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Korea - Local Government

Local self-government refers to a governing system that eligible residents who live in a bounded geographical area select their representatives and let them run their local government with relative autonomy from the central government. The local self-government system was implemented in Korea in 1952, four years after the establishment of the Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948. The Local Autonomy Act was enacted in 1949, but local autonomy was not implemented during the period of political upheaval, including the Korean War, the April 1960 Student Revolution, the May 1961 Coup d'etat. Local self-government lasted only for nine years during the rule of Lee Syngman and the succeeding regime, then degenerated into malfunction and chaos.

With the rise of authoritarian rule after Park Chung Hee's military coup, local elections were abolished, and the constitution postponed implementation of local autonomy indefinitely until the hypothetical future unification of the Korean peninsula.

The assassination of President Park in 1979 and the rise of the Fifth Republic re-established a constitutional base for local self-rule. The country adopted the local autonomous system in June 1995.

Local governments are divided into high-level and low-level local governments. With the inclusion of Sejong Special Autonomous City in July 2012, the number of high-level local governments was increased to seventeen (i.e. Seoul Special City, six metropolises, eight provinces, and Jeju Special Self-Governing Province). The number of low-level local governments stands at 226 (i.e. si/gun/gu).

The heads of local governments and councilors are elected through direct election. The term for local government heads is four years, and they can be reelected for up to three terms. There is no limit on how many terms a local councilor may serve. The local autonomous system is very significant as a means of realizing the goal of grassroots democracy through local residents’ participation.

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.

As a result of rural-urban mergers and consolidation among cities since 1995, the total number of autonomous bodies had fallen to 244 as of July 1, 2012. The total number comprises 17 regional governments and 227 municipal governments. The regional governments include Seoul Metropolitan City, Sejong City, 6 metropolitan cities (Busan, Incheon, Daegu, Gwangju, Daejeon, Ulsan), and 8 provinces (Gyeonggi, Gangwon, Chungnam, Chungbuk, Jeonnam, Jeonbuk, Gyeongnam, Gyeongbuk) and Jeju Province.

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Page last modified: 14-01-2018 18:38:23 ZULU