South Korea's major population centers are in the northwest area and in the fertile plain to the south of Seoul-Inchon. The mountainous central and eastern areas are sparsely inhabited. The Japanese colonial administration of 1910-45 concentrated its industrial development efforts in the comparatively underpopulated and resource-rich north, resulting in a considerable migration of people to the north from the southern agrarian provinces. This trend was reversed after World War II as Koreans returned to the south from Japan and Manchuria. In addition, more than 2 million Koreans moved to the south from the north following the division of the peninsula into U.S. and Soviet military zones of administration in 1945. This migration continued after the Republic of Korea was established in 1948 and during the Korean war (1950-53). About 10% of the people now in the Republic of Korea are of northern origin. With 46 million people, South Korea has one of the world's highest population densities--much higher, for example, than India or Japan--while the territorially larger North Korea has only about 22 million people. Ethnic Koreans now residing in other countries live mostly in China (1.9 million), the United States (1.52 million), Japan (681,000), and the countries of the former Soviet Union (450,000).
The Korean language shares several grammatical features with Japanese, and there are strong similarities with Mongolian, but the exact relationship among these three languages is unclear. Although regional dialects exist, the language spoken throughout the peninsula and in China is comprehensible by all Koreans. Chinese characters were used to write Korean before the Korean Hangul alphabet was invented in the 15th century. Chinese characters are still in limited use in South Korea, but the North uses Hangul exclusively. Many older people retain some knowledge of Japanese from the colonial period, and many educated South Koreans can speak and/or read English, which is taught in all secondary schools.
Korea's traditional religions are Buddhism and Shamanism. Buddhism has lost some influence over the years but is still followed by about 27% of the population. Shamanism--traditional spirit worship--is still practiced. Confucianism remains a dominant cultural influence. Since the Japanese occupation, it has existed more as a shared base than as a separate philosophical/religious school. Some sources place the number of adherents of Chondogyo--a native religion founded in the mid-19th century that fuses elements of Confucianism and Christianity--at more than 1 million.
Christian missionaries arrived in Korea as early as the 16th century, but it was not until the 19th century that they founded schools, hospitals, and other modern institutions throughout the country. Christianity is now one of Korea's largest religions. In 1993, nearly 10.5 million Koreans, or 24% of the population, were Christians (about 76% of them Protestant)--the largest figure for any East Asian country, except the Philippines.
Throughout most of its history, Korea has been invaded, influenced, and fought over by its larger neighbors. It has suffered approximately 900 invasions during its 2,000 years of recorded history. Korea was under Mongolian occupation from 1231 until the early 14th century and was repeatedly ravaged by Chinese (government and rebel) armies. The Japanese warlord Hideyoshi launched major invasions in 1592 and 1597.
China had by far the greatest influence of the major powers and was the most acceptable to the Koreans. The Choson Dynasty was part of the Chinese "tribute" system, under which Korea was independent in fact but acknowledged China's theoretical role as "big brother." China was the only exception to Korea's long closed-door policy, adopted to ward off foreign encroachment, which earned it the name of "Hermit Kingdom" in the 19th century.
Korea's isolation finally ended when the major Western powers and Japan sent warships to forcibly open the country. At the same time, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian competition in Northeast Asia led to armed conflict, and foreign intervention established dominance in Korea, formally annexing it in 1910.
The Japanese colonial era was characterized by tight control from Tokyo and ruthless efforts to supplant Korean language and culture. Organized Korean resistance, notably the 1919 Independence Movement, was unsuccessful, and Japan remained firmly in control until the end of World War II.
Near the end of the war, the April 1945 Yalta Conference agreed to establish a four-power trusteeship for Korea. The trusteeship of the U.S., U.K., Soviet Union, and China was intended as a temporary administrative measure pending democratic elections for a Korean Government. With the unexpected early surrender of Japan in September 1945, the United States proposed--and the Soviet Union agreed--that Japanese troops surrender to U.S. forces below the 38th parallel and to Soviet forces above.
At a December 1945 foreign ministers' conference in Moscow, it was proposed that a 5-year trusteeship be established in Korea. The Moscow conference generated a firestorm of protest in the South. Some of its most critical opponents were Korean leaders associated with the provisional government established in Shanghai in 1919 by Korean nationalists living abroad. Most notable among them was nationalist leader Syngman Rhee.
The joint Soviet-American commission provided for by the Moscow Conference met intermittently in Seoul but became deadlocked over the issue of free consultations with representatives of all Korean political groups for establishment of a national government. The U.S. submitted the Korean question to the UN General Assembly for resolution in September 1947. In November, the General Assembly ruled that UN-supervised elections should be held.
The Soviet Union and Korean authorities in the North ignored the UN General Assembly resolution on elections. Nonetheless, elections were carried out under UN observation in the South, and on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (R.O.K.) was established. Syngman Rhee became the Republic of Korea's first president. On September 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) was established in the North under Kim Il Sung. Both administrations claimed to be the only legitimate government on the peninsula.
Armed uprisings in the South and clashes between southern and northern forces along the 38th parallel began and intensified during 1948-50. Although it continued to provide modest military aid to the South, the U.S. withdrew its occupation forces by June 1949, leaving behind only a military advisory group of 500.
Korean War of 1950-53
On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. The UN, in accord with its Charter, engaged in its first collective action by establishing the UN Command (UNC), under which 16 member nations sent troops and assistance to South Korea. At the request of the UN Security Council, the United States, contributor of the largest contingent, led this international effort.
After initially falling back to the southeastern Pusan perimeter, UN forces conducted a successful surprise landing at Inchon and rapidly advanced up the peninsula. As the main UN force approached the northern Yalu River, however, large numbers of "Chinese People's Volunteers" intervened, forcing UN troops to withdraw south of Seoul. The battle line seesawed back and forth until the late spring of 1951, when a successful offensive by UN forces was halted to enhance cease-fire negotiation prospects. The battle line thereafter stabilized north of Seoul near the 38th parallel.
Although armistice negotiations began in July 1951, hostilities continued until 1953 with heavy losses on both sides. On July 27, 1953 the military commanders of the North Korean Army, the Chinese People's Volunteers, and the UNC signed an armistice agreement at Panmunjom. Neither the United States nor South Korea is a signatory of the armistice per se, though both adhere to it through the UNC. No comprehensive peace agreement has replaced the 1953 armistice pact; thus, a condition of belligerency still technically exists on the divided peninsula.
The Military Armistice Commission (MAC) was created in 1953 to oversee and enforce the terms of the armistice. The Neutral Nation Supervisory Committee (NNSC)--originally made up of delegations from Poland and Czechoslovakia on the D.P.R.K. side and Sweden and Switzerland on the UN side--monitors the activities of the MAC. In recent years, North Korea has sought to undermine the MAC by various means. In April 1994 it declared the MAC void and withdrew its representatives. Prior to this it had forced the Czechs out of the NNSC by refusing to accept the Czech Republic as the successor state of Czechoslovakia, an original member of the NNSC. In September 1994 China recalled the Chinese People's Volunteers representatives to the MAC, and in early 1995 North Korea forced Poland to remove its representatives to the NNSC from the North Korean side of the DMZ.
Syngman Rhee served as president of the Republic of Korea until April 1960, when unrest led by university students forced him to step down. Though the constitution was amended and national elections were held in June, Maj. Gen. Park Chung Hee led an army coup against the successor government and assumed power in May 1961. After 2 years of military government under Park, civilian rule was restored in 1963. Park, who had retired from the army, was elected president and was reelected in 1967, 1971, and 1978 in highly controversial elections.
The Park era, marked by rapid industrial modernization and extraordinary economic growth, ended with his assassination in October 1979. Prime Minister Choi Kyu Ha briefly assumed office, promising a new constitution and presidential elections. However, in December 1979 Maj. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan and close military colleagues staged a coup, removing the army chief of staff and soon effectively controlling the government. University student-led demonstrations against Chun's government spread in the spring of 1980 until the government declared martial law, banning all demonstrations, and arresting many political leaders and dissidents. Special forces units in the city of Kwangju dealt particularly harshly with demonstrators and residents, setting off a chain of events that left at least 200 civilians dead. This became a critically important event in contemporary South Korean political history. Chun, by then retired from the army, officially became president in September 1980. Though martial law ended in January 1981, his government retained broad legal powers to control dissent. Nevertheless, an active and articulate minority of students, intellectuals, clergy, and others remained critical of the Chun government and demonstrated against it.
In April 1986 the President appeared to yield to demands for reform, particularly for a constitutional amendment allowing direct election of his successor. However, in June 1987 Chun suspended all discussion of constitutional revision, and the ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP) approved Chun's hand-picked successor, Roh Tae Woo. In response, first students and then the general public took to the streets in protest. Then in a surprise move, on June 29, ruling party presidential candidate Roh Tae Woo announced the implementation of democratic reforms. The constitution was revised in October 1987 to include direct presidential elections and a strengthened National Assembly consisting of 299 members.
The main opposition forces soon split into two parties--Kim Dae-jung's Peace and Democracy Party (PPD) and Kim Young Sam's Reunification Democratic Party (RDP). With the opposition vote split, Roh Tae Woo subsequently won the December 1987 presidential election--the first direct one since 1971--with 37% of the vote.
The new constitution entered into force in February 1988 when President Roh assumed office. Elections for the National Assembly were held on April 26. President Roh's ruling Democratic Justice Party was then able to win only 34% of the vote in the April 1988 National Assembly elections--the first time the ruling party had lost control of the Assembly since 1952.
South Korean politics were changed dramatically by the 1988 legislative elections, the Assembly's greater powers under the 1987 constitution, and the influence of public opinion. After 1987 there was significant political liberalization, including greater freedom of the press, greater freedoms of expression and assembly, and the restoration of the civil rights of former detainees. The new opposition-dominated National Assembly quickly challenged the president's prerogatives.
The trend toward greater democratization continued. In free and fair elections in December 1992, Kim Young Sam, the former opposition leader who joined the ruling party of Roh Tae Woo, received 43% of the vote and became Korea's first civilian president in nearly 30 years. In June 1995, Korea held direct elections for local and provincial executive officials (mayors, governors, county and ward chiefs) for the first time in more than 30 years. In August 1996, ex-Presidents Chun and Roh were convicted on corruption and treason charges but were pardoned by President Kim Young Sam in December 1997.
Kim Dae-jung of the National Congress for New Politics (NCNP) won the December 1997 presidential election, defeating Lee Hoi Chang of the renamed ruling party, the Grand National Party (GNP), and the New Party for the People (NPP) candidate Rhee In Je. Kim's 1997 win was the first true opposition party victory in a Korean presidential election. Kim had previously been a political prisoner who narrowly escaped assassination and execution on several occasions, and who spent time in exile in Japan and the U.S. Kim's political opponents have long charged that he was sympathetic to the D.P.R.K., most recently during the presidential election campaign. Such charges are rooted more firmly in Korea's no-holds-barred political culture than in fact. Kim has articulated an engagement policy toward the North based on the separation of economic and political issues but which takes a firm line on security, with zero tolerance for provocations from the D.P.R.K. Kim has maintained this approach in spite of strong domestic criticism from the opposition GNP and continued provocative behavior by the D.P.R.K., including attempted infiltrations into the South and a clash between D.P.R.K. and R.O.K. naval ships in the Yellow Sea in June 1999, during which several North Korean vessels were damaged or sunk.
One of the most visible fruits of Kim's engagement policy is the Hyundai Corporation's passenger cruise trips to the North's culturally important Mt. Kumgang. In exchange for the right to ferry South Koreans to the mountain, Hyundai will pay the D.P.R.K. nearly $1 billion over 5 years. More than 200,000 people have visited Mt. Kumgang since the program's inception in early 1999. From June 13 to 15, the leaders of the two Koreas held a historic summit meeting in Pyongyang and signed a joint declaration promising a visit to Seoul by Kim Jong-il, continuing government-to-government dialogue, reunion of separated family members, cultural exchanges, and the pursuit of reunification.
President Kim's relations with the opposition have often been contentious, reflecting both substantive disagreements with the opposition and the strongly partisan flavor of R.O.K. domestic politics. Nonetheless, Kim and GNP leader Lee Hoi Chang have attempted to work cooperatively, if not in full agreement, in order to address pressing issues such as the economy.
Korea maintains an embassy in the United States at 2450 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-939-5600).
South Korea maintains diplomatic relations with more than 170 countries and a broad network of trading relationships. Former President Roh's policy of Nordpolitik--the pursuit of wideranging relations with socialist nations and contact with North Korea--has been a remarkable success. The R.O.K. now has diplomatic ties with all the countries of eastern and central Europe, as well as the former Soviet republics. The R.O.K. and the People's Republic of China established full diplomatic relations in August 1992.
Since normalizing relations in 1965, Japan and Korea have developed an extensive relationship centering on mutually beneficial economic activity. Although historic antipathies have at times impeded cooperation, relations at the government level have improved steadily and significantly in the past several years. Korea, Japan, and the U.S. consult very closely during periodic U.S.-D.P.R.K. negotiations over the North Korean nuclear issue.
Economic considerations have a high priority in Korean foreign policy. The R.O.K. seeks to build on its economic accomplishments to increase its regional and global role, including playing an increasingly important part in Pacific Rim political and economic activities. It is a founding member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
In the 1954 U.S.-R.O.K. Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States agreed to help the Republic of Korea defend itself against external aggression. In support of this commitment, the United States currently maintains approximately 37,000 service personnel in Korea, including the Army's Second Infantry Division and several Air Force tactical squadrons. To coordinate operations between these units and the 650,000-strong Korean armed forces, a Combined Forces Command (CFC) was established in 1978. The head of the CFC also serves as Commander in Chief of the United Nations Command (UNC) and the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK).
Several aspects of the security relationship are changing as the U.S. moves from a leading to a supporting role. South Korea has agreed to pay a larger portion of USFK's stationing costs, and to promote changes in the CFC command structure. On December 1, 1994, peacetime operational control authority over all South Korean military units still under U.S. operational control was transferred to the South Korean Armed Forces.
As Korea's economy has developed, trade has become an increasingly important aspect of the U.S.-Korea relationship. The U.S. seeks to improve access to Korea's expanding market and increase investment opportunities for American business. The implementation of structural reforms contained in the IMF's 1998 program for Korea should improve access to the Korean market. Korean leaders appear determined to successfully manage the complex economic relationship with the United States and to take a more active role in international economic fora as befits Korea's status as a major trading nation.
The U.S. embassy is located at 82 Sejong-Ro, Chongro-Ku, Seoul; Unit 15550, APO AP 96205-0001; tel. 82-2-397-4114; fax 82-2-738-8845. The U.S. Agricultural Trade Office is located at 146-1, Susong-dong, Chongro-Ku, Leema Bldg., Rm. 303, Seoul 110-140; fax 82-2-720-7921. The U.S. Export Development Office/U.S. Trade Center is c/o U.S. Embassy; fax 82-2-739-1628. Its director is Camille Sailer.