National name: Taehan Min'guk
President: Roh Moo Hyun (2003)
Prime Minister: Han Duck Soo (2006)
Land area: 37,911 sq mi (98,189 sq km)
Population (2007 est.): 49,044,790 (growth rate: 0.4%); birth rate: 9.9/1000; infant mortality rate: 6.1/1000; life expectancy: 77.2; density per sq mi: 1,294
Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Seoul, 10,287,847 (city proper)
Other large cities: Pusan, 3,504,900; Inchon, 2,479,600 (part of Seoul metro. area); Taegu, 2,369,800
Monetary unit: Won
Languages: Korean, English widely taught
Ethnicity/race: homogeneous (except for about 20,000 Chinese)
Religions: no affiliation 46%, Christian 26%, Buddhist 26%, Confucianist 1%, other 1%
Literacy rate: 98% (2003 est.)
Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2005 est.): $965.3 billion; per capita $20,400. Real growth rate: 3.9%. Inflation: 2.6%. Unemployment: 3.7%. Arable land: 17%. Agriculture: rice, root crops, barley, vegetables, fruit; cattle, pigs, chickens, milk, eggs; fish. Labor force: 23.53 million; agriculture 6.4%, industry 26.4%, services 67.2%. Industries: electronics, telecommunications, automobile production, chemicals, shipbuilding, steel. Natural resources: coal, tungsten, graphite, molybdenum, lead, hydropower potential. Exports: $288.2 billion f.o.b. (2005 est.): semiconductors, wireless telecommunications equipment, motor vehicles, computers, steel, ships, petrochemicals. Imports: $256 billion f.o.b. (2005 est.): machinery, electronics and electronic equipment, oil, steel, transport equipment, organic chemicals, plastics. Major trading partners: China, U.S., Japan, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia (2004).
Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 24 million (2000); mobile cellular: 28 million (Sept. 2000). Radio broadcast stations: AM 104, FM 136, shortwave 5 (2001). Radios: 47.5 million (2000). Television broadcast stations: 121 (plus 850 repeater stations and the eight-channel American Forces Korea Network) (1999). Televisions: 15.9 million (1997). Internet Service Providers (ISPs): 11 (2000). Internet users: 25.6 million (2002).
Transportation: Railways: total: 3,125 km (2002). Highways: total: 86,990 km; paved: 64,808 km (including 1,996 km of expressways); unpaved: 22,182 km (1999 est). Waterways: 1,609 km; use restricted to small native craft. Ports and harbors: Chinhae, Inch'on, Kunsan, Masan, Mokp'o, P'ohang, Pusan, Tonghae-hang, Ulsan, Yosu. Airports: 102 (2002).
International disputes: Military Demarcation Line within the 4-km wide Demilitarized Zone has separated North from South Korea since 1953; Liancourt Rocks (Take-shima/Tok-do) are disputed with Japan.
Slightly larger than Indiana, South Korea lies below the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula. It is mountainous in the east; in the west and south are many harbors on the mainland and offshore islands.
South Korea came into being after World War II, the result of a 1945 agreement reached by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference, making the 38th parallel the boundary between a northern zone of the Korean peninsula to be occupied by the USSR and southern zone to be controlled by U.S. forces. (For details, see Korea, North.)
Elections were held in the U.S. zone in 1948 for a national assembly, which adopted a republican constitution and elected Syngman Rhee as the nation's president. The new republic was proclaimed on Aug. 15 and was recognized as the legal government of Korea by the UN on Dec. 12, 1948.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean Communist forces launched a massive surprise attack on South Korea, quickly overrunning the capital, Seoul. U.S. armed intervention was ordered on June 27 by President Harry S. Truman, and on the same day the UN invoked military sanctions against North Korea. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was named commander of the UN forces. U.S. and South Korean troops fought a heroic holding action, but by the first week of August they were forced back to a 4,000-square-mile beachhead in southeast Korea. There they stood off superior North Korean forces until Sept. 15, when a major UN amphibious assault was launched deep behind Communist lines at Inchon, the port of Seoul.
By Sept. 30, UN forces were in complete control of South Korea. They then crossed the 38th parallel and pursued retreating Communist forces into North Korea. In late October, as UN forces neared the Sino-Korean border, several hundred thousand Chinese Communist troops entered the conflict, pushing MacArthur's forces back to the border between North and South Korea. By the time truce talks began on July 10, 1951, UN forces had crossed over the parallel again and were driving back into North Korea. Cease-fire negotiations dragged on for two years before an armistice was finally signed at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953, leaving a devastated Korea in need of large-scale rehabilitation. No official peace treaty has ever been signed between the former combatants.
President Syngman Rhee, after 12 years in office, was forced to resign in 1960 amid rising discontent with his autocratic leadership. Po Sun Yun was elected to succeed him, but political instability continued. In 1961, Gen. Park Chung Hee seized power and subsequently began a program of economic reforms designed to stimulate the nation's economy. The U.S. stepped up military aid, strengthening South Korea's armed forces to 600,000 men. Park's assassination on Oct. 26, 1979, by Kim Jae Kyu, head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, brought a liberalizing trend as new president Choi Kyu Hah freed imprisoned dissidents.
The release of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung in Feb. 1980 sparked antigovernment demonstrations that turned into riots, which were brutally suppressed by authorities. Kim, the most visible leader of the opposition, was imprisoned again. Choi resigned on Aug. 16. Chun Doo Hwan, head of a military Special Committee for National Security Measures, was the sole candidate when the electoral college confirmed him as president on Aug. 27. In 1986–1987, South Korea's opposition demanded that the president be selected by direct popular vote. After weeks of protest and rioting, Chun agreed to the demand. A split in the opposition led to Roh Tae Woo's election on Dec. 16, 1987.
In Aug. 1996 Roh was convicted on bribery charges, and Chun was convicted for bribery as well as his role in the 1979 coup and the 1980 crackdown on rioters. In 1997, an accumulation of corrupt business practices and bad loans led to a series of bankruptcies and a massive devaluation of South Korea's currency. The political instability that followed helped former dissident Kim Dae Jung become the first South Korean president ever to be elected from the political opposition.
In 1998 the Asian economic crisis bottomed out in South Korea. The nation began rebounding in 1999, the only sizable Asian economy to do so.
In June 2000, President Kim Dae Jung met with North Korea's president, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang. The summit marked the first-ever meeting of the countries' leaders. Kim Dae Jung won the Nobel Peace Prize in Oct. 2000 for his Sunshine Policy, which included initiating peace and reconciliation with North Korea.
Roh Moo Hyun of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party became president in February 2003 and promptly faced daunting problems. His vow to pursue his predecessor's Sunshine Policy toward North Korea was put to the test as the North continued to taunt the world with boasts about its nuclear capabilities. In addition, many South Koreans had begun to resent U.S. influence over their country. In March 2004, the conservative national assembly voted overwhelmingly to impeach Roh, claiming he had violated election laws. More than 70% of the public, however, condemned the move; the constitutional court dismissed the impeachment in May; and Roh was reinstated as president.
Researchers led by Hwang Woo-suk stunned the world in May 2005, when they announced they had devised a new procedure to produce human stem-cell lines from a cloned human embryo. The country's reign as the leader in the field of cloning was brief. In Jan. 2006, a Seoul National University panel reported that Hwang had fabricated evidence for his cloning research. His downfall was a blow to the entire nation. Indeed, he had become a national hero and had received millions in research money from the government.
Prime Minister Lee Hae Chan resigned under pressure in March 2006, after facing intense criticism for playing golf rather than dealing with a national railway workers' strike. He was replaced by Han Duck Soo.
For the first time in 56 years, trains passed between North and South Korea in May 2007. While the event was mostly symbolic, it was considered an important step toward reconciliation. South Korea hopes that eventually a trans-Korean railroad will provide easier access to other parts of Asia. Given North Korea's failing infrastructure, such a railroad, however, is years away from becoming a reality.
In July, the Taliban kidnapped 23 South Korean missionaries from a Protestant church group while they were traveling by bus in Afghanistan. Two of the hostages were killed after the Taliban's demands for a prisoner exchange were not met with a positive response by the Afghan government.
In October 2007, President Roh Moo Hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met for their second ever inter-Korean summit. The leaders forged a deal to work together on several economic projects and agreed to move toward signing a treaty that would formally end the Korean War.
Lee Myung-bak, of the opposition Grand National Party, won December's presidential elections, taking 48.7% of the vote. Chung Dong-yong, who was endorsed by outgoing president Roh Moo-hyun, took 26.1%. Lee has been dogged by allegations of ethical improprieties, and the National Assembly voted two days before the election to reopen an investigation into whether he manipulated the stock of an investment company. In January 2008, he named Han Seung Soo as his prime minister.