Government type: Democracy and presidential republic with a directly elected president. Many of South Korea's government structures with similarities to those found in Japan and the United States. Like the United States, South Korea has separate legislative and executive branches. The president has much more power than the legislature.

In 1987, after nearly 40 years of dictatorial rule, South Korea made the transition to democracy. Today it has a relatively free-wheeling democracy, much more so than Japan anyway, with multiple, changing political parties and citizen activism.

Citizenship: citizenship by descent only: at least one parent must be a citizen of South Korea There is no citizenship by birth and dual citizenship not recognized. Residency requirement for naturalization: five years.Capital: Seoul (37 33 N, 126 59 E), with Sejong, located some 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Seoul, serving as an administrative capital for segments of the South Korean government. Independence: August 15, 1945 (from Japan). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

South Korea is governed under the constitution of 1987. The president, who is popularly elected for a single five-year term, is head of state. The prime minister, who is appointed by the president, is the head of the government. The unicameral legislature is 299-seat National Assembly, whose members are popularly elected (245 directly, 54 on a proportional basis) for four-year terms. Administratively, South Korea is divided into nine provinces and seven metropolitan cities. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Some think that South Korea would better served by a parliament system rather than one with a strong presidency. According to Reuters, “Critics of the presidency believe a parliamentary system in which the executive branch centered on a prime minister and the cabinet would allow for more stable policymaking and ensure greater accountability.” [Source: Ju-min Park and Christine Kim, Reuters, 2016]

Democracy Index: 8.01, ranked 23rd out of 167 countries and classified as a full democracy (compared to Norway, ranked first with a score of 9.87 and North Korean ranked last with a score of 1.08). The index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories, measuring pluralism, civil liberties and political culture. [Source: Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Names for Korea

The official name of South Korea is the Republic of Korea (ROK) The local long form is Taehan-min'gukl; the local short form is Han'guk. The official name of North Korea is Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The local long form is Choson-minjujuui-inmin-konghwaguk; the local short form is Choson. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Korea describes both South Korea and North Korea and the peninsula on which they are located. Korean is the name of the people and the language and an adjective used to describe things from Korea. The plural of Korean is Koreans. Sometimes its spelled Corean.

The word “Korea” is derived from the Chinese name for Goryeo, which was the Korean dynasty that united the peninsula in the 10th century A.D.; the South Korean name "Han'guk" derives from the long form, "Taehan-min'guk," which is itself a derivation from "Daehan-je'guk," which means "the Great Empire of the Han"; "Han" refers to the "Sam'han" or the "Three Han Kingdoms" (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla from the Three Kingdoms Era, 1st-7th centuries A.D.) The North Korean name "Choson" means "[Land of the] Morning Calm"

Wang Kon, the first Koryo dynasty ruler, who came to power in A.D. 935, christened his empire Koryo, the source of the name Korea. The country was renamed Chosen ("Land of Morning Calm") after the Chosen rulers came to power in 1392. A new phonetic system, proclaimed by the South Korean government in 2000, resulting in spelling changes of a number of places. Cheju became Jeju and Pusan became Busan. At the World Cup in 2002, it suddenly became fashionable to spell Kore with a “C” (Corea). [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

History of the South Korean Government

Although today South Korea is recognized as a democracy, for several decades following the Korean War it was ruled by a succession of leaders who assumed office under less than democratic circumstances. Fair elections in 1952 were followed by corrupt ones later that decade. A succession of military leaders assumed power in South Korea starting in 1961 with a coup led by army officers. Growing frustration with repressive rule among South Koreans led to demonstrations in May 1980 in the city of Kwangju. These demonstrations were violently suppressed, killing hundreds of civilians. Whereas the South Korean economy flourished, democratic institutions and a free press often did not. In spite of political violence in the form of brutal crackdowns against civilian protests and the assassination of government leaders, a civil society emerged to lead the South Korean democracy movement. In 1987, after years of regular protests, the military leaders of South Korea were forced to hold free and democratic elections. Their handpicked successor, Roh Tae-woo, won, as opposition parties failed to unite around a single candidate and split the vote. In 1992 Kim Young-sam was elected, followed in 1997 by longtime opposition leader Kim Dae-jung. In 2002 South Koreans elected a human rights lawyer and relative political newcomer, Roh Moo-hyun president. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

Timothy C. Limm wrote in “Governments of the World”: “Following the war, South Korea remained mired in poverty and corruption, and the legitimacy of the Rhee regime quickly eroded. To stay in power, President Rhee increasingly relied on dictatorial and repressive means. During the 1960 elections, events came to a head. President Rhee's blatant election-rigging sparked nationwide protests, most of which were led by students. The student movement ultimately forced Rhee's resignation. His downfall, in turn, led to a constitutional amendment providing for a parliamentary as opposed to presidential system. Under this system, a president was selected through a vote by the two houses of the legislature, but the prime minister was to be the key political leader. The first person to fill the more powerful position of prime minister was Chang Myon (also known as John M. Chang). Less than a year later, however, Chang's Second Republic was overthrown in a military coup led by Major General Park Chung Hee (1917–1979). [Source: Timothy C. Limm “Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens’ Rights and Responsibilities”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“General Park, through the Revolutionary Committee (later renamed the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction) quickly established control of the economy and political system. For nearly three years, Park ruled with an iron fist, but in 1963, a new constitution, which reintroduced a presidential system, was promulgated. From 1963 to 1972, a semblance of electoral democracy was restored in South Korea. In fact, Park and his newly formed political party, the Democratic Republican Party (DRP), won several generally fair elections. The success of Park and the DRP, however, was based as much on a divided opposition as it was on popularity and genuine support.

“Thus, when the opposition began to develop more strength and unity, galvanized by the emergence of two outspoken critics of the Park regime — Kim Young Sam (b. 1927) and Kim Dae-jung (b. 1925) — Park's "tolerance" for democracy began to wane. A changing international environment, one in which U.S. power and commitment seemed on the decline, also contributed to Park's growing intolerance. Finally, in December 1971 Park abruptly declared a state of emergency, and on October 17, 1972, suspended the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly and all political parties, forbade "political activity," and imposed restrictions on civil liberties. Subsequently, the new Yushin ("revitalizing reform") Constitution was announced, which, among many important changes, transformed the presidency into a legal dictatorship.

“The return to authoritarianism sparked widespread protest and discontent, which included one unsuccessful assassination attempt on Park in 1974 (although Park escaped, his wife was killed). In 1979, however, Park was not so lucky. On October 26, he was fatally shot by the director of South Korea's Central Intelligence Agency. The assassination led to another period of intense political instability, punctuated by a second military takeover and an extremely bloody insurrection in the city of Kwangju, capital of the South Cholla province. In 1980, a new military leader, Chun Doo Hwan (b. 1931), assumed control.

“A year later, after engineering a transition from military to civilian rule (which ensured his election as president for a seven-year term), Chun attempted to follow the path set by Park, but his authoritarian regime met with constant resistance. Near the end of his term, the situation for democratic change looked bleak. Chun handpicked a successor, Roh Tae Woo (b. 1932), and suspended public debate on a constitutional revision for a direct presidential election, which would have given opposition candidates a stronger chance to win.

“In an unexpected, even shocking, turn of events, however, Roh Tae Woo announced that he would not run unless the Chun regime accepted an eight-point program of reform, which included an endorsement of direct presidential elections. Facing a great deal of domestic and international pressure (some deriving from the upcoming Seoul Olympics in 1988), Chun accepted the reform program in June 1987, thus ushering in a new, albeit imperfect, period of democracy.

“In the 1988 presidential election (held on December 16, 1987), Roh Tae Woo won with only 37 percent of the vote. His victory was due in large part to the failure of the two main opposition candidates, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae-jung, to forge an alliance. The two Kims split the opposition vote, with the former receiving 27 percent and the latter 28 percent (the voting pattern also reflected the previously discussed deep-seated regional cleavages).

“The parliamentary elections of 1988, on the other hand, ended with surprising results. Not only was Roh's ruling party, the Democratic Justice Party, unable to win a working majority in the Assembly, but Kim Dae-jung's Party for Peace and Democracy became the largest opposition party, with Kim Young Sam's Reunification Democratic Party placing third. Significantly, this did not result in a return to authoritarianism, but instead marked the first step in the consolidation of democracy in South Korea. Ironically, it also led to a political compromise between the erstwhile opposition leader Kim Young Sam and the ruling party; in 1990 Kim Young Sam merged his party with the governing party. This alliance was instrumental in allowing him to win the 1992 presidential election over Kim Dae-jung, his main rival. In winning the election, Kim Young Sam became the first civilian to be elected president in South Korea since the coup in 1961.

“Since Kim Young Sam's presidency, presidential and legislative elections have proceeded with few problems. Indeed, in 1998, Kim Dae-jung finally became president, becoming the first chief of state elected from the opposition party in South Korea's constitutional history. Although Kim Dae-jung experienced some serious difficulties — including the arrest of his two sons for accepting bribes and charges that he secretly paid US$100 million to North Korea to agree to a summit — the democratic process remained strong.

“In 2003, South Korea's third successive civilian president, Roh Moo-hyun (b. 1946), took office. Barely a year after taking office in March 2004, however, Roh was impeached for breaking a minor election law. Although many South Koreans saw this as a blatant partisan maneuver by a legislature dominated by conservatives, the Constitutional Court subsequently restored Roh (a progressive human rights lawyer by trade) back to his office. The decision by the Court helped to avert a crisis, but it also demonstrated quite clearly the increasing strength of democracy in South Korea, both in principle and in practice.

Coming of Democracy to South Korea

The crisis of June 1987 brought public dissatisfaction with the Chun Doo Hwan government to a head. The next eight months saw the beginning of a compromise between the ruling and opposition camps that marked a potential watershed in South Korean politics. Politicians who had been in exile or under house arrest for many years returned to leadership roles. The media, unleashed from both censorship and official guidance, began a qualitative and quantitative explosion. A newly critical press probed previously hidden aspects of the military, the national security agencies, and the government more aggressively than ever before. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

For the first time since the fall of the Syngman Rhee regime in 1960, the Republic of Korea produced a constitution through deliberative processes rather than through military intervention or emergency measures. Moreover, elections for the presidency in December 1987 and for the National Assembly in April 1988 redefined the political process; a minority president leading a minority party began a five-year term with full awareness that, at least in the near term, compromise was necessary for political survival.

The search for the political middle ground was handicapped by external pressures upon ruling and opposition parties alike. On President Roh Tae Woo's right, conservative bureaucrats, military leaders, and Democratic Justice Party members held over from the Chun period watched the president carefully. During the first two years of Roh's rule, the rightists grew increasingly suspicious of the process of compromise and upset with the direction taken by South Korea's emerging left, both within and outside of the political process. The traditional opposition parties--the Reunification Democratic Party and the Party for Peace and Democracy led by Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, respectively, felt similar pressures from younger and more progressive elements within their parties, as well as from the more radical opposition outside the political process. By mid-1989 the Roh government appeared to have reached its limit of reform and began to return to earlier patterns of political control, including the broad use of the National Security Act and national security agencies to limit dissent.

The National Assembly came into its own in the late 1980s and at least temporarily achieved the balance of powers provided for in the 1987 Constitution. For the first time in South Korea's history, the government party, as a minority in the legislature, was forced to seek procedural and substantive compromises with three opposition parties. Partisan conflict was temporarily muted for the Seoul Olympics in September 1988 but surfaced again at the end of the year in a series of legislative committee hearings concerning corruption under Chun. Further debate in 1989 led to a political compromise late in the year that resolved the question of the "legacies" of the Fifth Republic (1980-87) that had animated politics in the legislature since the beginning of the Roh administration.

A judicial revolt in mid-1988 forced the resignation of a chief justice appointed by the Chun administration, the subsequent appointment of a more politically independent successor, and the replacement of several dozen senior judges. An administrative reform commission conducted a surprisingly independent investigation of numerous government agencies, including the national security bodies that had long interfered in the political process.

The pattern of politics outside the formal institutions of government continued to change as the 1990s began. New interest groups, particularly within the intellectual professions, emerged to challenge the government-sponsored professional associations in fields such as journalism, teaching, and the arts. These developments in turn often provoked heavy-handed responses from the government, long accustomed to controlling professional organizations through nationwide umbrella groups. Cause-oriented groups of various political persuasions prepared to launch new parties, stimulated by the prospect of local council elections to be held in 1990.

Many of the political developments of the late 1980s reflected important and irreversible social and economic changes that had occurred during the previous two decades. As the 1990s began, a key question of South Korean politics remained the degree to which the development of a better-educated and more affluent populace--essential to South Korean modernization, yet corrosive of the older style of political leadership--would contribute to greater political liberalization.

Flag and Symbols of South Korea

The national flag of South Korea is called Taegukki. Adopted in 1948, when South Korea was created, it is white with a red top and blue yin-yang symbol — T’aeguk, “Great Absolute” or "Supreme Ultimate" — in the center. There is a different black trigram from the ancient I Ching (Book of Changes) in each corner of the white field. White is a traditional Korean color and represents peace and purity. The blue part represents the negative cosmic forces of the yin, while the red symbolizes the opposite positive forces of the yang. Each trigram (kwae) denotes one of the four universal elements. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

In the center of a white background is the yin-yang circle — a circle divided horizontally in two by an S-shaped line. The yin-yang circle, divided equally into a blue portion below and a red portion above, represents the dual cosmic forces of yin (blue) and yang (red), which symbolize universal harmony. The circle is surrounded by four black kwe (or trigrams) from the Yi Ching (Book of Changes)m representing heaven, earth, fire and water. Collectively, the circle and trigrams represent universal harmony and unity. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

The flag of South Korea is unique in that it is meant is to meant to encourage contemplation and philosophical interpretation of the varied meanings of the universe. Yin and yang are the ancient Chinese-East-Asian masculine and feminine symbols of harmony and balance in the universe. The combinations of lines and bars are also symbolic: the unbroken lines in the upper left represents heaven; the broken lines in the lower right symbolize the earth; the bars in the upper right represent water; and the bars in the lower left symbolize fire. The central idea of T'aeguk symbolism is that while there is a constant movement of opposites in the universe (good and evil, day and night, masculinity and femininity), there is also balance. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

National symbols: taegeuk (yin yang symbol), mugunghwa (Hibiscus syriacus, Rose of Sharon) and Siberian tiger, The national colors are red, white, blue, black. The national flower of Korea is mugunghwa, or rose of Sharon, which comes into bloom from July to October every year. Profusions of the blossom gracefully decorate the entire nation during that time, providing a view which has been loved by all Korean for many years. It is also favorite plant of the people as the flower’s symbolic significance stems from the Korean word ‘mugung’, meaning immortality. This word accurately reflects the enduring nature of Korean culture, and the determination and perseverance of the Korean people. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

National Anthem of South Korea

National anthem: name: "Aegukga" (Patriotic Song) with lyrics by Yun Ch'i-Ho or An Ch'ang-Ho and music by Ahn Eaktay. It was adopted 1948, when South Korea was created, but well-known by 1910. Both North Korea's and South Korea's anthems share the same name and have a somewhat similar melody but have different lyrics. One line goes: "Until the waters of the east Sea dry up, until Mount Paektu crumbles, our nation will live 10,000 years.” [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Aegukga literally means "a song expressing one’s love towards their country” in Korean. Since its creation, the song has undergone several versions of transition; however, it remained focused on praising the sense of loyalty to the country. Ahn Eak-tai (1905-1965) is credited with making the song in its present form in 1935. It is used at all schools and official functions.South Korea and the Maldives used to use the tune of Auld Lang Syne for their national anthem.

As of 2005, royalties were still being paid to the family of Aegukga’s composer Ahn Eak-tai for the right to play the song. In 2004, South Koreans in one way or another paid over US$6,000 (a few pennies each time the song was played) in royalties for the privilege of listening to the song at stadiums, stores and on television. School children can sing the song for free [Source: Reuters, February 2005]

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “In contrast to the cosmological symbolism in the flag, the national anthem, Aegukka, conjures a sense of the national identity of the Taehan people by making territorial references to the East Sea (Sea of Japan), Paektusan ("White Head Mountain," on the northern border with China), and the beautiful land of mugunghwa (the rose of Sharon, the national flower). The phrase samch'ol-li kangsan ("three-thousand-li land of range and river"), which is included in the national anthem, refers to the national territory. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Is the South Korean National Anthem Too High to Sing

Jeyup S. Kwaak wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “American singers occasionally embellish their renditions of U.S. national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” with improvisations or even a changed meter. But in South Korea, authorities’ approval for an altered version of the national song has stoked a controversy in national media. [Source: Jeyup S. Kwaak, Wall Street Journal, September 2, 2014]

“Every time you hear it, doesn't it have a heavenly, grand sound to it? Well, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE), the key is just too high for students to learn. In particular, boys going through puberty and voice changes have the most difficulty with the song. It's not easy for adults either. Check out Psy's audience at his concert for evidence as they try to sing the anthem and resort to dissonant shouting instead.

“Coming to the rescue of our strained voices and cowering ears, SMOE has released an altered version of the anthem that has a key 2 steps lower than the original. While the original was in an A Major key, this version is in F Major. SMOE has stated that this isn't necessarily a new version of the "Aegukga", just an alternate one that is available for schools to teach their students. Some have voiced their opinions against the new version, however, stating that the lower key takes away the fire and uplifting feeling of the song. Whether schools decide to enforce the new version or not, "Aegukga" is a gem for the ears when it's sung right, hilariously wrong, or even cute a la middle schooler “

Replacing South Korea Anthem with Arirang Deemed Pro-Pyongyang

Korea's national folk song — “Arirang” — is a simple four verse song expressing frustration, disappointment and hardship. There are four regional versions of the song: the most common one is about a man who has to walk a long distance to see the woman he loves. The lyrics consists of the phrase ‘Arirang, arirang, arariyo’ and two simple lines, which differ from region to region.’ The song is just as popular and well known in North Korea as it in South Korea, where there is occasionally some discussion of replacing the national anthem with it — but not without some harsh rebukes.

Foster Klug and Sam Kim of Associated Press wrote: “A South Korean lawmaker's suggestion to replace the national anthem with a folk song popular in both Koreas does not at first glance seem like an act of disloyalty. The folk tune, "Arirang," has no mention of socialism or glorification of North Korea's ruling family. It is a song of longing, of the sorrow of separation, heavy on images of sunsets over mountains and stars shining in clear skies. But the comments by Lee Seok-ki, a politician in a minor opposition party who has been hounded by claims of pro-Pyongyang views, have fed a media and political firestorm about the possibility that some lawmakers are secretly loyal to the North. Critics say he should be kicked out of parliament for his views. [Source: Foster Klug and Sam Kim, Associated Press, July 4, 2012]

"Commie!" screamed farmers protesting a South Korea-China free trade deal when Lee showed up at their rally this week. Some grabbed his collar, tried to smack him with a red balloon stick and yelled, "Why'd you come here?" The controversy highlights the unusual way North Korea is talked about in the South, where it's illegal to praise Pyongyang. Even oblique statements that fall well short of outright support for the North can bring accusations of disloyalty. Lee's suggestion has also created an uncommon, and probably short-lived, point of unity among ruling conservatives and mainstream opposition parties who are scrambling to voice their indignation and patriotism ahead of crucial presidential elections in December.

In his comments to journalists last month, Lee championed "Arirang" over the current national anthemas an anti-communist, pro-U.S. bastion. Lee's office confirmed his comments but denied interview requests from The Associated Press. Being forced to sing the anthem, which can be translated as "song of love for the country," amounts to "totalitarianism," Lee said. He did sing the anthem when parliament opened, but his comments have been seen by many as a denial of South Korea's foundations. Lee has been called an "anarchist," and some conservatives say his views about the anthem mean he should be tossed out of parliament as a threat to democracy. The main opposition Democratic United Party, distancing itself from the controversy as the election season heats up, says North Korea sympathizers have no place in politics, though its members have also criticized conservatives' enthusiasm for singling out such lawmakers in "witch hunts."

South Korean media and analysts — both conservative and liberal — say Lee is a leading member of a pro-North Korea faction within the United Progressive Party, which has 13 seats in the 300-member National Assembly. Lee's comment about the U.S. was nearly identical to one made by North Korea's Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. That group also accused South Korean conservatives of ruining ties by oppressing "progressive patriotic groups."

Sejong: the New Capital of South Korea?

Seoul is the capital of South Korea. Sejong, located 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Seoul, near Daejon, serves as an administrative capital for some segments of the South Korean government. Officially the Sejong Special Self-Governing City is a special self-governing city and de facto administrative capital of South Korea. Named after Korea’s greatest leader, Sejong the Great (1418-1450), itt was founded in 2007 as the new planned capital of South Korea to ease congestion Seoul and bring more investment in the country's central region. Since 2012, when it opened the South Korea government has relocated numerous ministries and agencies to Sejong, but many still reside Seoul, the National Assembly, the President and many important government bodies remain. [Source: Wikipedia]

One plan calls for Sejong to ultimately replace Seoul as the full capital of South Korea: at a cost about US$19 billion, most of which is footed by a state-run development company. Thirty-six government agencies, including The powerful Ministry of Strategy and Finance, were slated to move there by 2015. The construction of the city is slated by be completed in 2030, the same year all government institutions are supposed be there. About 350,000 people lived in Sejong in 2020.About 500,000 people are expected to live there in 2030. [Source: Sara Webb, Reuters, August 26, 2010; Wikipedia]

At the time it opened in 2012, Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: On this country’s most controversial tract of land, 10,000 laborers are laying the groundwork for an ambitious new city that will either drive growth outside the overpopulated capital or end up as an ill-conceived waste of money. Sejong City resembles a construction site, not a boomtown — orange-painted cranes make up the skyline and dump trucks rumble over makeshift bridges — but next month, South Korean officials will begin moving here in droves. They’ll come as part of a long-contested plan that essentially divides the South Korean government in half, with the relocation of 36 ministries and agencies to a built-from-scratch bureaucrat’s paradise that was once a patchwork of peach farms. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, August 17, 2012]

“But critics — including President Lee Myung-bak — say it’s crazy to set parts of the administration 75 miles apart. “It is not just inefficient to move to Sejong,” said Chung Un-chan, the South Korean prime minister in 2009 and 2010 who served under Lee and was against the idea. “It will be almost paralyzing for government operations.”

“The decade-old Sejong plan seems to reflect a change in the way South Korea thinks about its development: As the country has reached first-world status, experts say, its people have become less concerned about the rate of growth and more concerned about who benefits. They bemoan not only the broadening income gap, but also the geographical gap between Seoul and the rest of the country. The greater Seoul area, in the northwest, has half the country’s population and half of its businesses. Politicians have tried, with little success, to feed growth in farther-flung regions, with tax incentives and a plan for 10 “innovation cities” as breeding grounds for industry and private research. “There have been, like, 500 policies to help rebalance the country, and they have all failed,” said Yook Dong-il, a professor at Chungnam National University, a 15-minute drive from Sejong. But they have all been micro-policies, nothing as big as the plan with Sejong.” [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, August 17, 2012]

Sejong began as a grandiose 2002 campaign pledge from future president Roh Moo-hyun, who wanted to win voters in a critical swing region and promised to relocate the capital entirely. Some in Seoul criticized the idea, but others figured the city could thrive just as well without the government. Still, the plan stirred controversy. A constitutional court ruled that the capital should stay put. Roh watered down his plan by half; his residence, for instance, as well as parliament and some key ministries, would stay put. Then Roh’s successor, Lee, tried to stop that scaled-back plan and proposed an unpopular alternative — calling for Sejong to become an education and industry hub, with conglomerates such as Samsung and Lotte instead of the government — which key members of his party didn’t support.

The blueprint for Sejong, then, is less than what Roh initially wanted and just the opposite of what Lee wants. Roh, who committed suicide in 2009, had a “philosophy of balanced national development,” said a former prime minister, Lee Hae-chan. The current president, formerly Seoul’s mayor, once pledged to block Sejong’s development even if he had to “mobilize the military.”

Constitution of South Korea

South Korea is governed under the constitution of 1987. It was passed by the National Assembly on October 12, 1987, approved in referendum with a 93.1 percent vote on October 28 1987 and put into effect on February 25,1988. This constitution established a very strong presidency in Korea and states that national reunification is the absolute objective of the republic. There were several previous constitutions. The first constitution was adopted on July 17, 1948. Some view the 1987 constitution as a revision on this constitution. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =; Library of Congress 2005]

In South Korea, the president or parliament can propose a constitutional amendment, which must be approved by a two-thirds majority in the single-chamber assembly and then by a majority in a national referendum in which more than half of eligible voters participate. Amendments to constitution are proposed by the president or by majority support of the National Assembly membership. Passage requires at least two-thirds majority vote by the Assembly membership and approval in a referendum by more than one half of the votes by more than one half of eligible voters, and promulgation by the president. The constitution has been amended several times. The last time was in 1987. [Source: = Ju-min Park and Christine Kim, Reuters, 2016]

The constitutional framework of the Sixth Republic, which started in 1987, was based on a constitutional bill that was passed by the National Assembly on October 12, 1987, and subsequently approved by 93 percent of the voters in a national referendum on October 28. The bill was the product of painstaking negotiation and compromise among the major political parties in the National Assembly, unlike the preceding two constitutions, which were essentially unilaterally drafted by the executive branch and then submitted to referendums under emergency measures or martial law. The 1987 Constitution became effective on February 25, 1988, when Roh Tae Woo was inaugurated as president. The new Constitution, which consisted of a preamble, 130 articles, and supplementary provisions, strengthened the power of the National Assembly and considerably reduced the power of the executive. Its adoption marked only the second time that the government and opposition parties had produced a constitutional amendment bill by consensus in South Korea's modern history--the first occasion, in 1980, was cut short by a military coup d'état--and the first time that such cooperation had been successful. The new fundamental law, the first since 1960 not intended to extend the rule of the incumbent president, provided for direct election of the president, an issue the opposition parties had campaigned for since 1985. It also eliminated or modified a number of provisions that had come under criticism since the yusin (revitalization) constitutional amendment in 1972. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

History of Constitutions in South Korea

Despite centuries of authoritarian and autocratic rule, reform thinkers in nineteenth-century Korea had debated the subject of government and advocated the rule of law and eventual constitutional government as early as the 1890s. The notion of a government limited by checks and balances under a constitutional order was not entirely new to the Korean political setting in 1945. Organizations such as the Self-Strengthening Society (Chaganghoe) used translations to promote the study of numerous European constitutions and legal codes during the years just before Japan annexed Korea in 1910. During Japanese rule (1910- 45), a self-styled Korean government in exile in China drafted several charters and constitutions. Within colonial Korea, a small Protestant community conducted self-governing denominational meetings in accordance with rules of parliamentary procedure. Japanese rule in Korea, however, was itself largely exempt even from Japanese constitutional constraints. Despite Korean interest in the idea of constitutionalism, therefore, the colonial experience provided Koreans with little opportunity to experience the practice of limited government. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Since the formation of an independent South Korean republic in 1948, the term constitutionalism--as it is popularly understood in Western democracies--has become a major focus of political strife. Although the concept has been interpreted in various ways, there has been at least a nominal consensus that constitutionalism would foster, if not guarantee, a general framework for benevolent and effective government. The constitution would help protect certain individual rights and provide safeguards against the concentration of power in the hands of a dictatorial group.*

There have been numerous difficulties in adapting constitutionalism to South Korea, not the least of these being the reluctance of incumbent leaders to step down peacefully and prepare for a transfer of power through the constitutional process. The politics of constitutional manipulation has been deadly serious, calculated to bolster or prolong the tenure of incumbent presidents or to lend an aura of legitimization to a regime brought to power by a coup. South Korea experienced its first peaceful transfer of power since independence only in 1987. In most of the leadership changes prior to 1987, the incumbents used forceful tactics--including martial law and other surreptitious parliamentary maneuvers--to change the constitution. The 1990s began with discussions of possible further changes in the fundamental law. It appeared that South Korea had yet to escape a pattern, in which both powerholders and their political rivals perceived a constitution as a tool for holding power, rather than as a framework for long-term governance, and in which each administration required one or more constitutional revisions.*

Yushin Constitution of Park Chung Hee

According to “Governments of the World”: “When Park Chung Hee (1917–1979) won a third presidential term over New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Kim Dae Jung in 1971, Park and his Democratic Republican Party (DRP) radically changed the system of government. Declaring martial law in October 1972, Park proceeded to remove both the 1962 constitution and members of the legislature. In November the new constitution, known as the Yushin constitution, or Revitalizing Reform constitution, was put in place. [Source: “Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens’ Rights and Responsibilities” Thomson Gale, 2006]

“In effect, the Yushin constitution kept Park as president indefinitely, granted his party a majority in the legislature, and outlawed many activities that were perceived to be opposed to the goals of the DRP. While the country made rapid strides in industrialization and self-sufficiency, civil rights were stifled.

“Growing dissatisfaction with the government came to a head in 1979, and Park was assassinated. Under the electoral college that had been set up by the Yushin constitution, the National Conference for Unification, Prime Minister Choi Kyu-hah became acting president, but his brief term was marked by violent antigovernment demonstrations. In August 1980 Chun Doo Hwan was elected president, and within two months he spearheaded a revision to the Yushin constitution which limited the presidency to one term of seven years' duration.

Framework of the 1987 Constitution

The 1987 Constitution declares South Korea a democratic republic, its territory consisting of "the Korean Peninsula and its adjacent islands." Popular sovereignty is the norm of the state; all public officials are described as servants of the people; and the tenure and political impartiality of these officials are protected by the provisions of law. In language not found in earlier constitutional amendments, the Constitution states that the "Republic of Korea shall seek unification and shall formulate and carry out a policy of peaceful unification based on the principles of freedom and democracy." In another innovation clearly aimed at the past influence of the military on politics and political succession, the Constitution stipulates that "political neutrality shall be maintained" by the armed forces. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Chapter Nine of the Constitution, which is concerned with the economy, continues the theme of the previous constitution in committing the state to fostering economic growth and foreign trade. As was the case under the 1980 constitution, tenant farming is technically prohibited, but leasing or proxy management of farmland is recognized in the interest of increasing agricultural productivity and rational land utilization. The new Constitution permits regulations designed to "ensure the proper distribution of income" and prevent "abuse of economic power." In an implicit recognition of severe disparities in regional development in the past, the state is also charged with ensuring balanced development of all regions of the country. The government is responsible for establishing national standards and for developing technical, scientific, and human resources.*

Separation of powers came from the political process as well as from the formal structure of government embodied in the Constitution. The Sixth Republic's Constitution provides greater formal balance than earlier constitutions among the three branches of government. In important substantive areas, it strengthens the legislature and the judiciary. In other areas, it sets broad policy guidelines but leaves legislation to the legislators. The resulting formal checks and balances were reinforced by the outcome of the April 1988 general elections, in which the president's party--the Democratic Justice Party--lost a working majority in the legislature for the first time since the establishment of the Republic of Korea.*

Rights Outlined in the 1987 Constitution

The section on fundamental rights reflects continued evolution toward the affirmation of civil rights and due process of law. Individuals may not be punished, placed under preventive restrictions, or subjected to involuntary labor "except as provided by law and through lawful procedures." The protection of habeas corpus, restored in the 1980 constitution but rarely honored in practice in political cases under the Chun government, is further reinforced. People detained or arrested must be informed of the reason and of their right to be assisted by counsel. Family members of those arrested or detained must be informed of the fact "without delay." Prosecutors' failure to indict a criminal suspect or accused person placed under detention might entitle the person to claim compensation for wrongful arrest. Warrants must be issued by a judge "through due procedures" rather than at the mere request of prosecutors, as had often occurred, especially in political cases, in the past. Other new provisions include the right of citizens to receive aid from the state if they suffered injury or death due to the criminal acts of others; the autonomy of institutions of higher learning; and recognition of extended labor rights. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The articles on rights, like other portions of the Constitution, originated during a process of political compromise that deferred a number of complex or controversial issues until a later date. A number of new social welfare provisions were left to subsequent legislation. These measures included aspirations to protect working women from unjust discrimination, state protection for citizens incapacitated by disease and old age, environmental protection measures, housing development policies, and "protection for mothers".*

As in earlier constitutions, the formal provision of a right was often qualified by other constitutional provisions or by related laws. The most significant of these pre-existing laws was the National Security Act, which severely truncated rights of due process specified in the Constitution and the Code of Criminal Procedure (1954) for persons accused of a variety of political offenses.*

The Constitution affirms both the right and the duty to work and requires legislation for minimum wages and standards of working conditions to "guarantee human dignity." Special protection is provided to working women and working children. Except for workers in important defense industries, workers have the right to independent association, collective bargaining, and collective action--a marked change from the 1980 constitution, which stated that collective action could be regulated by law. By 1990, however, not all of the numerous laws that restricted the exercise of labor rights had been thoroughly subjected to the scrutiny of the Constitution Court.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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