Korean History Project
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The Korean Government

Republic of South Korea
South Korea has been an independent constitutional republic since its liberation from Japan on August 15, 1945.
DPRK, Democratic People's Republic of Korea
The communist state in North Korea has ruled since 1948.
Like its historic "Big Brother" to the East, Korea lives under the rule of two separate governments:  one communist and one democratic.

In August 1945, Korea was divided across the 38th Parallel, separating the nation into two occupation zones:  the Russians occupied the north and the United States occupied the south.

By 1948, the Korean Workers Party inaugurated a highly centralized communist government in North Korea known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In the south, the Republic of Korea emerged as a republic form of government under a constitution first adopted in August 1948.



The Republic of Korea        The Democratic People's Republic of Korea

South Korea's nascent democracy is still shaking off many of the vestiges of its centuries-old history as an Asian monarchy. The First Republic under President Synghman Rhee lasted until April 1960, when university student unrest forced his resignation. The ineffectual Second Republic lasted little more than a year before an army coup toppled the government. Civilian rule returned to Korea two years later in 1963, with the advent of the Third Republic. The government reforms, rapid industrial modernization, and extraordinary economic growth of this period ended in October 1979 with the assassination of President Park Chung Hee.

South Korea's Fourth Republic lasted until December 1979, when a military coup again took control of the government. Widespread demonstrations led by university students in the spring of 1980 prompted the government to declare martial law. Continued pressure however, forced the resignation of the government in September 1980 and led to a referendum the following month which approved a new constitution that limited the president to a single seven-year term and began the Fifth Republic.

Political pressure mounted against the government to amend the constitution to permit the direct election of the next president. When the government suspended all discussion of constitutional revision, students, then the general public, took to the streets in protest. The turmoil led to a constitutional revision that took effect in February 1988 that permitted direct presidential elections and strengthened the National Assembly. Following elections for the National Assembly in April 1988, an emboldened legislature dominated by opposition parties quickly challenged the president's prerogatives. In the fall of 1988, the Assembly conducted the first government audit in 16 years and began televised hearings into the practices and policies of former Fifth Republic.

In March 1991, the trend toward greater democratization in South Korea continued to gain momentum with the first local elections held in 30 years, electing delegates to local councils. The 1988 legislative elections dramatically changed South Korean politics, the Assembly's greater powers under the 1987 constitution, and the influence of public opinion. In free and fair elections in December 1992, South Korea elected its first civilian president in nearly 30 years and for the first time in recent Korean history, the losing candidates acknowledged their defeat and congratulated the winner. South Korea has witnessed significant political liberalization since 1987, including freedom of the press, greater freedoms of expression and assembly, the release of political prisoners, and the restoration of the civil rights of former detainees. In June 1995, Korea held direct elections for local and provincial executives (mayors, governors, county and ward chiefs) for the first time in more than 30 years, an election widely regarded as a huge step for political progress and democracy in Korea.

The Republic of Korea is a democratic republic with powers shared between the president and the legislature. The three principal branches of government are:  Executive - president (chief of state), legislative - unicameral National Assembly, and judicial - Constitutional Court, Supreme Court and appellate courts.

Executive Branch

South Korea's president is elected to a single five-year term by popular vote. The Prime Minister is appointed Head of Government by the president with the consent of the National Assembly. Deputy Prime Ministers are appointed by the president on recommendation of the Prime Minister. The president also appoints the 15 to 30 members of the South Korean Cabinet (State Council), each of whom heads a government department.

Legislative Branch

South Korea's National Assembly, Kukhoe, is a unicameral legislature whose 299 members are elected to four-year terms by popular vote.

Judicial Branch

South Korea's legal system combines elements of continental European civil law, Anglo-American law, and Chinese classical thought. South Korea's highest court, the Supreme Court, consists of a chief justice appointed by the president and up to 13 other justices appointed by the president on recommendation of the chief justice with the approval of the National Assembly. Each justice serves a six-year term. South Korea also has a Constitution Court that rules on such questions as the constitutionality of laws. Other courts include appeals courts, district courts, and a family court.

Political Parties

New Korea Party (NKP);  United Liberal Democratic Party (ULD);  Democratic Party (DP);  National Congress for New Politics (NCNP)

Other political or pressure groups in South Korea include the Korean National Council of Churches, the National Democratic Alliance of Korea, the National Federation of Student Associations, the National Federation of Farmers Associations, the National Council of Labor Unions, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, the Korean Veterans Association, the Federation of Korean Industries, and the Korean Traders Association.

The CIA World Factbook contains the latest information on South Korea's Government.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea        The Republic of Korea

Little is known about the actual lines of power and authority in the North Korean Government despite the formal structure set forth in its constitution. North Korea's 1972 constitution was reportedly amended in late 1992, but the government has never publicized the changes. The DPRK is led by a president and, in theory at least, a super-cabinet called the Central People's Committee (CPC), the government's top policy making body. It is headed by the president, who also nominates the other committee members. The CPC makes policy decisions and supervises the State Administration Council (SAC), or cabinet. An inner core of ranking members of the Korean Workers Party dominates North Korea's political system and the economy through an elaborate party structure and through the civilian and military bureaucracies.

Executive Branch

Kim Chong-il became North Korea's designated Chief of State following the death of his father, President Kim Il-song on July 8, 1994. Kim Chong-il has yet to assume the titles held by his father and no new elections have been held or scheduled.

The State Administration Council, or cabinet, is the dominant administrative and executive agency. The Supreme People's Assembly not only appoints members to the SAC, but also elects its premier as Head of Government.

Legislative Branch

Officially, North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, Ch'oego Inmin Hoeui, is a unicameral legislature and the highest organ of state power. Its 687 members are elected by popular vote every four years from a single list of candidates approved by the Korean Workers Party. All are elected without opposition. A few seats are held by minority political parties. The SPA has little real power and only meets one or two weeks each year. When the Assembly is not in session, a standing committee elected by the SPA performs legislative functions. In actuality, the Assembly serves but a single purpose, to ratify decisions already made by the ruling Korean Workers Party.

Judicial Branch

North Korea's legal system is based on German civil law with Japanese influences and Communist legal theory. North Korea's judiciary is "accountable" to the Supreme People's Assembly and the president. The highest, and only true court in North Korea, is the Central Court, staffed with judges appointed by the SPA standing committee for four-year terms concurrent with those of the Assembly. The Central Court has no judicial review of legislative acts.

Political Parties

Korean Workers Party (KIP);  Korean Social Democratic Party;  Chondoist Chongu Party. A few minor political parties are allowed to exist in name only, presumably to present a facade of representative government to the outside world.

The CIA World Factbook contains the latest information on North Korea's Government.


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