South Korea has nine provinces (do, singular and plural), which are divided into counties, cities, townships, towns and villages. There are also six metropolitan cities (gwangyeoksi, singular and plural); one special city (teugbyeolsi); and on special self-governing city (teukbyeoljachisi). 1) The nine provinces are : Chungbuk (North Chungcheong), Chungnam (South Chungcheong), Gangwon, Gyeongbuk (North Gyeongsang), Gyeonggi, Gyeongnam (South Gyeongsang), Jeju, Jeonbuk (North Jeolla), Jeonnam (South Jeolla). 2) The six metropolitan cities are Busan (Pusan), Daegu (Taegu), Daejeon (Taejon), Gwangju (Kwangju), Incheon (Inch'on), Ulsan. The one special city is Seoul. The one special self-governing city is Sejong. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Major cities are divided into wards (ku) and precincts (tong). A province is composed of counties (gun) and cities (si) with a population of more than 50,000. A county consists of towns (up) with a population of 20,000 and more each, townships (myon), and villages (ri). Both cities and towns had further subdivisions designed to facilitate communication between government and people on local community matters. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

South Korea has a long and established tradition of strong central governance, dating back to the early years of the Chosun dynasty (1392–1910). Although Article 117 of the constitution established provisions for local government at the provincial and municipal level, the elections held in 1995 for governors and mayors were the first in more than 30 years. A second round of local elections was held in 1998, with subsequent elections scheduled every four years. Provincial and local government is divided into 16 provincial-level governments and 235 municipal governments, including 72 si (or shi, city) governments, 94 gun (county) governments, and 69 gu (autonomous district) governments. Provincial and local governments may be elected independently of the central government, but their primary purpose is to implement policies and programs created and directed by central government ministries. The central government also provides much of the funding for provisional and local governments. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

Between 1961 and March 1990, there were no local elections. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, “In late April 2005, the governing Uri Dang Party and leading opposition parties agreed to a sweeping change in the country's local administration. This reform, tentatively slated to take place in 2010, would replace the three-tier system with a two-tier system. The existing provinces and metropolitan cities would be eliminated. The current gu, si, and gun units would be reorganized into about 60 "metropolitan cities" with a population of roughly one million each. Beyond this, the details of the reform were not decided at that time. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Seoul Votes on School Lunches

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Low turnout in South Korea’s first vote on a social policy left in place a program in Seoul providing free lunches for 810,000 elementary and middle school students, a victory for the liberal opposition, which had urged a boycott. Though the voting, like the lunch program, was confined to Seoul, the capital, it took on national proportions with all political parties joining the debate in a sign that, after decades of bickering over civil liberties, the economy and North Korea, they were now entering the unfamiliar field of social welfare. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times August 24, 2011]

Mayor Oh Se-hoon, urging more restraint in welfare spending, had asked voters to limit free lunches to only lower-income children, at an estimated savings of US$100 million a year. His conservative ally, President Lee Myung-bak, supported him by joining in his denouncement of “populist welfare.” The liberal opposition urged supporters of universal free lunches not to vote, so the result would not be valid.

When the polls closed, only 25.7 percent of the city’s 9.4 million eligible voters had voted, lower than the 33.3 percent minimum for a valid result, leaving in place the broad lunch program set up in January by the opposition-dominated City Council. By law, the votes of an invalidated referendum are not counted. “I humbly accept the voting result,” Mr. Oh said. Earlier he had vowed to resign if the proposal he backed lost.

In the short history of South Korea’s vibrant democracy, voters have elected presidents and legislators more by which province or political party they represented than by their stands on jobs, welfare or North Korea.” Until the lunch vote, a specific policy had never loomed large enough to call a referendum. “This is the first time welfare has become a real issue,” said Jaung Hoon, a political scientist at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. “It’s a sign that South Korean politics are moving finally toward policy debates.” With increasing social mobility, regional affiliation has lost some of its potency as a vote-gathering tool. Politicians have sought other means to galvanize voters.

Mr. Oh, a member of the governing party, the conservative Grand National Party, had played on the economic anxiety, contending that supplying free meals to all of Seoul’s schoolchildren would break the city’s US$19.1 billion budget. “We must fight welfare populism; it will ruin the country,” he said Sunday during a televised news conference, kneeling down tearfully to implore citizens to turn out for the vote. Kwak No-hyun, the superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, who was elected on the liberal opposition ticket with a promise to provide all children with free lunches, argued that Mr. Oh’s approach would “divide our children into rich and poor.” “It’s a crime to ask poor children to eat rice in humiliation,” he said.

“The expression “eating rice in humiliation,” which supporters of free lunches often use, reminds Koreans of the deprivation after the 1950-53 Korean War, when many had to beg to survive. In what is now Asia’s fourth-largest economy, the expression still packs force among parents noted for their zeal to provide their children with any advantage.

Local Administration in South Korea

The need for local self-government was first recognized in 1948; a local autonomy law was enacted in 1949. It was not until December 1960, however, that local elections for the mayors of Seoul and Pusan, provincial governors, and local councils--the first in Korean history--were held. Under the system in operation from the military coup d'état of May 1961 until late 1969, Seoul, Pusan, and the provincial governments were under the direct control of the central government. In view of its special importance, Seoul was controlled by the central government and made subordinate to the Office of the Prime Minister. Provincial administrations and the special cities reported to the Department of Local Affairs of the Ministry of Home Affairs. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Likewise, administrative departments of provincial and city governments maintained close contacts with the regional and central offices of the respective cabinet ministries. The police apparatus in each locale also was administratively responsible to the National Police Headquarters in Seoul. The mayor of Seoul was appointed by the president and usually was regarded as his close confidant. Heads of other administrative divisions were recommended by the minister of home affairs for presidential approval. Mayors of ordinary cities and county chiefs--members of the civil service-- were recommended by the provincial governor for appointment by the president. Heads of towns and townships were named by county chiefs; heads of wards and precincts by mayors; and village chiefs by heads of townships.

Under the system of proportionality in use in the National Assembly in 1985, the majority of the at-large seats--two-thirds- -was given to the party that came in first. This arrangement disproportionately favored the government party, with its traditional advantages of incumbency. Thus, in the 1985 general elections, the government party ended up with a little over 35 percent of the popular vote--the largest share--but held more than 53 percent of the seats in the legislature. Conversely, the second-placed party, with roughly 29 percent of the votes, occupied just over 24 percent of the seats after the at-large seats were distributed. The two-member district system used in 1985 also helped the government party, which had little chance of finishing first in many pro-opposition urban districts, but could hope to win a second-place seat.

In late 1989, the National Assembly passed legislation designed to increase local autonomy over the following two years. Under the newly amended Act Concerning Local Autonomy, local autonomy was to be introduced in several phases. Local councils would be elected by June 1990. The central government was to continue appointing local administrative heads--including mayors of the six special cities and nine provinces--until elections for those posts, scheduled for 1991, could be held. The government would retain full control over deputy heads of special cities and provinces for the first four years, after which the central government would merely ratify the choices of the mayors and provincial governors. In a last-minute compromise, the National Assembly acceded to the opposition parties' position, permitting political parties to nominate candidates for local elections either individually or in coalition with other parties. Related laws scheduled for National Assembly consideration in 1990, were expected to address other details of local government, including the question of financial autonomy.

Bureaucracy in South Korea

For centuries the most honored profession in Korea was government service, which had been more or less preempted by the scholar-official class. In modern South Korea, however, the civil service has lost some of its earlier prestige, partly because financially rewarding jobs have been more plentiful in private industry and commerce. Nonetheless, the upper levels of the civil service, particularly in the economic ministries, generally draw upon some of the besttrained and most technically competent members of the population. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Civil servants have generally enjoyed reputations as competent and dedicated, but the proverbial corruption in the bureaucracy has also unfairly brought disrepute to the profession as a whole. Efforts to eliminate malfeasance have been continuous, although they have been perhaps most pronounced (in the fashion of traditional Chinese and Korean dynastic succession) after the assumption of power by a new regime. The record of reform has often been mixed. In 1980 Chun Doo Hwan announced a far-reaching program intended to "purify" the bureaucracy. Many South Koreans welcomed investigations of former cabinet ministers and the confiscation of large, unexplained fortunes from other leaders, such as Kim Chong-p'il, accused of enriching themselves under the preceding Park Chung Hee regime. Chun also dismissed more than 200 high officials and 1,000 lowerlevel functionaries. Political motives were clearly evident in the ouster on vague charges of all opposition politicians of any prominence and in the removal of public officials and staff members of state-run corporations likely to remain overly loyal to the late president's political machine.

The anticorruption reforms of Roh Tae Woo, marked by greater attention to due process and broad political participation than those of his predecessor, won considerable public support. In his presidential campaign, Roh had joined other presidential candidates in promising exposure of financial irregularities under the Fifth Republic and had pledged broader disclosure of public officials' assets through the amendment of existing laws. The first promise was largely honored. The question of Fifth Republic corruption was dealt with through vigorous prosecution of former high-level officials and relatives of former President Chun Doo Hwan charged with abuse of power or other irregularities. The opposition parties played a major role in the process by participating in an unprecedented series of National Assembly hearings conducted in late 1988. These riveting sessions, often televised, attracted millions of viewers, emptying the streets of Seoul while the hearings were taking place and drawing greater members even than the broadcast earlier in the year of the Seoul Olympics. By late 1989, the courts had tried and sentenced numerous Chun relatives and former high officials, including a former ANSP chief, on various corruption or influence-peddling charges.

Despite these successes, the disclosure of senior officials' assets remained an elusive goal as the 1980s came to a close, hampered by the lack of legal measures to penalize nondisclosure. The National Assembly had finally passed a law concerning public ownership of property that would require land owners to register property in their true names, but still had not ratified a more controversial bill that would impose stiff penalties for the failure of assemblymen, ministers, and vice-ministerial level officials to report their financial dealings.

The civil service is managed by the Ministry of Government Administration. Recruitment for the most part occurs through competitive examinations held annually in two categories, "ordinary" and "higher" examinations. Those passing the higher tests generally are recognized as bright and able and are loosely known as members of the so-called higher civil service examinations clique. They are given preference in appointment and over the years have become the nucleus of bureaucratic elites scattered in three major government functions--general administration, foreign affairs, and the administration of justice. The foreign service and judiciary are recruited through separate examination systems that are extremely selective. Faculty members at state universities, although selected according to traditional academic criteria rather than solely by examination, also are part of the civil service system, as are those who have passed examinations to become public school teachers.

The Constitution provides that "all public officials shall be servants of the entire people and shall be responsible to the people" and guarantees the political impartiality of public officials. From the perspective of the citizen needing to do some business in a street-level government office, however, the ethos of service sometimes gives way to the traditional self-regard of the official, a situation encapsulated in the traditional phrase kwanjon minbi (respect for the official, contempt for the people). Political neutrality also has been undercut by the persistence of political and bureaucratic pressures on civil servants, especially during national elections. These pressures can be especially intense upon low-ranking officials at the bottom of the bureaucratic chain of command and on those officials in the upper five of the nine civil service grades who serve as presidential appointees.

In early 1989, the number of government officials totaled 700,026, most of whom worked for the executive branch of government. About 7,200 civil servants worked for the judiciary. The new importance of the National Assembly under the Sixth Republic was reflected in an increase in staff hired by the legislative branch to some 2,700 employees--500 more than during the final year of the preceding administration. In the 1980s, about one-third of civil service employees worked in local government. The civil service still represents a cross section of society, although graduates of the so-called big three universities, all located in Seoul, Seoul National University, Yonse University, and Koryo University (more commonly called Korea University in English)--continue to enjoy advantages in gaining employment in the government as well as in the private sector and are disproportionately represented in the higher civil service grades.

“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]

South Korea has a residency law that requires every person to register a fixed address.

Women in Government in South Korea

Year women obtained the right to vote: 1948, the same as men (compared to 1893 in New Zealand and 2011 in Saudi Arabia). 1948 is the year that South Korea was created. [Source: Wikipedia

Proportion of seats held by women in national legislatures: 19 percent (2020, compared to 53 percent in Bolivia, 20 percent in the United States and 3 percent in Kuwait) [Source: World Bank worldbank.org ]

In the early 2000s, South Korea women cheered enthusiastically at political rallies and helped get out the vote but were poorly represented in government. They only held 12 seats (or 4 percent of the seats) in the National Assembly. At that time in much of Asia, which no bastion of women’s rights, the average percentage of women in government was around 13 or 14 percent.

In the mid-1990s South Korea was one of the lowest ranking countries in the world in terms of female representation in the legislature,. Countries with the fewest female representatives (1994): Kuwait (0); Mauritania (0); United Arab Emirates (0); Jordan (0); South Korea (1 percent); Pakistan (1 percent); Japan (2 percent); Turkey (2 percent); Nigeria (2 percent).

Women, other the wives of high ranking men, have traditionally been rarely involved in corruption scandals. That changed with Park Geun-hye who was president from 2013 until she was ousted in 2017.

Lee Hee Ho, the wife of Kim Dae Jung, President of South Korea from 1998 to 2003, was a leading advocate of women’s rights. Roh Moo Hyun, President of South Korea from 2003 to 2008, appointed four women to cabinet positions.

A bill was passed in the late 1990s to reserve 30 percent of the National Assembly seats — allocated by appointment rather than polls — for women. This works out to rough 14 seats plus whatever seats women won outright in elections.

Chang Sang became South Korea first female prime minister. He received a PhD is theology from Princeton and served as the president of the prestigious Ewha Women’s University. She was chosen by Kim Dae Jung in July 2002.

Tough Female South Korean Lawmaker Challenges the Military

Song Young-sun, a female representative in the South Korean legislature, made a name for herself for confronting generals and defense contractors over defective gear and wasteful spending. But her critics condemned her as publicity seeker. Reporting from Seoul, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “As the cameras whirred and her fellow legislators watched in silence, the petite lawmaker held up Exhibit A: a new pair of combat boots. The government had just spent US$35 million and a decade doing research on the high-tech shoes, which leaked in the rain and quickly shed their heels. As far as Song Young-sun was concerned, they were just the latest example of what was wrong with the South Korean military. "You're spending billions of dollars to purchase fighter jets, ships and submarines, but the most important thing on your shopping list should be the morale of your soldiers," Song bluntly told military brass summoned to the National Assembly recently for an annual government audit. "These boots are their personal vehicles for 16 hours a day. If your feet hurt when you walk, you're not a dedicated soldier. And if you generals lose your men, you've already lost the war." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 08, 2010]

“Even in a nation famous for its sharp-elbowed political theater, the performance was memorable. But it was classic Song, a policeman's daughter whose college hero was steely British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Song, a veteran military analyst who is one of only 41 women among 299 national lawmakers, has unabashedly used her post on the powerful National Defense Committee to help keep the highest-ranking military minds in check, publicly questioning the nation's military readiness in the face of an aggressive North Korea and its million-man army. Along the way, she has embarrassed career officers who aren't used to such a take-no-prisoners skewering, especially from a woman.

“With a sigh, the 58-year-old Song acknowledged that she's still single. And maybe that's why. "Korean men my age are intimidated by aggressive women," she said. "They all want quiet stay-at-home wives." A well-coiffed woman who's fond of colorful business suits, Song seems anything but homemaker material. She's more military strategist with a penchant for surprising her enemy. To win the battle, she's not afraid of resorting to stunts: She once showed up at the National Assembly with a suitcase full of over-the-counter chemicals, giving a demonstration on how they could easily be combined to make deadly sarin gas.

“On an impromptu inspection of a military contractor whose military-ration kimchi once contained a dead rat, she announced, "If I had a son in the military and he had to eat this kind of garbage, I'd kill all the generals." But it's not just the generals who have felt her wrath. Song has blasted overprotective mothers for turning many soldiers into "mama's boys" and has proposed that military service should be mandatory for women, not just men. She has investigated the breakdown of armored vehicles and a tank whose barrel exploded. She has campaigned against substandard drinking water and a lack of live bullets for soldiers and probed the theft of top-secret military files, including North Korea war plans, from army-issued computers.

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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