The Republic of Korea, as South Korea is officially known, occupies the S part of the Korean Peninsula. Mountains cover much of the country. The S and W coasts are major farming regions. There are many islands along the W and S coasts. The largest of these is Cheju-do, with South Korea's highest peak, Halla-san (1,950m [6,398ft]).
South Korea is chilled in winter by cold, dry winds blowing from central Asia. Snow often covers the mountains in the E. The summers are hot and wet, especially in July and August.
The Chinese conquered the north in 108 bc and ruled until they were thrown out in ad 313. Mongol armies attacked Korea in the 13th century. In 1388 general Yi Songgye founded a dynasty of rulers that lasted until 1910.
From the 17th century Korea prevented foreigners from entering the country. This earned it the name 'Hermit Kingdom' until 1876, when Japan forced it to open some of its ports. Soon the United States, Russia and some European countries were trading with Korea. The Japanese gained dominance and, in 1910, forced Korea to become a Japanese colony.
After Japan's defeat in World War 2 North Korea was occupied by Soviet troops, while South Korea was occupied by United States forces. Attempts at reunification failed and, in 1948, a National Assembly was elected in South Korea. This Assembly created the Republic of Korea, while North Korea became a Communist state. North Korean troops invaded the South in June 1950, sparking off the Korean War (1950-53).
The story of South Korea after the civil war differs greatly from that of the North. Land reform based on smallholdings worked to produce some of the world's highest rice yields and self-sufficiency in food grains. The real economic miracle came with industrial expansion started in the early 1960s. Initiated by a military government and based on limited natural resources, the country used its cheap, plentiful, well-educated labour force to transform the economy. The manufacturing base of textiles remained important, but South Korea also became a world leader in footwear, shipbuilding, consumer electronics, toys and vehicles.
In 1988 a new constitution came into force, enabling presidential elections to be held every five years. Evidence of the new spirit of democracy came in 1997 presidential elections, when pro-democracy campaigner Kim Dae-jung narrowly defeated the governing party's candidate. In foreign affairs, a major breakthrough had occurred in 1991 when both North and South Korea were admitted as full members of the United Nations. The two countries signed several agreements, including one in which they agreed not to use force against each other, but tensions between them continued. In 2000 South Korea's President Dae-jung met with North Korea's Kim Jong Il in talks aimed at establishing better relations between the countries, but the prospect of reunification seemed as distant as ever. In 2003 Roh Moo-hyun became president.
The World Bank classifies South Korea as an 'upper-middle-income' developing country. It is one of the world's fastest growing industrial economies. Resources include coal and tungsten. The main manufactures are computers, cars, televisions, processed food and textiles, while heavy industries include chemicals, fertilizers, iron, steel, and ships. Farming and fishing remain important activities, and rice is the chief food crop.
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