The Korea Herald


[Lee Jae-min] Making more laws available in English

By 최남현

Published : May 18, 2011 - 19:01

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One of the positive changes during the past couple of years is that Korean laws and regulations have become more available in English. This is an important development for foreign businessmen and investors who are currently in Korea or are considering coming to Korea. Just a while back, laws and regulations were only sporadically available in some specific areas. The Ministry of Government Legislation has made tremendous efforts to produce English versions of Korean laws and regulations over the years and they are now available at the ministry’s website at This website should provide a good reference point for foreign businessmen, investors and governments.

Remarkable improvements in a short time span notwithstanding, there is still a lot of work to be done here. First is to ensure consistency. Multiple different titles are used in the English translation of governmental regulations without any apparent reason. For instance, the Korean term of “si-haeng-ryung,” meaning a governmental regulation to implement a statute, has been translated as either “enforcement decree,” “presidential decree,” or simply “decree.” The term “si-haeng-gyu-chik,” which is to implement “si-haeng-ryung,” has in turn been translated as either “enforcement regulations,” “enforcement regulation,” “enforcement rules” or “enforcement rule.” Similar inconsistencies are also found in the text of the laws and regulations as well.

Second is to identify and adjust awkward and confusing expressions. When foreigners encounter laws entitled “Aggregate Collection Act” or “Act on the Promotion of Economic Activities of Career-Interrupted Women,” they probably scratch their heads. The former statute is for the efficient utilization and management of national gravel and sand, while the latter is for providing support to women whose careers have been interrupted because of pregnancy or childbirth. So, foreign investors interested in the construction business or professional service provision businesses in Korea might want to take a look at these laws. But the titles and contents are confusing when read in English (their Korean originals are easy to understand and make perfect sense).

Third is the omission of some key legislation. Despite the effort of the Ministry of Government Legislation, not all laws and regulations are available in English at the moment. For instance, “Sun-Bak-Wi-Hae-Beob,” which aims to punish foreigners who commit piracy against Korean-registered vessels and crews, is one of the laws not available in English. This is the law that is now being applied to the Somali pirates, captured in January, at their criminal trial by the Korean court. As the international community is closely following the criminal trial of the pirates ― the first of its kind in Korea ― foreign inquiry about the law will probably increase. Perhaps, in the future any law that is directly related to foreigners or foreign countries should be translated into English.

At the same time, even if translated versions are available, they usually become so only a couple of months after the enactment of the original legislation. As there are many foreign investors and companies standing to be affected by Korean legislation these days, more prompt dissemination of the English version would be appropriate and highly welcomed.

When it comes to the judgment of a court, however, foreign access is more restricted. First of all, lower courts’ judgments are not usually publicly available, let alone available in English. The Korean Supreme Court, for its part, has recently started to translate its judgments into English, but more efforts should be mobilized to ensure consistency and accuracy of the English terms used, as the English translations will now be carefully monitored and scrutinized by foreign investors and governments in the upcoming era of free trade agreements.

A single misinterpretation or omission could have significant consequences. Just imagine how many foreign governments and watchers would like to know about the judgment of the Busan District Court in the trial of the Somali pirates.

There have been controversies regarding minor typos and translation errors in the Korea-EU free trade agreement. But the key problem does not lie in these clerical errors but in how to cope with the upcoming surge of the foreign demand for Korean laws and regulations, and judgments. One of the silver linings is that the recent FTA translation controversy has sparked the initiation of this important and gigantic task of translation in the FTA era. What is critical is to introduce a systemic feature or institution that can offer official and accurate translation of laws and regulations and judgments in English for the reference of foreign investors and foreigners residing and doing business in Korea.

The Ministry of Government Legislation has made good strides in the right direction. It needs to keep up the good work.

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University, in Seoul. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.