UPDATE: South Korean Law Research on the Internet

By Min Kyung Kim

Min Kyung Kim has been a judge in South Korea since 2010. She holds an LLM degree from University of Cambridge (Queens’ College, 2018), a master’s degree in international trade law at Seoul National University (2014), and a bachelor’s degree from Seoul National University (2006). She is currently a visiting scholar at University of Hong Kong.

Published July/August 2021

(Previously updated by Hyeon-Cheol Kim in January/February 2010 and by Inyoung Cho in April 2017)

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1. Introduction

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 on Korean law through the internet. However, many of the web-based resources are provided in Korean. Thus, this article tries to list as many websites as possible in English or with English translation that would be helpful for foreign researchers. For those who have a good command of Korean, some useful websites in Korean will also be listed.

2. Background

The judicial tradition of Korea dates back to 2333 B.C., when Kojoseon, the first state established in Korea, promulgated the Eight Article Law. It was not until 1894 during the 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) was established. However, any free-willed judicial reform in Korea was disrupted during the Japanese colonial period. After gaining independence from Japan, the Constitution of the Republic of Korea was declared in 1948, and the first modern independent judiciary was established on September 13 of the same year. Constitution was amended several times thereafter 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 as Montesquieu contended (Article 101): the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Korea has adopted the modern European civil law system at the beginning of its judicial modernization. However, with increasing influence from the Anglo-American legal system, Korea has adopted much of the Anglo-American legal system, such as jury trial (in a limited fashion), the law school system, sentencing guidelines, and amicus curiae briefs. Thus, the Korean legal system now features a hybrid and harmonization of the European civil legal system and the Anglo-American legal system.

3. Judicial System

The Constitutional Law of Korea provides that the judiciary consists of the Supreme Court of Korea, the highest court of the nation and other courts. The judiciary in Korea is a three-tiered system: The first instance court is the district court with a single or a three-judge panel, the latter tries more serious, important, and high value claim cases. The court of appeal (also known as High Court) and the Supreme Court are appellate courts. Normally an applicant is given two opportunities to appeal as shown in the chart below. Korea has an almost automatic right of appeal up to the Supreme Court, which is a major difference from the judicial systems in the US or UK. There is no real “leave to appeal,” and therefore many cases regularly reach the Supreme Court. At the first appeal level, the court will review cases de novo, although the grounds for appeal to the Supreme Court is limited to the question of law. There are other specialty courts such as the Family, Administrative, Patent, and Bankruptcy Courts. In addition, the National Assembly is in the process of adopting maritime and commercial courts as new specialty courts. The Patent Court and the High Courts are on the same level. The Family, Administrative, and Bankruptcy Courts are on the same level as the District Courts. For more detailed information on the appellate system and the organization of the Court, please refer to the below chart and the Supreme Court’s website.

Diagram of the appellate process

Outside of the normal judiciary chain, the Constitutional Court, as a separate constitutional organization, enjoys the same status as the Supreme Court vis a vis constitutional matters. It deals with the constitutionality of acts of the National Assembly; impeachment; dissolution of political party; disputes among state agencies and local governments; and constitutional complaints. The history, organization, and procedure of court are introduced on the Constitutional Court's website.

4. Sources of Law

4.1. Primary Sources of Law

Written laws are the primary source of law in Korea. Written laws may be categorized as: 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. The Constitution provides that treaties duly concluded and promulgated under the Constitution and generally recognized rules of international law have the same effect as the domestic laws of the Republic of Korea (Article 6.1.).

Legislation (“Statutes”): The National Assembly of the Republic of Korea is entitled to propose and decide upon 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 foreign-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 translation of statutes, and is helpful for non-Korean speakers

The Ministry of Government Legislation (MOLEG) is responsible for the legislative affairs of the executive branch of the government. All effective and repealed 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 (18 Bu and 4 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 Economy and Finance, for example, you will find information pertaining to the finance, tax, and foreign investment sectors.

Treaties: Treaties duly concluded and promulgated under the Constitution and 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.

4.2. Secondary Sources of Law

4.2.1. Cases

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 as well as legal interpretation, while the Supreme Court’s review is limited to legal interpretation.

The Korean legal system does not recognize the principle of stare decisis, meaning that precedents are not legally binding per se. However, as the lower courts tend to follow the legal interpretation ascertained by the Supreme Court of Korea, the Supreme Court’s decisions are regarded as the secondary source of law.

Supreme Court decisions are published 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. The Supreme Court Library’s website provides the most useful source for Supreme Court decisions translated into 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 an integrated legal information website, which offers one of the most comprehensive sources for legal research including the 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 of 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 the Constitutional Court's website – Decisions.

LAWnB is another well-known private website which provides court decisions, Korean Intellectual Property Office’s decisions, statutes, commentary for statutes and articles. Currently it is run on a membership base and only in Korean. Their online legal dictionary provides English translation for Korean legal terms.

4.2.2. Journals

Most prominent law journals in Korea are as below:

4.2.3. Scholarly Articles and Dissertations

DB for articles, commentary, and dissertation:

5. Legal News & Current Awareness

The Law Times is the most widely known legal newspaper. Currently, it is published only in Korean, both offline and online.

6. Legal Education & Requirements to be Admitted to the Bar

Previously, successful applicants of the bar exam could become judges, prosecutors, and lawyers upon completing a two-year mandatory course in the Judicial Research and Training Institute (JRTI), which basically functioned as the law school in Korea. However, Korea adopted a US-style law school system in 2009. Now, there are 25 law schools in Korea of which graduates are admitted to the bar upon passing the bar exam. The traditional bar exam was abolished in 2017. Korea used to have a career judge system akin to the system in France. However, because of a law reform, starting from 2006 judges are appointed from lawyers with seven years or more experience in the legal profession. From 2026, the requirement will be ten years of experience.

Top five law schools (as of 2020) in Korea are as follows:

7. Other Useful Websites for Legal Information

There are many other useful websites which provide information on the overview of the Korean legal system, legal resources, or links to other sites. For more information, refer to the sites below.

The articles or books below also provide helpful introduction to Korean legal research:

8. Conclusion

While more Korean legal resources are providing access to Korean law material in English, most of the legal writing is still in the Korean language. Basic knowledge of legal Korean will be helpful for in-depth research of Korean law.