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SOUTH KOREA GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Government Overview: South Korea is a republic governed by a directly elected president and a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly. Although today South Korea is recognized as a democracy, for several decades following the Korean War it was ruled by a succession of leaders who assumed office under less than democratic circumstances. Fair elections in 1952 were followed by corrupt ones later that decade. A succession of military leaders assumed power in South Korea starting in 1961 with a coup led by army officers. Growing frustration with repressive rule among South Koreans led to demonstrations in May 1980 in the city of Kwangju. These demonstrations were violently suppressed, killing hundreds of civilians. Whereas the South Korean economy flourished, democratic institutions and a free press often did not. In spite of political violence in the form of brutal crackdowns against civilian protests and the assassination of government leaders, a civil society emerged to lead the South Korean democracy movement. In 1987, after years of regular protests, the military leaders of South Korea were forced to hold free and democratic elections. Their handpicked successor, Roh Tae-woo, won, as opposition parties failed to unite around a single candidate and split the vote. In 1992 Kim Young-sam was elected, followed in 1997 by longtime opposition leader Kim Dae-jung. In 2002 South Koreans elected a human rights lawyer and relative political newcomer, Roh Moo-hyun president.
Constitution: The current constitution was adopted on July 17, 1948. It was last revised in 1987.
Executive Branch: The president is the head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The prime minister 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. The current president is Roh Moo-hyun, who was elected in 2002 (and took office in February 2003). The current prime minister is Lee Hae-chan, who assumed office in 2004.
Legislative Branch: The unicameral National Assembly is the legislative body of the South Korean government. It has 273 members elected to four-year terms and 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. The current speaker is Kim Won-Ki.
Judicial Branch: The judicial branch is composed of the Supreme Court, appellate courts, local courts, and the Constitutional Court. It is an independent branch and is increasingly willing to exercise that 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’4ng Province.
Administrative Divisions: South Korea has nine provinces (do): Kangwon, Ky4nggi, North Ch’ungch’4ng, South Ch’ungch’4ng, North Cholla, South Cholla, North Ky4ngsang, South Ky4ngsang, and Cheju. There are also seven separately administered metropolitan cities: Seoul, Pusan, Taegu, Inch’4n, Kwangju, Taej4n, and Ulsan.
Provincial and Local Government: South Korea has a long and established tradition of strong central governance, dating back to the early years of the Chos4n 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.
Judicial and Legal System: The South Korean legal system contains elements of Anglo-American law, continental European civil law, and Chinese classical thought. The president appoints the chief justice and most justices of the Constitutional Court. Although judges do not receive lifetime appointments, they cannot be fired for political reasons. Judges preside over local courts and also render verdicts, as there is no trial by jury. 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. Constitutional provisions that call for the presumption of innocence, protection against self-incrimination, freedom from double jeopardy, the right to speedy trial, and the right of appeal generally are observed.
Electoral System: Suffrage is universal, and the voting age is 20. The president is elected by direct popular vote and serves one five-year term. The 273 members of the National Assembly are directly elected to four-year terms. The most recent presidential election was held in December 2002; the next is scheduled for 2007. The most recent National Assembly election was held on April 15, 2004; the next is scheduled for 2008.
Political Parties: South Korea is a multiparty state. In the most recent round of general elections to the National Assembly in 2004, the majority party was the Uri Party (the party of President Roh Moo-hyun) with 152 seats, followed by the Grand National Party with 121 seats, the Democratic Labor Party with 10 seats, and the Millennium Democratic Party (the party of Roh’s predecessor, Kim Dae-jung) with 9 seats. Other parties include the United Liberal Democrats and the Democratic People’s Party.
Mass Media: In the twentieth century, the successive governments of the colonial Japanese authorities, the U.S. military authorities, and the Republic of Korea all restricted freedom of the press. Today, after decades of state control and heavy censorship, the press (in print, on television, and online) is experiencing a period of relative freedom. The repressive Basic Press Law was repealed in 1987, and since 1990 the television market has expanded significantly. Whereas in 1980 there were only 28 national newspapers, today there are 122. In 2002 satellite broadcasting brought multi-channel commercial television to homes across South Korea. According to most outside observers, political discourse is unrestricted in South Korea; however, persistent concerns are worth noting. The National Security Law allows the government to limit the expression of ideas deemed pro-North Korean or communist; broad interpretations of this statute place a chill on peaceful dissent. In addition, in 2003 President Roh brought a libel suit against four of the major national newspapers, and the government has stated that editorials are subject to legal action if they are found to contain falsehoods. Outside observers have criticized pressure tactics used by both the South Korean government and the business community to influence reporting. Major newspapers include Chosun Ilbo, Dong-A Ilbo, Joong-Ang Ilbo, and Hankook Ilbo , all published in Seoul. The five nationwide television networks are KBS-1 and KBS-2 (public broadcast), MBC (run as a public organization), EBS (state-funded), and SBS (a commercial broadcaster). Some 70 percent of South Korean households have broadband Internet access, and the online media marketplace is growing rapidly. Popular news Web sites (such as OhMyNews.com) register as many as 15 million visits per day.
Foreign Relations: In addition to its extensive network of trading partners, South Korea has diplomatic relations with more than 170 nations. Since the 1980s, relations with China have played an increasingly important role in South Korean politics and economics, particularly in relation to North Korea. South Korea maintains close military, economic, and diplomatic relations with the United States, although at times those relations are strained by domestic opposition to the U.S. military presence on the peninsula. In spite of long-standing animosity to Japan during the 36-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula, economic and diplomatic relations between the two nations are increasingly close.
Inter-Korean Relations: The political importance of relations between North and South Korea, and the impact of the division of the Korean Peninsula on the national consciousness, is difficult to overstate. Although many South Koreans support the concept of reunification, there are widespread concerns that reunification could have a significant, negative economic and social impact on the South, as, under the best of circumstances, it would have to absorb underskilled North Korean workers and upgrade the North’s outdated infrastructure. The desire for unification is thus balanced by concerns about any sudden collapse of the North Korean state. In 1991 North and South Korea signed an agreement pledging to resolve national disagreements through dialogue and to keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons. Implementation has been stalled by continual political disagreements and proliferation issues. In 1997 Kim Dae-jung was elected president of South Korea and instituted a “Sunshine Policy” toward North Korea, which sought to increase contacts between the two nations. In 2000 Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae-jung held the first-ever meeting between leaders of the two sides.
North-South unification is overseen on the South Korean side by its Ministry of Unification. The South Korean government’s “Policy for Peace and Prosperity” was initiated in 2003 by President Roh Moo-hyun with the goal of laying the foundation for peaceful unification through the promotion of peace on the Korean Peninsula and achieving mutual prosperity for both South and North Korea. This policy also is seen as contributing to the development of a Northeast Asian business hub on the Korean Peninsula. The predecessor organization of the Ministry of Unification, the National Unification Board, was established in 1969. The board was raised to ministerial level in 1990 and in 1991 was renamed the Ministry of Unification. Seen as a powerful force in South Korea, the ministry provides an institutional framework for peaceful political, economic, and cultural exchanges with and humanitarian assistance to the North. Ministry projects have included education of South Koreans about North Korean developments, meetings of divided families, resettlement of North Korean refugees, South-North transit routes through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and the Kaes4ng joint-venture industrial zone and the Mount Kumgang scenic and sport-tourist zone, both just north of the DMZ. Juxtaposed with such goodwill overtures, is the reality of North Korea’s faltering economy, its military threat to the South and to the region, and the fact that a state of war technically continues to exist between the North and the South and its United Nations allies.
Membership in International Organizations: South Korea is a member of numerous international organizations, including the African Development Bank, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Asian Development Bank, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Australia Group, Bank for International Settlements, Colombo Plan, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), International Chamber of Commerce, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Court, International Criminal Police Organization, International Development Association, International Energy Agency, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Finance Corporation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Hydrographic Organization, International Labour Organization, International Maritime Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Migration, International Organization for Standardization, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, International Telecommunication Union, Nonaligned Movement (guest), Nuclear Energy Agency, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (partner), Organization of American States (observer), Permanent Court of Arbitration, United Nations, Universal Postal Union, World Confederation of Labor, World Customs Organization, World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Meteorological Organization, World Tourism Organization, World Trade Organization, and Zangger Committee.
Major International Treaties: The 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States is perhaps the most important of the treaties to which South Korea is a party. In addition, South Korea is a state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Joint Spent Fuel Management Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and the Geneva Protocol. It is also a state party to the following antiterrorism conventions: Marking of Plastic Explosives for the Purpose of Detection, Against the Taking of Hostages, Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed Onboard Aircraft, Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft, Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation, Protocol on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International Civil Aviation, and Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons, including Diplomatic Agents. It is a signatory to the antiterrorist conventions on Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and Suppression of Terrorist Bombings. South Korea is also a party to a number of environmental agreements: Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic-Marine Living Resources, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands, and Whaling.
Armed Forces Overview: The main branches of the South Korean military are the army, navy, air force, and National Maritime Police (Coast Guard). There are 687,000 troops serving on active duty, of whom approximately 159,000 are conscripts. Another 4.5 million are in the reserves. The army has 560,000 personnel, the air force 64,700, the navy 63,000, and the maritime police 4,500. A civilian defense corps numbers 3.5 million.
Foreign Military Relations: South Korea’s major military relationship is with the United States, which maintains approximately 35,000 troops in South Korea. Additional U.S. forces are available in nearby Japan, the Seventh Fleet, and U.S. island bases in the Pacific. Since the Korean War (known as the “6–25 War” in South Korea, 1950–53), the United States has assumed significant responsibility for assuring South Korea’s security. Since 1978, the Republic of Korea/United States Combined Forces Command (ROK-US CFC) has assumed primary responsibility for defending South Korea from outside attack. The CFC has operational control over more than 600,000 South Korean and U.S. troops and directs joint training exercises. It is under the command of a four-star U.S. general, with a four-star South Korean army general as deputy commander. In 2005, 93 percent of the military personnel at the DMZ were South Korean forces. The United Nations Command (UNC), established in 1951 with the United States as its executive agent and 21 allied members, continues to monitor the 1953 armistice agreement. Fifteen of the original 21 members participated in the UNC Military Armistice Commission in 2005.
External Threat: The South Korean government regards North Korea as the major threat to peninsular stability. North Korea has the fourth largest military force in the world, and the largest special operations, submarine, and artillery forces in the world. Whereas in 1981 North Korea had 40 percent of its armed forces deployed in an offensive mode between the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and P’y4ngyang, by 1998 that level had risen to 65 percent, and it stood at 70 percent in 2005. Military planners in South Korea expect no more than two days’ warning of an imminent attack by North Korea. In 1998 and 2003, North Korea launched missiles over the Sea of Japan (or East Sea), an act that raised serious concerns in South Korea, Japan, and the United States. In February 2005, North Korea admitted it had nuclear weapons capability, and it is estimated that North Korea might have one or two actual nuclear weapons and enough plutonium harvested for about nine weapons. In May 2005, another missile test was conducted over the Sea of Japan. The difficulty of predicting the actions of the North Korean leadership, the lack of reliable information from North Korea, and shifts in U.S. policy regarding the North remain stumbling blocks to reducing tensions on the peninsula.
Defense Budget: In 2004 South Korea’s defense budget was US$16.4 billion, which represents approximately 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 16 percent of the total budget (roughly in line with the previous two years). Defense spending for 2004 is up from US$14.6 billion in 2003, US$13.2 billion in 2002, US$11.8 billion in 2001, US$12.8 billion in 2000, and US$11.6 billion in 1999.
Major Military Units: The army has 3 mechanized infantry divisions, 19 infantry divisions, 2 independent infantry brigades, 7 special forces brigades, 3 counter-infiltration brigades, 3 surface-to-surface missile battalions, 3 airborne artillery brigades, 5 surface-to-air missile battalions, and 1 aviation command with 1 air assault brigade. The reserves have one army headquarters with 23 infantry divisions. The navy has three commands: Tonghae (East Sea), P’y4ngt’aek (Yellow Sea), and Chinhae (Korea Strait) and bases in Chinhae (Headquarters), Cheju, Mokp’o, Mukho, P’ohang, Pusan, P’y4ngt’aek, and Tonghae. The marines (part of the navy) have two divisions. The air force has four commands, a tactical airlift wing, and a composite wing.
Major Military Equipment: The army has 1,000 main battle tanks, 40 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 2,480 armored personnel carriers, approximately 4,500 towed and self-propelled artillery pieces, 185 multiple rocket launchers, 6,000 mortars, 58 antitank guns, 600 air defense guns, 2 surface-to-surface missiles, 1,090 surface-to-air missiles, 117 attack helicopters, 18 transport helicopters, and 283 utility helicopters. The navy has 20 diesel submarines, 6 destroyers, 9 frigates, 28 corvettes, 5 missile craft, 15 mine warfare vessels, 12 amphibious vessels, 75 inshore patrol boats, 16 combat aircraft, and 43 armed helicopters. The marines (part of the navy) have 60 main battle tanks and 60 assault amphibian vehicles. The air force has a total of 538 combat aircraft with 153 F–16C/D, 185 F–5E/F, 130 F–4D/E, 22 combat-capable trainers, 20 forward air control aircraft, 27 reconnaissance aircraft, 25 helicopters, 34 tactical airlift aircraft, 203 training aircraft, and 103 unmanned aerial vehicles. The air force has no armed helicopters.
Military Service: Military service is mandatory for all South Korean males, with conscription at 18 years of age. The term of service in the army is 26 months and 30 in the navy and air force. The presence of women in the South Korean military since the end of the Korean War has been limited, both by constitutional and cultural restraints. In the early 1990s, the separate Women’s Army Corps was abolished, and women were integrated into the various branches of the armed forces. The South Korean armed forces plan to recruit women to a level of 5 percent of the total officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in the three services by 2020.
Paramilitary Forces: South Korea has a National Maritime Police (Coast Guard) force of approximately 4,500 on active duty. Another 3.5 million South Korean reserves form the civilian defense corps.
Foreign Military Forces: Approximately 35,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea.
Foreign Military Forces Abroad: In August 2004, the 2,800-strong Korea Zaytun Division for Peace and Reconstruction in Iraq arrived in Irbil, in northern Iraq. There are also 205 South Korean troops participating in Operation Enduring Freedom in Kyrgyzstan. South Korean troops also have taken part in United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan (UNAMA), East Timor (UNMISET), Georgia (UNOMIG), India/Pakistan (UNMOGIP), Liberia (UNMIL), and Western Sahara (MINURSO).
Police: The National Korean Police Force is composed of the Headquarters of the National Police Agency, the Central Police Organization, 14 provincial police agencies, 231 police stations, 2,930 branch offices, and other affiliated institutes, including the National Police College, Police Comprehensive Academy, Central Police Training School, Driver's Licensing Agency, and National Police Hospital. In 2003 the National Police Force had 92,165 employees. The police commissioner serves under the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs.
Internal Threat: The National Security Law continues to define as a threat to domestic security acts such as listening to North Korean radio broadcasts or reading books published in North Korea, suggesting that North Korean interference and propaganda efforts in South Korean affairs are still regarded as a major internal threat.
Terrorism: Historically, some of the worst acts of terrorism in South Korea have been the work of North Korea and the military dictatorships that ruled South Korea for large portions of the post-Korean War era. In 1987 North Korea was accused of being behind the bombing of Korean Airlines (KAL) Flight 858.
Human Rights: The South Korean government generally respects the human rights of its citizens. However, it bears noting that physical and verbal abuse of detainees continues among police and prison personnel. Human rights organizations also have argued that the National Security Law (NSL) continues to be used to curtail freedom of speech and of the press, peaceful assembly and association, and free travel. Currently, some 800 conscientious objectors convicted under the NSL, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain imprisoned. Many public-sector employees do not enjoy the right of association, and efforts to organize unions have met with harassment and arrest. Incidences of domestic violence remain high. Sexual harassment and disparities in pay between men and women exist. Rape and child abuse also continue to be serious problems. The Republic of Korea is still a significant country of origin, transit, and destination for trafficking in persons, particularly women and children, for the sex trade and domestic servitude. Although illegal, prostitution remains widespread. No executions have been carried out in South Korea since 1998; a bill was introduced in 2001 to abolish the death penalty, but despite fairly widespread and bipartisan support in the legislature, the bill stalled in deliberations. At the end of 2003, there were 1,670 refugees and asylum seekers in South Korea, most North Korean.
Formal Name: Republic of Korea (Taehan Min’guk). 대한 민국
Short Form: South Korea (Han’guk, the term South Koreans use to
refer to their country). 한 국
Term for Citizen(s): Korean(s) (Han’gugin). 한 국 인
Capital: Seoul. 서울
Major Cities: The largest cities are Seoul (11 million), Pusan (3.9 million), Taegu (2.5 million), Inch’4n (2.4 million), Kwangju (1.4 million), and Taej4n (1.3 million).
Independence: August 15, 1945, from Japanese occupation; Republic of Korea founded August 15, 1948.
Public Holidays: New Year’s Day (January 1), Lunar New Year (movable date in January or February), Independence Movement Day (March 1), Arbor Day (April 5), Children’s Day (May 5), Birth of Buddha (movable date in April or May), Memorial Day (June 6), Constitution Day (July 17), Independence Day (August 15), Ch’us4k (an autumnal harvest festival and day of thanksgiving, movable date in September or October), National Foundation Day (October 3), and Christmas Day (December 25).
A white rectangle with a red (top) and blue T’aeguk (Great Absolute)
symbol in the center. The white background symbolizes light and purity
and reflects a traditional affinity for peace. The yin-yang circle, divided
equally into a blue portion below and a red portion above, represents the
dual cosmic forces of yin (blue) and yang (red), which symbolize universal
harmony. The circle is surrounded by four black kwe (or trigrams) from the
Yi Ching (Book of Changes). At the upper left and lower right are heaven and earth, and at lower left and upper right are fire and water. Collectively, the circle and trigrams represent universal harmony and unity.
Early History: The Korean people share a common heritage in spite of the modern-day split between North and South Korea. Human habitation of the Korean Peninsula dates back 500,000 years. Excavations have found pottery and stone tools from Neolithic-age settlements ca. 4000
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