Material Breach of Korean Contracts Under Korean Law: Primary Obligations vs. Secondary Obligations in Korea Courts

In most Western nations a “material” breach of a contract leads to the non-breaching party not having to perform its obligations under the contract, while allowing the non-breaching party to immediately sue for all damages (or performance).The Restatement (Second) of Contracts 241 notes that the following criteria can be used to determine whether a specific action/inaction constitutes a material breach:

“In determining whether a failure to render or to offer performance is material, the following circumstances are significant: (a) the extent to which the injured party will be deprived of the benefit which he reasonably expected; (b) the extent to which the injured party can be adequately compensated for the part of that benefit of which he will be deprived; (c) the extent to which the party failing to perform or to offer to perform will suffer forfeiture; (d) the likelihood that the party failing to perform or to offer to perform will cure his failure, taking account of all the circumstances including any reasonable assurances; (e) the extent to which the behavior of the party failing to perform or to offer to perform comports with standards of good faith and fair dealing.”

Korea does not have the concept of a “material” breach, however, the outcome of a case in Korea, normally, is identical to that in the United States – in the majority of cases.

Korea differentiates breaches to “primary” obligation breaches from breaches to “ancillary” obligations. If a breach is of a primary obligation under the Korean contract the non-breaching party does not have to perform under the contract and may immediately sue for damages. A primary obligation has been defined by the Korean Supreme Court as being an obligation that if the non-breaching party knew would be breached -the non-breaching party would not have entered into the agreement.

This standard has led the Korean Courts to place a great emphasis on the result of the breach. If the breach results in great damage to the non-breaching party – the Korean court will, normally, rule that the breach is of a “primary” obligation and, thus, the non-breaching party does not need to perform the obligations under the contract.

Yes, this is a reaction to a case we are working on. I may be able to note the details once the case is resolved.

Sean Hayes is the first non-Korean attorney to have worked for the Korean court system (Constitutional Court of Korea) and one of the first non-Koreans to be a regular member of a Korean law faculty. Sean is ranked, for Korea, as one of only two non-Korean lawyers as a Top Attorney by AsiaLaw, and IPG Legal is consistently ranked Top Dispute Resolution Law for our litigation services.

If you would like a consultation with an English-speaking lawyer in Korea, please schedule a call at: Schedule a Call with an Attorney.

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