UPDATE: South Korean Law Research on the Internet
By Hyeon-Cheol Kim and Inyoung Cho
Update by Inyoung Cho
Inyoung Cho has been working as a judge in South Korea for more than 10 years. She holds an LLM degree from Harvard Law School (2009), Master’s degree in International Law from Seoul National University (2006) and a Bachelor’s degree from Seoul National University (2000). She studied at Stanford Law School as a visiting scholar in 2013.
Published April 2017
(Previously updated by Hyeon-Cheol Kim in Jan./Feb. 2010)
Table of Contents
This guide aims to provide a very brief introduction of the Korean legal system and some of the most useful resources of web-based databases for research on Korean law. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is one of the countries with the highest penetration of high-speed internet access, and those who search for legal information can easily attain enormous resources for Korean law through the internet. However, many of the web-based resources are provided in Korean. Thus, this article tries to enlist as many websites in English or with English translation as possible for foreign researchers. For those who have a good command of Korean, some useful websites in Korean will also be listed.
Judicial tradition of Korea dates back to B.C. 2333, when ‘Kojoseon’, the first state established in Korea promulgated the Eight Article Law. It was not until 1894 in ‘Joseon’ Dynasty when the first modern written Constitution was introduced to Korea. In the following year, the Court Organization Act was declared, and the independent judiciary separated from the executive branch has been established. However, any free-willed judicial reform in Korea was disrupted during the Japanese colonial period. After the independence from Japan, the Constitution of the Republic of Korea was declared in 1948, and the first modern independent judiciary was established on September 13th of the same year. Thereafter the Constitution was amended several times in response to political and social changes, and the current Constitution is the outcome of the latest amendment in 1987. The Constitution stipulates the separation of powers among the three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. The president and the government are in charge of the administration, the National Assembly is responsible for the legislation, and the Court enforces and interprets laws by making decisions over legal disputes. In terms of the general legal system, Korea adopted the modern European civil law system at the beginning of its judicial modernization. However, with increasing interchange and influence with Anglo-American legal systems, Korea has adopted much of the Anglo-American legal system, such as jury trial, law school system, sentencing guidelines or Amicus Curiae briefs. Thus, Korean legal system now features the harmonization of both the European civil law system and the Anglo-American law system.
There are 6 types of courts in Korea; the Supreme Court, the High Courts, the District Courts, the Patent Court, the Family Court, and the Administrative Court. From March 1st 2017, there will be another type of court added to the list; the ‘Bankruptcy Court’. The Bankruptcy Court will have the jurisdiction over the bankruptcy cases which previously have been reviewed in District Court.  The District Courts, the High Courts and the Supreme Court are the courts for the basic three-tier system. The Patent Court is on the same level with the High Courts, and the Family Court and the Administrative court (from March 2017, Bankruptcy Court also) are on the same level with the District Courts. For more detailed information on the appellate system and the organization of the Court, refer to below chart and the Supreme Court’s website.
Apart from the general courts, Korea has a European-type Constitutional Court which adjudicates on the constitutionality of laws, impeachment, and dissolution of a political party, competence dispute, and constitutional complaint. The history, organization, and procedure of the Constitutional Court are introduced on its website.
Written laws are the primary source of law in Korea. Written laws may be divided into four main categories; 1) statutes passed by the legislature, 2) decrees issued by the President, cabinet, various ministries, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, 3) rules and regulations by government agencies and local government, and 4) international agreements. According to the Constitution, treaties duly concluded and promulgated under the Constitution and the generally recognized rules of international law have the same effect as the domestic laws of the Republic of Korea (Article 6.1.).
The National Assembly of the Republic of Korea is entitled to propose and decide upon the Amendments to the Constitution, to enact and amend statutes, and to consent to the conclusion and ratification of the treaties. Its website contains a full-text database of statutes, rules, decrees, and proposed bills. Full-texts of the English translation of the Constitution, some foreigner-related laws, and recently enacted laws can also be searched on its website.
The Korea legislation Research Institute runs a ‘Legislative Translation Center’. Its website provides vast translation of the statutes, and is easier to use for foreign users.
The Ministry of Government Legislation (MOLEG) is responsible for the legislative affairs of the executive branch of the government. All the current and chronological statutes and regulations as well as the authoritative interpretation of them are available via the MOLEG’s website. It also runs ‘The National Law Information Center’ website, where the most comprehensive collection of Korean legislation in English and some in Chinese can be obtained.
Rules & Regulations
The Korean government has 22 ministries (17 Bu and 5 Che). Each ministry has the power to make ordinances, rules, and regulations within the statutes. You can see the organization chart of ministries on the president’s website (Executive Branch) (Cheong Wa Dae, which means the blue house). If you visit the website of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, for example, you will find information on some legal matters of finance, tax, foreign investment, or labor in English.
Article 6 of the Korean Constitution prescribes that ‘treaties duly concluded and promulgated under the Constitution and the generally recognized rules of international law have the same effect as the domestic laws of the Republic of Korea’. The list of bilateral and multilateral treaties that Korea has signed and ratified can be obtained from the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
According to Article 8 of the Judicial Organization Act, a higher court’s decision in the judicial hierarchy prevails over that of the lower court’s decision only on the specific case concerned. The higher court can uphold, reverse, or remand the judgment of the lower court based on both its own fact-finding or legal interpretation, while the Supreme Court can do that only by legal interpretation.
There is no principle of stare decisis in Korean legal system, so precedents do not have any legally binding effects per se. However, as the lower courts tend to follow the legal interpretations ascertained by the Supreme Court of Korea, the Supreme Court decisions are regarded as the secondary source of law. Finding proper Supreme Court decisions is one of the important parts of lawyers’ work.
Publication of the Supreme Court decisions is managed by the Supreme Court Library of Korea. It issues the Publication of Cases (판례공보, ‘Pallye Kongbo’) every two weeks and Index of Cases every year. Supreme Court Library’s website provides the most useful and vast source for featured Supreme Court Decisions translated in English. It also provides other publications in English such as the Decisions of the Trial and Appellate Courts and Supreme Court Law Journal.
The Supreme Court of Korea runs ‘The integrated legal information’, which offers one of the most comprehensive sources for legal research including supreme court’s and lower courts’ decisions, statutes and rules, journals, articles and other useful legal services for free. For researchers who can read Korean, the integrated legal information might be the most useful source for initial research on any legal subject.
The Supreme Court Library also releases a digital database called ‘Bubgoul LX (법고을 LX)’ every year. It comprises important decisions of the district, appellate and Supreme Court cases, statutes, regulations, decrees, and journals. You can download it from Supreme Court Library’s website (in Korean).
Also, English version of the major decisions and landmark cases of the Constitutional Court of Korea can be found on its website.
LAWnB is another well-known private website which provides legal information and legal news in Korea. Currently it is run on a membership base and only in Korean.
Analysis of the laws, court decisions, and legal principles can be obtained through law journals and articles. Followings are some of the most famous (or useful for foreign researchers) law journals in Korea.
· Supreme Court Law Library Journal: published twice a year in English, it provides the most recent Supreme Court Decisions and/or articles and dissertations by judges. Online version is available here.
· The Justice Civil Rights Publication; published monthly by the Korean Legal Center. Its articles can be obtained online on a membership basis in Korean.
· Bupjo (Korean Lawyers Association Journal); published monthly by Lawyers Association. Its articles can be obtained online for free.
· Buphak (Seoul Law Journal) is published quarterly by the Law Research Institute, Seoul National University. The articles are also provided online, including some articles in English, French or German.
· Journal of Korean Law is published twice a year by the Law Research Institute of Seoul National University. It provides articles on current legal issues and commentary of the recent notable Supreme Court decisions in English. Annual subscriptions are available to foreign subscribers for US $50. Online articles since 2008 are also available on its website. The article on the ‘Introduction to Korean Legal Materials’ in Vol 2, No. 1, 2002, will be a very useful guide for the foreign researchers who want to find out about Korean legal materials.
If you want to research more scholarly or academic materials in depth, the sites mentioned below would be helpful.
The National Library of Korea and the National Assembly Library have vast databases on all academic fields, let alone laws. These are public institutions managed and sponsored by the government, providing online data as well as copy services via mail by fax orders.
KISS (Koreanstudies Information Service System) is a private company which offers indexed databases of over 3,200 journals and over one million full-text scholarly journal articles, dissertations and research papers from academic research institutions. In this site, you can search for necessary materials and read them online.
DBPIA also offers full-text databases from over 2,000 Korean journals and over 30,000 web database in various fields. Free search is available for a limited time.
RISS provides 150,000 full-text scholarly articles for free and 300,000 purchasable articles through databases.
The ‘Lawtimes’ is the most widely known legal newspaper. Yet currently, it is published only in Korea, both offline and online.
Previously, one had to pass the bar exam and finish the 2 year of mandatory training course in the Judicial Research and Training Institute(JRTI) to become a lawyer. Based on the result of the bar exam and the grades in JRTI, one could choose to become a judge, prosecutor, or a lawyer. In 2007, a new law had been enacted to change the judicial education system and to adopt a US-style Law School. Now there are a total number of 25 Law Schools in Korea, and Law School graduates have to pass a new bar exam to be admitted to the bar. The traditional bar exam will be abolished in 2017. During the transition period, there will be two tracks to get a lawyer’s license; passing the traditional bar and graduating from JRTI, and graduating from Law Schools and passing the new bar.
Some of the most renowned Law Schools in Korea are as follows:
- Seoul National University, School of Law
- Korea University, School of Law
- Yonsei University, Law School
- Ewha Law School
There are many other useful websites which provide information on the overview of Korean legal system, legal resources or links to other sites. For more information, refer to the sites below.
- Library of Congress, Guide to Law online : South Korea
- University of Chicago, Republic of Korea: Korea legal research Resources
- Korean Legal Research at the University of Washington
The articles or books below also provide helpful introduction to Korean legal research:
- Yong–Hee KIM, ‘Introduction to Korean Legal Materials’, Journal of Korean Law vol 2. no.1, Seoul National University, Law Research Institute, 2002
- Sang-Hyun SONG (ed.), Korean Law in the Global Economy, Seoul, Pakyoungsa ,1996
- Chin KIM, Korean Law Study Guide, 2nd ed., San Diego, CA, Cross-Cultural Associates, 1995
Now there are much information on Korean law available through websites and databases in English free of charge. Yet, as more of the law-related websites are still in Korean, having a command of basic Korean legal terminology and Korean will be advantageous to the ones who have deep interest in Korean law, and will give access to free and uncountable amounts of information on the Korean legal system through the internet.
 The Bankruptcy Court opened in Seoul on March 2, 2017. It is expected to gradually expand to other regions as well.
 On December 9th 2016, former president Park Geun Hye has been impeached, and the Constitutional Court of Korea has upheld the impeachment on March 10th, 2017. New presidential election will take place on May 9th, 2017.