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Origin and Semantic Value of the Terms Equivalent to Justice in the Korean Language


The purpose of this article is to study the origins and meanings of the Korean terms equivalent to justice, understood as a principle. It focuses chiefly on the term 정의 chŏng’ŭi 正義 and the historical context within which it emerged. It examines the fundamental meanings attached to this term through etymological analysis and ends with questions about its coloring in contemporary Korean society.

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  1. Hahm Pyong-Choon (1932–1983) is the eminent figure of this school of thought. See: [1]. After Hahm, other distinguished scholars have endeavored to correct superficial perception, bias, and misunderstandings of Korea's legal system. For different views and contributions, see: [2,3,4,5].

  2. Current South Korean law is drafted under the influence of Chinese, Japanese, European and American law, while competing against Korean tradition. For example, current South Korean civil law finds its origins in German civil law as until the 1960s, Korea used Japanese civil law, which was itself adapted from German law. Also, the Japanese civil procedure code, influenced by the German civil procedure Act of 1877, is said to have left “indelible footprints” ([6], p. 3) on current Korean civil procedure law. For business law, Korea has long relied on a Business Code adapted from German law, also promulgated through the Japanese in 1899. Since the Korean War (1950–1953), the American Business Code of Illinois from 1953 has been a major influence.

  3. Officially, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

  4. Officially, the Republic of Korea.

  5. The first Constitution of the Republic of Korea promulgated on July 17, 1948 [7] has been amended nine times since 1948. The latest version was written in 1987 [8].

  6. For the Romanization of terms written in the Korean alphabet 한글 hangŭl, the McCune-Reischauer system is used. However, in order to avoid confusion, we have not applied this system to proper nouns, nor to names of authors whose romanization has been proven and follows another usage (This is the case, for example, with the South Korean capital Seoul). Where necessary, terms in Korean are accompanied by their Chinese character (Chinese characters are called 漢字 hànzì in Chinese, 한자 hanja in Korean, and かんじ kanji in Japanese). To do this, we have respected the following order: 1. Korean alphabet hangŭl, 2. McCune-Reischauer Romanization, 3. Chinese characters. A pinyin Romanization is also added for Chinese characters mentioned in a Chinese context. Then, for clarity, they are preceded by the abbreviation (chi.). The Hepburn Romanization method is used for Chinese characters mentioned in a Japanese context. They are preceded by the abbreviation (jap.). We reproduce the transcription of a term in hangŭl, accompanied by the Chinese characters only at its first occurrence. Afterwards, the romanized version alone is favored, unless it is necessitated for a better understanding of semantic and etymologic complexities. Finally, for ease of reading, longer citations originally written in classic Chinese 한문 hanmun 漢文 are given in modern hangŭl, along with only a selection, in parenthesis, of important Chinese characters.

  7. The text of the preamble of the first Constitution of 1948 forms the basis of the preamble of the constitution of 1987 which was, in substance, little amended. The passage which refers to justice is identical in both versions and has not been modified.

  8. Korean traditional legal thought has long drawn its particularities from both its own history and its close ties of influence with China. One of the greatest influences comes from Confucianism which penetrated the peninsula from the third century and whose adoption would profoundly change Korea from the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1897). This school of thought, reinventing itself in the form of neo-Confucianism, would stand against Buddhism (the state religion of the time), producing a remarkably powerful political instrument, used by the elites to reinforce an authoritarian central power.

  9. While recognizing the western lineage of rights as a concept in modern Korea, it is also necessary to examine “the underlying logics of indigenous legal practices and institutions” ([11], p. 2).

  10. In line with the thought of Confucius, Koreans have long considered that the law was somehow too universal, and did not sufficiently take into account the particularities of each situation and the merits of every man. Failing to be self-sufficient, the law had to be administered by a leader developing a culture of "the rule of man" (normally virtuous) at the expense of "the rule of law". In this context, they relied on the force of sanctions, morals, ethics and the exemplarity of individuals to apply a concept of justice which was understood as a personal and public virtue, but which did not include the concepts of freedom, equality or sovereignty of law (cf. [12], p. 14).

  11. In the center of the arch-shaped porch of the main entrance of the main building are engraved the following words: 자유 평등 정의 Chayu P'yŏngdŭng Chŏng'ŭi ‘Liberty Equality Justice’, the three values that the highest court of the country promises to enforce.

  12. See infra.

  13. This text transposes the Japanese Imperial Order issued on October 16, 1909 [16]. Courts and prisons are formally transferred to the Japanese and the Ministry of Justice is dissolved. The judicial system becomes Japanese on November 1st, 1909. Japanese Law is applied in the country and in court cases until after liberation.

  14. The substantive rights contained in the charter, do not refer to justice, although article 3 establishes the principle of equality between Koreans regardless of their sex, wealth or social origin: “The people of the Republic of Korea do not recognize the distinctions between men and women, the hierarchical links between the rich and the poor, and all are equal” “대한민국의 인민은 남녀 귀천 급 빈부의 계급이 무하고 일체 평등임” “Taehanmingugŭi inminŭn namnyŏ kwich'ŏn kŭp pinbuŭi kyegŭbi muhago ilch'e p'yŏngdŭng'im” [17].

  15. Around that time, a Chosun Ilbo article on the dissolution of the parliament talks about the great confusion that followed the First World War, and argues for the “urgent demand for the improvement of justice and human duties” “정의인도(正義人道)와무차별향상(無差別向上)이,최급(最急)외요구(要求)” “chŏng'ŭi indowa much'abyŏl hyangsang'i, ch'oegŭboe yogu” ([18], p. 3). Likewise, in the front-page editorial of the first edition of The Dong-a Ilbo, the writer advocates, in the fight against imperialism, “to return to humanitarianism based on pacifism and justice” “평화주의(平和主義)와정의(正義)를바탕한인도주의(人道主義)로돌아서려한다” “p'yŏnghwajuŭiwa chŏng'ŭirŭl pat'anghan indojuŭiro torasŏryŏ handa” ([19], p. 1). Another reference to the term chŏng'ŭi goes back to 1924. It appears in the denomination ‘government of justice’ 정의부 chŏng'ŭibu 正義府 used to call the authority responsible for the Korean population of South Manchuria, in Jilin and Fengtian provinces [20].

  16. Neither the new judicial organization law from September 26, 1949 [21], the new criminal Act promulgated in South Korea on September 18, 1953 [22], nor the first Korean Civil Act of 1958 [23] contain mention of the word justice. Moreover, in North Korea, neither the 1948 Constitution of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea [24], nor the 1972 current Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea [25] amended and supplemented in 1992, 1998, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2016 and twice in 2019, contain mention of the word justice.

  17. For information, the first references to the principle of justice are found in the 6th Constitution of the French Republic (1804) [26], in what is seen as the first Spanish Constitution, the Statute of Bayonne (1808) [27], in the fundamental statute of the Savoy Monarchy (1848) [28] which later became the first Constitution of the unified Kingdom of Italy (1861), and in what is considered to be the third Constitution of the unified nation-state Germany, the Constitution of the German Reich (1919) [29].

  18. The hypernym freedom has long remained foreign to the Chinese language and a fortiori to the Korean language (cf. [30], p. 147).

  19. The transplantation of Western concepts is not unique to Korea and also happened in other countries, such as China. See e.g. [31,32,33,34]. The newly created words, described by Lee and Ramsey as “neo-Sinitic words” ([35], p. 301), usually consisted of two, or, occasionally, three, Chinese characters.

  20. For the traditional meaning of this cardinal Confucian ethical concept, see e.g. [36]. On the meanings of the term ŭi in classical Chinese language, see: [37].

  21. Historians use the term Yi Dynasty, Chosŏn Dynasty, or Kingdom of Chosŏn interchangeably to name this period of history. Its founder and first king (under the name of King T'aejo), Yi Sŏnggye (1335–1408), chose to call his kingdom Chosŏn in reference to the period of the founding of Korean civilization. To distinguish it from the ancient kingdom of Korea of the same name, historians use the term 고조선 Kojosŏn which means ‘ancient Chosŏn’ (2333–108 BCE).

  22. In his introduction to the Book of Rites, translator and former missionary Joseph-Marie Callery emphasizes the difficulties faced by anyone who undertakes the translation of complex terms found in works of Chinese philosophy. He insists on a number of characters which are difficult to reproduce “either because there is a lack of certain data on their original meaning, or because they have been used on purpose in a very broad way subject to many interpretations” ([39], p. XV). Callery adds that Chinese commentators themselves argue that some leeway should be given in interpreting such characters which should not be taken in their “absolute meaning” ([39], ibid.).

  23. For example: “[About Sinsang,] …even friends and colleagues reprimand him based on justice…” “…친구나 동료 사이에도 의(義)에 입각하여 책하고…” “…ch'inguna tongnyo saiedo ŭie ipkakhayŏ ch'aekhago…” (Hyojong Sillok, the 3rd day of the 1st month of the 4th year (Jan 3, 1653) [38]). Sillok citations follow academic usage. They indicate first the name of the king, then the date of the archive as it is originally recorded, and finally, in parentheses, its equivalent according to the modern dating system.

  24. For example: “[The King said,]… The opinion of my dear sirs does accord with the principle because officials should maintain the way for upholding justice,…” “경들의 말이 이치에 합당하다는 것은 신하에게는 의(義)를 지키는 방도가 있기 때문이요,…” “Kyŏngdŭrŭi mari ich'ie haptanghadanŭn kŏsŭn sinhaegenŭn ŭirŭl chik'inŭn pangdoga itki ttaemuniyo,…” (Sejong Sillok, the 15th day of the 2nd month of the 6th year (Feb 15, 1424) [38]).

  25. A study of claims made by Koreans seeking legal justice by means of the petition system during the Chosŏn shows the importance of the term 원 wŏn (translated in English as ‘grievance,’ ‘injustice’ or ‘the sense of being wronged’) in the Korean language employed in legal narratives. That term appears to have been better suited than the too abstract term ŭi to express, or to refer to, the personal dimension contained in their demand for justice. Although ŭi is found in legal and official documents for discussing political and legal affairs, “reliving wŏn is the [preferred] language in petition sources to express justice” ([41], p. 8) in the everyday legal problems of the Chosŏn.

  26. The analysis of a term of Chinese origin through the study of the “origin” of its characters proposed here is not etymological in the conventional modern sense of the term. It consists in identifying and graphically analyzing their components, (or constituents) as well as providing brief glosses on their basic or fundamental meanings. To that extent, it seeks to identify and explain grapho-semantic/phonetic constituents in characters (cf. [48], vol. IV, p. 46). Such etymological research presents a challenge for a researcher utilizing Chinese and Korean dictionaries. Expecting precise content, he will be disconcerted by the lack of preciseness and surprised by lexicographers’ seeming satisfaction with the vague, the general and the porosity of semantic boundaries that definitions attempt to delimit. The terms used for justice are no exception to such difficulties.

  27. The introduction of Chinese and its logographic writing in Korea in the second century CE is due to the influence of China and then of Buddhism on the peninsula and to the absence, at the time, of an efficient writing system for the Korean language. The Chinese character script, hanja, was used long before the introduction of the Korean alphabet, hangŭl, which was created only in the fifteenth century under the leadership of King Sejong the Great. Many words of Chinese-Korean origin have since coexisted with other words originating from the “pure” Korean language. For a better understanding of the importance of Chinese language and writing in the development of the Korean language, see e.g. ([49], pp. 659–661).

  28. Chinese characters can be broadly differentiated into two categories: simple and complex. Complex (or compound) characters constitute about 95% of all Chinese characters. Most of them (over 80%) are generally made of two or more functional components (or constituents) commonly called radicals (cf. [50]). About 13% of complex characters are ideogrammic compounds, which symbolically combine two or more radicals to create a third character. These radicals are not related to the host character in pronunciation (cf. [51], vol. II, p. 568). The choice in Standard English of the term radical although widely spread in the academic literature, is debated, see e.g. [52], vol. II, p. 481, [48], vol. IV, p. 47.

  29. chŏng was also spelled 졍 chyŏng in the nineteenth century ([59], p. 548).

  30. The exposition on the character a 我 is based on the postulate of invalidity (see e.g. [63]) of the hypothesis defended by Baxter and Sagart ([64], p. 65) who claim that a 我 was used as a phonetic component in ŭi 義.

  31. Characters are traditionally differentiated into six etymological categories (pictographic, indicative, associative, picto-phonetic, notative, and borrowed) as in the character dictionary Shuōwén jiězì (121 CE), which is still referred to today.

  32. The same reservation as that indicated above should be applied here. Olhŭm and olparŭm can mean ‘justice’ in Korean, but also ‘rectitude’, ‘correctness’, ‘righteousness’, ‘uprightness’, ‘virtue’, etc.

  33. Throughout the history of Korean, Sinitic vocabulary has tended to displace native words (cf. [71], pp. 35–43) although, in several instances, Sino-Korean synonyms continue to exist alongside native words (cf. [35], p. 302).

  34. It is spelled as 올타 olt'a, in the Korean-French dictionary written in 1880 by the missionaries of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris. However, it is given an equivalent definition: ‘to be true’ or ‘fair’ ([59], p. 57).

  35. 올바르다 olparŭda was originally written 옳바르다 olhparŭda, but this spelling being based on the Pyongang standard North Korean language, its use violated the rules of standardization of the South Korean language which is built on the modern language in use in Seoul ([74], Art.1). A revision by the National Korean Language Institute officially banned its use in favor of the modified spelling for standard use in South Korea (cf. [75]).

  36. A 1946 Korean dictionary defines justice as the ‘sense of what is right’ and as a ‘moral obligation of righteousness’ ([79], p. 961). The current definition is based on the idea of ‘righteous attitude’ 바른 도리 parŭn tori, an expression that can also, depending on the context, be translated as ‘correct reason’, ‘upright ethics’, ‘right way’, or ‘right obligation’, and appears in dictionaries in the 1970s. See: [80], p. 1207.

  37. Given the secretive and authoritarian nature of the North Korean regime, the absence of reliable data analyzing the views of its citizenry, and the characteristics of its revolutionary ideology, the “Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism” “김일성-김정일주의” “Kimilsŏng-Kimjŏng'ilchuŭi “ ([25], Art. 3), it is difficult to discuss the current relationship of North Koreans vis-à-vis the concept of justice. However, it should be noted that, although people have few possessions, and the existence of a true civil trial is not established, the Civil Law of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (cf. [83]) adopted as Decision No. 4 of the Permanent Meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly on September 5, 1990, contains a small section on the ownership system. This reflects the existence of as well as the limitations of private autonomy and business life in North Korean society. Still it is a significant and symbolic change in the socialist state (cf. [84], p. 399).

  38. The modernization process of the legal system starts during colonial era (cf. [85]) from the beginning of the twentieth century.

  39. “Transitional justice” can be defined as the “conception of justice associated with periods of political change, characterized by legal responses to confront the wrongdoings of repressive predecessor regimes” ([87], p.69).

  40. These differences relating to legal technique may have seemed to be minor at first, but the orientations which resulted from them were, in reality rich in consequences. The debate mainly revolved around the question of whether fully extending retroactive justice in criminal cases, despite statutes of limitation was a good idea or not. This would consist in weakening procedural legality (and therefore the democratic regime) to serve substantive justice, with the result of satisfying the popular demand for justice, but undermining the regime’s commitment to the rule of law. This question about the content and the means to achieve justice has been described as a dilemma between “normative reality and a normative ideal” ([90], p. 1010).

  41. This ideology founded, among other things, on knowledge, respect for virtues and proprieties, continues to shape a theory and practice of justice whose influence continues to this day, contemporary South Korea being often qualified by Koreanists as the most Confucian country in the world (cf. [92], p. 191, and [93], p. 2).


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Duvert, C. Origin and Semantic Value of the Terms Equivalent to Justice in the Korean Language. Int J Semiot Law (2022).

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  • Semantics
  • Etymology
  • Korean language
  • Korean legal philosophy
  • Korean law
  • Justice