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South Korea | Facts and History


Silk hanbok are the traditional Korean clothing, still worn for holidays and special occasions.

Korean women in traditional hanbok perform traditional dances at a palace in Seoul.

Dolmang on Flickr.com

South Korea's recent history is one of amazing progress. Annexed by Japan early in the 20th century, and ravaged by World War II and the Korean War, South Korea lapsed into military dictatorship for decades.

Beginning in the late 1980s, however, South Korea created a representative democratic government and one of the world's top high-tech manufacturing economies. Despite lingering unease about the relationship with neighboring North Korea, the South is a major Asian power and an inspiring success story.

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital: Seoul, population 10.4 million

Major Cities:

Busan, 3.4 million

Incheon, 2.6 million

Daegu, 2.4 million

Daejeon, 1.5 million

Gwangju, 1.5 million

Ulsan, 1.1 million

Suwon, 1.1 million

Changwon, 1.1 million

South Korea's Government:

South Korea is a constitutional democracy with a three-branched government system.

The executive branch is headed by the president, directly elected for a single five-year term; currently, the president is Lee Myung-bak. The president appoints a Prime Minister, subject to approval from the National Assembly.

The National Assembly is a unicameral legislative body with 299 representatives. Members serve for four years.

South Korea has a complicated judicial system. The highest court is the Constitutional Court, which decides matters of constitutional law and impeachment of government officials. The Supreme Court decides other top appeals. Lower courts include appellate courts, dictrict, branch, and municipal courts.

Population of South Korea:

South Korea's population is approximately 48,875,000 (2010 figure). The population is remarkably homogenous, in terms of ethnicity - 99% of the people are ethnically Korean. However, the number of foreign laborers and other migrants is gradually increasing.

Much to the government's concern, South Korea has one of the world's lowest birthrates at 8.55 per 1,000 population. Families traditionally prefer to have boys, so the present number of boys under 15 years of age is 3,980,500 while the number of girls under is 15 is just 3,650,600.

South Korea's population is overwhelmingly urban, with 83% living in cities.


The Korean language is the official language of South Korea, spoken by 99% of the population. Korean is a curious language with no obvious linguistic cousins; different linguists argue that it is related to Japanese or to the Altaic languages such as Turkish and Mongolian.

Until the 15th century, Korean was written in Chinese characters, and many educated Koreans can still read Chinese well. In 1443, King Sejong the Great of the Joseon Dynasty commissioned a phonetic alphabet with 24 letters for Korean, called hangul. Sejong wanted a simplified writing system so that his subjects could more easily become literate.

Religion in South Korea:

As of 2005, 46.5% of South Koreans had no religious preference. The largest religion was Buddhism, with 22.8%, followed by all Protestant Christian denominations, at 18.3%, and Catholics, at 10.9%.

There are also tiny minorities who cite Islam or Confucianism, as well as local religious movements such as Jeung San Do, Daesun Jinrihoe or Cheondoism. These syncretic religious movements are millenarian and draw from Korean shamanism as well as imported Chinese and Western belief systems.

South Korean Geography:

South Korea covers an area of 100,210 sq km (38,677 sq miles), on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. Seventy percent of the country is mountainous; arable lowlands are concentrated along the west coast.

South Korea's only land border is with North Korea, along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It has sea borders with China and Japan.

The highest point in South Korea is Hallasan, a volcano on the southern island of Jeju. The lowest point is sea level.

South Korea has a humid continental climate, with four seasons. Winters are cold and snowy, while summers are hot and humid with frequent typhoons.

Economy of South Korea:

South Korea is one of Asia's Tiger Economies, ranked fourteenth in the world according to GDP. This impressive economy is based largely on exports, particularly of consumer electronics and vehicles. Important South Korean manufacturers include Samsung, Hyundai and LG.

Per capita income in South Korea is $30,200 US, and the unemployment rate as of 2010 was an enviable 3.3%. However, 15% of the population lives below the poverty line.

The South Korea currency is the won. As of May, 2011, $1 US = 1,075 Korean won.

History of South Korea:

After two thousand years as an independent kingdom (or kingdoms), but with strong ties to China, Korea was annexed by the Japanese in 1910. Japan controlled Korea as a colony until 1945, when they surrendered to the Allied forces at the end of World War II. As the Japanese pulled out, Soviet troops occupied northern Korea and U.S. troops entered the southern peninsula.

In 1948, the division of the Korean Peninsula into a communist North Korea and a capitalist South Korea was formalized. The 38th parallel of latitude served as the dividing line. Korea became a pawn in the developing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Korean War, 1950-53

On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the South. Just two days later, South Korean president Syngman Rhee ordered the government to evacuate from Seoul, which was quickly overrun by northern forces. That same day, the United Nations authorized member nations to provide military assistance to South Korea, and U.S. president Harry Truman ordered American forces into the fray.

Despite the rapid U.N. response, South Korea's troops were sadly unprepared for the North Korean onslaught. By August, the Korean People's Army (KPA) of the North had pushed the Republic of Korea Army (ROK) into a tiny corner on the southeast coast of the peninsula, around the city of Busan. The North had occupied 90% of South Korea in less than two months.

In September of 1950, U.N. and South Korean forces broke out of the Busan Perimeter and began to push the KPA back. A simultaneous invasion of Incheon, on the coast near Seoul, drew off some of the North's forces. By early October, U.N. and ROK soldiers were inside of North Korean territory. They pushed north toward the Chinese border, prompting Mao Zedong to send the Chinese People's Volunteer Army to reinforce the KPA.

Over the next two and a half years, the adversaries fought to a bloody stalemate along the 38th Parallel. Finally, on July 27, 1953, the U.N., China and North Korea signed an armistice agreement that ended the war. South Korean president Rhee refused to sign. An estimated 2.5 million civilians were killed in the fighting.

Post-War South Korea

Student uprisings forced Rhee to resign in April 1960. The following year, Park Chung-hee led a military coup that signaled the beginning of 32 years of military rule. In 1992, South Korea finally elected a civilian president, Kim Young-sam.

Throughout the 1970s-90s, Korea quickly developed an industrial economy. It is now a fully-functioning democracy, and an East Asian power.

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