The internet is flush with Korean legal information in English, much of which is quite helpful, and generally it’s probably better to have some knowledge than none.
There are a few reasons to be cautious, however. Most importantly, secondhand information is often inaccurate. Sentences beginning “I heard” or “I think” can be right. But they can also be completely wrong
Even official translations can be somewhat misleading ― every official translation has the disclaimer “for information purposes only” on it, and the words never match up exactly (think about “jeong” or “schadenfreude”). Legal concepts using the same words differ between America and the U.K. (English-speaking countries), so it’s not surprising that there is something that is not necessarily communicated in Korean-to-English translations. Furthermore, law here can and does change quickly, and not every piece of information you need has been translated. We will explain the legal structure ― and what’s often missing ― in just a moment.
Finally, whatever words you read are never decisive; legal phrases are often very vague and subject to a variety of interpretations; it is those interpretations (through courts or other bodies) that make the “real” law.
Some knowledge, though a dangerous thing, is probably better than none. And to that end the Korea Legislation Research Institute offers a website with English-language laws, elaw.klri.re.kr. The Ministry of Justice’s website also offers .pdfs, often more up-to-date but not quite as organized or easy to find.
So how is Korean law structured and what information would you need to make an intelligent decision? The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, then there are various acts ― statutory law ― that are more specific. The acts, however, then give power to the president or various agencies to decree a more specific law. The Presidential Decrees are frequently translated, but the administrative rulings are often not, and they are the true core of the law. So there is a flow of delegation from statute to president to administrative bodies (and of course this doesn’t even include the court cases that have interpreted those laws and help guide future interpretation).
As an example let’s discuss visas. The Immigration Control Act, which is translated, states that “Criteria and procedure for the issuance of visas shall be prescribed by ordinance of the Ministry of Justice.” So where are the rules? In goshi, officially published announcements.
If you are looking for the criteria for the elusive F-2-7 visa then you can find them in English and Korean at the Ministry of Justice’s Immigration Portal site, hikorea.go.kr. The English translation clearly states that the Korean language version will control, and it is possible to see how there could be differences in interpreting the two if you read both.
And though the MOJ has made a substantial effort to include information about immigration by translating the goshi rules on its website, there simply isn’t any way they could include all the immigration laws. Other rules, like how much fines are for violation of immigration laws which is in an appendix to a Presidential Decree, have not been translated, as far as we have seen. So trying to explain the criteria to determine a fine for working illegally, which can vary by millions of won, one needs to read Korean.
If you do read adequate Korean, there is a searchable database, LawnB, which will give you statutes, cases and more, although for full access you’ll need to pay. The Office of Legislation offers a free Android application, though, so now you have a new way to spend that subway commute.
Still, we’d offer one last piece of advice: Even looking at the same, original, official Korean words, lawyers, judges and scholars disagree on their meaning. The law is never as clear as one thinks it is.
By Darren Bean and Yuna Lee
Yuna Lee is a Korean attorney at Seowoo & Minyul Law Firm in Seoul. You can read her blog at askakoreanlawyer.blogspot.com or if there is a legal issue you would like to be addressed, email email@example.com. ― Ed.
This column is not intended as legal advice. No action should be taken or avoided based on this column, no attorney-client relationship is formed by reading this column or contacting the authors, and the authors expressly disclaim any liability for the content of this column. Those with legal problems in Korea should seek advice from an attorney.