Korea - Government
The Republic of Korea is governed by a directly elected president and a unicameral legislature. The Republic of Korea (commonly known as "South Korea") is a republic with powers nominally shared among the presidency, the legislature, and the judiciary, but traditionally dominated by the president. The president is chief of state and is elected for a single term of 5 years. The 299 members of the unicameral National Assembly are elected to 4-year terms; elections for the assembly were held on April 9, 2008. South Korea's judicial system comprises a Supreme Court, appellate courts, and a Constitutional Court. The judiciary is independent under the constitution. The country has nine provinces and seven administratively separate cities--the capital of Seoul, along with Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju, Incheon and Ulsan.
Korea's long (and recent) experience with authoritarian governments and short history with democracy have resulted in a fundamental mistrust among the populace and a constant fear of a return to an authoritarian regime. This fear is particularly pervasive after 10 years of liberal rule, the conservatives -- and heirs to the authoritarian governments' legacy -- are back in power. Not surprising, liberals and progressives saw every move of President Lee Myung-bak as an attempt to turn the clock back to what they view as the bad old days. Koreans, scarred by a colonial history and the authoritarian governments that followed, have a deep-seated fear of an overly strong central government, a commitment to the protection of individual rights, and a growing expectation that the people will play a role in the country's political and governing processes.
The constitution, proclaimed in 1948, has been revised nine times, most recently in 1987. The 1987 revision, which is regarded as having established Korean democracy, allowed for direct election of the president, but left in place a system of governance that was part presidential and part parliamentary. This mixed system has resulted in insufficient checks on executive power and an overly majoritarian legislature. These problems came home to roost and have caused continued inter-party fighting, deadlock, and public derision. Critics argued the current constitution failed to maintain a balance of power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. In November 2009, President Lee Myung-bak and Prime Minister Chung Un-chan expressed their support for constitutional revision within a year. According to a poll conducted in July 2009, 62.1 percent of respondents were in favor of amendment. More than 55 percent said the sooner revision happened, the better. The persistently dysfunctional National Assembly had convinced many that change was necessary.
The President is the head of the executive branch, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In case of the President's death or disability, the Prime Minister will temporarily act as the President according to an order of succession provided by law. The President is elected for a single five-year term by popular vote through universal, equal, direct, secret balloting. The power and duties of the President are defined in the following six areas.
First, the President, as head of state, symbolizes and represents the whole nation in both the governmental system and foreign relations. He receives foreign diplomats, awards decorations and other honors, and performs pardoning functions. Upon inauguration, he is to take the oath of his duties to safeguard the independence, territorial integrity, and continuity of the state, as well as to protect the Constitution. In addition, he is entrusted with the unique duty to pursue the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula.
Second, the President, in his capacity as chief executive, enforces all laws passed by the legislature and issues orders and decrees for the enforcement of these laws. The President has the full power to direct the State Council and oversee 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, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has extensive authority over military policy, including the power to declare war.
Fourth, the President is chief policy maker and chief 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; rather, it is the National Assembly that may hold the President accountable under the Constitution by means of the impeachment process.
Fifth, the President is vested with extensive emergency powers. In case of internal turmoil, external menace, natural disaster or severe financial or economic crisis, the President can take emergency financial and economic actions or issue orders that have the effect of law. The President can exercise these powers only when there is insufficient time to convene the National Assembly, and the actions or orders are absolutely essential to maintaining national security or public order. The President must subsequently notify, and obtain the concurrence of, the National Assembly. If he is unsuccessful in doing so, the measures will be nullified.
Sixth, the President is also empowered to declare a state of martial law in accordance with the provisions of the law in time of war, armed rebellion, or similar national emergency. The exercise of such emergency power is, however, subject to subsequent approval of the National Assembly.
The National Assembly
The National Assembly is the venue for representative democracy. Only when the parliament gives hope to people who are suffering from economic difficulty and achieves national unity, will it be able to win public support and acclaim. Under the “majority ruling party and minority opposition” structure, sharp confrontation between the two sides could cripple the operation of the National Assembly session. It is natural that the ruling and opposition parties express different views and face some confrontation in a democratic country. The problem is that the National Assembly should be a forum for policies, not political strife, and lawmakers should demonstrate a spirit and culture of compromise essential to democracy. A generation shift in legislators means a new political paradigm and the possibility of efficient parliamentary operation, but at the same time might signal lack of experiences and coordinating capabilities.
Legislative power is vested in the National Assembly, a unicameral body. The organizational components of the National Assembly are the individual members, the presiding officers, the plenary, the committees, the negotiation groups, and the administrative organs for legislative assistance. The Assembly is composed of 299 members, 253 elected from single-member electoral districts and 46 shared by their parties in proportional representation. All members serve a four-year term. To be eligible for election, a candidate must be at least 25 years of age. One candidate from each electoral district is chosen by a plurality of votes. Unless convicted of a crime, a member cannot be apprehended or detained without the consent of the National Assembly. A member is also exempt from liability for speech or voting performed in relation to his/her duties in the National Assembly.
The very first such election, in 1948, took place even before the Republic of Korea existed. In creating the first National Assembly, or the "Constitutional Assembly," that election laid the foundation for the South Korean state and political system. It was anything but a straightforward process, however, and thus the complex legacy of that vote remains strong today. Paramilitary forces, along with army troops, terrorized the population and brutally killed thousands over the ensuing months. This was part of a general cleansing of leftist and even moderate elements who expressed opposition to the election and to the nascent southern system coming into form. Communist guerrillas in southern Korea continued their efforts to sabotage the elections, but for the most part, they could not hinder the process of registering the people to vote.
Typically, one of the strengths of majoritarian systems is that a relatively small swing in the electorate can bring the other party into power. In Korea the President is elected to a five-year term and the unicameral National Assembly is elected to a four-year term. In 2008 these terms aligned so that, for the first time in Korea's short democratic history, a mere four months after electing a new president, the country also elected an entirely new National Assembly. Consequently, the power alignment favoring the GNP would be in place for at least four years, without the public having an opportunity to pass any kind of meaningful judgment on the party's performance.
In most majoritarian systems there is a particularly close relationship between representatives and constituents, because there is a significant incentive for constituency service in single-member districts. This close relationship provides citizens with a voice in the nation's affairs and holds elected officials accountable to constituency concerns. In Korea's case, political parties are still highly personality driven and demand almost complete factional loyalty. Consequently, a politician's success is more dependent on personal connections within the party than on constituent service. Additionally, the party decides which candidates will run for election in which district, often moving candidates into districts where they have no personal connection. This fluidity results in representatives with weak or no ties to the community they represent.
One strength of majoritarian governments is that they tend to be more efficient -- the winner-takes-all system creates clear winners and losers. In Korea there was no doubt that the GNP held the reigns of power in both the National Assembly and in the executive office, however the public had very little trust in the system's ability to check that power.
The current Korean constitution -- by 2008 in its tenth incarnation since the founding of the Republic in 1948 -- was intended to provide a strong executive, but prohibit authoritarian leaders like Park Chung-hee (1963-1979) and Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988); hence the single, five-year term for president. The National Assembly was based on a majoritarian system, but was not supposed to yield much power or authority. However, the role of the legislature increased steadily, reflecting the society's demand for more democracy.
The 17th National Assembly opened its first 100-day regular session on 01 September 2004. One crucial task was that the new National Assembly prove to be productive enough to meet people's expectation. The lawmakers, many of whom were legislative rookies, should be fully aware of the faults of their predecessors and the tasks that lay before them in parliament. In the past, the regular session often degenerated into full-out partisan bickering as the ruling and opposition parties refused to reach compromise on various issues. If the National Assembly again fell into such unproductive internal strife, it will weaken the nation by imposing greater burdens on the public. The 17th National Assembly was launched amid much hoopla about “a new era” of fresh politics and non-partisan cooperation: The ruling Uri Party had wrested control of the Assembly from the conservative wing for the first time in the nation’s history, and had been expected to take the lead in practicing inter-party détente and compromise the new National Assembly was filled with fresh faces, a clear sign of a generational shift in the nation’s legislature. People expected the new National Assembly would become a productive one. But the results fell far short – to put it mildly - of original expectations.
The pro-government Grand National Party won a majority in the 18th general elections, gaining control of the National Assembly and paving the way for a full implementation of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s policies. The progressive front, represented by the United Democratic Party, New Progressive Party, and the Renewal of Korea Party, suffered quite a blow. Compared to the 17th National Assembly, these liberal parties not only have fewer representatives, but also face great confusions in party identity. The progressive United Democratic Party failed to win 100 parliamentary seats, the minimum number of seats to block any constitutional revision. The party faced great turmoil, as its leadership headed by former GNP member Sohn Hak-kyu was blamed for the crushing loss. The UDP lost nearly half of its 150 seats despite the falling support rate for President Lee Myung-bak. Some critics inside the UDP called for the replacement of the entire leadership, hinting at the intensifying conflicts among different sects.
The belated opening of the 18th National Assembly came 1 July 2008, some 42 days into the legislature’s term, as the Assembly finally opened its first plenary session. The new Assembly returned to normal operations, ending a month of legislative paralysis. A total of 283 members from the ruling and opposition parties attended the plenary session and celebrated the opening of the legislative house. But the lawmakers’ faces didn’t look bright, since the National Assembly had been adrift for more than a month. Due to controversy over the government’s decision to resume US beef imports, the body just recently elected a new speaker.
The National Assembly faced its greatest ruling-opposition ratio unbalance since the nation started the process of democratization in 1987. If the governing Grand National Party accepted all supporters of former Chairwoman Park Geun-hye and other independent lawmakers loyal to the pro-government party, it would be able to secure more than 180 seats in the legislature. There were worries that the self-righteous ruling party may control the Assembly on its own authority. The GNP must embrace opposition parties through dialogue and compromise, while opposition parties needed to shake off inferiority in numbers and engage in legislative activities more confidently. Panned as the worst parliamentary ever, the 18th National Assembly took 42 days and 89 days after the start of its tenure to respectively elect the committee leaders and conclude talks on committee membership. The National Assembly squandered away nearly three months bickering over who got the bigger piece of the pie.
The 18th National Assembly, plagued by bickering since its inception in 2008, proved its inefficiency time and again and faced widespread public pessimism about the legislature's functionality. The inter-party conflict that has so frequently ground proceedings to a halt is, in fact, part of a larger debate about the proper role of the opposition in the legislative process -- a debate that is just starting to take shape among lawmakers. An important cause of the problem is the dichotomy between Korean culture, which values consensus, and the current political system, which is strongly majoritarian in its structure. The Korean public overwhelmingly wants greater consensus in decision making and the opposition parties clearly feel entitled to this power -- hence the frequent breakdown in the National Assembly. There were reform proposals that could bring more efficiency to the Korean political process, including term limits, enhanced proportional representation, primaries, two terms for president, and changes in cloture rules.
In the 19th National Assembly the opposition parties together outnumbered the ruling party. The 19th National Assembly failed to open as scheduled on 06 June 2012, giving rise to concern that the parliamentary absence may become prolonged. Parliamentary leadership was to be determined during the first plenary session of the 19th National Assembly, but the meeting never took place because the feuding parties failed to narrow their difference on such issues as the sharing of standing committee leadership, illegal surveillance of civilians, and ongoing media strikes. The original plan was for the ruling Saenuri Party and the opposition United Democratic Party to open the plenary session and select the leaders of parliamentary standing committees. Tuesday was supposed to mark the beginning of the 19th National Assembly, but disputes over committee leadership and a slew of other issues undermined the parliamentary inauguration. The legislators at one point pondered over the possibility of putting aside discussions on all other matters and only electing parliamentary officials at the plenary session. Following tradition, the Saenuri Party had already chosen its floor leader and deputy floor leader, and the DUP its own deputy floor leader. All they needed to avoid the delay in opening of the National Assembly was to merely rubber-stamp the nominees in the plenary session. But the DUP’s refusal to even show up for the session before the parties come to an agreement on committee leadership rendered it impossible to hold the plenary session.
The 19th National Assembly launched its last 30-day session 24 April 2016. The extraordinary session came after the floor leaders of the governing Saenuri Party, the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK) and the minor opposition People’s Party agreed to launch their last efforts to handle pending bills. Despite the gesture by the parties to get things done, some political pundits were skeptical about the result. They point out that the dynamics of the parliament had changed significantly after the general elections and some worry about the parliament’s ability to end the four-year term on a positive note. The Saenuri Party, for instance, saw its leadership collapse due to a crushing loss in the April 13th elections. The expectation was low that two major opposition parties that posted significant wins in the elections would follow the initiatives by the ruling party. The 19th National Assembly had passed 43 percent of the bills submitted to the parliament during its term. The passing rate of bills is lower than those of any other preceding parliament, and the incumbent parliament is already labeled as the worst parliament in South Korean history. It appears to be difficult for the parliament to clear its name.
On 31 March 2016, the first day of the official campaigns for the 13 April 2016 parliamentary elections and also the dawn of a thirteen-day "battle," ruling and opposition parties sent out a call for all their people to come together. All three parties call for the people to pass judgment on the current state of affairs, but the target of the judgment is different. The Saenuri Party called for judgment on the "opposition parties that hold the National Assembly back," The 20th National Assembly began its four-year term on 30 May 2016. Ruling and opposition parties respectively held a general meeting of their lawmakers and vowed to create a hard-working parliament. However, clashes had already emerged as rival parties had differences in opinion over who will lead parliamentary committees. Saenuri Floor Leader Chung Jin-suk stressed that the 20th National Assembly must become hard-working and productive by pursuing dialogue and compromise.
The Judicial Branch
With the adoption of the western legal system in the late 19th century, judicial functions became separate and independent from the executive power. In 1948, the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court were established. In Korea, the constitutional power is divided into three branches based on the principle of separation of powers: the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary. The Ministry of Justice is a part of the Executive branch, separate from the Judiciary. The Judiciary is composed of the Supreme Court, the High Courts, the District Courts and their Branch Courts, and the specialized courts such as Family Courts. The courts are empowered to adjudicate civil, criminal and administrative cases as well as election lawsuits and other judicial cases as stipulated by law. In addition, the Constitutional Court was established in 1988 in accordance with the current Constitution. The Court is committed to fully protecting the constitutional rights of the people and decides on cases of constitutional magnitude such as impeachment and the dissolution of political parties.
With the advent of the 21st century, the Supreme Court devised the 'Judicial System Development Plan' as part of its efforts to advance the system to better serve the public, which came to fruition with the introduction of the 'new management model for civil cases' in 2001. Further, regulations and practices are being improved regarding criminal cases by strictly respecting principles such as due process of law and assumption of innocence, so that the rights of the defendant can be properly protected. Since the inauguration of Chief Justice Lee Yong-hun in October 2006, the judiciary has been making every effort to achieve fundamental and far-reaching reforms under the slogan of 'the judiciary serving and standing by the people.' As always, we at the judiciary will keep playing our role as the protector of the constitution and the last resort of human rights by serving the public with fair and prompt trial procedure.
As of January 1, 2008, a new system which allows lay citizens to participate in criminal trials as jurors has been introduced. The system is intended to raise public confidence in the nation's judicial system by enhancing its democratic legitimacy and transparency. Upon the request of the defendant, the jury consisting of 5 to 9 citizens attends a felony criminal trial along with professional judges and provides advisory opinions. Jurors are required to independently consider whether the defendant is guilty or not and reach a unanimous verdict; if fain, they depend on majority vote. The jury also presents individual opinions on sentencing after the discussion with the judge. The jury verdict and its view on sentencing, however, do not bind the judge's decision. The newly-established system is a combination of the common law jury system, under which a verdict is rendered solely by jurors, and the continental law jury system (Schoffengericht), which involves citizens as a member of the bench to do a fact-finding and decide a decree of imprisonment, a fine and/or other punishments against the convicted defendant.
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." 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 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.
Local governments are considered part of the executive branch and thus are controlled by the central government. (Here "local governments" refers broadly to all sub-national governments.) However, some degree of local autonomy has been given to the 16 higher-level (provincial) governments and 34 lower level (municipal) governments. This autonomy resumed, after a time lapse of more than thirty years, on July 1, 1995 - a date marking a return to direct, popular elections for local chief executives. Prior to this, local governments had been simply local branches of the central government, with the latter appointing and dispatching the chiefs. Despite the change, the autonomous power of local governments at this point remains quite limited. Virtually all major policies, including those specifying local government functions, taxation, resident welfare and services, and personnel management, are determined by the central government.
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