Republic of Korea

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Republic of Korea

Type of Government

The Republic of Korea, or South Korea, is a republic with powers divided between executive, legislative, and judicial branches. In the executive branch the president, who is elected directly by the population, serves as the head of state, head of government, and commander of the armed forces. The prime minister, who is appointed by the president, serves as his chief adviser and the head of the executive ministries. The legislative branch is unicameral and elected by a combination of direct and proportional representation. The judicial branch contains the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court, with justices appointed by the president from a slate of nominees.


Paleolithic societies in Korea and China were closely linked and shared important cultural roots, and in succeeding centuries Korea and China were often politically allied. At the start of the nineteenth century Korea adopted an isolationist policy and closed its ports to foreign trade, except for trade with China. In 1894 Japan, in its first war with China, defeated the Qing Dynasty’s armies and forced them to relinquish control of Korea. Fearing an invasion by Japanese forces, Korea sought a protection pact with Russia. When Japan and Russia went to war in 1904, the Korean government attempted to remain neutral but Japanese forces occupied most of the peninsula. In 1910 Japan annexed the territory and established a colonial government.

The Japanese occupation lasted until 1945, during which time Japanese regents thoroughly modernized Korea’s infrastructure but also attempted to obliterate all remnants of native culture—they forced natives to adopt Japanese names, for example, and to convert to the Shinto religion. An independence movement developed, but the Japanese repressed it with mass arrests and executions.

When the Japanese entered World War II in 1941, they conscripted thousands of Koreans into their army. In 1945 Japan surrendered to allied forces, and the Korean peninsula was split at the 38th parallel into two protectorates controlled by the United States in the South and the Soviet Union in the North. The major powers were unable to negotiate joint trusteeship and established two separate governments. In 1948 the southern portion of the peninsula became the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the northern portion became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Government Structure

Since the first constitution was approved in 1948, South Korea has enacted five constitutional reforms, each marked by the beginning of a new republic. The 1987 constitution provided universal suffrage for all persons twenty years of age and older. It maintained a parallel voting system, with a combination of direct election from single-seat constituencies and a proportional representation system by which special-interest groups and minority parties are guaranteed representation.

The executive branch, known as the State Council, consists of the president, the prime minister, and the cabinet ministers. The president, who is elected by direct vote to a single five-year term, has the power to propose legislation, submit budgetary initiatives, and declare war or emergency orders in times of crisis. The president also appoints the prime minister, cabinet ministers, and members of the judiciary. The president does not have the power to dissolve the legislature but may dismiss members of the executive branch.

The prime minister is first in line for presidential succession and serves as the president’s chief adviser and liaison to the legislature. The prime minister assists the president with all administrative actions and recommends the appointment and/or dismissal of cabinet ministers who lead the country’s eighteen ministries. The constitution requires the president to consult the prime minister before taking certain actions, such as proposing constitutional amendments, emergency orders, or budgetary resolutions.

South Korea’s unicameral legislature, the Kukhoe (National Assembly), has 299 seats, 243 of which are filled by direct vote from single-member constituencies and 56 by proportional representation. Assembly members serve for four-year terms and are eligible for re-election. The assembly is organized into standing committees that loosely coincide and work with the executive ministries. It has the power to originate legislation, approve or amend most executive proposals, and impeach executive officers with a majority vote.

The judicial branch is independent of both the executive and legislative branches. Its highest body is the Constitutional Court, which was created in 1987 to handle cases involving constitutional law and impeachment. Its nine justices are appointed by the president—three directly, three chosen from recommendations made by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and three from recommendations made by the National Assembly. They serve renewable six-year terms, but are required to retire at age sixty-five, except for the head of the court, who may serve to age seventy.

The Supreme Court is the final authority for all cases outside the mandate of the Constitutional Court. The nation’s chief justice is appointed by the president for one six-year term with the consent of the assembly. The thirteen justices are appointed by the president on the recommendation of the chief justice and the consent of the assembly. They serve renewable six-year terms. One of the justices handles administrative matters and does not participate in judicial opinions. Below the Supreme Court are the state appellate courts, the provincial courts, and the regional courts.

South Korea has nine provinces and seven metropolitan areas, each of which maintains its own elected government.

Political Parties and Factions

The Uri Party was founded in 2003 to consolidate support for the campaign of President Roh Moo Hyun (1946–). It favors liberal policies, such as increased spending on social services and reduced emphasis on military and industrial growth. Party leaders also support conciliatory relations with North Korea and decreased military dependence on Japan and the United States. During the 2006 regional elections the Uri Party lost support in many parts of the country.

The Grand National Party (GNP), formed in 1997 through the consolidation of several conservative groups, is the largest minority party and the strongest opposition to the Uri Party. Its policies are conservative, emphasizing economic growth, lower taxes, strong military alliances, and a reduction in the size and authority of the central government. The 2004 election cycle was the first time since the party’s inception that it failed to hold a majority in the National Assembly.

The Democratic Party (DP) was the largest liberal party in South Korea before the 2004 election cycle, when many of its key members left to form the Uri Party. When members of the DP joined with members of the GNP in calling for the impeachment of Roh in 2004—a decision overturned by the Constitutional Court—public opinion turned against the DP and greatly reduced its success in regional elections.

The Democratic Labor Party (DLP) was created in 2000 as the political arm of South Korea’s trade unions and industrial organizations. It supports a more socialist form of democracy, with an emphasis on public involvement and activism. Major issues for the party include an increase in the minimum wage and restrictions on military activities. In March 2007 party leader Moon Sung Hyun (1952–) staged a month-long hunger strike at the presidential residence to oppose a trade agreement with the United States and to demonstrate the type of activism the DLP advocates.

Major Events

The nation’s constitution has been reformulated five times since 1948, and the country has endured periods of military/autocratic rule punctuated by popular and military uprisings. The 1987constitution marked the Sixth Republic of Korea.

The first republic was established on August 15, 1948, and held its first democratic election that same month, with Syngman Rhee (1875–1965) elected. The neighboring DPRK refused to accept the sovereignty of the ROK, believing that the peninsula should be unified under a single government.

On June 25, 1950, the DPRK, allied with the Chinese military, invaded the ROK. In July the U.S. military led a United Nations–backed force into South Korea to repel the invasion. During the early stages of what came to be known as the Korean War (1950–1953), the DPRK managed strategic gains but by 1951 had lost the advantage and retreated to the 38th parallel, which separated South from North. The war ended on July 27, 1953, with an armistice that established a demilitarized zone near the original demarcation line. It is estimated that more than three million civilians and combatants were killed during the three-year conflict, while both nations suffered severe economic and structural damage. The Korean War is considered part of the larger Cold War, in which communist and capitalist nations competed for alliances among developing nations in an effort to secure the future of their respective political ideologies.

In the decade following the war the administration was mired in internal conflicts and widely viewed as unresponsive to public sentiment. During the April Revolution of 1960 student and labor groups protested corruption in the government. Police fired into the crowds, killing several students, which led to an investigation by the National Assembly. On April 26, 1960, the president resigned, leaving the prime minister in control of the government.

In the following months the ROK adopted a parliamentary government, though it was unable to quell political unrest. On May 16, 1961, General Park Chung Hee (1917–1979) staged a military coup and assumed control. The coup, achieved without violence, was largely welcomed by the public and some members of the legislature.

In 1963, under pressure from the United States, Park agreed to hold general elections. He won by a narrow margin; the results were similar in 1967. Park also created the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which functioned largely to protect his regime and control public disturbances.

During his first two terms Park made the highly unpopular decisions to begin normalization of relations with Japan and to support the United States during the Vietnam War. However, his foreign-relations initiatives vastly increased the country’s resources, as both Japan and the United States began to provide economic aid and investment capital. By 1970 the industrial sector had grown to the point that the ROK was a competing force in international trade.

In 1971 Park and his legislative allies reformulated the constitution so he could run for a third term. He won the controversial election by a narrow margin, although the opposition contested the legitimacy of his administration. In 1972 Park declared a state of emergency and instituted martial law.

With the government and constitution suspended, Park and his allies devised the Yushin Constitution, which granted Park unlimited presidential terms and the power to appoint large portions of the legislature so he could maintain a permanent majority. Park easily won the 1972 and 1978 elections, considered by many to be largely fraudulent.

In the 1970s Park began conducting secret negotiations with North Korea; however, when Park’s wife was killed in an attempted assassination of him in 1974, Park shut down negotiations with the DPRK. Park spent the remaining years of his presidency somewhat removed from public scrutiny. In 1979 Kim Jae Gyu (1926–1980), the head of the intelligence agency, assassinated Park and several of his guards. Kim was later executed.

Park is often viewed as a dictator because of the excesses of his regime: persecuting political rivals, limiting the freedoms of the populace, and violating election laws to maintain power. However, Park’s administration was also largely responsible for helping South Korea to emerge from economic disaster to become one of the world’s fastest growing economies and one of the strongest economic forces in Asia.

Twenty-First Century

Since the 1960s the economy has continued to grow, though like many Asian nations, South Korea suffered in the economic slump of the 1990s. After initiating a modest economic-recovery program, the ROK has returned to moderate growth. Today it boasts low unemployment rates and an export surplus.

Decades of rapid industrialization have led to a decline in the nation’s natural resources. Air pollution and acid rain are among its most pressing environmental problems. Since 2000 the government has placed increased emphasis on developing renewable energy and reducing emissions from industrial sources.

Relations between the ROK and the DPRK have stabilized in recent decades, even though the DPRK is involved in major disputes with some of South Korea’s allies, including Japan and the United States. Military alliances, investment, and relations with the DPRK continue to be major issues during each election period.

Kyong Ju Kim. The Development of Modern South Korea: State Formation, Capitalist Development and National Identity. London: Routledge, 2006.

Oberdorfer, Dan. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Seungsook Moon. Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.