South Korea - Tips

Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
May 2007

Background Note: South Korea

Chogye temple, Seoul, South Korea, May 5, 2006. [© AP Images]

Country Map

Flag of South Korea is white with a red (top) and blue yin-yang symbol in the
center; there is a different black trigram from the ancient I Ching (Book of
Changes) in each corner of the white field.

PROFILE

OFFICIAL NAME:
Republic of Korea

Geography
Area: 98,477 sq. km. (38,022 sq. mi.); about the size of Indiana.
Cities (2005): Capital--Seoul (10.3 million). Other major cities--Busan (3.7
million), Daegu (2.5 million), Inchon (2.6 million), Gwangju (1.4 million),
Daejeon (1.5 million), Ulsan (1.0 million).
Terrain: Partially forested mountain ranges separated by deep, narrow
valleys; cultivated plains along the coasts, particularly in the west and
south.
Climate: Temperate.

People
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Korean(s).
Population (2006): 48,846,823.
Population annual growth rate (2006): 0.42%.
Ethnic groups: Korean; small Chinese minority.
Religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Shamanism, Confucianism, Chondogyo.
Language: Korean.
Education: Years compulsory--9. Enrollment--11.5 million. Attendance--middle
school 99%, high school 95%. Literacy--98%.
Health (2006): Infant mortality rate--6.16/1,000. Life expectancy--77.0 yrs
(men 73.6 yrs.; women 80.8 yrs).
Work force (2005): 23.53 million. Services--67.2%; mining and manufacturing
--26.4%; agriculture--6.4%.

Government
Type: Republic with powers shared between the president, the legislature, and
the courts.
Liberation: August 15, 1945.
Constitution: July 17, 1948; last revised 1987.
Branches: Executive--President (chief of state); Prime Minister (head of
government). Legislative--unicameral National Assembly. Judicial--Supreme
Court and appellate courts; Constitutional Court.
Subdivisions: Nine provinces, seven administratively separate cities (Seoul,
Busan, Incheon, Daegu, Gwangju, Daejeon, Ulsan).
Political parties: Uri Party (Uri); Grand National Party (GNP); Democratic
Party (DP); Democratic Labor Party (DLP); People Centered Party (PCP).
Suffrage: Universal at 19.
Central government budget (2004): Expenditures--$100.46 billion.
Defense (2005): $21.06 billion; over 680,000 troops.

Economy
Nominal GDP: 2005, $787.5 billion; 2006 est., $897.4 billion.
GDP growth rate: 2004, 4.7%; 2005, 4.0%; 2006 est. 5.0%.
Per capita GNI (2005): $16,291.
Consumer price index: 2004, 3.6%; 2005, 2.8%; 2006, 2.2%.
Natural resources: Limited coal, tungsten, iron ore, limestone, kaolinite,
and graphite.
Agriculture, including forestry and fisheries: Products--rice, vegetables,
fruit, root crops, barley; cattle, pigs, chickens, milk, eggs, fish. Arable
land--17% of land area.
Industry: Types--Electronics and electrical products, telecommunications,
motor vehicles, shipbuilding, mining and manufacturing, petrochemicals,
industrial machinery, steel.
Trade (2006 est.): Exports--$360.0 billion f.o.b.: electronic products
(semiconductors, cellular phones and equipment, computers), automobiles,
machinery and equipment, steel, ships, petrochemicals. Imports--$343.0
billion f.o.b.: crude oil, food, machinery and transportation equipment,
chemicals and chemical products, base metals and articles. Major markets
(2005)--China (21.8%), U.S. (14.6.%), Japan (8.5%), Hong Kong (5.5%). Major
suppliers (2005)--Japan (18.5%), China (14.8%), U.S. (11.8%), Saudi Arabia
(6.2%).

PEOPLE

Population
Korea's population is one of the most ethnically and linguistically
homogenous in the world. Except for a small Chinese community (about 20,000),
virtually all Koreans share a common cultural and linguistic heritage. With
48.85 million people, South Korea has one of the world's highest population
densities. Major population centers are located in the northwest, southeast,
and in the plains south of the Seoul-Incheon area.

Korea has experienced one of the largest rates of emigration, with ethnic
Koreans residing primarily in China (1.9 million), the United States (1.52
million), Japan (681,000), and the countries of the former Soviet Union
(450,000).

Language
The Korean language is related to Japanese and Mongolian. Although it differs
grammatically from Chinese and does not use tones, a large number of Chinese
cognates exist in Korean. Chinese ideograms are believed to have been brought
into Korea sometime before the second century BC. The learned class spoke
Korean, but read and wrote Chinese. A phonetic writing system ("hangul") was
invented in the 15th century by King Sejong to provide a writing system for
commoners who could not read classical Chinese. Modern Korean uses hangul
almost exclusively with Chinese characters in limited use for word
clarification. Approximately 1,300 Chinese characters are used in modern
Korean. English is taught as a second language in most primary and secondary
schools. Chinese and Japanese are widely taught at secondary schools.

Religion
Half of the population actively practices religion. Among this group,
Christianity (49%) and Buddhism (47%) comprise Korea's two dominant
religions. Though only 3% identified themselves as Confucianists, Korean
society remains highly imbued with Confucian values and beliefs. The
remaining 1% of the population practice Shamanism (traditional spirit
worship) and Chondogyo ("Heavenly Way"), a traditional religion.

HISTORY
The myth of Korea's foundation by the god-king Tangun in BC 2333 embodies the
homogeneity and self-sufficiency valued by the Korean people. Korea
experienced many invasions by its larger neighbors in its 2,000 years of
recorded history. The country repelled numerous foreign invasions despite
domestic strife, in part due to its protected status in the Sino-centric
regional political model during Korea's Chosun dynasty (1392-1910).
Historical antipathies to foreign influence earned Korea the title of "Hermit
Kingdom" in the 19th century.

With declining Chinese power and a weakened domestic posture at the end of
the 19th century, Korea was open to Western and Japanese encroachment. In
1910, Japan began a 35-year period of colonial rule over Korea. As a result
of Japan's efforts to supplant the Korean language and aspects of Korean
culture, memories of Japanese annexation still recall fierce animosity and
resentment, especially among older Koreans. Nevertheless, import restrictions
on Japanese movies, popular music, fashion, and the like have been lifted,
and many Koreans, especially the younger generations, eagerly follow Japanese
pop culture. Aspects of Korean culture, including television shows and
movies, have also become popular in Japan.

Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers in 1945, signaling the end of World
War II, only further embroiled Korea in foreign rivalries. Division at the
38th parallel marked the beginning of Soviet and U.S. trusteeship over the
North and South, respectively. On August 15, 1948 the Republic of Korea
(R.O.K.) was established, with Syngman Rhee as the first President. On
September 9, 1948 the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) was
established under Kim Il Sung.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. Led by the U.S., a
16-member coalition undertook the first collective action under United
Nations Command (UNC). Following China's entry on behalf of North Korea later
that year, a stalemate ensued for the final two years of the conflict.
Armistice negotiations, initiated in July 1951, were ultimately concluded on
July 27, 1953 at Panmunjom, in what is now the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The
Armistice Agreement was signed by representatives of the Korean People's
Army, the Chinese People's Volunteers, and the U.S.-led United Nations
Command (UNC). Though the R.O.K. supported the UNC, it refused to sign the
Armistice Agreement. A peace treaty has never been signed. The war left
almost three million Koreans dead or wounded and millions of others homeless
and separated from their families.

In the following decades, South Korea experienced political turmoil under
autocratic leadership. President Syngman Rhee was forced to resign in April
1960 following a student-led uprising. The Second Republic under the
leadership of Chang Myon ended after only one year, when Major General Park
Chung-hee led a military coup. Park's rule, which resulted in tremendous
economic growth and development but increasingly restricted political
freedoms, ended with his assassination in 1979. Subsequently, a powerful
group of military officers, led by Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan, declared
martial law and took power.

Throughout the Park and Chun eras, South Korea developed a vocal civil
society that led to strong protests against authoritarian rule. Composed
primarily of students and labor union activists, protest movements reached a
climax after Chun's 1979 coup and declaration of martial law. A confrontation
in Gwangju in 1980 left at least 200 civilians dead. Thereafter,
pro-democracy activities intensified even more, ultimately forcing political
concessions by the government in 1987, including the restoration of direct
presidential elections.

In 1987, Roh Tae-woo, a former general, was elected president, but additional
democratic advances during his tenure resulted in the 1992 election of a
long-time pro-democracy activist, Kim Young-sam. Kim became Korea's first
civilian elected president in 32 years. The 1997 presidential election and
peaceful transition of power marked another step forward in Korea's
democratization when Kim Dae-jung, a life-long democracy and human rights
activist, was elected from a major opposition party. The transition to an
open, democratic system was further consolidated in 2002, when self-educated
human rights lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun, won the presidential election on a
"participatory government" platform.

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
The Republic of Korea (commonly known as "South Korea") is a republic with
powers nominally shared among the presidency, the legislature, and the
judiciary, but traditionally dominated by the president. The president is
chief of state and is elected for a single term of 5 years. The 299 members
of the unicameral National Assembly are elected to 4-year terms--243 members
are from single-seat districts and 56 members are chosen by proportional
representation. South Korea's judicial system comprises a Supreme Court,
appellate courts, and a Constitutional Court. The judiciary is independent
under the constitution. The country has nine provinces and seven
administratively separate cities--the capital of Seoul, along with Busan,
Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju, Incheon and Ulsan. Political parties include the Uri
Party (Uri), Grand National Party (GNP), Democratic Labor Party (DLP),
Democratic Party (DP), and People Centered Party (PCP). Suffrage is universal
at age 19 (lowered from 20 in 2005).

In December 2002, President Roh Moo-hyun was elected to a single 5-year term
of office. In the April 2004 elections, the ruling Uri Party won a slim but
outright majority in the National Assembly. Because of the loss of seats in
by-elections and as a result of convictions for election law violations, Uri
no longer has a majority, but does retain a plurality of seats.

Principal Government Officials
President--Roh Moo-hyun
Prime Minister--Han Duck-soo
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Human Resource
Development--Kim Shin-il
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Economy--Kwon O-kyu
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Science and Technology--Kim Woo-shik
Minister of Agriculture and Forestry--Park Hong-soo
Minister of Commerce, Industry and Energy--Chung Sye-kyun
Minister of Construction and Transportation--Lee Yong-sup
Minister of Culture and Tourism--Kim Myung-gon
Minister of Environment--Lee Chi-beom
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade--Song Min-soon
Minister of Gender Equality and Family--Jang Ha-jin
Minister of Government Administration & Home Affairs--Park Myung-jae
Minister of Government Policy Coordination--Kim Young-ju
Minister of Health and Welfare--Rhyu Si-min
Minister of Information and Communication--Rho Jun-hyong
Minister of Justice--Kim Sung-ho
Minister of Labor Affairs--Lee Sang-soo
Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries--Kim Sung-jin
Minister of National Defense--Kim Jang-soo
Minister of Planning and Budget--Chang Byoung-wan
Minister of Unification--Lee Jae-jong
Director of the National Intelligence Service--Kim Man-bok
Chief Secretary to the President for Unification, Foreign, and Security
Policy--Baek Jong-chun
Ambassador to the U.S.--Lee Tae-sik
Ambassador to the UN--Choi Young-jin

Korea maintains an embassy in the United States at 2450 Massachusetts Avenue
NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-939-5600). Consulates General are located
in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San
Francisco, Seattle, and Hagatna (Agana) in Guam.

ECONOMY
The Republic of Korea's economic growth over the past 30 years has been
spectacular. Per capita GNP, only $100 in 1963, exceeded $16,000 in 2005.
South Korea is now the United States' seventh-largest trading partner and is
the 11th-largest economy in the world.

In the early 1960s, the government of Park Chung Hee instituted sweeping
economic policy changes emphasizing exports and labor-intensive light
industries, leading to rapid debt-financed industrial expansion. The
government carried out a currency reform, strengthened financial
institutions, and introduced flexible economic planning. In the 1970s Korea
began directing fiscal and financial policies toward promoting heavy and
chemical industries, consumer electronics, and automobiles. Manufacturing
continued to grow rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s.

In recent years, Korea's economy moved away from the centrally planned,
government-directed investment model toward a more market-oriented one. Korea
bounced back from the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis with some International
Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance, but based largely on extensive financial
reforms that restored stability to markets. These economic reforms, pushed by
President Kim Dae-jung, helped Korea maintain one of Asia's few expanding
economies, with growth rates of 10% in 1999 and 9% in 2000. The slowing
global economy and falling exports slowed growth to 3.3% in 2001, prompting
consumer stimulus measures that led to 7.0% growth in 2002. Consumer
over-shopping and rising household debt, along with external factors, slowed
growth to near 3% again in 2003. Economic performance in 2004 improved to
4.6% due to an increase in exports, and remained at or above 4% in 2005 and
into 2006.

Economists are concerned that South Korea's economic growth potential has
fallen because of a rapidly aging population and structural problems that are
becoming increasingly apparent. Foremost among these structural concerns is
the rigidity of South Korea's labor regulations, the need for more
constructive relations between management and workers, the country's
underdeveloped financial markets, and a general lack of regulatory
transparency. Restructuring of Korean conglomerates ("chaebols") and creating
a more liberalized economy with a mechanism for bankrupt firms to exit the
market are also important unfinished reform tasks. Korean policy makers are
increasingly worried about diversion of corporate investment to China and
other lower wage countries.

North-South Economic Ties
North and South Korea have moved forward on a number of economic cooperation
projects. The following projects are most prominent:


*Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC): Since the June 2003 groundbreaking, the
KIC has grown to include a variety of South Korean companies operating in
this North-South cooperation project. The R.O.K. envisages a substantial
enlargement of participation in the project in the following years,
although new investment was suspended following the North's testing of a
nuclear device in October 2006.
*Tourism: R.O.K.-organized tours to Mt. Kumgang in North Korea began in
1998. Since then, more than a million visitors have traveled to Mt.
Kumgang.
*Infrastructure Development: Although east and west coast railroad and
roads links have been reconnected across the DMZ, neither rail link has
been tested. The roads crossing the DMZ are used on a daily basis between
South Korea and Mt. Kumgang, as well as to the Kaesong Industrial
Complex.

Two-way trade between North and South Korea, legalized in 1988, hit almost
$1.35 billion in 2006, up 27.8% from 2005. This total included a substantial
quantity of non-trade goods provided to the North as aid (fertilizer, etc.)
or as part of inter-Korean cooperative projects. According to R.O.K. figures,
about 60% of the total trade consisted of commercial transactions, much of
that based on processing-on-commission arrangements. The R.O.K. is North
Korea's second-largest trading partner.

FOREIGN RELATIONS
In August 1991, South Korea joined the United Nations along with North Korea
and is active in most UN specialized agencies and many international forums.
The Republic of Korea also hosted major international events such as the 1988
Summer Olympics, the 2002 World Cup Soccer Tournament (co-hosted with Japan),
and the 2002 Second Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies.

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. It is a founding member of the Asia-Pacific
Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and chaired the organization in 2005.
 

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