General background: After World War II, a republic
was set up in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula
while a Communist-style government was installed in
the north. The Korean War (1950-53) had US and other
UN forces intervene to defend South Korea from North
Korean attacks supported by the Chinese. An armistice
was signed in 1953 splitting the peninsula along a
demilitarized zone at about the 38th parallel. Thereafter,
South Korea achieved rapid economic growth, with per
capita income far outstripping the level of North
Korea. In 1997, the nation suffered a severe financial
crisis from which it continues to make a solid recovery.
South Korea has also maintained its commitment to
democratize its political processes. In June 2000,
a historic first south-north summit took place between
the south's President KIM Dae-jung and the north's
leader KIM Chong-il. In December 2000, President KIM
Dae-jung won the Noble Peace Prize for his lifelong
commitment to democracy and human rights in Asia.
He is the first Korean to win a Nobel Prize.
Area comparative: Slightly larger than Indiana.
Climate: Temperate, with rainfall heavier in
summer than winter.
Terrain: Mostly hills and mountains; wide coastal
plains in west and south.
Population: 48.324 million (July 2002 est.)
Ethnic groups: Homogeneous (except for about
Religions: Christian 49%, Buddhist 47%, Confucianist
3%, Shamanist, Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly
Way), and other 1%
Language: Korean, English widely taught in
junior high and high school.
Government type: Republic
Legal system: Combines elements of continental
European civil law systems, Anglo-American law, and
Chinese classical thought.
Economic overview: As one of the Four Tigers
of East Asia, South Korea has achieved an incredible
record of growth. Three decades ago GDP per capita
was comparable with levels in the poorer countries
of Africa and Asia. Today its GDP per capita is seven
times India's, 17 times North Korea's, and comparable
to the lesser economies of the European Union. This
success through the late 1980s was achieved by a system
of close government/business ties, including directed
credit, import restrictions, sponsorship of specific
industries, and a strong labor effort. The government
promoted the import of raw materials and technology
at the expense of consumer goods and encouraged savings
and investment over consumption. The Asian financial
crisis of 1997-99 exposed certain longstanding weaknesses
in South Korea's development model, including high
debt/equity ratios, massive foreign borrowing, and
an undisciplined financial sector. Growth plunged
by 6.6% in 1998, then strongly recovered to plus 10%
in 1999 and 9% in 2000. Growth fell back to 3.3% in
2001 because of the slowing global economy, falling
exports, and the perception that much-needed corporate
and financial reforms have stalled.
Communication/Telephone system: Excellent domestic
and international services.
Places of interest: The country is swathed
in green, and the South Koreans are obsessed with
nature, and with mountains in particular.