South Korea has a presidential system governed by a directly-elected president and a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, in which various political parties are represented. Cabinet members are accountable only to the president. Parliamentary elections take place every 4 years, in which 227 candidates are elected, while an additional 46 parliamentary seats are distributed among political parties in proportion to their share of the popular vote.
Until 1995, the political system was a unitary one (the central government appointed all governors of provinces and mayors, who acted as its representatives). In 1995, the first elections for these provincial and local offices took place. A year later, there were local elections for councils at all levels: provincial, county, and ward. Still, the central government maintains enormous power at all levels by controlling appointments and by using its economic power, as in the allocation of construction projects.
Democratic regimes are very recent phenomena in South Korea's history, which has been ruled mainly by civilian and military authoritarian regimes. From 1948 to 1988, the country was governed by 1 civilian president (Syngman Rhee, 1948-60) and by 2 consecutive military rulers (Park Chung-hee from 1961-79 and Chun Doohwan from 1980-88). The first semi-democratic transfer of power happened in 1989 when Roh Tae-woo, a military nominee of President Chun Doo-hwan, was elected president in a relatively fair election. In 1993, he agreed to a peaceful transfer of power to a civilian, Kim Young-sam, who had been elected president in another relatively free election. The election of an opposition leader as pres- ident, Kim Dae-jung in December 1997, was of great significance for the South Korean political system in that it marked the first transfer of power by an elected president to an opposition leader. Coming to power in the midst of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, President Kim Dae-jung has since presided over the restructuring of the economy.
The South Korean government has had a major role in the economy since the foundation of the nation in 1948. Through its direct involvement in the economy, it has sought the economic growth and industrialization by which it has turned South Korea from an agrarian society into a highly industrialized one. Various government measures and financial assistance have helped establish enterprises and protect them from foreign competition while helping them expand at home and abroad. The government has also been actively involved in industrial and financial activities through its industries and banks. Due to the IMF and other factors, its role in the economy has been limited since the mid-1990s, but it still plays a significant part in economic affairs as the mastermind of South Korea's economic reform, the director of its large infrastructure projects, and as the entity in charge of paying the country's foreign debt.
Despite the existence of political parties in South Korea, they had no major influence until recently. In practice, the military was the power base of the political system, and directly or indirectly ran the country—a situation that lasted until 1993. In that year, the election of a civilian, Kim Young-sam, as president laid the groundwork for meaningful participation by political parties, which led to the 1997 election of Kim Dae-jung, an opposition leader. Under his leadership, the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) runs the country in coalition with the United Liberal Democrats (ULD). The opposition includes the Grand National Party (GNP) and the Democratic People's Party (DPP). However, the South Korean political parties have yet to establish themselves as the vehicles of representation of different political and economic interests. Generally speaking, they all lack internal cohesion, reflected in the constant defection of party members and their leaders from one party to another and the frequent formation, renaming, and merger of political parties.
All parties advocate a free-enterprise economy within which the state and the private sector both play a role. However, they also advocate a strong role for the government in economic growth through its policies and regulations. Under IMF pressure, the ruling coalition has significantly reduced the public sector by privatizing many state-owned financial and industrial enterprises and also by removing many economic regulations. Nevertheless, the government still has a major impact on the economy because its economic reforms and the payment of its foreign debt have incurred many new governmental regulations. Until the South Korean government privatizes all its enterprises, it will also remain a large economic player.
The South Korean constitution provides for an independent judiciary, though it is still trying to move toward that goal and away from manipulation by influential individuals. Absence of trial by jury gives judges the power of rendering verdicts in all cases, which makes the system more prone to abuse. Hence, in addition to political and economic liberalization, judicial reform is also necessary for creating a safe business environment. The judiciary provides for the defense of property and contractual rights through laws on economic activities. Commercial disputes can be adjudicated (settled) in a civil court, or may be presented to the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board. South Korea's membership in various international conventions obliges it to observe international commercial laws.