • 1952: Constitution amended.
  • 1950-1953: Korean War.
  • 17 July 1948: Constitution adopted (First Republic).

For methodology see: Comparing Constitutions and International Constitutional Law.
© 1994 - 27.6.2020 / Thanks to R. Frank.
For corrections please contact A. Tschentscher.