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South Korea Table of Contents

South Korea

Political and Social Institutions

Despite the fact that Korea would undergo numerous reforms, palace coups, and two dynastic changes after the Silla period, many of the political and social systems and practices instituted during the Silla Dynasty persisted until the nineteenth century. Their Chinese inspiration, of course, had much to do with the durability of these systems. One lasting principle was that of centralized rule. From the time of the Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla states of the Three Kingdoms period, royal houses always governed their domains directly, without granting autonomous powers to local administrators. The effectiveness of the central government varied from dynasty to dynasty and from period to period, but the principle of centralization--involving a system of provinces, districts, towns, and villages--was never modified.

Another feature that endured for centuries was the existence of a stratified social system characterized by a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Under the Silla Dynasty, society was rigidly organized into a hereditary caste system. The Koryo Dynasty, which succeeded Silla, instituted a system of social classes according to which the rest of the population was subordinate to an elite composed of scholar-officials. By passing the higher civil service examination and becoming a government official a commoner could become a member of the elite, but since examinations presupposed both the time and wealth for education, upward mobility was not the rule. This system continued during the Choson Dynasty. The strength of the aristocratic tradition may have been one factor contributing to the relative weakness of the Korean monarchy, in which the king usually presided over a council of senior officials as primus inter pares, rather than governing as absolute ruler.

During the Choson Dynasty, family and lineage groups came to occupy tremendous importance. Because one's social and political status in society was largely determined by birth and lineage, it was only natural that a great deal of emphasis was placed on family. Each family maintained a genealogical table with meticulous care. Only male offspring could prolong the family and clan lines and theirs were the only names registered in the genealogical tables; therefore, the birth of a son was regarded as an occasion of great joy. The Confucian stress on the family reinforced the importance Koreans attached to the family.

The Confucian principle of Five Relationships (see Glossary) governing social behavior became the norm of Korean society. Righteousness toward the sovereign, filial piety, deference to older and superior persons, and benevolence to the younger and inferior became inviolable rules of conduct. Transgressors of these rules were regarded as uncultured beings unfit to be members of society. Whether in the family or society at large, people in positions of authority or occupying superior status commanded respect.

Still another enduring feature of traditional society under the Choson Dynasty was the dominance of the yangban class. The yangban not only held power but also controlled the national wealth in the form of land. The court permitted the yangban to collect revenues on the land as remuneration for their services. Because much commercial activity was related to tributary missions to China or to government procurements, the wealth of the merchants often was dependent upon the discretion of the yangban.

Finally, because under the Choson Dynasty one could enter into the scholar-official elite by passing examinations based on Confucian writings and penmanship, the entire society stressed classical education. The arts of war were accorded a lesser status, even though the founders of both the Koryo and Choson dynasties were generals and despite the fact that the country had suffered from numerous foreign invasions.

Data as of June 1990