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political structure and philosophy of South Korea is a unique interplay of four major forces: first, and most obvious, the individual native customs and beliefs of the Korean people; second, Confusion notions and ideals; third, Western European and U.S. political models; and fourth, Marxist philosophy. The internal notions of governance have been greatly influenced by these three outside ideologies and come together to form the current South Korean form of government. To understand the modern South Korean government is to recognize it as a conglomeration of philosophies that appear on the surface to be contradictory, but arose out of several periods of economic and political strife.
The fifteenth century saw the rise of Neo-Confucianism in South Korea; this came out of a response to the established system of noble overlords. The new political movement sought to establish a government that addressed the issues of the citizenry rather than simply act to perpetuate its own power. "As the proponents of Neo-Confucianism secured positions in central government organs, especially the Board of Censors, they were increasingly able to propose policies aimed at the moral reform of the government and its officials in the light of Neo-Confucian doctrine." (Wright 62). Eventually, the political structure became factionalized, separating the Neo-Confucians from the nobles.
Contact with the West in the 17th and 18th centuries lead to drastic social and economic changes. Koreans became exposed to notions of religion and governance that were directly opposite to their own. "However, as Korea -- like China and Japan -- was driven to modernize and industrialize, both for self-protection and to meet the rising expectations of the people, it had to accept the Western values that accompanied the process." (Macdonald 119). Since 1876, with exposure to Marxist philosophies, North Koreans embraced communist attitudes and beliefs that other nations were reluctant to adopt. The impact was felt less strongly in South Korea where an integrated political structure is still emerging. Western institutional forms have taken root in South Korea but the traditional and Confucian patterns of behavior still pervade the government.
"Family, associational group, and factional loyalties still outweigh civic consciousness. Informal group networks, such as school and college alumni associations (notably the successive graduating classes of the Korea Military Academy) or shared provincial origins, are powerful channels of communication and influence. The sense of abstract justice and universal human rights is weak in comparison to group loyalties and duties." (Macdonald 119).
As of 1987 the government of South Korea has instilled a system more like that of its Western counterparts than ever before. The original constitution was adopted in 1948 under UN supervision, but has been amended nine times; many of these amendments have almost completely overhauled the existing structures of government. The amendment of 1987, however, gave the South Korean government a very close resemblance to Western democracies while maintaining the general organizational structure: "The principle changes of the 1987 amendment are to restore popular election of the president, to strengthen the role of the legislature, and to strengthen guarantees of individual rights." (Macdonald 152).
Like Western democracies, the South Korean government consists of three general branches: the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. According to the Constitution the unicameral National Assembly consists of at least 200 members. Most of these are directly elected by district voters, but not all of them. For example,
"In 1990 the National Assembly had 299 seats, 224 of which were directly elected from single-member districts in the general elections of April 1988. Under applicable laws, the remaining seventy-five representatives were appointed by the political parties in accordance with a proportional formula based on the number of seats won in the election." (Mortimer 205).
The Constitution of 1987 established what has come to be known as the Sixth Republic of South Korea and has granted this National Assembly an increase in power. The annual session of the National Assembly was extended to 100 days, and the power to investigate state affairs was also strengthened. Additionally, the state assembly now boasts the authority to remove the prime minister or any cabinet minister at any time (Mortimer 206). Furthermore, the National Assembly now performs the tie-breaking function in presidential elections, and approves all judicial appointments made by the president. These recent measures have greatly increased the power of the legislature while decreasing to individual powers of the president; generally producing a government that can more honestly be called a democracy than at any other point in the nation's…[continue]
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