Constitution & Goverment

The Constitution

On July 17 1948, the first Constitution of the Republic of Korea was adopted. As the nation underwent political upheavals in pursuit of democratic development, the Korean Constitution has been amended nine times, the last time on October 29 1987.

The current Constitution represents a major advancement in the direction of full democratization. Apart from a legitimate process of revision, a number of substantive changes are notable. They include the curtailment of presidential powers, the strengthening of the power of the legislature and additional devices for the protection of human rights. In particular, the creation of a new, independent Constitutional Court played a vital role in making Korea a more democratic and free society.

The Constitution consists of a preamble, 130 articles, and six supplementary rules. It is divided into 10 chapters: General Provisions, Rights and Duties of Citizens, the National Assembly, the Executive, the Courts, the Constitutional Court, Election Management, Local Authority, the Economy, and Amendments to the Constitution.

The basic principles of the Korean Constitution include the sovereignty of the people, separation of powers, and the pursuit of peaceful and democratic unification of South and North Korea, the pursuit of international peace and cooperation, the rule of law and the responsibility of the state to promote welfare.

The Constitution envisages a liberal democratic political order. It not only declares in its Preamble that the Republic of Korea aims to "further strengthen the basic free and democratic order," but also institutionalizes the separation of powers and the rule of law. The Constitution adopts a presidential system supplemented by parliamentary elements. It provides political parties with constitutional privileges and protection while imposing on them constitutional duties not to impair the free and democratic political order.

In Article 10, the Constitution declares that, "All citizens shall be assured of human worth and dignity and have the right to pursue happiness. It shall be the duty of the State to confirm and guarantee the fundamental and inviolable human rights of individuals." Based on this basic provision, the Constitution provides for individual civil, political and social rights that have become the norm in democratic countries.

The President

The President

The President of the Republic of Korea, elected by nationwide, equal, direct and secret ballot, stands at the apex of the executive branch.

The President serves a single five-year term, with no additional terms being allowed. This single-term provision is a safeguard for preventing any individual from holding the reins of government power for a protracted period of time. In the event of presidential disability or death, the Prime Minister or members of the State Council will temporarily serve as the President as determined by law.

Under the current political system, the President plays five major roles. First, the President is head of state, symbolizing and representing the entire nation both in the governmental system and in foreign relations.

He receives foreign diplomats, awards decorations and other honors, and grants pardons. He has the duty to safeguard the independence, territorial integrity, and continuity of the state and to uphold the Constitution, in addition to the unique task of pursuing the peaceful reunification of Korea.

Second, the President is the chief administrator, and thus enforces the laws passed by the legislature while issuing orders and decrees for the enforcement of laws. The President has full power to direct the State Council and a varying number of advisory organs and executive agencies. He is authorized to appoint public officials, including the Prime Minister and heads of executive agencies.

Third, the President is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has extensive authority over military policy, including the power to declare war.

Fourth, the President is the chief diplomat and foreign policy maker. He accredits or dispatches diplomatic envoys, and signs treaties with foreign nations.

Finally, the President is chief policy maker and a key lawmaker. He may propose legislative bills to the National Assembly or express his views to the legislature in person or in writing. The President cannot dissolve the National Assembly, but the Assembly can hold the President ultimately accountable to the Constitution by means of an impeachment process.

The Executive Branch

The Executive Branch

Under Korea's presidential system, the President performs his executive functions through the State Council made up of 15 to 30 members and presided over by the President, who is solely responsible for deciding all important government policies.

The Prime Minister is appointed by the President and approved by the National Assembly. As the principal executive assistant to the President, the Prime Minister supervises the administrative ministries and manages the Office for Government Policy Coordination under the direction of the President. The Prime Minister also has the power to deliberate major national policies and to attend the meetings of the National Assembly

Three Deputy Prime Ministers are assigned to carry out the particular affairs delegated by the Prime Minister.Minister of Finance and Economy and Minister of Education and Human Resources Development and Minister of Science & Technology hold offices of Deputy Prime Minister at the same time.

Members of the State Council are appointed by the President upon recommendation by the Prime Minister. They have the right to lead and supervise their administrative ministries, deliberate major state affairs, act on behalf of the President and appear at the National Assembly and express their opinions. Members of the State Council are collectively and individually responsible to the President only.

In addition to the State Council, the President has several agencies under his direct control to formulate and carry out national policies: the Board of Audit and Inspection, the National Intelligence Service, the Civil Service Commission and the Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption. Heads of these organizations are appointed by the President, but the presidential appointment of the Chairman of the Board of Audit and Inspection is subject to the approval of the National Assembly.

The Board of Audit and Inspection has the authority to audit the financial accounts of central and local government agencies, government corporations, and related organizations. The board is also vested with the power to inspect abuses of public authority or misconduct by public officials in their official duties. The results of audit are reported to the President and the National Assembly, although the board is responsible only to the chief executive

The Legislature

The Legislature

Legislative power is vested in the National Assembly, a unicameral legislature. The Assembly is composed of 299 members serving a four-year term.

Out of the 299 members, 243 members are elected by popular vote, while the remaining 56 seats allocated to each political party that has obtained 3/100 or more of the total valid votes or five or more seats in the local constituency election.

The proportional representation system is aimed at appointing Assembly members who will represent national interests rather than local interests.

To be eligible for election, a candidate must be at least 25 years of age. One candidate from each electoral district is selected by a plurality of votes.

An Assembly member is not held responsible outside the Assembly for any opinions expressed or votes cast in the legislative chamber. During a session of the Assembly, no Assembly member may be arrested or detained without consent of the Assembly except in the case of a flagrant criminal act.

In case of apprehension or detention of an Assembly member prior to the opening of a session, the member must be released during the session upon the request of the Assembly.

Two types of legislative sessions are provided for, regular and special. The regular session is convened once a year from September through December and special sessions may be convened upon the request of the President or one-fourth or more of the members of the Assembly. The period of a regular session is limited to 100 days and to 30 days for special sessions. If the President requests the convening of a special session, he must clearly specify the period of the session and the reasons for the request.

Except as otherwise provided in the Constitution or law, the attendance of more than one half of the entire Assembly members, and the concurrent vote of more than one half of the Assembly members present, are necessary to make decisions of the National Assembly binding. In the case of a tie vote, the matter is considered to be rejected by the Assembly. Legislative meetings are open to the public, but this rule may be waived with the approval of more than one half of the members present or when the Speaker deems it necessary to do so in the interest of national security.

The National Intelligence Service is authorized to collect strategic intelligence of internal as well as external origin and information on subversive and international criminal activities. It also plans and coordinates the intelligence and security activities of the government.

The Civil Service Commission, established in 1999, is responsible for the fair and efficient personnel management of civil servants.

The Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption, established in 2002, has the authority to take all necessary measures to prevent corruption; to design and evaluate anti-corruption policies, to enhance education and public relations and to inspect report and protect whistle-blowers.

The Judiciary

The Judiciary

The Judiciary of Korea consists of three levels of courts: the Supreme Court, High Courts, and District Courts including the specialized Patent Court, Family Court and Administrative Court.

The courts exercise jurisdiction over civil, criminal, administrative, electoral, and other judicial matters, while also overseeing affairs related to the registration of real estate, census registers, deposits, and judicial clerks.

The Supreme Court is the highest judicial tribunal. It hears appeals from the decisions rendered by lower courts and court-martial verdicts. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court 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. The term of office for the Chief Justice after approval by the National Assembly is six years and a second term is not allowed. The Chief Justice must retire from office at the age of 70. The term for other justices is six years but they may be re-appointed in accordance with the provisions of law, although they must retire from office when they reach the age of 65.

High Courts hear appeals from decisions in civil, criminal and administrative cases rendered by district and family courts and try special cases designated by law.

The Patent Court reviews decisions rendered by the Patent Office as an intermediate appellate jurisdiction. The Supreme Court is the final tribunal over patent disputes.

District Courts are located in Seoul and in the following 12 cities: Incheon, Suwon, Chuncheon, Daejeon, Cheongju, Daegu, Busan, Changwon, Ulsan, Gwangju, Jeonju and Jeju.

The Family Court is empowered to hear all cases involving matrimonial, juvenile, or other domestic matters. The Administrative Court handles administrative cases only.

District Courts outside of Seoul perform the functions of the Administrative Court in their respective districts.In addition to these courts there are military tribunals which exercise jurisdiction over offenses committed by members of the Armed Forces and their civilian employees.

Local Government

Local Government

The Constitution of the Republic of Korea states in Article 117 that, "Local governments deal with matters pertaining to the welfare of local residents, manage properties, and may within the limit of laws, enact provisions relating to local autonomy regulations."

The Local Autonomy Act was adopted in 1949, and local councils were operated until 1961 when the military government disbanded them.

Rapid regional development during the 1970s and 1980s, however, strengthened the demand for more autonomous local governments. In order to meet this demand more efficiently, the central government began in the mid-1980s to encourage feasibility studies and to make plans for the resumption of local autonomy.

In 1988, the government initiated a revision of the Local Autonomy Act. According to the new act, Local council elections took place in March 1991, for various si (city), gun (county), and gu( autonomous district) and in June 1991, for metropolitan cities and do (provinces). Elections for governors and mayors were held in 1995.

Currently, there are 16 higher-level local governments, including seven metropolitan city governments and nine do governments, and 232 lower-level local governments including 74 si (city) governments, 89 gun (county) governments, and 69 gu (autonomous district) governments within the metropolitan cities.

Local government heads manage and supervise administrative affairs except as otherwise provided by law. The local executive functions include those delegated by the central government such as the management of public properties and facilities and assessment and collection of local taxes and fees for various services. Higher-level local governments have boards of education which carry out matters related to education and culture in each community.

Higher-level local governments basically serve as intermediaries between the central and lower-level local governments.

Lower-level local governments deliver services to the residents through an administrative district (eup, myeon, and dong) system. Each lower-level local government has several districts which serve as field offices for handling the needs of their residents. Eup, Myeon, and Dong offices are engaged mainly in routine administrative and social service functions.

The President

The President