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Lower League Primer and FA Cup Changes


This year will see the Korean Football Association introduce their restructured football pyramid for nation's lower divisions. Guest writer Jake Hevican takes a look at the history of these leagues and outlines how the new pyramid will function from 2020.
(image via Hwaseong FC's Official Facebook)



With the start of the new K League season fast approaching, it’s a good time to talk about the new football structure going forward from 2020. The Korean FA have decided to restructure the entirety of their semi-professional leagues in a bid to create a possible future promotion and relegation system between the first and fourth tier, within the next few years.

For the last 15 years, there had been two or three tiers of semi-professional football, below the K League 1 and K League 2; The Korean National League and the K3 League Advanced and Basic.

Korean National League

Calling this competition a ‘third-tier’ is ceremonial. This league had no promotion or relegation and was essentially a self-contained league. When it was founded in 2003, the KFA had hoped to create a system that allowed promotion and relegation between the K League 2, creating a full three-tier system with promotion and relegation. In 2006, it was agreed that the winner would be promoted to the K League 2, assuming they could meet certain financial obligations.

However when Goyang KB Kookmin Bank won the league, they rejected the chance at promotion due to the financial issues they would likely attain. After some discussion between the KFA and Goyang, the KFA decided to give Goyang a point deduction for the following season for their refusal.

In the following year, teams needed to sign an agreement that they would seek promotion if they were to win the league, to try and stop this issue again. But in 2007, after Ulsan Hyundai Mipo Dolphin won the league, they also rejected the chance of promotion despite them signing the agreement at the beginning of the year.

Ever since then, the KFA decided to pause any promotion plans from the Korean National League for the foreseeable future and it has been very isolated since. It has only been made up of eight teams for the past few seasons and they were all some sort of governmental department team.

K3 League Advanced & Basic

The fourth and fifth tier of Korean football is a little simpler but has had the most changes over the years. The league started in 2007 as the K3 League and was the fourth tier of Korean football, below the Korean National League. The first campaign in 2008 was a two-part season with 16 teams. The winners and runners up of the first half and the second half of the year went to a championship playoff to decide the winner.

The 2009 season changed to a more traditional league format, with each team playing each other twice and the team finishing top of the league were crowned the winners. The format was adjusted again in 2010, opting for splitting the 16 teams into two groups. Each team in group A would play each other twice, then one game against each team in group B, with group B doing the same within its own group. The two group winners would then play each other in a playoff to determine the league winner.

This format seemed to stick for a few years until 2015; two new teams were added to the league for a total of 18 teams; nine teams per group. The final change happened due to a future format change in 2017.

The 2016 campaign combined all 18 teams with two additional new clubs for a 20 team league. The top 11 teams then became the K3 League Advanced for the 2017 season and the bottom nine became the K3 League Basic, the fifth tier, for the 2017 season. The KFA also added a promotion and relegation system between the Advanced and the Basic league. This remained for the 2018 and 2019 season.

2020 Season And Onwards

Now onto the changes for the 2020 season. The Korean National League has been abolished, probably never to be seen again. The K League Advanced has now been named the K3 League and the K League Basic is now the K4 League. This is now a better recognised third and fourth tier, still including promotion and relegation between them.

K3 League

The K3 league now consists of 16 teams; the eight teams that were in the now abolished Korean National League, plus eight teams from the old K League Advanced and K League Basic. These were selected from the Advanced and Basic leagues based on being able to meet certain criteria. 

The first criteria was choosing sides from the Advanced league based on their league position in 2019. The second criteria was that certain rules and regulations needed to be followed to be allowed into the K3 League, such as having at least 20 players on a minimum salary. Some teams were not able to follow the regulations so close to the start of a new season, so had to yield a position in the K3 League and allow someone from the Basic league to take that spot.

This league will have a four-team championship at the end of the year to determine a winner. Fourth place will play third place. The winner will then play second place with the winner of that game playing the team in first. The winner of that final game will be crowned the K3 League champions. The teams that finish in 15th and 16th will be relegated and whoever finishes in 14th has to go to a relegation playoff with a team from the K3 League.

K4 League

The K4 League was then formed with 13 teams. It is made up of the remaining clubs from the Advanced and Basic league, minus four teams that folded (FC Uijeongbu, Buyeo FC, Busan FC and Pyeongchang FC) and the addition of two that are newly formed (FC Namdong and Jinju Civic FC). Those that finish in first and second are automatically promoted and the clubs in third and fourth go to a playoff between them, with the eventual winner playing the team that finished 14th in the K3 League for a chance to get promoted.

[READ: K3 and K4 Teams Confirmed]

Professional And Amateur Status

As of 2020, the Korean leagues are much more streamlined. The K League 1 and K League 2 remain unchanged and are the two professional full-time leagues. They both have promotion and relegation between them. The K3 League and K4 League are the two rebranded systems, and are now the semi-professional leagues. This is now officially the third and fourth tier of Korean football. They also have promotion and relegation between them.

There are plans in the next five years to create a promotion and relegation system between the K League 2 and the K3 League and with the new restructuring, this may actually become a reality sooner rather than later.

During this restructuring, the KFA also rebranded the leagues below the fourth level. The fifth tier has been renamed the K5 League. This consists of 65 teams split over 11 ‘provincial’ leagues. The sixth tier has been renamed the K6 League, which is 174 teams split over 27 ‘city’ leagues. And finally, the seventh tier has been renamed the K7 League. This contains 960 teams split between 160 ‘city district’ leagues.

These three tiers are now the official amateur leagues in the Korean football system. They also have their own promotion and relegation system between all three of them.

FA Cup Changes

The KFA has also changed the Korean FA Cup structure for the foreseeable future. The new system will no longer include the university U-League and it is being reduced to 60 teams. The four clubs that qualify for the Asian Champions League will also enter the competition later than usual, to allow them to concentrate on the continental competitions more during the group stages. It is also going to include 11 amateur teams from the K5 League system, a way of introducing more adult teams to the competition.

There will also be seven rounds from now on, one less round than previous years. The two-leg final and semi-finals will remain from 2019 with a game at each team’s stadium.

FA Cup 2020 Structure


  • The first round will start with the bottom ten teams from the K3 League in the previous season, 11 of the 13 teams from the K4 League (the documentation is not clear on which two teams will not get a spot) and the top team from each of the 11 K5 Provincial Leagues. This will be 32 clubs, reduced to 16 winners. This round was initially set to take place on March 16th but this has since been postponed due the COVID 19 virus and a date is to be decided.
  • The second round will include the 16 winners from the previous round plus the remaining six K3 and all ten K League 2 teams. This will again be 32 teams, reduced to 16 winners. This round was set to be played on March 28th but has also been postponed with a date to be decided.
  • The third round will be the previous 16 winners plus the eight clubs in K League 1 that didn’t qualify for the Asian Champions League. This will be 24 clubs, whittled down to 12 winners. This round will be played on April 8th.
  • The fourth round will then be the 12 winners from the previous round, plus the four ACL qualified teams. A total of 16, reduced to eight. There is a bit of a gap between this and the previous round here as this will be played on July 1st.
  • The fifth round is the quarter-final, no changes here. Eight teams, four winners. To be played on July 22nd.
  • The sixth round is the penultimate round and will consist of two legs, a game at each team's stadium. Four teams go in, two will come out. These games will be played on August 5th and August 12th respectively.
  • The seventh-round is the final round; The FA Cup final. This will once again be a two-legged affair, with a leg played at each team's stadium. It isn’t known yet when they will play due to the possible ACL final participation. 


With all the alterations to both the FA Cup and the league, this should help streamline the Korean football system and hopefully breed more competitiveness within the Semi-Pro leagues. And with the probable addition of the top four tiers having a proper promotion and relegation system between them within the next five years, and also with amateur adult teams having a small place in the FA Cup, it is hopeful that Korean football as a whole can improve, both at the top and at the grass-root level.


K League United would once again like to thank Jake Hevican for contributing this article. If you are interested in contributing to K League United as a guest writer, please don't hesitate to contact us via email.

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