Under the 1987 Constitution, the South Korean government is divided into three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial. The president administers the country with the assistance of the prime minister and cabinet, whom he appoints. The president, who is popularly elected for a single five-year term, is both the head of the government and head of state. The prime minister is sort of like a vice president. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press, 2018; Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

The unicameral legislature consists of the 300-seat National Assembly, whose members are popularly elected (253 directly, 47 on a proportional basis) for four-year terms Three-quarters of the Assembly members are elected from single-member districts, while the others are chosen via a nationwide representative system. Each party receives one proportional seat for every three seats won in the election districts.

At the top of the judicial branch are the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and 13 justices. The Constitutional Court has a court head and eight justices. Subordinate courts: High Courts; District Courts; Branch Courts (organized under the District Courts); specialized courts for family and administrative issues. In the early 2000s there were three appellate courts, three district courts, and one family court. In addition, the military services had special courts.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “In South Korea, although the Constitution calls for the separation of executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government, so much power is concentrated in the presidency that political scientists often describe the president as “imperial.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 11, 2019]

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]

Executive Branch of the South Korean Government

The president is the chief of state, head of government and commander in chief of the armed forces. The prime minister serves as the principal executive assistant to the president, similar to the role of a vice president. The cabinet — the State Council — is appointed by the president on the prime minister's recommendation The president is directly elected by simple majority popular vote for a single five-year term. The last election was last held on May 9, 2017. The next will be held in March 2022. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The President administers the country with the assistance of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, whom he appoints. All provincial and local officials are appointed and work under the administration of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Under the new constitution, which took effect in February 1988, the president is elected by direct popular vote, rather than indirectly as before, for a single term of five years. There are also a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers, who head the State Council (the cabinet). [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The prime minister is largely ceremonial. He or she is appointed by the President and approved by the National Assembly. The president also appoints the heads of the 17 ministries that direct public policy and affairs of state. The main advisory agencies to the presidency are the National Security Council, the Advisory Council on Democratic and Peaceful Reunification, the Presidential Council on Science and Technology, the Presidential Commission on Small and Medium Business, the Civil Service Commission, the Korean Independent Commission Against Corruption, and the Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths. The president also directs the National Intelligence Service and the Board of Audit and Inspection. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

Executive branch: chief of state and head of government: President Moon Jae-in (since May 10, 2017). Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun (since January 14, 2020) serves as the principal executive assistant to the president. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Head of Government of South Korea: the President

The president, who is popularly elected for a single five-year term, is head of state, head of government and commander in chief of the armed forces. The constitution established a very strong presidency and relatively weak legislature. The president is directly elected by simple majority popular vote for a single 5-year term. To deter strongman rule, the president can not be reelected to a second term.

The president works out of an official residence called the Blue House, so named because of the building's blue roof tiles. The Blue House, a compound at the foot of a craggy mountain in central Seoul, is an ornate mansion with gardens, offices, a press center and other ceremonial buildings.

The President is assisted by the staff of the Presidential Secretariat, headed by a cabinet-rank secretary general. Apart from the State Council, or cabinet, the chief executive relies on several constitutional organs. Before Kim Dae Jung became it was the custom of aides to address the president as “Your Excellency” and have the president’s picture hanging from office walls all over the country.

Current President: Moon Jae-in (since May 10, 2017). Will serve until 2022.

Presidential Elections in South Korea

The president is popularly elected for a single five-year term by a simple majority popular vote for a single 5-year term. To deter strongman rule, the president can not be reelected to a second term. The Last election last held on May 9, 2017. The next to be held in March 2022. The 2017 election result: Moon Jae-in (Democratic Party, DP) was elected president with 41.1 percent of the vote. Hong Joon-pyo (LKP, Liberty Korea Party) was second with 25.5 percent; Ahn Cheol-soo (People’s Party, PP) was third with 21.4 percent. Other 12 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

For Presidential elections, candidates have register. The campaign is four weeks long. According to South Korean law anyone 40 years old or older can register as a “preliminary candidate” for president. In 2008, more than 100 people, ranging from farmers to priests, registered as candidates in the presidential election. A government spokesman said in April, eight months before the December election, “Probably they are promoting their faces. Not many of them will be there at the real election date. Some are from major political parties. Others were registered as independent. Twelve were unemployed. [Source: AFP]

The first presidential elections after South Korea became a true democracy in 1987 were in 1992. There have been discussions about revising the constitution allowing the president to serve two four-year terms instead of the current single five-year term. South Korean presidents serving a single five-year term typically become lame ducks in the second half of their tenure, limiting their effectiveness. Usually proposals for extended terms have been launched by sitting presidents in some kind of political trouble and discussions have not gotten far.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun floated the idea of allowing two presidential terms in 2007. South Korean President Park Geun-hye pushed for it 2016. "Through the single-term presidency, it is difficult to maintain policy continuance, see results of policy and engage in unified foreign policy," she said. [Source: Ju-min Park and Christine Kim, Reuters, 2016]

VOA News reported: “ The current single five-year presidential term was introduced in 1987, in reaction to decades of authoritarian rule. The most commonly cited example is the 18-year rule of President Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in 1979. President Roh suggested that South Korea has outgrown the need for such a limit. He said the single-term system means presidents are not held accountable for their actions, because their performance is not evaluated by voters after the fact. [Source: Kurt Achin, VOA News, November 1, 2007]

Powers of the President of South Korea

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “In South Korea, although the Constitution calls for the separation of executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government, so much power is concentrated in the presidency that political scientists often describe the president as “imperial.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 11, 2019]

The president, according to the 1987 Constitution, is head of state, chief executive of the government, and commander in chief of the armed forces. The Constitution and the amended Presidential Election Law of 1987 provide for election of the president by direct, secret ballot, ending sixteen years of indirect presidential elections under the preceding two governments. Presidential succession is for a single five-year term by direct election, which must be held at least thirty days before the incumbent president retires. If a presidential vacancy should occur, a successor must be elected within sixty days, during which time presidential duties are to be performed by the prime minister or other senior cabinet members in the order of priority as determined by law. While in office, the chief executive is exempt from criminal liability except for insurrection or treason. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The president may, at his own discretion, refer important policy matters to a national referendum, declare war, conclude peace and other treaties, appoint senior public officials, and grant amnesty (with the concurrence of the National Assembly). In times of serious internal or external turmoil or threat, or economic or financial crises, the president may assume emergency powers "for the maintenance of national security or public peace and order." Emergency measures may be taken only when the National Assembly is not in session and when there is no time for it to convene. The measures are limited to the "minimum necessary."

The 1987 Constitution deleted the 1980 constitution's explicit powers to temporarily suspend the freedoms and rights of the people. However, the president is permitted to take other measures that could amend or abolish existing laws for the duration of a crisis. It is unclear whether such emergency measures could temporarily suspend portions of the Constitution itself. Emergency measures must be referred to the National Assembly for concurrence. If not endorsed by the assembly, the emergency measures can be revoked; laws overridden by presidential orders regain their original effect. In this respect, the power of the legislature is more vigorously asserted than in cases of ratification of treaties or declarations of war, in which the Constitution simply states that the National Assembly "has the right to consent" to the president's actions. In a change from the 1980 constitution, the 1987 Constitution stated that the president is not permitted to dissolve the National Assembly.*

State Council of South Korea

The top executive body assisting the president in 1990 was the State Council, or cabinet, the members of which in 1990 included the president, the prime minister, and from fifteen to thirty heads of various ministries and their equivalents. More often a technocrat than a politician, the prime minister is appointed by the president with the consent of the National Assembly. Other cabinet members, also presidential appointees, are supposed to be recommended by the prime minister but actually are chosen by the president. As under the 1980 constitution, no member of the military may hold a cabinet post unless he is retired from active service. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The State Council is responsible for the formulation and implementation of basic plans and policies concerning a wide range of government functions. The results of deliberation by the council are conveyed to the Presidential Secretariat and the Office of the Prime Minister, the two principal units responsible for coordination and supervision relating to various government agencies. Given the importance of economic performance to the stability and security of the nation, the Economic Planning Board plays a significant role in the administrative and economic process. The minister of the board by law doubles as deputy prime minister; his senior assistants, many of them holding advanced degrees from foreign universities, have been among the ablest public servants in the country.*

As South Korean observers have noted, the president's power to appoint persons to senior and deputy ministerial positions not only has administrative significance but also is an important political tool for balancing factional interests within the president's party and for rewarding loyalty. The South Korean media closely scrutinize high-level appointments for clues to politics within the ruling party. The announcement in early 1990 of plans to merge the ruling party and two of the three major opposition parties and to institute a cabinet-responsibility form of government produced even more intensive interest in cabinet appointments.*

In 1989 a presidentially appointed Administration Reform Commission concluded a fourteen-month study concerning the structure of the government. In reporting its findings to the president, the panel proposed a number of changes, including the merger or abolition of several State Council ministries and other government agencies. Faced with strenuous lobbying by officials of the agencies concerned, the ruling party and government administration tabled most of the recommendations. Several proposals were implemented. The new Ministry of Culture, established in late 1989 from the former Ministry of Culture and Information, was placed under the initial direction of Yi O-yong, a prominent essayist and literary critic. The new ministry continued the cultural and artistic functions of its predecessor and also took over responsibilities concerning national and public libraries and national language policy from the Ministry of Education. The establishment of the Ministry of Environment, upgraded from the former Office of Environment within the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, acknowledged that national development over the preceding three decades had often neglected environmental concerns. Its establishment redeemed a pledge made in both the 1980 and 1987 constitutions that the people of South Korea "shall have the right to a healthy and pleasant environment," and that the government would take measures for environmental protection.*

Presidential and Executive Organizations in South Korea

The Presidential Secretariat, often referred to in the Western media as the Blue House staff, in 1990 included a secretary general of cabinet rank and six or seven senior secretaries with responsibility for political, economic, and other specialized areas. As in other political systems, these top aides enjoyed special presidential confidence. They were widely believed to control access to the chief executive and to influence personnel appointments and policy decisions.

These constitutional organs included the National Security Council, which provided advice concerning the foreign, military, and domestic policies bearing on national security. Chaired by the president, the council in 1990 had as its statutory members the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the ministers for foreign affairs, home affairs, finance, and national defense, the director of the Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP, known as the Korean Central Intelligence Agency--KCIA--until December 1980), and others designated by the president. Another body was the Advisory Council for Peaceful Unification Policy, inaugurated in June 1981 under the chairmanship of the president. From its inception, this body had no policy role, but rather appeared to serve as a government sounding board and as a means to disburse political rewards by providing large numbers of dignitaries and others with titles and opportunities to meet periodically with the president and other senior officials. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The president also was assisted in 1990 by the Audit and Inspection Board. In addition to auditing the accounts of all public institutions, the board scrutinized the administrative performance of government agencies and public officials. Its findings were reported to the president and the National Assembly, which itself had broad powers to inspect the work of the bureaucracy under the provisions of the Constitution. Board members were appointed by the president.*

One controversial constitutional organ was the Advisory Council of Elder Statesmen, which replaced a smaller body in February 1988, just before Roh Tae Woo was sworn in as president. This body was supposed to be chaired by the immediate former president; its expansion to eighty members, broadened functions, and elevation to cabinet rank made it appear to have been designed, as one Seoul newspaper said, to "preserve the status and position of a certain individual." The government announced plans to reduce the size and functions of this body immediately after Roh's inauguration. Public suspicions that the council might provide former President Chun with a power base within the Sixth Republic were rendered moot when Chun withdrew to an isolated Buddhist temple in self-imposed exile in November 1988.*

Judicial Branch of the South Korean Government

At the top of the judicial branch is the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and 13 justices. The Constitutional Court has a court head and eight justices. Subordinate courts: High Courts; District Courts; Branch Courts (organized under the District Courts); specialized courts for family and administrative issues. In the early 2000s there were three appellate courts, three district courts, and one family court. In addition, the military services had special courts. .

The Supreme Court chief justice is appointed by the president with the consent of the National Assembly. Other justices are appointed by the president upon the recommendation of the chief justice and consent of the National Assembly. The chief justice, in consultation with the other justices of the court, appoints lower court justices. The chief justice and other justices serve six-year nonrenewable terms. Constitutional Court justices are appointed: three by the president, three by the National Assembly, and three by the Supreme Court chief justice. The Constitutional Court head serves until retirement at age 70, while other Constitutional Court justices serve six-year renewable terms with mandatory retirement at age 65

Both defendants and prosecutors can appeal first to the district appellate court and then to the Supreme Court. Constitutional challenges are made to the Constitutional Court. The judicial branch is an independent branch and over years has become increasingly willing to exercise its independence. In 2004 the Supreme Court handed down a controversial ruling quashing President Roh’s plan to relocate the national capital from Seoul to a new city in South Ch’ungch’ong Province. Although judges do not receive lifetime appointments, they cannot be fired for political reasons. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

Legislature of South Korea: National Assembly (Kuk Hoe)

The unicameral legislature consists of the 300-seat National Assembly (Kuk Hoe): 253 members directly elected in single-seat constituencies by simple majority vote and 47 directly elected in a single national constituency by proportional representation vote. Members serve four-year terms. The number of seats in the National Assembly was reduced from 299 to 273 before the 2000 parliamentary elections and expanded to 299 seats in 2004, then expanded to 300. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

Elections were last held on April 15, 2020. The next election will be held in April 2024. 2020 election results: seats by party: 1) Democratic Party (DP) and Together Citizens' Party (TCP): 180 seats; 2) United Future Party (UFP) and Future Korea Part (/FKP): 103 seats; 3) Justice Party (JP): 6 seats); 4) Open Democratic Pary (ODP): 3 seats; 5) People’s Party (PP): 3 seats; 5) independent: 5 seats. Composition: 249 men and 51 women (17 percent). =

During the first four decades of the ROK, the National Assembly had little authority. The 1987 constitution strengthened the National Assembly, giving it power to audit government activities and removing the president's power to dissolve the Assembly. Some members get their seats through appointment rather direct election. Of the 300 seats in National Assembly, 47 are appointed under a proportional system linked to how many votes a party receives in an election. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

National Assembly meets in regular 100-day sessions from September to December every year. The president can request that the assembly meet in a special session of up to 30 days. The constitution charges the assembly with responsibility for making the nation’s laws, as well as approving the national budget, declaring war, and impeachment, among others. The assembly elects a speaker and two vice speakers, who serve two-year terms. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

The position of the National Assembly in the Constitution is much stronger than it had been under the Fifth Republic. The annual session of the National Assembly was extended to 100 days. Extraordinary sessions of thirty days each might be called by as little as one-quarter of the membership (versus one-third in the 1980 constitution); and there was no limit on the number of such sessions that could be called each year. The power to investigate state affairs also was strengthened. The National Assembly now held the power to remove the prime minister or a cabinet minister at any time, rather than having to wait a year following appointment, as had been the case before. The consent of the National Assembly was required for the appointment of all Supreme Court justices, not just the chief justice. The National Assembly performed a tie-breaking function in presidential elections and was required to approve or to disapprove presidential emergency measures before they took effect, time permitting. Failure to obtain National Assembly approval would void the emergency measures. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Members of the National Assembly

The National Assembly consists, according to the Constitution, of at least 200 members. In 1990 it had 299 seats, 224 of which were directly elected from single-member districts in the general elections of April 1988. Under applicable laws, the remaining seventy-five representatives were appointed by the political parties in accordance with a proportional formula based on the number of seats won in the election. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

By law, candidates for election to the National Assembly must be at least thirty years of age. As part of a political compromise in 1987, an earlier requirement that candidates have at least five years' continuous residency in the country was dropped to allow Kim Dae Jung, who had spent several years in exile in Japan and the United States during the 1980s, to return to political life. The National Assembly's term is four years. In a change from the more authoritarian Fourth Republic and Fifth Republic (1972-80 and 1980-87, respectively), under the Sixth Republic, the National Assembly cannot be dissolved by the president. *

There is a law that bars the arrest of parliament members without parliamentary approval. Legislators are immune from arrest or detention, except in cases of flagrante delicto, while the National Assembly is in session. If an arrest occurs before the National Assembly session begins, the legislator concerned must be released for the duration of the session. National Assembly members also enjoy legal immunity for statements made in that forum. Greater freedom of the media and independence of the courts, combined with the power of the opposition parties in the legislature, gave greater substance to this immunity during the first two years of the Sixth Republic than under the preceding government, when prosecutors and the courts did not honor such immunity. *

Deadlock s are not uncommon. Describing one in 2004, Associated Press reported: “South Korea will be left without a national budget if a weekslong deadlock in parliament isn't resolved before today.The dispute is centered around the government's plans to abolish the country's anti-communist National Security Law, which has long been criticized by North Korea. President Roh Moo-hyun, a former human rights lawyer and activist, has argued the law was abused in the past to persecute dissidents to South Korea's previous military dictatorships. The main opposition Grand National Party has opposed totally scrapping the National Security Law, arguing that it is vital to South Korea's security. Some of its members slept in their seats Friday, keeping the assembly floor occupied in an effort to prevent Uri Party legislators from passing reform bills. [Source: Associated Press, December 1, 2004]

Fights in the South Korean Legislature

Over the years there have been a number fistfights and other events with violence on the floor of the South Korean legislature. Politicians who have engaged in the violence often went unpunished thanks to laws that protect them from criminal penalties described above. During a vote on March 2, 1998 to approve Kim Jong-pil as Prime Minister, Grand National Party legislators submitted blank ballots to demonstrate their disapproval. A fight broke out after supporters of the ruling coalition of Kim Dae-jung demanded that the vote be declared void. [Source: Wikipedia]

During a National Assembly vote on March 12, 2004 on the motion to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun, supporters of the President openly clashed with opposition MPs for 20 minutes in an effort to stop the vote (which was in favor of impeachment) from being finalized. According to the Los Angeles Times: “In 2007, lawmakers battled over a move to impeach then-President Roh. Politicians dived into the crowd like fans in a mosh pit. One was carried out on a stretcher.”

A brawl broke out July 22, 2009 as The National Assembly passed three bills that is set to reform the media industry. Opposition MPs blocked the Speaker from entering the room to pass the bills while both sides clashed. The bills were eventually passed by the Deputy Speaker. Another brawl broke out December 8, 2010 as the Grand National Party forcefully passed the year 2011 budget bill in advance without the presence of the opposition parties. A brawl broke out on November 22, 2011 as The National Assembly ratified the country's Free-Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. The Opposition lawmakers used tear gas in the parliament. The ruling Grand National Party (GNP) managed to force it through without the kind of brawl that many were expecting.

100 Injured in a South Korean Legislature Brawl

There was big fight in January 2009 that involved dozens of legislators and required dozens of security guards to break it up. Associated Press reported: South Korea’s main opposition party filed a criminal lawsuit on Sunday against the country’s parliament speaker and police chief over a scuffle that left about 100 party members and security guards injured. [Source: Associated Press, January 5, 2009]

“About 150 parliamentary security guards tried on Saturday to clear opposition lawmakers who have been staging a sit-in inside the National Assembly to thwart President Lee Myung-bak’s party from ramming through scores of bills including a free trade deal with the US. The guards acting on Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-o’s instructions to “keep order” — frog-marched some of the Democratic Party lawmakers and their aides, who fiercely fought back. The shoving match left some 50 people on each side injured.

“The Democratic Party filed a criminal lawsuit with prosecutors against Assembly Speaker Kim, police chief Eo Cheong-soo and two other parliamentary officials, accusing them of abuse of their power. “(Kim’s) right to keep order ... doesn’t include the rights to exercise physical force,” the party said in a statement. The party accused Eo of deploying about additional 900 police officers outside the parliamentary building without going through the necessary procedures. The party says Eo needed approval from a parliamentary committee before deploying officers inside the parliamentary complex.

“Seoul prosecution official Park June-tae said prosecutors plan to review the suit to decide whether to open a criminal investigation into the case. The ruling Grand National Party, which has 172 seats in the 299-seat legislature, has said it wants to pass some 80 bills, including the free trade deal, before the current parliamentary session ends January 8. The Democratic Party said the trade pact should not be approved until Lee’s government works out measures to protect farmers, labourers and others who are expected to suffer from a surge in imports from the US. Another point of dispute is a GNP-sponsored bill aimed at easing restriction on businesses and newspapers owning broadcast stations. Critics say the bill would help large pro-government newspapers and companies establish TV stations. — AP

Fighting Korean Politicians Use a Chain Saw and Sledgehammers

In December 2009, brawling South Korean politicians tried to sledgehammer their way into a parliamentary meeting room barricaded by the ruling party, and used a chainsaw and fire extinguishers, as the National Assembly in a nasty debate over a free-trade agreement with the United States. The Telegraph reported: “Opposition parties were incensed by the ruling Grand National Party's move to submit the agreement to a parliamentary committee on trade, setting in motion the process for the accord to win approval in the legislature. Security staff and aides from the ruling party stood guard outside the room to keep opposition lawmakers away after the committee's GNP-affiliated chairman invoked his right to use force to "keep order" in parliamentary proceedings. [Source: The Telegraph, 18 December 2008]

“Scuffles broke out as dozens of opposition members and their aides attempted to push their way into the office. TV footage showed people from both sides shoving, pushing and shouting in a crowded hall at the National Assembly building amid a barrage of flashing cameras. Opponents later used a sledgehammer and other construction tools to tear open the room's wooden doors, only to find barricades of furniture set up inside as a second line of defence. Cable news channel YTN reported that an electric saw was used to open the door. YTN footage showed security guards spraying fire extinguishers at those trying to force their way inside and one man with blood trickling down his face.

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times:“The pre-Christmas melee, much of it caught on camera and broadcast worldwide, has led South Korea into a bout of political soul-searching, prompting many to ask why lawmakers here feel the need to throw punches. At what point in the political discourse, they wonder, does it seem like a rational move to brandish hammers, chisels and power tools? Bloggers have likened the legislative mayhem to an episode of "Saturday Night Live," with one lampooning the battling factions as the Fire Extinguisher Party (FEP) and the Sledgehammer Party (SP). Polls show a growing public concern at the behavior. In his weekly radio address after the brawl, a solemn South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said he "blushed with shame" over the incident. “It was as if the hammer that smashed down the conference room door also pounded the democracy of Korea, as well as my head and heart," he said. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2009]

“The battle could have political consequences. GNP lawmakers, who hold 172 of the 299 assembly seats, are seeking legislation to punish assembly violence with a mandatory three-year jail sentence, forcing offending politicians to give up their seats. Opposition leaders call the proposal another outrageous attempt to bully minority politicians. And in the wild world of South Korean politics, many fear the debate over anti-violence legislation could itself lead to fisticuffs.”

Blow by Blow Account of the Legislature Sledgehammer Fight

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Lee Jung-hee recalls the precise moment when all hell broke loose -- the tie-yanking, headlocks and neck-wringing, the thud of sledgehammers and, ominously, the sickening whine of a chain saw. The 39-year-old had witnessed plenty of violent protests in her native South Korea, where rowdy demonstrations are a Saturday newscast staple. These combatants, however, weren't blue-collar workers or student protesters, but dozens of blue-suited national lawmakers. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2009]

“And they were in South Korea's august seat of government, the National Assembly. Lee, a first-term opposition lawmaker, was center-stage in the pandemonium, storming a committee room where members of the ruling Grand National Party had barricaded themselves so they could vote without interference from the opposition. But after a skirmish that seemed a 21st century version of castle defenders pouring boiling oil on the invading hordes, minority lawmakers finally broke through, only to find the room empty. Their political rivals had fled moments earlier through a secret back door. An incensed Lee smashed her colleagues' nameplates to the floor. “If I had caught the GNP lawmakers running away, I would have shouted, 'You bastards!' " the petite, bespectacled lawyer said later as she poured tea in her office. "My gesture was symbolic, to mark a moment when the values of democracy and the process of reason had given way to chaos."

“The morning of the sledgehammer battle didn't start well. Ruling party officials had heard rumors that they might be barred from their planned committee vote on afree-trade agreement with the United States, so several spent the night near the assembly building in case opposition politicians tried to stop them from showing up to vote. Hwang Jin-ha, a GNP legislator who oversaw the committee vote, said officials secured the conference room in anticipation of an attack. "We shut down the door to prevent violence," he said. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2009]

“Clearly, that tactic failed. In an effort to delay the vote, opposition legislators and their aides fought past security guards to hammer through the door, shattering windows, only to find their way blocked by a mountain of furniture. That's when the defenders inside reached out through the shattered door to attack with fire extinguishers, unleashing a volley of powder in the faces of their assembly colleagues, bloodying one man. “As they punched the door with a hammer, we were upset inside. Democracy was missing. Talks with them will never take place, no matter how much they are whining and using violence," Hwang Jin-ha said. "What are we to do with reckless violence from small parties that act like gangs?"

“Investigators are still looking into who fired up the chain saw. So far no one has taken responsibility for using it to help break through the door. The battle over the committee room caused US$16,000 in damage, and lawsuits over assaults and property destruction have been filed by both sides. But many opposition lawmakers say the moral victory was worth the cost. “We had to get inside that room," said Park Woong-du, an aide to Democratic Labor Party Chairman Kang Ki-kap, who faces criminal charges for his role in smashing the door and verbally abusing rival lawmakers. "Whatever happened, whether it was a fight or a debate, we had to get inside. For us, democracy was on the line."

“For Lee, hard feelings remain. This month, the mother of two found herself on the front lines of another political free-for-all when 200 armed security officers stormed a human blockade formed by minority party politicians in the rotunda of the assembly building. Dozens were injured, including Lee, who was hospitalized after being dragged by guards. She said she was trying to protect a political party poster that security personnel had ripped down. Several lawmakers have since expressed remorse for battling with the guards and fellow politicians, but Lee remains defiant. “I have nothing to apologize for," she said.

Why There Are Fights in the South Korean Legislature

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Political scientists say the clash says as much about the growing pains of a young democracy as the feistiness of the South Korean character. “Korean democracy is only 20 years old," said Kyung Moon Hwang, an associate professor of Korean history at USC. "For decades, Koreans suffered under a military dictatorship. It was a time marked by tremendous political struggle by intellectuals and students. This behavior is a legacy of that era, that resistance of authority." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, January 28, 2009]

“Others blame what they call a culture of confrontation. “Koreans are just not that good in engaging in discussion; we're not good at the deliberative democratic process," said Chung-in Moon, a Yonsei University political science professor and onetime aide to former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. “One group says, 'My way is right,' and the other says, 'No.' The culture of accommodation just isn't there. So when it comes to politics, people tend to engage in the iron fist."

“A recent survey shows that fights among South Korean politicians, listed as "parliamentary disorder cases," rose from five in 2006 to 47 in 2008. Experts say American lawmakers likewise have seen their share of physical violence throughout history. "Congressmen haven't always referred to each other as 'My gentleman colleague from Nebraska,' " said David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC. “Go back 150 years, and there were duels and horse whippings in the U.S. Congress. Politics were a lot more bare-knuckled. Legislators used to get beat up on their way to vote."

In neighboring Taiwan, legislators' public battles have included wrestling, shoe-throwing, tie-pulling and the hurling of microphones, lunch boxes and books. A politician once tried to eat the draft of new legislation to stop a vote on the issue. Although both nations feature developing arenas of free speech, South Koreans are fretting over the image their lawmakers present to the world. “Many believe that it reinforces the notion that South Korea may be part of the First World economically, but remains politically backward," Hwang said. The political antipathy has paralyzed the National Assembly, where legislators were able to muster votes on fewer than 300 of the 2,600 bills introduced in the most recent session. “Many fighting politicians really do believe that if they lose their battle, democracy itself will be in danger," said Andy Jackson, a political columnist for the Korea Times. Most South Korean lawmakers, he said, would rather fight than switch their votes: "The attitude is that if you're not fighting, you're not trying. So you pull off the gloves and you go at it."”

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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