South Korea - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about South Korea: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


South Korea

South Korea, country in northeastern Asia that occupies the southern portion of the Korea Peninsula; officially known as the Republic of Korea. South Korea is bounded on the north by North Korea; on the east by the East Sea (Sea of Japan); on the southeast and south by the Korea Strait, which separates it from Japan; and on the west by the Yellow Sea. The capital and largest city is Seoul.

The nation of South Korea was established in 1948 following the post-World War II partitioning of Korea between the occupying forces of the United States in the south and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the north. After the Korean War (1950-1953), South Korea rose from devastation to become one of the world’s largest economies in the 1990s.


South Korea occupies the southern half of the Korea Peninsula, which extends about 1,000 km (about 620 mi) southward from northeastern China. The total area of South Korea is 99,268 sq km (38,328 sq mi), including about 3,000 islands.

South Korea is a mountainous country. Lowlands, located primarily in the west and southeast, constitute only 30 percent of the total land area. South Korea can be divided into three general regions: an eastern region of high mountain ranges and narrow coastal plains; a western region of broad coastal plains, river basins, and rolling hills; and a southern region, where a maze of mountains and valleys in the west contrasts with the broad basin of the Nakdong River in the southeast.

Halla-san, an extinct volcano that forms Jeju Island, is the country’s highest point at 1,950 m (6,398 ft). Jeju Island is located about 100 km (about 60 mi) off the southern coast of South Korea. It is the country’s largest island, with an area of 1,845 sq km (712 sq mi).

The Taebaek range forms the country’s principal mountain system. It extends in a generally north-south direction parallel to the eastern coast. Four other mountain ranges extend from the Taebaek range, including the Sobaek range, the country’s second largest mountain system. The Sobaek range branches southwestward from the Taebaek range, dividing the southern part of the country. The highest peak of the mainland, Jiri-san (1,915 m/6,283 ft), rises in the southern portion of the Sobaek range. The mountain ranges of the mainland formed through geologic folding, in contrast to the volcanic origin of Halla-san. The mainland has no volcanic activity, and earthquakes are rare.

Rivers of South Korea

The major rivers of South Korea flow generally east to west, where they empty into the Yellow Sea, or north to south, where they empty into the Korea Strait. The country’s two longest rivers are the Han and the Nakdong, both originating in the Taebaek range and each flowing more than 500 km (more than 300 mi). The Han flows northwest, passing through Seoul and emptying into the Yellow Sea. The Nakdong flows south and empties into the Korea Strait at Busan, the country’s principal port. Another major river is the Geum, which flows through the city of Daejeon in the west central region and into the Yellow Sea. The expansive river basins of the Han, Nakdong, and Geum are the most densely settled and extensively cultivated areas of the country.

Coastline of South Korea

The coast of South Korea extends about 2,400 km (1,500 mi) and forms all but the northern border. The coast is intricately indented in the west and south, with many peninsulas and natural harbors, but is relatively smooth in the east. The eastern coast on the East Sea is much higher in overall elevation than the western coast on the Yellow Sea. Movements of Earth’s crust are slowly uplifting the eastern side of the Korea Peninsula (see Plate Tectonics). In the east the Taebaek range rises near the coast, creating a narrow coastal plain characterized by steep, rocky bluffs. The western coast is comparatively low-lying. It has extremely high tidal ranges (difference in water level between high and low tides) of up to 9 m (30 ft) and vast areas of tidal flats, some of which have been reclaimed from the sea. The southern coast is noted for its scenic peninsulas. About 3,000 islands, most of which are small and uninhabited, lie off the western and southern coasts.

Climate in South Korea

South Korea has a temperate climate, with four distinct seasons. Winters are cold and windy, and snow falls in all but the southernmost regions. Summers are hot, humid, and rainy. The weather in South Korea is affected by the Asian continent and the surrounding seas. The Asian monsoon (large-scale wind systems that reverse direction seasonally) brings frigid air from the Arctic in winter and warm, moisture-laden air from the South China Sea in summer.

In Seoul the average January temperature range is -7° to 1°C (19° to 33°F), and the average July temperature range is 22° to 29°C (71° to 83°F). Winter temperatures are higher along the southern coast and considerably lower in the mountainous interior.

The average annual precipitation in Seoul is 1,370 mm (54 in), and in Busan it is 1,470 mm (58 in). Rainfall is concentrated in the summer months (June to September). The southern coast is subject to late summer typhoons that bring strong winds and heavy rains.

Plants and Animals in South Korea

Mixed deciduous and coniferous forests cover about three-quarters of the land. Most of the country’s old-growth forests were cleared over many centuries for use as firewood and building materials, but they have rebounded since the 1970s as the result of intensive reforestation efforts. The country’s few remaining old-growth forests are protected in nature reserves.

Protected areas make up about 4 percent of South Korea and include more than a dozen national parks. One of the world’s most interesting wildlife sanctuaries has developed in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a border zone that has separated South Korea and North Korea since 1953. The uninhabited zone, about 4 km (about 2.5 mi) wide for most of its length, has become a haven for many kinds of wildlife, particularly migrating birds.

Principal species of trees in South Korea include pine, fir, acacia, maple, elm, poplar, and aspen. Bamboo, laurel, and evergreen oak are found in the mild southern coastal areas. Fruit trees include apple, pear, and persimmon. Woody, evergreen shrubs such as azaleas and rhododendrons are found throughout the peninsula. Another shrub, rose of Sharon, is a hardy species of hibiscus that blooms continually from July through October. It is the national flower of South Korea, where it is known as mugunghwa (Korean for “eternal flower”).

Large mammals such as tigers, bears, and lynx were once abundant throughout the Korea Peninsula but have virtually disappeared due to human settlement, loss of forest habitat, and overhunting. The Siberian tiger has not been sighted in the wild in South Korea since the 1920s; the Asiatic black bear can still be found in some remote mountain areas. Several species of deer are indigenous to the peninsula, including the roe deer, water deer, and Siberian musk deer. The musk deer, which has been overhunted for its musk glands, is legally protected as a threatened species. Smaller mammals indigenous to the peninsula include the wild boar, red fox, badger, rabbit, squirrel, and chipmunk.

Many species of birds inhabit South Korea. The crested lark and several types of woodpecker are found only on the Korea Peninsula. The black-billed magpie is the national bird and commonly sighted. Other common birds include the jay, sparrow, robin, cuckoo, dove, pheasant, snowy egret, sea hawk, and seagull. The country is located on the migratory routes of birds such as geese, ducks, and swans that summer in northern China and Siberia and winter in warm southern climates. Most of these birds stop in South Korea on their way to or from more southern destinations, but the red-crowned crane (also known as the Siberian crane) winters in South Korea’s rice-paddy fields and grassy tidal flats from November or December through March. (Some of these birds also winter in China.) The crane is classified as endangered and is strictly protected.

Mineral Resources in South Korea

In contrast to North Korea, South Korea is relatively poor in mineral resources. The principal resources are coal (mostly anthracite), iron ore, and graphite. Other minerals include zinc, tungsten, lead, copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum. Limestone is abundant.

Environmental Issues in South Korea

South Korea’s rapid industrialization during the second half of the 20th century dramatically increased pollution levels in the country. Heavy industries became the primary contributors to air and water pollution. Industrial development entailed massive land-reclamation projects, drainage of wetlands, and damming of rivers. Population densities increased rapidly in cities where industries were located, creating urban congestion and demand for additional development. All of these factors put enormous pressures on the natural environment.

In South Korea, as in many other newly industrialized nations, environmental regulations and monitoring lagged behind the pace of development. A grassroots environmental movement emerged in South Korea in the 1980s to respond to growing public concern over health issues related to industrial pollution. In the 1990s the government became more responsive to public health concerns and began to enforce higher environmental standards.

The country’s waterways became highly polluted in the 1970s from industrial effluents, untreated sewage, and widespread soil erosion. Deforested mountainsides eroded at an alarming rate, silting rivers and streams. The health of many waterways improved dramatically by the mid-1990s, mainly due to the construction of modern sewage-treatment plants and an intensive reforestation effort. The Han River, which flows through Seoul, was once extremely polluted but is now a symbol of successful environmental cleanup and a popular recreational site.

In the 1990s automobiles outpaced industrial complexes as the principle source of urban air pollution. Smog, a mixture of airborne pollutants and fog, is a chronic problem in Seoul and other large cities. To help improve air quality in urban areas, the government has promoted the replacement of diesel-fueled buses with those that burn natural gas.

At the regional level, South Korea faces issues arising from environmental degradation throughout East Asia. South Korea and many of its regional neighbors suffer from acid rain, a type of air pollution that can occur hundreds of miles away from its source. The impact of increasing desertification and industrialization in China is of growing concern in South Korea. In recent years, huge dust storms from China’s expanding Gobi and Takla Makan deserts blew through China’s rapidly industrializing cities, mixing with toxic pollutants, and into South Korea, causing severe air-quality problems.

South Korea has ratified international treaties protecting biodiversity, endangered species, wetlands, and the ozone layer. The country has also signed treaties limiting hazardous waste and marine pollution.


The population of South Korea is 48,508,972 (2009 estimate). The country’s population density of 494 persons per sq km (1,279 per sq mi) is one of the highest in the world. The majority of the population lives in the southern and western parts of the country.

The annual rate of population increase in South Korea has dropped steadily from more than 3 percent in the late 1950s to 0.27 percent in 2009. Urbanization of the country has proceeded rapidly since the 1960s, with substantial migration from rural to urban areas; 81 percent of the population is now classified as urban.

Following the official division of the Korea Peninsula in 1948, about 4 million people from North Korea crossed the border to South Korea. This sudden population increase was partly offset over the next 40 years by emigration from South Korea, especially to Japan and the United States. However, South Korea’s burgeoning economy and improved political climate in the early and mid-1990s slowed the high emigration rates typical of the late 1980s. Many of those who emigrated chose to return to South Korea.

Principal Cities of South Korea

The country’s largest city, national capital, and chief industrial center is Seoul, located in the northwest. Other major cities include Busan, the country’s principal seaport, in the southeast; Daegu, the principal commercial and manufacturing center of the south; Incheon, the major port on the Yellow Sea, near Seoul; Gwangju, the principal transportation and commercial center of the southwest; and Daejeon, a transportation hub for the west-central agricultural area and a center of science and technology. Also significant is the southeastern city of Gyeongju, which was the capital of the Silla kingdom that established unified rule of the Korea Peninsula in AD 668.

Ethnic Groups in South Korea

South Korea, like North Korea, is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. Almost all of its people are ethnically Korean. Koreans are the descendants of Neolithic people who began to migrate to the Korea Peninsula from the northeastern Asia mainland, including the Siberian region, as early as 5000 BC. These people replaced earlier Paleolithic cultures that had inhabited some areas of the peninsula for about 40,000 years. See also Stone Age.

People of Chinese descent make up the country’s largest minority group. The resident population also includes a growing number of foreign nationals, which include migrant laborers from South and Southeast Asia, as well as business people, diplomats, and other professionals from many parts of the world.

Languages spoken in South Korea

South Korea’s national language is Korean, a distinct language that linguists have not firmly categorized in any language grouping, although it is most often included in the Altaic language family. Of all languages, Korean is most similar in grammar to Japanese. Because of a long history of contacts with China, the Korean vocabulary contains many Chinese words. Korean is written in a unique phonetic script known as Hangeul (called Chosŏn’gŭl in North Korea), which was introduced in 1446 under King Sejong of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910).

The Korean language did not have its own alphabet before the invention of Hangeul. Until then, the Korean language was written in a modified Chinese script. The Chinese ideographs, or characters, represent words and meanings rather than pronunciation. Because they were developed for a completely different language, they did not reflect the sounds and grammar of Korean. For this reason, King Sejong commissioned a group of scholars to invent Hangeul, a script composed of phonetic symbols that accurately represent spoken Korean.

Although sophisticated, Hangeul is easily learned, as King Sejong had intended in order to increase literacy among all classes in Korea. Chinese characters remained the more prestigious, and preferred, script of the educated elite until the 20th century, when Hangeul was widely adopted in South Korea as a symbol of national identity. Today, written Korean often combines Hangeul symbols with some Chinese characters.

Religion in South Korea

Buddhism and Christianity are the largest religions in South Korea. However, many South Koreans do not adhere to any one religion and in practice often combine different belief systems in their lives. As a result, religious distinctions are often blurred.

Confucianism, more a moral philosophy than a religion, is in many ways more prominent in Korean culture than any organized religion. Confucianism was introduced from China as much as 2,000 years ago. Many of its teachings are an integral thread in the social and moral fabric of South Korea. Confucianism is evident in practices such as giving priority to education and respect to elders, as well as the performance of memorial ceremonies for ancestors.

The Mahayana form of Buddhism was introduced from India by way of China in the 4th century. Successive Korean kingdoms recognized Buddhism as the official religion from the early 500s until 1392, when the Chosŏn dynasty began to promote Neo-Confucianism as the state ideology and discourage the practice of Buddhism. Today Buddhism is prevalent throughout South Korea, and there are many Buddhist monasteries and temples. Sŏn Buddhism, which emphasizes meditation, originated in China as Chan Buddhism and was eventually transferred from Korea to Japan, where it became known as Zen Buddhism.

Daoism (Taoism), known in Korean as To-gyo (the Way), is a mystical philosophy also introduced from China about the same time as Buddhism. Many of its principles emphasizing harmony with nature, simplicity, purity, and longevity are evident in Korean culture.

Korea was officially closed to Christian missionaries until 1882, although knowledge of Christianity was evident well before then. Membership in various Christian denominations has grown considerably since the 1950s, and today South Korea is the most Christianized country in East Asia. About three-quarters of South Korea’s Christians are Protestant, while most of the remainder are Roman Catholic.

Hundreds of so-called new religions have been founded in South Korea. Most of these new religions are syncretic, meaning they blend different belief systems. One of the most prominent is the Unification Church, founded in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon. The oldest of the new religions is Ch’ŏndogyo (Teaching of the Heavenly Way), founded in 1860. It fuses elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and shamanism.

Korean shamanism has its roots in the ancient cultures of northeastern Asia. It is the indigenous belief system and is recognized in South Korea as an important aspect of cultural heritage. Based in animistic beliefs, shamanism emphasizes the performance of healing and divination ceremonies (kut) by shamans (spiritual mediums) called mudang, most of whom are women. Although shamanism is not an organized religion, many South Koreans consult shamans when experiencing illness or other difficulties. In addition, shamanism’s precept that every natural object has a soul is a widely held belief in South Korea.

Education in South Korea

South Korea has a high literacy rate, as 98 percent of the adult population can read and write. Primary education is free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 14. Secondary education consists of three years of middle school and three years of high school. In the 2006 school year some 3.9 million pupils were enrolled annually in kindergarten and elementary schools and 3.9 million in middle and high schools, including vocational high schools. Private schools play an important role, especially above the primary level.

There are more than 300 institutions of higher education in the country, with a total annual enrollment of 3.2 million students. The principal universities are Korea University (founded in 1905), Seoul National University (1946), Ewha Women’s University (1886), and Yonsei University (1885), all in Seoul. Major universities, both private and public, are also located in provincial capitals.


Historically, Korea was strongly influenced by Chinese culture and acted as a conduit of culture from China to Japan. Koreans adapted many Chinese art forms with innovation and skill, creating distinctively Korean forms. For many centuries, metalwork, sculpture, painting, and ceramics flourished throughout the Korea Peninsula. Buddhism provided one of the most significant sources for artistic expression. Confucianism, also prominent, emphasized the importance of literature and calligraphy, as well as portrait and landscape painting.

Koreans began to incorporate Western forms after Korea opened itself to the Western world in the late 1800s. During the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), indigenous traditions were strongly discouraged. Since then, however, Koreans have made a concerted effort to keep their cultural traditions alive. Koreans possess a deep appreciation for their cultural heritage. The government encourages the traditional arts, as well as modern forms, through funding and education programs as well as sponsorship of a national competitive exhibition each year.

Korean cultural development is generally divided into periods coinciding with political development: the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC-AD 668), the Unified Silla period (668-935), the Koryŏ (Goryeo) period (918-1392), the Chosŏn (Joseon) period (1392-1910), and the modern period (1910-present). For an overview of these political periods, see Korea.

Literature in South Korea

Korean literature can be classified chronologically into classical and modern periods. Korean classical literature combined indigenous folk traditions with the religious and philosophical principles of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. A male-dominated educated elite developed the classical body of literature from earliest times to the end of the Chosŏn dynasty in 1910. They wrote in the Chinese script. The Korean script, Hangeul, was introduced in 1446 but did not gain widespread acceptance as a literary language until the 20th century. The accessibility of Hangeul to all classes expanded the social base of Korean literature during the modern period.

Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla

The earliest surviving examples of literature appearing in Korean sources are the hyangga (native songs), which arose out of an ancient oral literary tradition and have both religious and folk overtones. Only 25 hyangga, some originally composed as early as the 6th century, are known to survive; 14 are preserved in an early historical text, Samguk-yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, 1285).

Buddhism became the dominant system of thought during the Unified Silla period and exercised great influence over literature and art. At the same time, the rise of Confucianism stimulated the use of Chinese as a literary language and promoted study of the Chinese classics. Hanshi—poetry composed in classical Chinese and following Chinese principles of poetry, but written by Koreans—became widespread among the literary elite of the Unified Silla.

Koryŏ and Chosŏn

Buddhism remained a major influence in the literary development of the Koryŏ period. In 1236 King Kojong of the Koryŏ dynasty ordered Buddhist monks to record the entire Mahayana Buddhist canon (a collection of sutras, treatises, and commentaries known as the Tripitaka) to provide divine protection against Mongol invasions from the north (see Mongol Empire). Utilizing traditional block-printing methods, monks carved the text in the Chinese script in relief on more than 81,000 wood blocks, totaling 6,791 volumes. Today the original collection, considered to be the most complete rendering of the Mahayana Tripitaka in the world, is preserved at the Haeinsa Buddhist temple in southern South Korea, and the wood blocks continue to be used for printing the sacred texts.

Literature assumed increasing importance during the Koryŏ and Chosŏn periods, when educated civil servants called yangban replaced the hereditary ruling elite. In the tradition of Confucianism, the yangban were selected by a national examination that required mastery of literature, among other subjects. Their works constitute the majority of recorded Korean literature from the Koryŏ and Chosŏn periods.

The sijo, a lyrical poem with simple yet sophisticated three-stanza construction, emerged in the early 13th century, during the Koryŏ period, and subsequently flourished in the Chosŏn period. Early sijo expressed Confucian ideals using themes from nature, while later examples incorporated elements of satire and humor. Renowned sijo poets include Hwang Chin-i, an educated courtesan of the 16th century who is considered the foremost female Korean poet, and Yun Sŏn-do, a master of the form who lived from 1587 to 1671. The writing of sijo has endured into the 21st century and, much like Japanese haiku, has gained international popularity.

Modern Period

In the modern period, dating from the early 20th century, Korean writers adapted many different Western literary influences—notably realism, existentialism, and surrealism—in their efforts to express a series of difficult national experiences: Japanese colonial rule, the partition of Korea and ensuing Korean War, and a period of authoritarian rule. One of the most important achievements of modern Korean literature is the 16-volume epic novel T’oji (The Land), written by Park Kyŏng-ni over a period of 25 years (1969 to 1994). The work presents a vivid panorama of Korea from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.

Art in South Korea

Contemporary Korean artists employ both traditional and Western forms in their works. Traditional handicrafts such as lacquerwork (often inlaid with mother-of-pearl), embroidery, and ceramics are produced for artistic and commercial purposes. Modern Korean art draws on a long history of cultural development and artistic achievement.

Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla

Korean art was produced primarily for religious purposes during the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC to AD 668). Gilt bronze statues depicting the Buddha and other deities demonstrated Korean skill in metallurgy. Royal burial tombs contained ornately crafted gold crowns, jewelry, and other ornaments with crescent-shaped jade pendants. The design of these pieces suggests that ancient shamanistic influences remained strong in Korean culture after the introduction of Buddhism in the 4th century.

Koreans produced a rich variety of metal, stone, and ceramic works during the Unified Silla period, which ended in 935. A bronze bell made in 771 for King Sŏngdŏk of the Silla dynasty ranks as one of Asia’s largest cast-bronze bells. Temple building proliferated, most notably in the area of the Silla capital, Gyeongju. The Sŏkkuram cave temple, built high on a mountain ridge near Gyeongju in the 8th century, contains a remarkable example of a seated Buddha carved from granite.


Artisans of the Unified Silla period attained the technology for highly refined, glazed stoneware. This development laid the foundation for the ceramics of the following Koryŏ period, when artisans achieved an unsurpassed level of skill in the green-glaze stoneware called celadon.


The art of the Chŏson period is noted for the development of landscape painting, exemplified in the works of Chŏng Sŏn, notably The Diamond Mountains. Paintings also documented important historical events, such as battles and foreign diplomatic visits. Calligraphy in Chinese characters, practiced since the Three Kingdoms period, gained importance. Calligraphy and painting flourished among the educated elite until the early 16th century. During the Chosŏn period, the Neo-Confucian state ideology discouraged the practice of Buddhism, which had long been a source of artistic inspiration. Many art forms, including ceramics, became more utilitarian, with few embellishments. In the early 20th century, Western influences infused Korean art with new concepts and methods.

Architecture in South Korea

Korean architecture incorporates Eastern philosophical principles that emphasize harmony with nature and the universe. It is believed that architecture based in these principles can foster social and political harmony as well. Temple architecture followed forms introduced from China. One of South Korea’s renowned Buddhist temples, Pulguksa, was built in the 8th century under the royal patronage of the Silla kingdom, which formally adopted Buddhism in the 6th century.

The three surviving royal palaces in South Korea date from the Chosŏn period and are located in Seoul, the capital of the Chosŏn dynasty. Changdeok Palace, originally constructed in 1405, is the best-preserved palace and a World Heritage Site. Korean palaces largely followed Chinese models. They were built of wood, with stone foundations and tile-covered rooftops that extended beyond the main structure to form broad eaves. The undersides of the eaves were colorfully painted in intricate designs.

During the period of Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, many historic sites and artifacts were destroyed or confiscated. Western influences became more predominant. Since the Korean War (1950-1953), which also damaged historic sites, many monuments have been reconstructed, and priority is given to their continued preservation.

See also Korean Art and Architecture.

Music and Dance in South Korea

Traditional Forms

South Korea has a rich oral tradition consisting of lyric folk songs, shaman chants, myths, legends, and folktales. Korean folk songs are diverse and numerous. They include ceremonial and work songs as well as popular songs about everyday life. “Arirang,” one of South Korea’s best-known folk songs, has numerous variations.

Lyrical or narrative, folk songs are accompanied by lively and emotive music played by percussion instruments such as drums, cymbals, and gongs; and the oboe (a double-reed wind instrument). One type of traditional song, the p’ansori, is a lengthy narrative that runs through several episodes and can continue for several hours. Accompanied by the beat of an hourglass drum, p’ansori is both spoken and sung.

Ritual shaman music accompanies chants that are intended to induce a trance state in the shaman (mudang), a religious figure who is thought to commune with spirits. The mudang ritual performances rely heavily on dance and music, as well as colorful costumes and other props.

Formal types of music and dance were first performed for the royal court of the Silla kingdom, and succeeding dynasties continued this tradition. Today various troupes perform court music and dance. Types of songs include the kagok, a long lyrical song, the kasa, a slow narrative song, and the sijo, a musical rendition of Korean sijo poems.

Sandae-guk (mountain performance) is an improvised masked drama that features complex dances drawn from shamanism and songs based on folk music. Originally developed for the royal court, the form lost favor with the Chosŏn rulers in 1634. Thereafter it gained great popularity in rural areas, employing satire and bawdy humor to criticize the ruling class. See also Asian Theater.

Western Forms

Western schools of music and dance are a more recent tradition in South Korea. The National Dance Company, founded in 1962, embraced modern dance and classical ballet genres. In 1973 the National Ballet Company was formed out of the National Dance Company, which then focused solely on modern dance. A private ballet company, Universal Ballet, was established in 1984. European modern ballet and American ballet styles, such as the neoclassicism of George Balanchine, became influential in the late 1980s. Modern dance has followed Western styles, including the highly expressive style of Martha Graham, introduced in South Korea in the 1960s, and a playful and satirical French style introduced in the 1980s. The Changmu Dance Company has pioneered experimental dance forms.

Cultural Institutions in South Korea

The Seoul Arts Center is the national performing arts center and houses five resident companies: the National Opera, the National Ballet, the National Chorus, the Seoul Performing Arts Company, and the Korean Symphony Orchestra. The center features five state-of-the-art facilities: the Music Hall and Calligraphy Hall (both opened in 1988), the Art Gallery and Arts Library (1990), and the Opera House (1993).

Several museums are located in Seoul. The National Museum, founded in Seoul in 1945, has an extensive collection of Korean archaeological, cultural, and folklore artifacts. Branches of the museum are located in eight other major cities. Seoul is also home to the National Museum of Modern Art, the National Folklore Museum, and the War Memorial Museum.

The National Library of Korea, headquartered in Seoul with branches throughout the country, houses a collection of more than 4 million volumes. The libraries of Seoul National University and Yonsei University each contain more than 1 million volumes, including important Korean archives.


South Korea’s economy was traditionally based on agriculture but experienced extraordinarily rapid industrialization beginning in the early 1960s. After the Korean War (1950-1953), economic aid, especially from the United States, was important to the economic recovery of the country. Subsequently, the government of South Korea gave priority to the development of manufacturing, which was driven by export-led growth. In the span of a generation, South Korea grew from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of its most promising industrial powers.

Since the late 1980s, the government has allowed market forces to determine economic development. Previously, the government had exerted strong influence through a series of five-year economic plans, which had promoted industrialization. To achieve the goals of these plans, the government directly intervened in the economy by offering strong incentives to businesses, regulating foreign exchange, and implementing highly centralized fiscal policies.

South Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) expanded by more than 9 percent yearly between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s. By the mid-1990s economists referred to South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan as Asia’s “Four Tigers” because they rapidly achieved high economic growth and a standard of living among the highest in the world. Nevertheless, South Korea was one of many Asian countries that suffered economic decline during a regional economic crisis in 1997 and 1998. During the crisis, several of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, called chaebol, went bankrupt and collapsed.

The economic crisis highlighted underlying structural weaknesses in South Korea’s economy. Close links between government, banks, and chaebol had allowed the conglomerates to borrow heavily from domestic financial institutions to help them finance high-risk investments. In consequence, the chaebol accrued extremely high levels of debt. The collapse of chaebol, which created a high incidence of nonperforming loans, caused havoc in the banking sector. Meanwhile, the value of the national currency plummeted, losing more than half its value by the end of 1997, and inflation and unemployment soared.

In December 1997 South Korea accepted one of the largest aid packages ever arranged with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The terms of the aid package required South Korea to pursue economic reform, including restructuring of the corporate and financial sectors. The South Korean government transferred government-owned assets to the private sector, opened the domestic market to more foreign competition, and required chaebol to lower their debt-to-equity ratios. The country’s economy recovered in 1999 and sustained growth into the early 2000s. In addition, South Korea repaid all its IMF emergency loans by mid-2001.

In 2007 South Korea’s annual budget figures showed revenues of $257.9 billion and expenditures of $195.4 billion. The GDP in 2007 stood at $969.8 billion.

Labor in South Korea

In 2007 the total labor force was 24 million. Of this figure, some 8 percent were engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing; 27 percent in industry; and 65 percent in services. Women make up 41 percent of the labor force. The principal labor organization is the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, with a membership of about 1.5 million.

Agriculture of South Korea

Land distribution programs were carried out in South Korea in the late 1940s, creating an agricultural system composed primarily of small, owner-operated farms. The rapid industrialization of South Korea and increasing urbanization has diminished the importance of farming to the country’s economy, and the number of families dependent on agriculture for their livelihood steadily declined beginning in the 1970s.

About 17 percent of the land in South Korea is under cultivation. More than half of the agricultural land is devoted to rice, the principal food crop. Other leading crops include soybeans, red peppers, barley, cabbages, watermelons, garlic, onions, radishes, white potatoes, red beans, corn, and sweet potatoes. Many types of fruit are grown, especially apples, oranges, grapes, persimmons, pears, and peaches. Other crops include cotton, hemp, and silk. Livestock include pigs, cattle, and goats.

Forestry and Fishing in South Korea

Since the late 1960s South Korea has become one of the world’s leading fishing nations, with a modern fleet operating in distant waters. Other vessels fish in nearby coastal waters. The ports of Ulsan and Masan have been developed as deep-sea fishing bases with fish-processing plants. The catch in 2007 was 3 million metric tons. Squid, mollusks, anchovies, tuna, walleye pollock, and mackerel make up the principal catches.

South Korea imports the majority of its lumber, but reforestation has provided some tree plantations for commercial use. The country’s timber harvest in 2007 yielded 5.2 million cubic meters (182 million cubic feet) of lumber.

Mining in South Korea

South Korea has limited mineral resources. The output of anthracite coal, the country’s leading mineral resource, was 3.3 million metric tons in 2003. Zinc ore output was 80 metric tons. Small amounts of graphite, iron ore, lead, tungsten, gold, silver, and kaolin (a fine clay) are extracted. Limestone mining is significant, with much of the yield used in the production of cement, the principal material used in new construction.

Manufacturing in South Korea

The division of the Korea Peninsula in 1948 created two unbalanced economic units. North Korea held most of the natural resources and heavy industries developed during occupation by the Japanese; South Korea contained most of the agricultural resources and a large labor pool. Industrial development in the south concentrated initially on light manufacturing of export-oriented items, especially in labor-intensive industries such as textiles and apparel, footwear, and foodstuffs. Beginning in the early 1970s, however, emphasis was placed on heavy industry. In the 1980s and 1990s Korean manufacturers branched into high-technology industries, such as computer components and semiconductors. Manufacturing is dominated by chaebol, large conglomerate companies with greatly diversified interests.

South Korea is an important producer of telecommunications and sound equipment and transportation equipment. Shipbuilding is a major industry. Other leading industries include the manufacture of chemicals, machinery, food products and beverages, basic metals, and textiles.

Energy in South Korea

Thermal facilities that primarily burn imported petroleum generated 62 percent of South Korea’s electric power in 2006. In the 1970s the country began to build nuclear power plants in an effort to lessen its dependence on imported oil, and in 2006 nuclear plants generated 37 percent of the country’s electricity. Another 1 percent came from hydroelectric installations. Annual output of electricity was 380 billion kilowatt-hours.

Transportation in South Korea

A well-developed highway system connects the major urban centers of South Korea. The country has about 100,279 km (about 62,310 mi) of main roads. The state-owned railroad system consists of 3,399 km (2,112 mi) of lines, with construction under way on a high-speed line connecting Seoul and Busan. In May 2007 passenger rail links between North and South Korea were established in a one-time trial. Although largely symbolic, many South Koreans regarded the brief resumption of passenger train traffic between the two countries as a landmark event. The country’s chief ports include Busan, Incheon, Mokpo, and Gunsan. Its merchant fleet numbers 3,001 vessels.

Korean Air Lines and Asiana Airlines provide domestic and foreign service. Incheon International Airport, which opened in April 2001, is the hub for international flights. Located 52 km (32 mi) west of downtown Seoul, the airport covers 5,600 hectares (13,800 acres) on reclaimed tidal lands between two offshore islands.

Communications in South Korea

Mass media have assumed large importance in South Korea. Freedom of the press has been constitutionally guaranteed since 1987, when a democratic system of government was instituted. This resulted in the reemergence of newspapers that had been banned under the preceding military regime, as well as the establishment of many new newspapers. South Korea has 139 daily newspapers, some with national circulation. In 2000 there were 364 televisions and 1,039 radios for every 1,000 people in South Korea. In 2005 there were 794 cellular telephone subscribers per 1,000 people.

Currency and Banking of South Korea

The unit of currency in South Korea is the won (929 won equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Bank of Korea is the bank of issue.

Foreign Trade in South Korea

Following the disruption of trade during the Korean War and its aftermath, exports increased at the remarkable annual rate of 27 percent from 1965 to 1980 and increased sixfold from 1980 to 1995. The country, with few natural resources and a relatively small domestic market, employed its skilled labor force to produce goods for export, thereby fueling its rapid economic growth. In 1996 South Korea became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international organization that works to coordinate the economic policies of industrialized nations.

Major imports (many of which are used to make goods for export) include industrial machinery, petroleum and petroleum products, electrical equipment, iron and steel, transportation equipment, and chemical products. Leading exports are electrical machinery, fabrics, road vehicles, telecommunication and sound equipment, iron and steel, metal goods, computer components, and apparel. Imports in 2007 were valued at $356.6 billion and exports were worth $371.6 billion.


South Korea has been governed under six constitutions, adopted in 1948, 1960, 1962, 1972, 1980, and 1988. Each constitution signifies a new South Korean republic. Thus, the government under the 1988 constitution is known as the Sixth Republic. The most recent constitution was approved by referendum in October 1987 and went into effect in February 1988.

Executive of South Korea

Executive power is vested in a president who is directly elected by popular vote to a nonrenewable five-year term. The president is responsible for deciding all important government policies. The president performs executive functions through the cabinet, called the State Council. The prime minister is the principal executive assistant to the president. The president appoints the prime minister with the approval of the legislature, or National Assembly. The president heads the State Council and appoints its members on the recommendations of the prime minister. The council must include at least 15 and no more than 30 government ministers, including the prime minister. The prime minister and the members of the State Council have the right to supervise the administrative ministries, deliberate major national policies, and voice opinions at meetings of the National Assembly.

The 1988 constitution imposes limits on the powers of the president. In times of national crisis, the president may take emergency measures such as imposing martial law, but such measures must be approved by the legislature. The president may not dissolve the legislature or suspend basic legal rights.

Legislature of South Korea

Legislative power is vested in the unicameral (single chamber) National Assembly. The assembly’s members are elected by a dual-ballot system in which voters cast two votes: one for a specific candidate and one for a party under proportional representation. This system was introduced in the 2004 legislative elections to allow for a more accurate reflection of party preferences. Under proportional representation, members are selected from party lists in proportion to the overall vote. All members serve four-year terms.

Judiciary in South Korea

The highest court in South Korea is the Supreme Court, consisting of 14 justices (including the chief justice). Below the Supreme Court are five appellate courts, located in Gwangju, Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, and Seoul. District courts, which are located in the major cities, have jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases of the first instance. South Korea also provides for a Constitutional Court, which passes judgment on the constitutionality of laws (when requested to do so by the courts), impeachment matters, and the dissolution of political parties.

Local Government of South Korea

For purposes of local administration, South Korea is divided into nine provinces and seven cities with provincial status. The nine provinces are Gyeonngi Province, Gangwon Province, North Chungcheong Province, South Chungcheong Province, North Gyeongsang Province, South Gyeongsang Province, North Jeolla Province, South Jeolla Province, and Jeju Province. The seven provincial cities are Incheon, Gwangju, Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, Seoul, and Ulsan. The governors of the provinces and mayors of the seven provincial cities are elected by the people every four years.

Political Parties of South Korea

The main political parties in South Korea are the liberal Uri (Our Open) Party, the conservative Grand National Party (GNP), the centrist Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), and the left-wing Democratic Labor Party (DLP).

Social Services in South Korea

In 2004 South Korea had 554 people for every physician. The government sponsors many social services, including some medical insurance programs and welfare and retirement plans.

Defense of South Korea

The president is commander in chief of the armed forces. In 2006 total active military forces stood at 687,000. Membership was as follows: army, 560,000; navy, 63,000; and air force, 64,000. Reserve forces total 4.5 million. Thousands of U.S. troops are also stationed in the country.


At the end of World War II in 1945, the Korea Peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonial rule, which had been in place since 1910. To fill the power vacuum, Soviet forces occupied the northern portion of the Korea Peninsula, and United States forces occupied the southern portion. This political division was considered only temporary, but subsequent reunification efforts failed. In 1948 the division became official when the Republic of Korea, backed by the United States and the United Nations (UN), was established south of the 38th parallel, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, backed by the Soviet Union and China, was established north of the same latitude. For the history of the Korea Peninsula before 1948, see Korea.

The Republic of Korea, commonly known as South Korea, was proclaimed on August 15, 1948. Its first president, Syngman Rhee, was elected by a legislature that had been popularly elected in May 1948. The legislative elections were sponsored and supervised by UN representatives. Left-wing groups had boycotted these elections, and virtually all the legislators were firm anti-Communists, as was their chosen president.

Unstable Beginnings

The main objective of the first South Korean government was the suppression of leftist groups, some of them independent but many supported by the Communist government of North Korea. The United States, concerned about leftist guerrilla activity and the potential of invasion from North Korea, delayed withdrawing its occupation forces in South Korea until June 1949.

However, the security situation remained extremely tenuous in the Korea Peninsula. The North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, sought to unify the Korea Peninsula under Communist rule. In June 1950 he launched a full-scale military invasion of South Korea, thereby starting the Korean War. The United States immediately gained UN Security Council support for the defense of South Korea and committed American ground troops to the war. The Korean War was ultimately one of the most destructive and deadly wars of the 20th century. Perhaps as many as 4 million Koreans died throughout the peninsula, the majority of them civilians.

During the war, South Korean president Rhee governed under martial law, and he used his power to force the legislature to adopt a constitutional amendment providing for popular election of the president. Rhee was popularly elected to a second term in 1952.

In July 1953 an armistice agreement signed by the UN, North Korea, and China—South Korea refused to sign—ended the fighting of the Korean War. Without a formal peace treaty, however, North Korea and South Korea technically remained at war. Their shared border, known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), remained heavily fortified and guarded on both sides. With the consent of South Korea, the United States continued to maintain a military presence in the country.

South Korea made a slow recovery from the war. Rhee was unable to produce any significant economic development despite much aid from the United States. He easily won reelection in 1956 and 1960, but blatant manipulation of the 1960 elections led to nationwide protests that culminated in Rhee’s forced resignation on April 27, 1960. The moderate government of John M. Chang that followed Rhee’s departure implemented liberalizing reforms in many areas, but economic development still lagged. Military leaders, fearing growing instability and wary of student agitation for talks with North Korea, staged a coup on May 16, 1961.

Military Rule under Park Chung Hee

The ruling military junta, led by Park Chung Hee, dissolved the parliament, governed by decree, and banned all political activity until October 1963, when Park was narrowly elected president. As president, Park launched economic reforms designed to industrialize South Korea. Despite widespread public opposition, Park signed a treaty with Japan in 1965, dropping Korean demands for war reparations in return for economic aid. Japanese capital soon began to flow into Korea. The country also earned foreign exchange by sending troops and contract workers to aid the United States during the Vietnam War (1959-1975). This led to a dramatic spurt of industrialization and export-oriented growth.

Little was left to chance in Park’s government. Politics were dominated by his Democratic Republican Party (DRP), which by its control of funds and patronage easily overwhelmed all opposition groups. In addition, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), responsible for intelligence and anti-North operations, carried out surveillance and intimidation of political dissidents.

In the presidential election of 1971, Park narrowly defeated the opposition candidate, Kim Dae Jung of the New Democratic Party (NDP). Park and his ruling DRP quickly moved to consolidate power before the 1973 legislative elections. In October 1972 Park’s government declared martial law, dissolved the legislature, and suspended the 1962 constitution. The following month, the government introduced a new constitution, known as the Yushin (Revitalizing Reform) constitution, which greatly expanded presidential powers and allowed Park to remain in office indefinitely.

The political opposition immediately began agitating for constitutional reforms. However, Park issued numerous emergency measures that banned activities of the political opposition. The Presidential Emergency Measure for Safeguarding National Security, issued in 1975, banned student demonstrations. Many political dissidents who agitated for constitutional reform were arrested and jailed. Even as civil rights were suppressed or violated, rapid industrialization of the country achieved spectacular economic growth. South Korea’s exports flooded Western markets, and the country ceased its dependence on foreign aid.

Regime of Chun Doo Hwan

In October 1979 military forces violently suppressed an antigovernment uprising in the southern cities of Busan and Masan. Later that month, President Park was assassinated by Kim Jae Kyu, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (now known as the National Intelligence Service). Premier Choi Kyu Hah became acting president, and the government proclaimed martial law. In December army general Chun Doo Hwan staged a coup within the armed forces, seizing control as martial law commander. Chun emerged as the dominant leader in the country, overshadowing President Choi.

Demonstrations erupted in many cities demanding an end to martial law and the adoption of a new constitution. In May 1980 Chun arrested leaders of the political opposition and banned all political activity. Despite these restrictions, political dissidents staged a pro-democracy protest that developed into a massive uprising in the city of Gwangju in mid-May. During the ensuing military crackdown, army troops killed at least two hundred civilian protesters.

In August 1980 President Choi suddenly stepped down, and Chun secured the presidency by indirect vote. A new constitution, providing for a single seven-year presidential term but also retaining many of the Yushin-type control mechanisms, went into effect in April 1981. President Chun’s regime scored a diplomatic coup when the International Olympic Committee designated Seoul as the site for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.

Democratic Reforms

Following a series of mass protests in June 1987, President Chun promised democratic reforms, including direct presidential elections. Voters adopted a new, democratic constitution in a referendum in October, and Roh Tae Woo, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP) and a longtime supporter of Chun, was elected president in December. The new constitution took effect in February 1988.

In the 1988 elections to the National Assembly, the DJP won the most seats but failed to secure a majority. The Peace and Democracy Party (PDP) of Kim Dae Jung became the main opposition party. Later that year, South Korea hosted the Summer Olympics. In 1990 the DJP merged with two other parties to form the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP). This maneuver secured the new party an absolute majority in the legislature. In March 1991 the first local elections in 30 years were held. DLP candidates won a majority of posts.

Although some democratic reforms had taken hold in South Korea, distrust of government ran deep. Students and workers regularly staged protests and strikes from 1988 to 1991. The annual anniversary of the 1980 massacre in Gwangju was commemorated with mass demonstrations that resulted in clashes between protesters and police. Public unrest escalated in 1991 with the revelation of a government bribery scandal and the beating to death of a student protester by police. In response to weeks of widespread demonstrations precipitated by the fatal beating, the government relaxed the National Security Law and reined in police activity.

In the presidential elections of December 1992, South Koreans elected Kim Young Sam, a former political dissident who had merged his opposition party into the DLP in 1990. Soon after taking office, Kim launched an anticorruption reform program that included publicizing the assets of politicians, senior civil servants, and some judiciary and military members. Resignations followed from many people whose publicized wealth was clearly disproportionate to their income levels. In December 1993 the government agreed to open the heavily protected Korean rice market to imports. The resulting public outcry, which included violent demonstrations in Seoul, led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hwang In Sung and his cabinet, although the decision to allow rice imports was not reversed.

In late 1995 Kim’s anticorruption campaign resulted in the arrest of his predecessors, Chun and Roh. They were put on trial on charges they had accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from business interests while in office. Both former presidents were subsequently put on trial for their alleged roles in the 1979 military coup that brought Chun to power and the May 1980 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Gwangju. In 1996 Chun and Roh were convicted of mutiny, sedition, and corruption. Chun received the death sentence (reduced to life imprisonment on appeal), while Roh received 22y years in prison (reduced to 17 years on appeal). In addition, their corruption convictions required them to pay millions of dollars in fines.

Meanwhile, Kim Young Sam denied allegations from the opposition that he had personally received money for his 1992 presidential campaign from Roh’s stash of illegal funds. In December 1995 Kim renamed the DLP the New Korea Party (NKP) in an effort to distance the party from its association with the military regimes of Chun and Roh.

In January 1996 Kim admitted in a televised address to the nation that before becoming president he had accepted political donations from business interests; however, he denied the funds were bribes for political favors. In late March 1996 Kim’s former aide of 20 years, Chang Hak Ro, was arrested on bribery charges, casting doubt on Kim’s anticorruption campaign just weeks before the April parliamentary elections. The NKP lost control of the National Assembly in the elections; shortly thereafter, however, it was able to recruit 11 independent legislators to regain its 150-seat majority.

Economic Crisis

In 1997 the South Korean government was rocked by further scandals, this time involving fraudulent loans, which resulted in a cabinet reshuffle. An economic crisis developed in December when investors, already shaken by a regional economic crisis in Asia, lost confidence in the debt-laden South Korean economy. The currency plummeted in value, leading to a rapid depletion of South Korea’s foreign currency reserves. This in turn threatened the ability of the government, banks, and industries to repay foreign debt. Furthermore, the unemployment rate soared as unstable businesses declared bankruptcy. In November the government accepted one of the largest aid packages ever arranged with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The agreement required South Korea to implement tough austerity measures, such as reductions in public spending, and tax and interest rate hikes.

The economic crisis led to widespread dissatisfaction with Kim Young Sam’s government. In the presidential election of December 1997, voters elected Kim Dae Jung, a longtime opposition leader and pro-democracy advocate, by a narrow margin. The vote marked the first time an opposition politician won the presidency in South Korea. He was also the first politician from the country’s southwestern region to become president. Previously, all presidents had hailed from the country’s politically dominant southeastern region. Shortly after the elections, President Kim Young Sam pardoned former presidents Chun and Roh, releasing them from prison, at the request of President-elect Kim Dae Jung. Both Kims agreed the gesture of clemency would help reconcile regional antagonisms that surfaced during the hotly contested elections, in the interest of uniting the country behind efforts to resolve the economic crisis.

To address the economic crisis, Kim’s government vigorously pursued economic restructuring, and Kim emerged as a champion of deregulation, privatization, and foreign investment in South Korea. He led the country through short-term hardships associated with the reforms, including rising inflation and unemployment. In 1999 South Korea’s economy made a strong recovery.

Relations with North Korea

Relations between North Korea and South Korea were tense during the late 1960s and at times during the 1970s and 1980s. Both countries were admitted to the United Nations (UN) in September 1991. Three months later the two countries signed a nonaggression pact. However, relations between them continued to be troubled. Allegations about North Korea’s possible nuclear weapons development program strained relations in 1994. In December 1995 a U.S.-led consortium that included South Korea reached an agreement with North Korea over the suspension of its suspected nuclear weapons program. Under this agreement, South Korea agreed to help finance the replacement of two of North Korea’s nuclear reactors with modern versions designed to produce less weapons-grade plutonium.

In a further bid to open dialogue with North Korea, South Korea approved a $19.2-million investment package involving three joint-venture projects in North Korea. South Korea also extended emergency food aid, which was desperately needed in North Korea after massive summer floods destroyed many of the country’s agricultural crops.

In 1998 Kim Dae Jung encouraged economic contact with North Korea and offered unconditional economic and humanitarian aid in the hope of improving political relations. His approach, known as the Sunshine Policy, thawed relations between the two countries. In June 2000 Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il held talks in P’yŏngyang, the North Korean capital, and agreed in principle to promote reconciliation and economic cooperation between the two countries. This landmark event was the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea since the two republics were founded in 1948.

The improved relations between the two governments led to the first authorized cross-border visits of family members separated since the Korean War, the start of mail service between the two countries, and agreement by both sides to reconnect road and rail links long severed by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). In the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games held in Sydney, Australia, in September, athletes from North Korea and South Korea symbolically paraded together under the neutral flag of the Korea Peninsula, although they competed separately in the games. The following month, Kim Dae Jung was awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to bring about reconciliation with North Korea.

However, relations between the two countries subsequently became severely strained over the North’s nuclear program. North Korea renounced previous agreements due to deteriorating relations with the United States, and in 2005 the country announced that it had become a nuclear weapons state. Then North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in an underground explosion in October 2006. South Korea and other nearby nations were suddenly faced with a demonstrated nuclear threat within striking range of their populations. South Korea participated in a renewed and urgent series of six-nation talks with North Korea that also included China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Under an agreement reached in February 2007, North Korea began taking steps toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program in return for substantial fuel and food aid. In July inspectors with the International Atomic Inspection Agency (IAEA) verified that North Korea had shut down its main nuclear reactor and all other nuclear facilities at its Yǒngbyǒn complex. Additional aid incentives were offered in exchange for North Korea to fully disclose and disable all of its nuclear facilities and programs. See also Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.

As a sign of easing tensions on the Korea Peninsula, in May 2007 North Korea and South Korea exchanged the first passenger train visits since the rebuilding of rail links across their shared border. This was followed in October with a historic summit in P’yŏngyang between Kim Jong Il and South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun—the second face-to-face meeting of Korean leaders since the Korean War. The talks resulted in a joint declaration, which outlined specific projects for building closer economic ties and stated a bilateral commitment in working toward a formal peace treaty for the Korean War. South Korea agreed to fund several capital improvement projects in North Korea to reduce the economic gap with its impoverished northern neighbor, a necessary step toward the South’s long-term goal of reunification. Among other projects, South Korea agreed to build a special economic zone in the North Korean port of Haeju, as well as a new railway and highway linking the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex to other cities. The Kaesŏng complex, which South Korea developed in the North as part of the 2000 summit agreement, had launched manufacturing operations in 2004. In November 2007 the prime ministers from both countries met for additional talks on improving bilateral ties.

Other Developments

In 2002 South Korea and Japan cohosted the World Cup, one of the most popular international sporting events. It marked the first time the soccer tournament was held in Asia, and the first time it was jointly hosted by two countries.

Kim was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term. The candidate of the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), Roh Moo Hyun, won the December 2002 presidential election. Roh had staked his campaign on the continuation of Kim’s so-called Sunshine Policy of diplomatic and economic engagement with North Korea. Despite the growing détente on the Korea Peninsula achieved through this policy, the situation became increasingly unstable due to tensions between the United States and North Korea over the nuclear issue.

In March 2004 Roh was impeached by a two-thirds vote in the National Assembly for allegedly violating South Korea’s electoral laws. It was the first time in South Korea’s history that a president was impeached. The electoral laws require government officials to remain neutral in election campaigns, but Roh had indicated his support for the Uri Party prior to the legislative elections scheduled for April 2004. The Grand National Party (GNP) and Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), which together controlled the legislature, initiated the vote to impeach Roh. Although Roh had been elected as the candidate of the MDP in 2002, he later split with the party. A faction of the MDP left the party and formed the Uri Party to support Roh.

Public opinion polls showed that the majority of South Koreans did not support the impeachment. In the April elections both the GNP and the MDP lost seats in the National Assembly while the Uri Party more than tripled its representation and gained a slim majority with 152 of 299 seats. It was the first time in more than 40 years that a liberal party won control of the legislature. The Constitutional Court ruled in May 2004 that Roh’s infraction of the electoral law was too minor to warrant impeachment and dismissed the case against him.

In 2005 Roh, a former human rights attorney, initiated the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in an attempt to resolve complaints of human rights violations during Korean history. Specifically, the commission was charged with investigating the period from the Japanese occupation to the Korean War and the authoritarian regimes that followed the war. Although the commission’s final report was not due until 2010, it began to issue preliminary findings in 2006. Among those findings were the details of civilian massacres and the mass executions of left-wing political prisoners during the war. United Nations forces, including those of the United States, were also implicated in the massacres, including at least three separate incidents in which South Korean civilians were strafed (attacked with gunfire) or napalmed by U.S. air forces.

The presidential election held in December 2007 gave the conservative GNP candidate, Lee Myung-bak, a landslide victory. A former chief executive of Hyundai and mayor of Seoul, Lee campaigned on a promise to increase the economic growth of South Korea. Lee took office in February 2008, succeeding Roh.

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