Country in East Asia, bounded north by North Korea, east by the Sea of Japan, south by the Korea Strait, and west by the Yellow Sea.
Government South Korea is a multiparty democracy with a presidential executive. Under its 1988 constitution, executive power is held by the president, who is directly elected by popular vote. The president is restricted to one five-year term of office and governs with a cabinet (state council) headed by a prime minister. Legislative authority resides in the single-chamber, 300-deputy national assembly, the Kuk Hoe, comprising 253 members directly elected for four-year terms by universal suffrage in single-member constituencies, and 47 elected through proportional representation nationally. The assembly has the authority to impeach the president and to override presidential vetoes. There is also a nine-member constitutional court which rules on impeachment proceedings. Guarantees of freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association are written into the constitution.
History For the history of Korea as a whole up to the end of the Korean War in 1953, see Korea: history to 1637 and Korea: history 1637– 1953.
The Republic of Korea was formed out of the zone south of the 38th parallel of latitude, the area occupied by US troops after Japan's surrender in 1945. The US military government controlled the country until, following national elections, an independent republic was declared on 15 August 1948.
Dr Sungman Rhee (Yi Sungman), leader of the right-wing Liberal Party, was the nation's first president in a constitution based on the US model. To begin with, the republic had to cope with a massive influx of refugees fleeing the communist regime in North Korea, in addition to problems concerning the repatriation of over a million forced workers who had been sent to Japan during World War II.
The Korean War In June 1950 the North launched a massive invasion of South Korea, with the aim of reunifying the country. This began the three-year Korean War (see also Korean history 1637–1953), which, after intervention by US-led United Nations forces (on the side of the South) and by China (on the side of the North), ended in stalemate. The 38th parallel was re-established as the border between North and South by the armistice agreement of July 1953, and a UN-patrolled demilitarized buffer zone was created. South Korea was devastated by the war, and lost 226,000 troops.
Park Chung Hee in power, 1961–79 South Korea's economic recovery was hindered under Syngman Rhee by poor planning and inefficient execution, involving widespread corruption. Syngman Rhee's government was overthrown by popular demonstrations in April 1960, and a Democratic Party prime minister, Chang Myon, came to power. A new parliamentary-style constitution gave greater power to the legislature, and the ensuing political instability precipitated a military coup led by Gen Park Chung Hee in May 1961.
A presidential system of government was re-established, with Park, who had meanwhile retired from the army, elected president in October 1963. Although in theory civilian government had been restored, South Korea remained a very closely controlled one-party state. Park was re-elected in May 1967, and, after amendment of the constitution, again in April 1971.
Opposition to the repressive Park regime mounted during the 1970s. In response, martial law was imposed. In October 1972 Park suspended the South Korean constitution and in November a national referendum approved what was called the Yushin, or ‘Revitalisation’, constitution, which strengthened the president's powers. A clampdown on political dissent, launched in 1975, was partially relaxed for the 1978 elections, but brought protests in 1979 as economic conditions briefly deteriorated. President Park was assassinated in October 1979 by the head of his intelligence service, and martial law was reimposed.
Economic development in the 1960s and 1970s From the beginning of Park's rule in 1961 successive economic plans were more capably worked out than in the 1950s, and implemented with increasing confidence. Capital was provided almost entirely by foreign loans, mainly from the USA and Japan. The resumption of diplomatic relations with Japan in 1964 was a major factor in this recovery.
From 1971 South Korea's industrial growth was one of the fastest in the world, particularly in international trade, with the country becoming a major exporter of light and heavy industrial goods. The Saemaul, or ‘New Communities’ campaign, inaugurated in the spring of 1971, spread the benefits of increasing prosperity into the rural areas.
Continuing tensions with the North In August 1971 North Korea proposed political discussions with the South, and the Red Cross Societies of the two halves of the country began talks on humanitarian problems arising from the division of Korea. Despite the establishment in 1972 of a North–South coordinating committee to promote peaceful unification, relations with the South remained tense and hostile. Border incidents were frequent, and in October 1983 four South Korean cabinet ministers were assassinated in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar), in a bombing incident organized by two North Korean army officers.
The perceived threat of invasion from the North continued to be a key factor in South Korean politics, helping to justify stern rule. The country devoted large resources to modernizing its armed forces, which were supported by more than 35,000 US troops, assuring US intervention in the event of an invasion. Political and economic relations with the USA have remained close – the USA currently provides a market for 40% of South Korea's exports – but anti-US sentiment has always been strong among opposition groups.
Developments after Park's death Following President Park's assassination in 1979 an interim government, led by former prime minister Choi Kyu-Hah, introduced liberalizing reforms, releasing opposition leader Kim Dae Jung in 1980. However, as antigovernment demonstrations developed, a new dissident clampdown began, involving the arrest of 30 political leaders, including Kim Dae Jung. After a severely suppressed insurrection in Kim's home city of Kwangju, President Choi resigned in 1980 and was replaced by the leader of the army, Gen Chun Doo Hwan. A new constitution was adopted, and, after Chun Doo Hwan was re-elected president in 1981, the new Fifth Republic was proclaimed.
Cautious liberalization in the 1980s Under President Chun economic growth resumed, but internal and external criticism of the suppression of civil liberties continued. Cautious liberalization was seen prior to the 1985 assembly elections, with the release of many political prisoners and the return from exile of Kim Dae Jung. After the 1985 election the opposition parties launched a campaign for genuine democratization, forcing the Chun regime to frame a new, more liberal constitution, which was adopted after a referendum in October 1987.
The ensuing presidential election was won by the ruling party's candidate, Roh Tae Woo, amid opposition charges of fraud. He took over in February 1988, but in the national assembly elections in April 1988 the ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP) fell well short of an overall majority. Only in February 1990, when the DJP merged with two minor opposition parties to form the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP), was a stable governing majority secured.
Continuing unrest In December 1990 the government launched a ‘purification’ campaign designed to improve public morals and reduce materialism. In May 1991 at least 250,000 people demonstrated and six attempted suicide in protests triggered by the beating to death of a student by police. Protests continued, and the police and security services were given emergency powers to deal with student-led unrest.
The country's two-party structure was restored in September 1991 when the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Kim Dae Jung, and the small Democratic Party, led by Lee Ki Taek, merged to form the Democratic Party (DP), headed jointly by the two leaders. The ruling DLP lost its majority, and Roh resigned as leader.
Civilian government restored In December 1992 Kim Young Sam, candidate of the ruling DLP, won the presidential election, becoming the first president without a military background to be elected since 1960. The new civilian government pursued a strategy of gradual deregulation of South Korea's bureaucratic economy, including some privatizations, and pushed through reforms aimed at curbing political corruption. Despite a temporary slowdown in GDP growth in 1992–93, President Kim remained popular and the number of student protests diminished significantly.
From 1994 the government encouraged greater competition, privatization, and deregulation within the still booming economy, as part of a segyehwa (‘globalization’) initiative. However, in June 1995 the ruling DLP, which had been weakened by a split in its ranks March 1995, polled poorly in the country's first-ever local elections, with the opposition DP performing strongly.
In September 1995 Kim Dae Jung a new centre-left opposition party, the National Congress for New Politics (NCNP). It immediately attracted more than 50 defectors from the DP, making it the largest opposition party in the national assembly. In December 1995 the ruling DLP renamed itself the New Korea Party (NKP) but it lost its majority in elections to the national assembly in April 1996.
Corruption and treason charges In October 1995 former president Roh Tae Woo was charged with corruption, after having publicly admitted to having amassed 500 billion won (£400 million) in a party slush fund during his term in office and to having retained 170 billion won for personal use. He was arrested, along with former president Chun Doo Hwan, in November 1995, and in January 1996 both men were charged with treason for their alleged role in the massacre of more than 200 antigovernment demonstrators in the military rebellion that brought Chun to power in 1980.
Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo were respectively sentenced to death and 23 years imprisonment in August 1996. They were also fined, between them, more than $610 million for receiving bribes from industry while in office. Chun and Roh immediately appealed against the convictions, and in December Chun's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and Roh's to 17 years' imprisonment.
Economic crisis In December 1996 and January 1997 large-scale industrial unrest swept the car- and ship-building industries, and there were street protests against proposed liberalization of labour laws to make it easier for businesses to alter workers' hours and employ temporary staff. In January 1997 Hanbo, the country's second-largest chaebol (‘conglomerate’) based on steel-making, collapsed with debts of $6 million. Hanbo's collapse revealed widespread corruption which led, within a year, to the imprisonment of the son of President Kim Young San on charges of accepting bribes and tax evasion and to a jail sentence for the former president of the Bank of Seoul. The scandals weakened President Kim's authority and his approval rating fell below 20%.
The economic crisis continued through 1997. In April the Sammi steel corporation collapsed and in July Kia, the country's third biggest car maker, was in difficulties. In November the country faced a major currency crisis and submitted an application to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an emergency loan package of $60 billion. Patriotic Koreans responded to an official appeal by donating gold to be turned into hard currency to support the country's ailing financial structure. By April 1998 the won, which had stood at about 900 to the US$ in April 1997, appeared to be stabilizing at around the 1,400 level. But in 1999 Daewoo, a major car manufacturer collapsed, and by 2003 just over one-half of the 30 largest chaebol from 1995 remained.
Although South Korea's economic difficulties occurred in the context of major crises afflicting Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, its standing as the 11th greatest economy in the world meant that any major Korean collapse posed a greater threat to the stability in the South East Asian region. These political and economic developments were being played out against the background of mounting tensions with North Korea, arising out of the catastrophic famine gripping that country.
Relations with the North South Korea was admitted to the United Nations along with North Korea in September 1991. Despite concerns over North Korea's nuclear aspirations, the prime ministers of the two Koreas met in Seoul in December 1991 and signed a non-aggression and confidence-building pact, which provided for the restoration of cross-border communications, the reunion of divided families, and the free movement of people, commerce, and ideas. On 31 December 1991 a further pact was signed in Panmunjom in which both states agreed to ban the testing, manufacture, deployment, or possession of nuclear weapons. In response, the USA agreed to withdraw its nuclear weapons from South Korea and to reduce its troop strength, although in 1994, in response to a perceived threat from North Korea, it again stepped up its military presence.
In 1995 South Korea donated two ‘safe’ nuclear reactors to North Korea, in an attempt to persuade the latter to abandon its suspected atomic-weapons programme, and also supplied the North with emergency shipments of rice. US and North and South Korean officials began talks in March 1997 that mediators hoped would lead to peace on the peninsula. Delegations gathered in New York for a briefing by the USA and South Korea on proposals for talks aimed at formally ending the Korean War. It was the first time since 1972 that North and South Koreans had met for peace talks. Talks between North and South continued in Beijing, China, but collapsed in April 1998 over Seoul's insistence that aid for the famine-stricken North be linked to the reuniting of families divided since the 1950–53 Korean war.
Foreign affairs Notable developments in foreign affairs during the 1990s included the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1990, the beginning of diplomatic links with communist China in 1992, and the development of closer political and economic links with Japan. In January 1997 South Korea joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Kim Dae Jung becomes president in 1998 The veteran Kim Dae Jung won the December 1997 presidential elections and was sworn in as president in February 1998. One of his first acts was to confirm the release from prison of ex-presidents Chun Doo Whan and Roh Tae Woo ordered by outgoing president Kim Young Sam. Kim's goals as president were to revitalize the troubled economy, to implement political and economic reform, and to bring about reconciliation with the North, starting with an exchange of envoys and a summit meeting.
He appointed as prime minister Kim Jong Pil, the leader of the conservative United Liberal Democrats (ULD), who had agreed not to contest the presidential election in return for this position. The Grand National Party (GNP), formed in November 1997 through the merger of the DP and the NKP, which held 162 of the national assembly's 299 seats, opposed Kim Jong Pil's appointment, which was not ratified until August 1988.
During 1998 South Korea's economy contracted by 5% as a result of austerity measures agreed with the IMF. Unemployment rose and there was labour unrest as redundancies rose. This was helped by new labour laws, introduced in February 2008, which ended the Korean tradition of lifetime employment by allowing companies to introduce redundancies.
In March 1998 President Kim Dae Jung freed 2,304 prisoners, as part of a broader amnesty. These included 74 political prisoners, although an estimated 400 ‘prisoners of conscience’ remained in jail.
Renewed North-South talks In October 1998 representatives of North and South Korea, the USA, and China met in Geneva in a renewed effort to bring permanent peace to the peninsula. However, it was not until April 2000 when both North and South Korea simultaneously announced the arrangement of the first summit meeting between the divided countries. Kim Dae Jung and the hereditary leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, planned to meet in June 2000 in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Just days after the announcement, South Korea's ruling party failed to secure a majority in parliamentary elections. When Kim Dae Jung was welcomed by Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, the two leaders came to some agreement, including a plan for South Korea to speed up economic investment in North Korea, and a plan to open rail links between the two countries. Following the agreement that links between the two countries would be forged, in August 2000, 100 elderly people from either side of the border were reunited with their families from whom they had been separated for 50 years. In September 2000 the defence ministers of North and South Korea met for the first time in more than 50 years. Kim Dae Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on 13 October 2000 for his work in bringing about reconciliation with the communist government of North Korea.
In September 2001 South Korea's parliament passed a vote of no confidence in Lim Ding Won, the minister in charge of negotiations with North Korea, triggering the resignation of the entire cabinet. A government spokesman said that the policy of reconciliation with the North would still continue.
In June 2002, in the worst clash between North and South Korea in three years, naval vessels fired on each other in disputed coastal waters in the Yellow Sea. Four South Korean sailors were killed and 19 injured, while around 30 North Korean casualties were reported. The incident threatened to derail Kim Dae Jung's policy of engagement with the North.
Presidency of Roh Moo-hyun: 2003–08 The presidential elections of December 2002 were won by Roh Moo-hyun, the candidate of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), who narrowly defeated Lee Hoi-chang of the GNP. Roh pledged to continue the Sunshine Policy of engagement towards North Korea, to decentralize government, and to improve labour relations. Roh became president in February 2003 and broke away from the MDP to form a new party, the Uri Party (Our Open Party). But the Roh government was weakened by allegations of corruption and illegal electioneering and in March 2004 the National Assembly voted to impeach him on these charges. This move backfired on the opposition as a wave of public support and sympathy gave victory to his Uri Party in the April 2004 legislature elections. It won 152 of the 299 National Assembly seats to give a party of the centre a majority in the Assembly for the first time in more than 40 years.
In May 2004 Roh was restored to the presidency when the Constitutional Court overturned the Assembly's impeachment decision. However, his popularity began to decline, particularly as a result of his decision to deploy South Korean troops in Iraq, in a peacekeeping role. South Korea's economy grew annually by over 4% between 2003 and 2006, but the loss of a succession of by-elections led, in 2005, to the president's Uri Party losing its assembly majority. Roh struggled on and there were a succession of changes of prime minister, with five between 2005 and 2008. By the end of Roh's presidency, his approval rating stood at only 30% and, with corruption investigations continuing, he was to later commit suicide in May 2009.
Relations with North Korea were strained by the latter's test of short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan in 2006. But in October 2007 Roh and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il signed an eight-point peace agreement on issues of permanent peace, high-level talks, economic cooperation, renewal of train services, and highway and air travel. In April 2007 South Korea concluded a free-trade agreement with the USA.
Presidency of Lee Myung-bak: 2008–13 The December 2007 presidential election was won by Lee Myung-bak, a former head of the Hyundai industrial conglomerate and mayor of Seoul and a right-wing candidate of the GNP, with 49% of the vote. He campaigned on a programme of boosting economic growth to 7% per annum, to make South Korea the world's seventh largest economy within a decade, through deregulation, foreign investment, and infrastructure projects, including building a canal between Seoul and the port of Busan
He pursued a more assertive policy towards North Korea, with the aim of getting it to abandon its nuclear weapons programme, and developed closer relations with the USA. North Korea responded by scrapping the non-aggression agreement with the South in January 2009, declaring that the two countries were ‘on the brink of war’, and in May 2009 carrying out a further underground nuclear weapons test. Domestically, Lee had initial success when the GNP secured a majority of seats in the April 2008 elections to the National Assembly.
The global financial crisis of 2008–09 led to an abrupt economic slowdown to which the government responded with financial support to banks, small businesses, and low-income families. This averted economic recession and the economy secured a boost from a free trade agreement with the European Union, which took effect in 2010, and with the USA in 2011.
Park Geun-hye is elected South Korea's first female president In February 2012 the governing GNP was renamed the Saenuri (New Frontier) Party. It won the April 2012 parliamentary elections with a slim and reduced majority of 152 of the 300 seats. In December 2012 its candidate Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, was narrowly elected president, with 52% of the vote.
Park became the country's first female president and she pledged to give priority to national security and economic growth. On taking office in February 2013, she faced the challenge of heightened tensions with North Korea, which said it was preparing for a ‘state of war’ with South Korea and would restart is nuclear reactor. In March 2014 North Korea test-fired two medium-range ballistic missiles for the first time since 2009, in violation of UN resolutions. It went on to carry out further tests during the Park presidency.
On 16 April 2014 the country was shocked by the sinking off the west coast of a Sewol ferry, killing nearly 300 people, mainly school students. Following criticisms of the disaster response, Chung Hong-won tendered his resignation as prime minister. He was replaced in February 2015 by Lee Wan-koo. Two months later, Lee resigned as prime minister amid a corruption scandal and in April 2015 justice minister Hwang Kyo-ahn became prime minister.
In the April 2016 national assembly elections, Park's Saenuri party lost its majority, amid voter concerns with faltering economic growth and high youth unemployment. While Saenuri won the highest share of the vote, 33% (down 9% on 2012), it won only 122 of the 300 seats. It finished one seat behind the liberal Minjoo Party of Korea (a successor to the DP/MDP). The centrist People's Party, which had been formed in 2016 by a defector from the Minjoo Party, held the balance of power with 38 seats.
President Park's is impeached following ‘Choi Soon-sil-gate’ scandal In spring 2016 Park's approval ratings were already low at 32%. From October 2016 they plummeted as the president became engulfed in the ‘Choi Soon-sil-gate’ scandal, which also undermined public support for the country's business elite and chaebol. This scandal, which centred around allegations of undue influence exerted by a personal friend of the president led, on 9 December 2016, to the national assembly voting to impeach Park by 234 votes to 56. Immediately her presidential powers were suspended and prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn became acting president while the constitutional court considered the case.
The roots of the scandal lay back in 1974, during her father's presidency, when Park's mother was assassinated by a North Korean sympathizer. Then 22 years old, Park became acting first lady and fell under the influence of Choi Tae-min (1912–94), leader of the Church of Eternal Life religious cult. Claiming that Park's mother had appeared in his dreams and had asked him to guide her, Choi and, after his death, his daughter Choi Soon-sil became Park's mentors. At the same time, they amassed considerable wealth and influence.
The scandal broke in October 2016 when Choi Soon-sil faced allegations of abusing her presidential connections to pressure major companies, including Samsung, into donating to foundations she controlled, and that she also received confidential government documents via an aide of Park. On 20 November 2016 Choi was charged with abuse of authority, coercion, and attempted fraud and placed under emergency detention. As the scandal deepened, with accusations of chaebol buying influence, there were massive demonstrations in the capital and other cities demanding Park's immediate resignation and a cleansing of politics and business.
2017 presidential election On 10 March 2017 the constitutional court upheld the impeachment and Park was removed from office and lost her immunity from criminal prosecution.
A new presidential election was held in May 2017 and was won by Moon Jae-in of the centre-left Minjoo (Democratic) Party, with 41% of the vote. Moon was a former human-rights lawyer whose parents had fled North Korea in 1950, before his birth. He took charge of the country at a time of escalating tension on the Korean peninsula, as North Korea became increasingly bellicose following an agreement by Park to allow the USA to deploy an advanced missile defence system, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea – a system that China also strongly opposed.
Moon advocated dialogue with North Korea to reduce tensions, and in June 2017 announced suspension of full deployment of THAAD pending an environmental review. But in July 2017 North Korea launched tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and in August 2017 fired a missile over Japan. This led to intensification in a war of words and threats between Pyongyang and the new US president Donald Trump.
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National nameDaehan Minguk/Republic of KoreaArea100,150 sq km/38,668 sq miCapitalSeoulLanguageKorean (official); English (widely taught in schools)Re