Legal Action in Kdramas: A Comparative Look at the Korean Justice System

Have you ever watched a Korean drama and wondered about the courtroom scenes? Why are some judges so young? Why do prosecutors seem more like investigators? Where are the juries? Why does it seem like the judge is interrupting with questions instead of letting the attorneys present their cases? Well, Kdrama Jen is here to answer your questions! Come along as we chat about Korea’s judicial system and how it relates to our favorite dramas!

So, before we begin, a little about me. I am Kdrama Jen, drama lover by day (and night if I am being honest) and total research geek by trade. While I am not currently working in the field, I am also a certified paralegal. We are about to combine my love of research, legal training, and drama obsession. I hope you are ready! When I am done, you should be able to watch Suspicious Partner, Miss Hammurabi, City Hunter, Reply 1997, and a whole bunch of other dramas with judges, prosecutors, and courtrooms with new eyes. So, let’s get started:

Why do Judges interrupt? Why do prosecutors seem like investigators?

So, let’s begin by exploring the difference between inquisitorial and adversarial systems. This was all new to me. I have always thought the Korean judicial system mostly mirrored the judicial system of the United States. Even if my knowledge of courtrooms came only from American television, I would say that the trappings of the courtroom (including swearing in) looks similar. While they may seem similar on the surface, there is a very key difference. The United States uses an adversarial system and Korea uses a Continental Inquisitorial system.

In brief, in an inquisitorial system, the judge’s role is to discover facts while simultaneously representing the interests of the state. In the adversarial system, also known as the accusatory system (used in the United States and Great Britain) two or more parties gather evidence and then present their evidence and arguments to a judge or jury. A decision is made based on the facts presented.

In contrast, the inquisitorial system, used in Korea, places the judge in a fact finding position with the goal of actively discovering truth. The judge directs the search for evidence, and questions both the respondent and defendant. Lawyers play a more passive role in civil cases. In criminal cases, prosecutors act as investigators, assisting the judge to discover the truth.

The biggest difference between an adversarial system and an inquisitorial system can be found in criminal cases. In the inquisitorial system, the defendant is not presumed guilty, but is also not presumed innocent as required by adversarial systems. In other words, if you get as far as being on trial for a crime there was enough evidence of guilt to get to that point.

While the inquisitorial system does not protect criminal defendants as much as the adversarial system, there is also not as much personal incentive for prosecutors to win convictions for political gain. At its core, the inquisitorial system is designed to result in the truth, not winners and losers.

So, bringing this back to Dramaland…. The reason judges often interrupt and directly question the witnesses is because it is their JOB to do so. Juries may be brought to serve in an advisory capacity (and this was not the case until 2008), but this is rare. Most cases have either one judge or a panel of three judges if it considered a difficult or complicated case.

This also explains why prosecutors often seem more like investigators. They are assisting the judge to discover the truth. I remember being pretty surprised by this when I watched City Hunter. Why was the prosecutor investigating crime scenes? I am pretty used to it by now, but it puzzled me for a while!

Judges have a great deal of autonomy and can ask questions and make rulings regarding admissibility of evidence based on personal judgement. In comparison to the United States, it is much easier in a Korean courtroom to ask questions about a defendant’s prior record or even things that may not seem directly related to the case. If the judge deems it relevant to finding the truth, then the question can be asked and the evidence included.

Why do some judges in dramas seem so young?

So, I may have ignorantly made the comment that L and Go Ara looked like they were cosplaying as adults in the teasers for Miss Hammurabi. They just seemed awfully young to be judges. Well, in reality, it is not uncommon for judges to be younger than attorneys in Korea. There are a couple of educational paths that can lead to becoming a judge. The Korean Constitution to the Court Organization Act (Article 42) indicates that anyone who passes the National Judicial Examination and completes a two-year training program at the Judicial Research and Training Institute (JRTI) OR those who obtain qualifications as a lawyer and pass the bar exam can become a judge. The majority of judges are fresh out of JRTI.

As part of judicial reform, however, the judicial education system changed to establish U.S.-style law schools in lieu of the JRTI. During the transition period, there were two tracks to get a law license: passing the traditional bar and graduating from JRTI or graduating from a law school and passing the new bar. This is why in Miss Hammurabi there is a conversation among judges referring to how some graduated from JRTI and some graduated from law school. The old bar exam was reportedly abolished in 2017. So, dramas in the future may not even have this as a discussion point.

Unlike systems some readers may be familiar with, it was very common for judges to be new graduates of the JRTI with little or no courtroom experience. This helps explain how L and Go Ara in Miss Hammurabi and Seo In Guk in Reply 1997 could play the role of judges despite looking so young.

Doesn’t it seem like there are a lot of different kind of courts in Korea?

Well, that is because there are! There are currently many different types of courts in Korea including: the Supreme Court, the High Courts, the District Courts, the Patent Court, the Family Court, the Administrative Court, and the Bankruptcy Court. Of course this does not include the Branch Courts and Municipal Courts. All together there are literally hundreds of courts in Korea.

So, if you ever get confused while watching dramas and it seems like there are an overwhelming number of courts, just know that your gut feeling is correct. There are many different courts! Depending on the type of court, you may see one judge making decisions or up to three judges. Municipal Courts are for minor issues or civil issues that are for small claims. Probably most drama fans are familiar with District Courts. This seems to be where all the action happens in most legal dramas.

Oops.. I meant LEGAL action. Let’s try again….

I hope this brief review of the Korean judicial system helped deepen your understanding of Korean legal dramas. I fell very deep into the abyss of comparative law research, but I am only sharing a few of the highlights. If you have specific questions, though, please send them my way. I probably have notes on the topic!

Please comment below with questions or connections to your favorite legal dramas.

Until the Next Geek Out Session,

Dr. Kdrama Jen

Dramas with a Side of Kimchi

9 thoughts on “Legal Action in Kdramas: A Comparative Look at the Korean Justice System

  1. That was great. Thanks for taking time to research and explain it. 2018 is turning into the year of the Judge in Dramaland. At least the summer dramas. I wonder if the Inquisitor system is used all over Asia or at least China, Japan, Taiwan, Phillippines. Hong Kong, I think, uses the British court system down to the wigs. lol

    • The inquisitorial system is used widely throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, and much of Europe. The adversarial system is used in the United States and Great Britain, but different versions of the inquisitorial system are commonly found throughout the world.

  2. Love this!! So much information!
    I’ve always wondered at the differences in the judicial system while showing legal K-dramas. I think the biggest thing that surprised me was there isn’t a jury, just a judge who makes the verdict. I read that South Korea didn’t have a jury before 13 years ago but is now implementing some jury trials. Is that true, or are they only using judge bench trials?

    • Right. In my research I found it is still quite rare for a jury trial, and when they do use them it is more in an advisory capacity. This was all new to me and now I am rewatching courtroom scenes from dramas and seeing things I never noticed before!

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