Transparency of the Regulatory System
ROK regulatory transparency has improved, due in part to Korea’s membership in the WTO and negotiated FTAs. However, the foreign business community continues to face numerous rules and regulations unique to the ROK. National Assembly legislation on environmental protection or the promotion of SMEs, while broadly targeting big businesses, has created new trade barriers that disadvantage foreign companies. Also, some laws and regulations lack sufficient detail and are subject to differing interpretations by government regulatory officials. In other cases, ministries issue non-legally binding guidelines on implementation of regulations, yet these become the bases for legal decisions in ROK courts. Regulatory authorities also issue oral or internal guidelines or other legally-enforceable dictates that prove burdensome for foreign firms. Intermittent ROK government deregulation plans to eliminate oral guidelines or impose the same level of regulatory review as written regulations have not led to concrete changes. Despite KORUS FTA provisions designed to address transparency issues, they remain persistent and prominent.
The ROK constitution allows both the legislative and executive branches to introduce bills. Ministries draft subordinate statutes (presidential decrees, ministerial decrees, and administrative rules), which largely govern the procedural matters addressed by the respective laws. Administrative agencies shape policies and draft bills on matters within their respective jurisdictions. Drafting ministries must clearly define policy goals and complete regulatory impact assessments (RIAs). When a ministry drafts a regulation, it must consult with other relevant ministries before it releases the regulation for public comment. The constitution also allows local governments to exercise self-rule legislative authority to draft ordinances and rules within the scope of federal acts and subordinate statutes. The enactment of laws and their subordinate statutes, ranging from the drafting of bills to their promulgation, must follow formal ROK legislative procedures in accordance with the Regulation on Legislative Process enacted by the Ministry of Government Legislation. Since 2011, all publicly listed companies must follow International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS, or K-IFRS in the ROK). The Korea Accounting Standards Board facilitates ROK government endorsement and adoption of IFRS and sets accounting standards for companies not subject to IFRS. According to the Administrative Procedures Act, authorities proposing laws and regulations (acts, presidential decrees, or ministerial decrees) must seek public comments at least 40 days prior to their promulgation. Regulations are sometimes promulgated after only the minimum required comment period and with minimal consultation with industry.
The Official Gazette and the websites of relevant ministries and the National Assembly simultaneously post the Korean language text of draft acts and regulations, accompanied by executive summaries, for a 40-day comment period. Comments are not made public, and firms may struggle to translate complex documentation, analyze, and respond adequately before the expiration of this period. After the comment period, the Ministry of Government Legislation reviews the laws and regulations to ensure they conform to the constitution and monitors government adherence to the Regulation on Legislative Process. While the Regulatory Reform Committee (RRC), under the executive branch, reviews all laws and regulations to minimize government intervention in the economy and to abolish all economic regulations that fall short of international standards or hamper national competitiveness, the committee has been less active in recent years.
In January 2019, Korea introduced a “regulatory sandbox” program intended to reduce the regulatory burden on companies that seek to test innovative ideas, products, and services. Depending on the business sector in which a particular proposal falls, either MOTIE, the Ministry of Science and ICT, or the Financial Services Commission manages the program. The program is open to Korean companies and foreign companies with Korean branch offices. Websites and applications are only available in Korean. The business community has welcomed this effort by regulators to spur innovation.
The ROK government has taken major steps to promote the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices of companies in the past year with the goal to require ESG disclosure for all listed companies with total assets valued at 2 trillion won (about $1.7billion) or more by 2025, and all listed companies by 2030. In December 2021, Korea’s Financial Services Commission and the Korea Exchange launched a an ESG information platform for listed companies ( http://esg.krx.co.kr/ ). Korea’s National Pension Service also plans to invest half of its assets into ESG companies by the end of 2022.
The ROK government enforces regulations through penalties (fines, enforcing corrective measures, or criminal charges) in the case of violations of the law. The government’s enforcement actions can be challenged through an appeal process or administrative litigation. The CEOs of local branches can be held legally responsible for all actions of their company and at times have been arrested, charged for company infractions, and placed under travel bans while awaiting or undergoing court procedures. Foreign CEOs have cited this as a significant burden to their business operations in Korea. For large companies with over 5 trillion won of local assets (about $4.2 billion), the ROK Government may designate a single person or entity (for example, the largest subsidiary) to be subject to additional regulatory scrutiny and potential liability for company actions. Industry contacts have indicated the Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) is considering making such designations for foreigners or entities based outside of the ROK.
The ROK’s public finances and debt obligations are generally transparent, with the exception of state-owned enterprise debt.
International Regulatory Considerations
The ROK has revised local regulations to implement commitments under international treaties and trade agreements. Treaties duly concluded and promulgated in accordance with the constitution and the generally recognized rules of international law are accorded the same standing as domestic laws. ROK officials consistently express intent to harmonize standards with global norms by benchmarking the United States and the EU. The U.S., U.K., and Australian governments exchange regulatory reform best practices with the ROK government to encourage local regulators to employ more regulatory analytics, increase transparency, and improve compliance with international standards; however, unique local rules and regulations continue to pose difficulties for foreign companies operating in the ROK. The ROK is a member of the WTO and notifies the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade of all draft technical regulations. The ROK is also a signatory of the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA). The ROK amended the ministerial decree of the Customs Act in 2015, creating a committee charged with implementing the TFA. The ROK is a global leader of modernized and streamlined procedures for transportation and customs clearance. Industry sources report the Korea Customs Service enforces rules of origin issues largely in compliance with ROK obligations under its free trade agreements.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
The ROK legal system is based on civil law. Subdivisions within the district and high courts govern commercial activities and bankruptcies and enforce property and contractual rights with monetary judgments, usually levied in the domestic currency. The ROK has a written commercial law, and matters regarding contracts are covered by the Civil Act. There are also three specialized courts in the ROK: patent, family, and administrative courts. The ROK court system is independent and not subject to government interference in cases that may affect foreign investors. Foreign court judgments, with the exception of foreign arbitral rulings that meet certain conditions, are not enforceable in the ROK. Rulings by district courts can be appealed to higher courts and to the Supreme Court. There is no principle of stare decisis or precedent. The Constitutional Court rules on constitutional issues and is comprised of nine justices who are appointed by the President.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
The ROK has a transparent legal system with a strong rule-of-law tradition and an independent judiciary. FIPA is the principal basic law pertaining to foreign investment in the ROK. The Invest KOREA website ( http://investkorea.org ) provides information on relevant laws, rules, and procedures for foreign investment in the ROK.
Laws and regulations enacted within the past year include:
- On April 6, 2021, an amended Labor Standards Act (LSA) took effect. The amendments modify certain restrictions on allowable work hours for employees and add certain health and safety requirements for overtime labor.
- On January 26, 2021, the Serious Accidents Punishment Act (SAPA) was enacted. The law entered into force for businesses with 50 or more employees on January 27, 2022. The Act holds CEOs personally accountable for workplace accidents and occupational illnesses. It also expands the scope of obligations for worker protections and strengthens penalties for violations.
- In August 2021, the ROK became the first country in the world to pass legislation banning digital platform operators from requiring app developers to use the platforms’ in-app payment systems. The law entered into force on March 15, 2022.
Key pending/proposed laws and regulations as of March 2022 include:
- The 2011 Personal Information Protection Act imposed stringent requirements on service providers seeking to transfer customers’ personal data outside Korea. In September 2021, the Personal Information Protection Commission submitted a proposed amendment to increase the fines to three percent of a company’s total global revenue. The proposed amendment would also grant the Personal Information Protection Committee the authority to suspend a company’s cross border data transfers in the case of a significant violation.
- As of March 2022, there are several proposed bills in the National Assembly seeking to mandate global over-the-top (OTT) providers pay network usage fees to Korean internet service providers.
Competition and Antitrust Laws
The Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) reviews and regulates competition and consumer safety matters under the Monopoly Regulation and Fair Trade Act (MRFTA). The amended MRFTA, which came into effect in December 2021, includes strengthened provisions on information exchange between companies, cartel law enforcement, and administrative fine levels.
KFTC has a broad mandate that includes promoting competition, strengthening consumer rights, and creating a suitable environment for SMEs. In addition to investigating corporate and financial restructuring, the KFTC can levy sizeable administrative fines and issue corrective measures for violations of law and for failure to cooperate with investigators. Decisions by KFTC are subject to appeal in Korean courts. As part of KORUS implementation, KFTC instituted a “consent decree” process in 2014, whereby firms can settle disputes with KFTC without resorting to the court system.
Over the last several years, a number of U.S. firms have raised concerns that KFTC targets foreign companies with aggressive enforcement. An amendment to the MRFTA in September 2020 improved the administrative decision-making process by the KFTC, including permitting access to confidential business information, limited to outside legal counsel, in order to protect possible trade secrets.
Expropriation and Compensation
The ROK follows generally-accepted principles of international law with respect to expropriation. ROK law protects foreign-invested enterprise property from expropriation or requisition. Private property can be expropriated for public purposes such as urban redevelopment, new industrial complexes, or constructing roads, and claimants are afforded due process and compensation. Private property expropriation in the ROK for public use is generally conducted in a non-discriminatory manner, with claimants compensated at or above market value. Embassy Seoul is aware of one case in which a U.S. investor filed an investor-state dispute lawsuit in 2018 against the ROK government, claiming that the government had violated the KORUS FTA in expropriating the investor’s land. The case was dismissed in the ROK judicial system on jurisdictional grounds in September 2019. The ROK government allotted USD 26 billion in its 2022 budget for land expropriation – a 36 percent decrease from the previous year.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
The ROK acceded to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in 1967 and the New York Arbitration Convention in 1973. While there are no specific domestic laws on enforcement, South Korean courts have made rulings based on the ROK’s membership in the conventions.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
The ROK is a member of the International Commercial Arbitration Association and the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency. These bodies can call upon ROK courts to enforce an arbitrated settlement. When drafting contracts, some firms choose arbitration by a third party such as the International Commercial Arbitration Association. Companies have access to local expert legal counsel when drawing up contracts with a South Korean entity. The KORUS FTA contains strong, enforceable investment provisions. The United States also has a bilateral Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation with the ROK with general provisions pertaining to business relations and investment. Foreign court judgments, with the exception of foreign arbitral rulings that meet certain conditions, are not enforceable in the ROK. There is no history of extrajudicial action against foreign investors. As noted above, one U.S. investor filed an investor-state dispute (ISD) lawsuit in 2018 against the ROK government, claiming that the government had violated the KORUS FTA in expropriating the investor’s land. The case was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds in September 2019. A U.S. activist fund submitted a notice of arbitration over an ISD pertaining to the KORUS FTA, also in 2018. This firm claimed to have suffered serious financial losses due to the merger of two large conglomerates, stating the ROK government illicitly intervened by mobilizing the National Pension Service as a large shareholder in the process of approving the merger. Another U.S. investor filed for arbitration seeking compensation for losses incurred from the same controversial merger. Both cases are pending before a United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) tribunal.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
ROK civil courts can adjudicate commercial disputes, though foreign firms note the following impediments to litigation:
- Proceedings are conducted in Korean;
- ROK law prohibits foreign lawyers who have not passed the Korean Bar Examination from representing clients in ROK courts;
- Civil procedures common in the United States such as pretrial discovery do not exist in the ROK; and
- During litigation of a dispute, the Ministry of Justice may bar foreign citizens from leaving the country until the court reaches a decision.
Due to the expense and time required to obtain judgement, lawsuits are generally initiated only as a last resort, signaling the end of a business relationship. ROK law governs commercial activities and bankruptcies, with the judiciary serving as the means to enforce property and contractual rights, usually through monetary judgments levied in the domestic currency.
Firms may also bring commercial disputes before the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board (KCAB), the sole body in Korea authorized to settle disputes under the Korean Arbitration Act (KAA). The KAA is modeled after the UNCITRAL model law. The KCAB also has an independent international branch solely committed to international arbitration cases and comprised of 515 arbitrators from 40 different countries as of May 2021.
The KAA and its implementing rules outline the following steps in the arbitration process: 1) Parties may request the KCAB to act as an informal intermediary to a settlement; 2) if informal arbitration is unsuccessful, either or both parties may request formal arbitration, in which the KCAB appoints a mediator to conduct conciliatory talks for 30 days; and 3) if formal arbitration is unsuccessful, the KCAB assigns an arbitration panel consisting of one-to-three arbitrators to decide the case. If either party is not resident in the ROK, either may request an arbitrator from a neutral country. If foreign arbitral awards or foreign court rulings meet the requirements of Civil Procedure Act Article 217, local courts can enforce their terms. ROK authorities emphasize non-discriminatory arbitration of disputes, but statistics on outcomes are unavailable. Embassy Seoul is not aware of statistics on court rulings on investment disputes with state-owned enterprises.
The Debtor Rehabilitation and Bankruptcy Act (DRBA) stipulates that bankruptcy is a court-managed liquidation procedure where both domestic and foreign entities are afforded equal treatment. The procedure commences after a filing by a debtor, creditor, or a group of creditors, and determination by the court that a company is bankrupt. The court designates a Custodial Committee to take an accounting of the debtor’s assets, claims, and contracts. The Custodial Committee may grant voting rights among creditors. Shareholders and contract holders may retain their rights and responsibilities based on shareholdings and contract terms. Debtors may be subject to arrest once a bankruptcy petition has been filed, even if the debtor has not been declared bankrupt. Individuals found guilty of negligent or false bankruptcy are subject to criminal penalties. The Seoul Bankruptcy Court (SBC) has nationwide jurisdiction to hear major bankruptcy or rehabilitation cases and to provide effective, specialized, and consistent guidance in bankruptcy proceedings. Any Korean company with debt equal to or above KRW 50 billion (about USD 41.8 million) and/or 300 or more creditors may file for bankruptcy rehabilitation with the SBC. Thirteen local district courts continue to oversee smaller bankruptcy cases in areas outside Seoul.