Introduction to the History of the Korean Legal System

The legal system of the Republic of Korea developed over 1000s of years. In the early years of Korean history, the legal system of Korea was based, nearly entirely, on the principles of Confucianism, which emphasized the importance of moral principles, hierarchy, the power of the king, and social order. Confucianism still plays a role in Korean society and the legal system to this day.

Three Kingdoms Period (57 BC to c. 668 AD)

During the Three Kingdoms Period of Korean history (c. 57 BC to c. 668 AD), the Korean legal system was largely informal and based on customary law and practices. No systemic systems were set in place through code or other official proclamations. The king, nobles, and local officials had the authority to resolve disputes and administer justice. In the Three Kingdoms period, no major codified law existed and disputes were handled, as in most countries at this time, in an arbitrary and sometimes brutal fashion.

Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392)

The first major comprehensive development of the Korean legal system occurred during the Goryeo Dynasty in or around 958 via the Goryeo Law Code (“Goryeosa”). Upon the implementation of the Goryeosa, the Korean legal system became more formalized, centralized, and systemized. The office of the king issued decrees, rules, and codes to regulate the conduct of government officials and the general public. The Goryeosa was one of the first comprehensive legal codes in East Asia.

Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910)

Under the Joseon Dynasty, the Korean legal system drastically evolved, with the introduction of new legal institutions such as the Office of the Inspector General (Munhwapan) and the Royal Secretariat (Seungjeongwon). The legal system of Korea was codified with the publication of the “Great Code for State Administration” in 1395, which remained in effect, in large part, until the end of the Joseon Dynasty. For more information on law during the Joseon Dynasty and the influence of King Sejong the Great please see: Korea’s First Comprehensive Legal Code.

Japanese Occupation Period (1910-1945)

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Japanese law was imposed on Korea. The Japanese legal system was adopted, in part, from the German legal system. The Japanese government’s major contribution to the legal system of Korea was the implementation of a comprehensive Civil Code (Japanese: Minpō) and Criminal Code (Japanese: Keihō) and the development of a more modern legal education system. However, much of Korea’s law was created as a means to orderly control the Korean population without much thought of the rights of the Korean population. The Japanese imposed criminal and civil codes are still, in part, effective to this day in Korea.

U.S. Interim Government (1945 – 1948)

After the end of World War II, the legal system in South Korea was revised to reflect the principles of democracy and human rights embedded in the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. interim government proposed a Bill of Rights and a Criminal Procedure Law, but these laws were not implemented by the Republic of Korea at the handover of the Korean government in 1948.

Republic of Korea (1948-Present)

The Korean government in 1948 adopted a constitution that established a system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government that is based, in part, on the United States Constitution.

The judicial system of Korea was organized into a three-tiered system of district courts, high courts, and the Supreme Court. Today, the legal system in South Korea is based on civil law, with a system of written codes and statutes that govern legal relationships and disputes. However, the Korean legal system has, many, elements of a common law system, and many modern laws are influenced by the laws of allies including the United States.

Korea, since 1987 has made numerous efforts to modernize the courts and improve access to justice, such as the establishment of a new court system for small claims, a family court, and the introduction of an electronic filing system. One significant change was the adoption of a new constitution in 1987, which established an independent judiciary, the direct election of the president, a constitutional court, and guaranteed basic human rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and association.

In recent years, South Korea has made efforts to strengthen the independence and efficiency of the judiciary. The Korean government has taken steps to improve access to legal services for low-income individuals and vulnerable groups, such as victims of domestic violence and migrant workers. The country has implemented various alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, including mediation and arbitration, to help resolve disputes outside of court.

We shall be writing more about developments in the legal system of Korea over the next couple of months, please check back often.

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