How Koreans view the law (1)

Having worked as both a judge and a lawyer, I have seen and experienced the workings of the law from different perspectives in Korea. From 1965 to 1974, I sat as a judge in the Seoul District Court on both civil and criminal cases. In 1975, I was a Seoul High Court judge, and from 1975 to 1977 I served as a research judge for the Supreme Court. After working for a number of years as General Counsel for the Korea Oil Corporation and Daewoo Group, I opened my own legal practice in 1993, which grew to become the thriving law firm HMP Law.

With the recent impeachment of former President Park, and the arrest and indictment of, among others, Samsung Group Vice-Chairman Lee Jae-yong, many foreigners are left wondering, how do Koreans view the law, how do they feel about observing the law, and whether the law helps or hurts them? In this and subsequent columns for this newspaper, I will try to provide some clarity on these and other questions.

We will start with the question of how Korean citizens view the law. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess, as there are some statistics. The Korea Legislation Research Institute periodically conduct the “Public Legal Awareness” research through questionnaire surveys on sample groups of approximately 3,000 men and women of various ages about their attitudes towards and understanding of the law. (The full write-up can be found on the website of the institute at This research was first conducted in 1991, and then in 1994, 2008, and most recently in 2015.

The most interesting and fundamental question to begin with is “What is the first feeling that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘law’?”In the most recent survey, in 2015, the most common response at 37.6 percent was “authoritarian,” followed by “unfair” at 24.4 percent. Only 21.3 percent feel “democratic” when they think of law, and 14.2 percent feel law is “fair.” If you group them into positive and negative sentiments, 62 percent of the public experiences negative feelings about the law, and 35.5 percent positive.

Although this looks somewhat disheartening at first, over time opinions have actually improved. In 1994, 1994 and 2008, negative answers fluctuated between 74.3 and 76.2 percent. Thus, while in the first 3 iterations of the survey, only about a quarter of the Korean population felt the law to be a positive thing, that fraction has grown significantly to over a third. As democracy in Korea becomes more firmly established, citizens are growing to embrace the law more. This has coincided with (but is not necessarily caused by) developments such as the 2008 introduction of jury trials and other efforts at reforming the Korean legal system.

When asked in 2008 whether laws were necessary and why, over 74.1 percent of the respondents answered that they were “for the maintenance of public order.” The second most common reason was “for the protection of the weak” (14.6 percent), which is also mentioned in the ancient Babylonian legal Code of Hammurabi as one of the justifications for the law’s existence. The third most cited reason was “for the governance of the nation” (6.9 percent). Unfortunately, this question was not in the survey in 2015. Still, it can be seen that people have positive expectations about which specific functions the law should fulfill, even if their feelings about its outcomes are not always so positive.

The issue of fairness and impartiality is obviously one keenly felt by many. In the most recent survey, merely 26.6 percent of the people agreed with the statement “Justice is free of the influence of power or money.” While not very high, it is a big step up from 2008, when less than 5 percent of survey respondents believed this. As much as 43.3 percent of the people disagreed or disagreed strongly with the claim, leaving a total of 30.7 percent who neither agreed nor disagreed.

As to people’s beliefs about the impartiality of law enforcement on the one hand and criminal investigation on the other, the former wins over the latter, for now. While at 24.9 percent, almost a quarter believes that the police are impartial, only 22.1 percent agree or strongly agree that the prosecution is impartial. This may go some way to explaining the crowds of people and media outside the Prosecution buildings during the questioning of some recent high-profile suspects ­ they are afraid that those with money and power will be treated lightly.

It will come as no surprise to anybody who witnessed the demonstrations near the Constitutional Court, both in favor of and opposed to former President Park’s impeachment, that in 2008 (the last year in which this specific question was asked), a total of 76.6 percent of Koreans believed that it was desirable or very desirable that public opinion should exert an influence on court judgments. Only 23.2 percent held that it was undesirable or totally undesirable. I doubt it has changed much since then.

What we cannot know for sure is whether or to what extent judges actually take public opinion into account when deciding their verdicts or rulings. That is not something that judges speak about openly, but from my experience and observations, it depends on a judge’s confidence about his or her own ability to interpret the law and decide on questions of its breach or observance. When I was a judge, the rich-poor divide in Korea was not as wide as it is now, people were mostly equally poor, and there was very little in the way of vocal public opinion. Our conviction of what was just was formed by a strict understanding of morality. Nowadays, I believe that younger judges tend to feel that justice is what helps the poor, so they are more inclined to listen to and be swayed by demonstrations of the less affluent sectors of society.

Former Judge Hwang Ju-myung is founder and chairman of HMP Law, a full-service Korean law firm. For more information, write to

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