Government in Asia and the Pacific: A Comparative Study
paper: Republic of Korea
of the Country
of Local Government
Brief Description of the
Country and its National/State Government Structure
The Republic of Korea is located in the southern part of the
Korean Peninsula, which extends southward from the northeastern
edge of the Asian continent. Korea is bordered on the north by
China and Russia and across the East Sea lies Japan. The land
area of the country is about 99,392 square kilometres (38,340
square miles) and its population is around 44 million. Though
over 70 per cent of the Korean Peninsula is mountainous, there
are also more than 3,400 islands adjacent to the Korean Peninsula.
While Koreans belong to the Mongolian race, they have maintained
a distinctive language, culture and customs. Korean language is
thought to be a member of the Ural-Altaic family, which includes
such languages as Mongolian, Finnish and Hungarian. About 85.5
per cent of the Korean population resides in urban areas. Some
major cities accommodate a huge portion of the national population.
In particular, over 10 million people - about 23 per cent - now
live in Seoul. The population of the six largest cities, including
Seoul, represents 47.3 per cent of the national population.
Korea has been an independent country with a history of over
5,000 years. At the turn of the twentieth century however, Japan
annexed it for 36 years (1910-1945). Shortly after restoring its
Independence, a civil war known as the Korean War (1950-1953)
broke out between the Peoples Democratic Republic of Korea and
the Republic of Korea. Though the war devastated Korea, both the
leadership and the Korean people tried hard to develop its economy,
recording an average annual GNP growth rate of 8.4 per cent for
more than 30 years. As of 1998, Korea is an industrial country
with several industries that are very competitive in the world
market. Some of them include semiconductor, electronics, shipbuilding,
steel and automobiles. But the country is facing a serious economic
crisis caused by a Chaebul centred economic structure,
dominated by gigantic business groups, and shortage of foreign
exchange holdings. From the coup of major general Park Chung Hee
in 1961, Korea was ruled by a succession of military dictators
until 1987. Since then, Korea has experienced rapid democratization.
Today Korea has reached an advanced stage of democracy with freely
elected local councils and separation of powers between three
branches of national government: the legislative, the executive
and the judiciary branch. Korea has a unitary, democratic form
of government, republican in nature with a presidential system.
The President is directly elected by the people to a single five-year
term and has a wide range of power over the central government.
He also serves as the Commander in Chief of the Korean armed forces.
The executive branch consists of 2 boards, 14 ministries, 5 offices,
14 administrations and 2 outer bureaus. The legislative branch
has one chamber, is called the National Assembly and consists
of 299 members of whom 250 are directly elected and the rest are
distributed to the parties according to the popular votes earned
in an election. The Korean multiparty system has three major parties,
but is somewhat unstable because these do not represent different
political ideologies or interests in society. Rather, Korean political
parties have been under personal influence of Kim Young Sam, Kim
Dae Jung and Kim Jong Pil who have had strong bases of regional
supports. The judiciary branch has a typical three-level system
with a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals and Trial Courts. There
are some special courts including the Court of Constitutionality
as well as Juvenile and Family Courts.
Evolution of Local Government,
its Legal and Political Background
Korea has a long history of local autonomy characterized by informal,
voluntary institutions for the purpose of increasing mutual help
among people. Hang-Yak and Kye, for example,
were typical cases of voluntary agreements among community members
and played very important roles regarding the formation of community
ethics and a mutual help system. Both Hang-Yak and Kye
had prevailed in the Korean society ever since the Koryo (935-1392)
and Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910); the latter is still found in a
variety of forms. Despite the existence of such institutions however,
there is no doubt that Korea has been a highly centralized country
for centuries. During the late period of the Chosun Dynasty and
the Japanese Colonial period (1910-1945), the central government,
as the only governing body in the nation, exercised absolute power
over the country and its population. All the important local administrators
were directly or indirectly appointed by the central government
and local councils did not exist. Hang-Yak and Kye
remained, but largely in the form of community-based, mutual-help
organizations. It was not until the restoration of Independence
that a modern concept of local autonomy was introduced in Korea.
During the period of the American Military Government (August
1945-August 1948), local autonomy as an institutional underpinning
for democracy aroused great interest among the people and the
Syngman Rhee administration of the First Republic addressed a
constitutional mandate for the establishment of local autonomy.
Based upon this constitutional mandate, the Rhee administration
enacted the Local Autonomy Law in 1949. The Law provided that
local governments consist of local councils and executive bodies
and that only the members of the council be elected by direct
popular vote, while the chief executive was to be appointed by
the central government. However, between 1956 and 1960 the electoral
system was changed to allow for the election of the chief executive.
In 1960 it was changed again and the appointment system was reintroduced.
Although local autonomy in Korea often incurred serious conflicts
between the executive body and the council, it matured gradually.
In 1961 however, local autonomy was completely dismantled. The
Military Revolutionary Committee led by Park Chung Hee suspended
local autonomy by issuing the Temporary Measure on Local Autonomy.
This temporary measure provided that the Minister of Home Affairs
would play the role of the local councils for the upper-level
local governments, that the chief executives of the upper-level
local governments would play the role of the lower-level local
government councils and that the chief executives of both the
upper and the lower-level local governments would be appointed
by the central government, that is to say the President.
In 1963, the political situation returned to normalcy with the
formation of the Third Republic, but local autonomy was not restored.
Although the Attached Clause of the Constitution which was amended
in 1962 provided that the appropriate time for the restoration
of the local council was to be decided by law, the government
had no intention to initiate the necessary process for enactment.
This policy was followed by the Fourth Republic (1972-1979) as
well. Instead, the suspension became formalized by an attached
clause of the so-called Yushin (Revitalization) Constitution
amended in 1972, which said that the local autonomy should be
suspended until the country was reunified. The Chun Doo Hwan administration
of the Fifth Republic (1980-1988) took a little different attitude
toward the local autonomy. It declared that it would soon reinstate
the local councils. The new Constitution which was amended in
1980 also said that the local council should be restored step
by step, based on the degree of financial self-sufficiency of
local governments. It also said that the specific time table for
the restoration of local councils would be decided by the enactment
of law. However, once again, towards the end of the Republic the
law was yet to be made. The Rho Tae Woo government of the Sixth
Republic(1988-1992) also made a public commitment to grant local
autonomy. Throughout the period of the presidential campaign,
the restoration of the local autonomy was one of the biggest campaign
pledges of the then-ruling Democratic Justice Party (Rho's party).
In March 1991, the Rho administration finally held an election
for lower-level local council members. In June 1991, another election
for upper-level local council members was held. But the election
for the chief executive of both levels of local governments was
again postponed until 1995 under the rhetoric of ensuring a more
stable settlement of local autonomy. In June 1995, the Kim Young
Sam administration held elections for both local council members
and the chief executives, which elected a total of 245 members.
This was the genuine beginning of local autonomy in Korea.
Local Government Categories
Korea has adopted a two-tier local government system. There are
sixteen upper-level local governments (seven metropolitan and
nine provincial governments) under the central government. There
are also 232 lower-level local governments: 91 counties (rural
local bodies), 72 cities and 69 urban districts. The upper-level
local governments (Kwang-Yuk-Ja-Chi-Dan-Chye) are autonomous
local authorities with relatively broad territorial jurisdiction;
the lower-level local governments (Ki-Cho-Ja-Chi-Dan-Che)
are basic level local authorities.
Figure 1. Hierarchy of Local Government Structure
Local Government Functions
Article 9 of the Local Autonomy Law provides local government
with functions that are inherently local in nature and with functions
delegated by the central government. The Law also exemplifies
six categories of local government functions.
Table 1. Issue Categories and Functions of Local
||Description of functions (number of exemplified functions)
||Functions related to the territorial jurisdiction, the organizational
and managerial aspects of local governments (11)
||Functions to improve the general welfare of the local residents
||Functions to foster the growth of agriculture, commerce
and industry (14)
||Functions related to regional development and the construction
and management of environmental facilities (15)
||Functions to promote education, athletic activities, culture
and art (5)
||Functions related to civil defense and fire fighting (2)
These are just a few examples, many additional functions can
be added to belong to the jurisdiction of local governments. In
reality however, this is not the case. Article 9 of the Local
Autonomy Law has a conditional clause, which virtually nullifies
the above local government functions. The conditional clause reads
as follows:"Despite the functions specified in this law, the central
government may exercise its own power and control over any function,
if other laws define them as the functions of the central government."
In other words, the conditional clause provides a virtual carte-blanche
to the central government. Currently numerous laws define the
above exemplified functions as those of the central government,
which has seriously weakened the power and autonomy of local governments.
Executive and legislative
All the local governments in Korea have the governing structure
similar to the strong mayor-council system in the US. They have
the chief executives (governors, mayors, county executives and
district executives) and local councils. Chief executives of both
upper and lower-level local governments are elected by direct
popular vote for a four-year term. Lower-level council members
are also elected by direct popular vote for a four-year term,
but the upper-level council members are elected in a little different
way. While ten out of eleven are elected by the popular vote,
the remaining one is selected through a proportional representation
system that was adopted just before the 1995 election. The main
purpose of proportional representation is of course to prevent
the excessive one party domination in local councils. Political
parties can nominate candidates and conduct campaigns for the
chief executives and upper-level local council member, but they
are not allowed to get involved in the lower-level council elections.
Since the executive body and the council are expected check and
balance each other, each of them is endowed with proper legal
authorities. First of all, the local council has the authority
to represent citizens' interests and to oversee local administration.
It can initiate a bill with the signatures of either more than
ten council members, or one fifth of the total council members.
It also has the exclusive authority to pass local ordinances and
to decide on important policy issues within the domain of local
governments. The first clause of the Article 35 of the Local Autonomy
Law exemplifies some of these important issues as follows:
- Enactment, revision and abolishment
- Review and approval of budgets;
- Review and approval of closing accounts;
- Imposition of user fees, service charges
and local taxes that are not prescribed either by laws or by
executive and ministerial orders;
- Establishment and management of funds;
- Purchase and disposition of important
properties and assets;
- Construction and operation of public
- Resigning the non-budgetary rights or
obligations that are not prescribed either by laws or by executive
and ministerial orders;
- Receiving citizens' petition; and
- Other issues that are prescribed as
the responsibilities of local councils by laws and executive
and ministerial orders.
The chief executive has the authority to control all the administrative
affairs within the jurisdiction of local governments including
policy formulation and implementation, personnel and financial
management, organizational reengineering and so forth. The chief
executive not only deals with the locally autonomous functions
which are inherently local in nature, but also takes care of the
functions delegated by the central government. Local councils
cannot intervene in the delegated functions, which consist of
about 50 per cent of the local government functions. In addition,
the chief executive has veto power against the decision of the
Table 2. Powersharing between the Chief Executive
and Local Council
- Enact ordinances
- Investigate local administration
- Review and decide budget proposal
- Approve the account closings
- Summon the executives and officials to the
- Promulgate ordinances
- Veto power
- Formulate budget bills
- Propose ordinance bills
- Attend council meetings
- Request the convocation of special sessions
of council meetings
- Appoint the administrative staffs of local
Local Government Finances
The income of the local government can be broken down into two
- Self-generated revenue; and
- Grants from central and upper-level
local government local government.
Self-generated revenue and central government grants can be broken
down into the following three subcategories:
- Categorical grants;
- Revenue sharing; and
- Shared locally raised taxes.
Figure 2. Structure of Local Taxes (1996)
Unit: Korean 0.1 billion Won (880.00 Won = U$1.00,
as of 1996)
Source: Data compiled from various documents of the
Ministry of Home Affairs
Categorical grants given by the central government or the upper-level
local governments to the local government are to be spent on specific
programmes. In most cases, the local government is required to
contribute its own share in the form of matching-funds to get
these grants. Revenue sharing grants provided by the central government
are meant to strike a financial balance among local governments.
According to a fixed formula provided in the Revenue Sharing Law,
the local government with a weaker financial capability gets more,
while some with relatively strong financial capability get none.
Each year the central government transfers about 13.27 per cent
of the total domestic tax revenue for revenue sharing. Shared
taxes (major resources stem from taxes on liquor, telephone and
excessive-land ownership) are grants provided by the central government
for five broad-purpose programmes that may promote both national
and local interests:
- Local road construction;
- Rural development;
- Environmental protection;
- Juvenile delinquency; and
- Regional development.
Structure of local revenue
The overall revenue structure by the categories of governments
is summarized as follows.
Table 3. General Account Structure of Local Finance
(in Korean Won)
Unit: Korean 0.1 billion Won (880.00 Won = U$1.00,
as of 1996)
Source: Data compiled from various documents of the
Ministry of Home Affairs
Central government exercises very strong power and influence
over local government. Some important powers of the central government
are summarized as follows:
The Local Autonomy Law provides that the central government is
authorized to intervene in the daily operation of local governments.
Article 155 states that central government ministers can advise
and guide local government on any administrative matter, regarding
both autonomous and delegated functions. If necessary, they can
request the executive body of the local government to submit relevant
materials and documents to them. Article 158 also says that the
Minster of Home Affairs can conduct an audit even on inherently
local functions, if it finds the local government violates laws
and orders. Article 156 states that upper-level local governments
fall under the supervision of the central government, while lower-level
local governments fall under the supervision of upper-level local
Revocation and suspension
If the ministers of the central government find that the decisions
of the chief executive on delegated functions violate laws and
orders of the central government or severely hurt the public interest,
they can order the chief executive to correct them in a given
period of time. If the chief executive does not follow the order,
the minister can revoke or suspend the decision. As mentioned
earlier about 50 per cent of the functions that local governments
perform are delegated functions. The minister can revoke or suspend
local government's decisions on autonomous functions as well.
But in this case, the revocation or suspension of local government's
decisions can be made only when they violate laws and orders.
If the chief executive disagrees with the revocation or suspension
of central government, he/she can file a suit in the Supreme Court
within 15 days from the revocation or suspension.
Writ of mandamus
If the ministers of the central government find that the upper-level
local government neglects its duties on the delegated functions,
they can write a writ of mandamus to urge the local government
to accomplish the duties in a given period of time. The chief
executive of the upper-level local government can also write the
writ of mandamus to the lower-level local government. When the
local government does not follow the writ of mandamus,
the minister of the central government and the chief executive
of the upper-level local government can conduct an execution by
proxy at the expenses of the local government. If the chief executive
of the local government finds the writ of mandamus inappropriate,
he/she can file a suit in the Supreme Court within 15 days.
Veto power on the decision
of the local council
The Minister of Home Affairs can order a chief executive of the
upper-level government to veto the decision of the local council
if he/she finds the decision violates laws and orders of the central
government, or they hurt the public interest severely. The chief
executive who receives the order from the minister is obliged
to veto the decision. The chief executive of the upper-level local
government can make the same order to the executive of lower-level
local government. The local council can override the veto by the
vote of a two -third majority with over half of the members present.
But in this case, the Minister of Home Affairs can order the chief
executive of the local government to file a suit in the Supreme
Court within 20 days of the decision. If a chief executive does
not follow the order of the minister, the minister himself/herself
can file the suit.
The Minister of Home Affairs can mediate conflicts among local
governments. Article 140 of the Local Autonomy Law states that
the Minister of Home Affairs can mediate the conflicts in which
an upper-level local government is involved. When the minister
undertakes a mediation, he/she has to be advised by a Mediatory
Committee on Conflict Among Local Governments and the heads of
the appropriate central government agencies. The article endows
the same authority to the executive of the upper-level local government
for the conflicts among lower-level local governments.
In addition to the administrative authorities described above,
the central government also has strong fiscal control mechanisms.
First of all, it exerts strong influence through the distribution
of categorical grants and shared taxes. Second, the central government
(the Ministry of Home Affairs) can also utilize revenue sharing
as a leverage on the local government. Formally there is not much
discretion in the distribution of revenue sharing because it is
distributed by a fixed formula. But it should be noted that one-eleventh
of the revenue sharing is saved for special administrative needs
that cannot be forecasted at the time of budget formulation. The
Ministry of Home Affairs exercises strong discretionary powers
in distributing such special funds because there are no specific
and detailed guidelines for their distribution.
Extent of Public Participation
Citizens can participate in local administration through various
institutional mechanisms such as a citizen petition, resident
voting, resident request for audit and investigation, participation
in committees, etc. Besides which citizens can write a petition
to the local council.
Any individual council member can introduce a citizen petition.
Since there is no citizen proposition system in Korea, the petition
has been utilized as a very effective instrument for such public
interest groups as YMCA and CCEJ(Citizens Coalition for Economic
Justice) to initiate a local policy agenda.
The Local Autonomy Law states that the chief executive of the
local government can refer some serious matters to resident voting.
But the resident voting has never been undertaken in practice,
because the law which would regulate the process has yet to be
Resident request for audit
Some local governments, such as the Seoul Metropolitan Government
have enacted ordinances that recognize citizens' right to request
for a special audit and investigation of local administration.
In most cases the requests are made by public interest groups,
rather than by individual citizens.
Participation in committees
Local governments are running a variety of committees in which
public or special interest groups can participate. Some important
committees such as the Committees on Urban Planning are formed
by legal mandate of the central government. But local ordinances
or executive rules (orders) of local governments make most of
Local governments sometimes state a public hearing to hear citizens'
views on important policy issues. Some local governments are now
planning to enact an administrative Process Ordinance requiring
them to make the administrative process more open to the public.
Local government information
After 1993, a number of local governments enacted the Local Government
Information Ordinance which states that local government should
provide citizens with administrative information within proper
There are 460,297 ward committees (bansanghoe) in which people
in a small ward (ban) get together once a month and discuss ward
matters. Through the bansanghoe, the central and local governments
provide the citizens with some administrative information.
The Way Ahead
The Korean central government has revealed a very conservative
tendency as far as local autonomy is concerned. It has been reluctant
to decentralize administrative functions and to strengthen local
governments. As a result, the functions of local governments are
still limited to a great extent. While local governments do not
have enough authority to enact a penal regulation, the central
government is regulating even what type of car (in terms of size)
chief executives of local governments are entitled to ride and
how much local councils pay for lunch for council members. Such
an uneven distribution not only impedes the development of local
autonomy, but also hurts the overall competitiveness of the country.
However, the present government of President Kim Dae-Joong is
known for its decentralization tendencies. After wining the election
he once again clarified his strong commitment to local autonomy
and promised to downsize the Ministry of Home Affairs which has
been a focus of criticism for excessive control over local government.
He has also promised to accelerate the decentralization of administrative
functions. These pledges encourage many Koreans to believe that
a series of positive changes are forthcoming.