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North Korea Table of Contents

North Korea


Historical Influences

Foreign laws have repeatedly influenced Korea. Korea assimilated the codes of various Chinese dynasties through the close of the Chosn Dynasty and Western law (Continental Law) during the Japanese occupation (1910-45). Although Confucian legal culture exerts strong influence on North Korea's legal attitudes, the modern legal system initially was patterned after the Soviet model imposed during the period of Soviet occupation (1945-48).

Neo-Confucian thought does not distinguish among politics, morality, and law. Law in traditional Korea was concerned with the control and punishment of deviance by the centralized bureaucratic political system rather than by private relationships or contracts. The elite viewed law as a last resort against a morally intractable person. The rule of law was little understood by the general population, which often saw it manifested only as an autocratic decree or as a tool of rigid political regimentation. These notions persist as part of the legal culture of North Korea.

No concepts in the Chosn Dynasty corresponded to the Western concept of right. Although in principle all classes were guaranteed property rights and the rights to act and initiate legal proceedings, the class nature of society meant that those rights were virtually meaningless for all but the elite. Social stratification was paralleled by de facto legal stratification. Noblemen, or yangban, had full exercise of their "rights." The theoretical rights of the middle class and lesser bureaucrats had practical limits, and the commoners and the lowest classes basically had no legal rights.

Morality and politics were reflected in the administration of justice; and structural differentiation among adjudicative, legislative, and administrative functions was contrary to Confucian substantive justice. The magistrate, a generalist scholar-official, was charged with both governing and adjudicating. Legal specialists, who were not from the yangban class, never developed into a professional group.

Korea's traditional legal system outwardly disappeared with the incorporation of modern Western law beginning with the Kabo Reforms of 1894 and ending with the imposition of Japanese legal concepts during the Japanese colonial period (see The Legacy of Japanese Colonialism , ch. 1). Traditional legal thought, however, continued to influence North Korean attitudes toward the purpose and function of legal institutions.

With the end of the Chosn Dynasty in 1910, decisive changes occurred in Korean law. Traditional Korean institutions suddenly were replaced. The imposition of institutions by the Japanese and their post-1910 use for repressive colonial control constituted a sharp break with the past. Because of the nature of Japanese colonial rule, there was no constitutional law, guarantee of rights, or judicial review of the exercise of political power. The legal system of Korea under Japanese rule was composed essentially of rules, duties, and obligations. However, there was no institutional or procedural separation of powers. The Japanese governor-general had unrestrained executive and legislative power, the latter exercised by decree.

With the end of World War II came Soviet occupation. During this period, Soviet legal concepts and codes, as well as the court and procurator structure, were embraced. Soviet legal concepts were the basis for the Court Organization Law of March 1, 1950, and the Criminal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure, both issued on March 3, 1950. In December 1974, a new Criminal Code (five parts, 215 articles) was issued, but few details were revealed to the general public, and its promulgation was not known to outside sources until the late 1980s. The Penal Code (eight chapters, 161 articles) was adopted by the Supreme People's Assembly on February 5, 1987.

Data as of June 1993