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Introduction

The politics of legal reform in Korea

Tom Ginsburg


Introduction

Since the launch of democratic reforms in 1987, Korea has experienced major changes in its political system, economic structure, and society. The authoritarian regime has faded away and been replaced by vigorous, if contentious, democratic politics. The economy has been through booms and busts that have reduced, if not eliminated, the central role of the dominant chaebol conglomerates. The pace of social change also continues to be dramatic, with new interest groups and social problems emerging.

Reforms of the legal system have both reflected and contributed to the changes in Korea. Compared with 1987, Koreans are more likely to rely on legal mechanisms to solve disputes and to seek redress from the government. Whole areas of legal practice have emerged from the shadows, including administrative law, bankruptcy, and corporate mergers and acquisitions. Political discourse has also shifted in more legalistic directions, as the courts have become a central arena for dealing with popular demands against corruption and the abuses practiced by the former regime. The Constitutional Court has emerged as a major locus of decision-making, quite a change from a society traditionally dominated by personalistic conceptions of power. Indeed, as this volume went to press, the Constitutional Court rejected an unprecedented motion for impeach-ment brought against a sitting President, Roh Moo-Hyun. The impeach-ment motion was the culmination of a series of National Assembly scandals involving sitting and former presidents and other high-level political figures. These scandals have placed corruption at the center of the agenda and brought the prosecutors' office into the limelight. At the same time, reform of legal institutions itself has also become a major political issue.

In all of this, of course, Korea is not alone, but rather one example of a global process of judicialization or legalization (Tate and Vallinder 1995). Many of these changes reflect not only internal dynamics of political andeconomic liberalization, but also broader global processes. Indeed, in thepast two decades Korea has grappled with every major force affecting world affairs, including democratization, a major economic crisis,

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