Part Two - Regional Geography
In terms of its administrative organization, as of 2014 South Korea consists of one designated Special City, six Metropolitan Cities, one Special Self-Governing City (Sejong City), and nine provinces, to include one Special Self-Governing Province (Jeju). The country’s one special city is Seoul, which has served as the national capital since the founding of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910). The six Metropolitan Cities are Busan, Incheon, Daegu, Gwangju, and Ulsan, found respectively in the provinces of Gyeongsangnam-do, Gyeonggi-do, Gyeongsangbuk-do, Chungcheongnam-do, Jeollanam-do, and Gyeongsangnam-do. Five of these cities received their designations in 1995 while Ulsan was named a Metropolitan City in 1997.
The basis of South Korea’s provincial administrative organization is found in the eight-province system established in 1413. The eight provinces established at that time were Gyeonggi, Chungcheong, Jeolla, Gyeongsang, Gangwon, Hwanghae, Pyeongan, and Hamgyeong, an organization that endured for nearly five centuries until 1896, when they were further divided into thirteen provinces. In this 1896 reform, Gyeonggi, Gangwon, and Hwanghae were not altered, while the remaining five provinces were split into northern and southern portions. Following the Korean War (1950–1953), portions of both Gangwon-do and Gyeonggi-do (the suffix do here means “province”) came under the territorial control of North Korea. That portion of Gyeonggi-do that was lost to North Korea was incorporated into that state’s Hwanghae-do province, whereas Gangwon-do underwent no name change (resulting in a Gangwon-do in both South and North Korea). In total, North Korea came to be made up of six provinces: Pyeongannam-do, Pyeonganbuk-do, Hamgyeongnam-do, Hamgyeongbuk-do, Hwanghae-do, and Gangwon-do.
In 1946, the administrative status of Jeju Island was elevated to that of province from its former position as an administrative sub-unit of Jeollanam-do province, bringing the total number of provinces in South Korea to nine. Subsequently, North Korea established first Jagang-do and then Yanggang-do provinces and then subdivided Hwanghae-do province into northern and southern provinces, thus bringing up its total number of provinces also to nine. In 2006, Jeju-do province was named the country’s only Special Self-Governing Province, and in 2012 the planned city of Sejong City was launched as a Special Self-Governing City and provincial capital.
Thus the five-province system of Gyeonggi-do, Gangwon-do, Chungcheong-do, Jeolla-do, and Gyeongsang-do established in 1413 has led in South Korea to an administrative system of one Special City, six Metropolitan Cities, one Metropolitan Autonomous City, eight provinces, and one Special Self-Governing Province. This system in South Korea of 17 regional governments is termed the local autonomous government system. However, the approach of this current work is to organize the chapters of this section according to Korea’s traditional eight-province system, the reason being that such an organization characterized the peninsula for over five continuous centuries and effectively created separate cultural regions each with their own characteristics. However, a separate chapter will be dedicated to the Capital Region consisting together of Seoul and Gyeonggi-do province.
Administratively, city local autonomous government organization has subunits of district (gu) and neighborhood (dong), while the provincial level autonomous government administration has a two-tiered subunit organization consisting of cities (si) and counties (gun). Among cities (si) that fall administratively under a province, there are both those that are further subdivided into autonomous districts (gu) and those that are not. Those cities with districts fall into a four-level administrative organization: province (do) city (si) district (gu) neighborhood (dong). Those smaller cities without autonomous district subdivisions fall under a given county (gun), such that they fall within a three-level administrative organization: county (gun) city (si) neighborhood (dong). Counties (gun) fall under a four-level administrative organization of province (do) county (gun) town/township (eup/myeon) village (ri). In terms of population, the unit termed a metropolitan city should have a population of at least one million, while a city must have between 50,000 and one million. In order to be subdivided into autonomous district (gu) units (and thus move out from under the administration of a county), a city must have at least 500,000 residents. In order for a myeon (township) to be elevated to the higher eup (town), it must have at least 20,000 residents.
The year 1995 saw the birth of a new form of city called the “urban-rural integrated city.” All cities that in the past had been detached from a county (gun) were administratively reintegrated into that county. However, like counties, these cities can also have subordinate town/townships/villages (eup/myeon/dong). For instance, one can find an administrative hierarchy of province (integrated) city neighborhood (dong); or province (integrated) city town (eup) village (ri); or even province (integrated) city township (myeon) village (ri). Though there are provincial cities that have districts (gu), these fall within the hierarchy of province city district (gu) neighborhood (dong). Though somewhat complex, Korea’s three-tier administration system of Special City/Metropolitan City/Self-Governing City-County-Neighborhood or Province-City-Neighborhood exists alongside the four-tiered Province-City/County-Township-Town/Neighborhood/Village administrative structure.
- North Korea observes a different Romanization system, Romanizing its nine provinces as Pyongannam-do, Pyonganbuk-do, Hamgyongnam-do, Hamgyongbuk-do, Hwanghaenam-do, Hwanghaebuk-do, Kangwon-do, Chagang-do, and Ryanggang-do. However, to avoid confusion only the official South Korean Romanization is used here.