Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 9 (Summer 1997): Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia: Articles: Promoting Local Autonomy in Korea

Jun 5, 1997

Korean NGOs are realizing that balanced and sustainable national development can best be achieved through local government. One NGO, the Citizen’s Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ), also believes that allowing and enabling residents to choose their own mayors and legislative councils and block unjust interference by central government officials is a necessary first step toward promoting human rights in Korea.

Though not effectively practiced, local autonomy is a guaranteed constitutional right of the people of Korea. For more than thirty years (1961-95), this right was denied by what was one of the most intensely centralized political and administrative systems in Asia. The first local elections in Korea were held during the Korean War in 1952, when the people, despite their extreme poverty and lack of experience in democratic politics, voted for local autonomy and elected members of legislative councils at the province, city, and village level.

A series of military coups that began in 1961 rolled back the establishment of local autonomy until 1991, when an election of local councils was held. In 1995 elections for mayors, county chiefs, and governors took place, marking the full revival of local democratic politics. Today, residents elect the administrative heads of their provinces, counties, cities, and wards, as well as members of their legislative councils.

CCEJ has undertaken efforts to overcome the obstacles to local autonomy remaining from years of authoritarian rule. These include centralized judicial system; a bureaucracy accustomed to the authoritarian system and unsympathetic to decentralization; national politicians who are ignorant of the concept of local autonomy and local politicians who represent vested interests; citizens who lack training in democracy; unbalanced regional development; and insufficient local finances.

There is no effective system for mediating conflicts between central and local governments, among local governments, or between local governments and citizens. As a result, looming environmental and developmental conflicts are hard to address. Moreover, national bureaucrats defy change so as to maintain control of central and local administrations. The more local governments are denied jurisdiction over administrative affairs, the more likely it is that local autonomy will be superficial and local administration irresponsible. Compounding the problem, local council members lack experience, democratic awareness, and a long-term vision for regional social development.

Through a strategy of social education, CCEJ’s forty-two local organizations are nurturing the development of democratic leaders capable of building local democracy, guiding sustainable policies in their regions, and expanding citizen participation in the local political process. Local autonomy requires the participation of local residents in forming organizations to make sure that their communities are managed responsibly and according to public will. This in turn demands increased awareness of autonomy and desire for democracy on the part of citizens. Besides conducting education programs, CCEJ groups also forge links among social organizations to create grassroots networks that can effectively monitor local administrations and legislative councils. And at times, CCEJ offices have mediated conflicts between local governments and residents.

The CCEJ Special Committee for Local Autonomy, which is made up of some thirty administration, finance, management, law, and city planning experts, seeks to foster sound local autonomous development. It comments on cases and puts out publications about local autonomy issues, drafts ordinances, and offers expert advice on council operations and policy activities. The committee also holds discussions with the council members on such topics as methods of evaluating the status and role of the local and regional councils, and ways to improve communications between residential organizations and citizens’ groups.

CCEJ’s most recent efforts include organizing public discussions on local autonomy issues, and circulating petitions to support policy reforms and then presenting them to the government and National Assembly. CCEJ is seeking passage of a residential voting law that would allow residents to redetermine the boundaries of administrative areas and permit local disputes to be decided by referendum. Some form of residential voting law, which is supported by opposition parties in Korea, is expected to pass in 1997, and CCEJ will then seek any necessary amendments.

CCEJ is also active in drafting and presenting new ordinances and regulations designed to increase government transparency with regard to financial matters, such as the Administration Audit Request Ordinance, which would enable citizens to request administrative audits directly, or the Ordinance on Establishment of Autonomous Local Depositories, which will open up to the public the process of government selection of financial institutions responsible for tasks such as tax collections.

Demanding that centralized political forces end their monopoly over police administration and stop abusing their power, CCEJ has called upon the government to change the existing national police system into a dual autonomous structure with national and local levels. Local governments often find it hard to respond to their constituents’ needs because of the centralized administration of police affairs. Moreover, the national police long ago lost their political neutrality, and conflicts between national police and local government bodies are frequent. Under the dual structure, police duties related to traffic, crime prevention, guarding public order, and the like would be transferred to the local authorities. This would make it more difficult for police to violate citizens’ rights and allow more friendly relations between residents and police. In order to promote such a transfer, CCEJ has invited ruling and opposition members of the National Assembly, scholars, and local mayors and governors to take part in public meetings on the subject and will petition the National Assembly for legislation on the issue.

Despite the revival of local politics in 1995, provincial governors, mayors, and other local administrators are frequently intimidated by central government authorities and the police. Recently, the mayor of Ansan city in Kyonggi province was arrested on trumped up charges of accepting bribes, and CCEJ, together with religious leaders, lawyers, and other citizens’ groups, has formed a special committee to prove his innocence. As long as the vestiges of an authoritarian central government continue to result in the intimidation of local officials, a state monopoly on power and finances, and the placement of “national interest” over local interests and concerns, CCEJ will step up its efforts to counter this situation through social education and policy reform initiatives.

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