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South Korea

Atlas South Korea

Country (long form)
Republic of Korea
Total Area
38,023.34 sq mi
98,480.00 sq km
47,470,969 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
Korean, English widely taught in junior high and high school
98.0% total, 99.3% male, 96.7% female (1995 est.)
Christian 49%, Buddhist 47%, Confucianist 3%, Shamanist, Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way), and other 1%
Life Expectancy
70.75 male, 78.54 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
1 South Korean won (W) = 100 chun (theoretical)
GDP (per capita)
$13,300 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
services and other 68%, mining and manufacturing 20%, agriculture, fishing, forestry 12% (1998)
electronics, automobile production, chemicals, shipbuilding, steel, textiles, clothing, footwear, food processing
rice, root crops, barley, vegetables, fruit; cattle, pigs, chickens, milk, eggs; fish
Arable Land
electronic products, machinery and equipment, motor vehicles, steel, ships; textiles, clothing, footwear; fish
machinery, electronics and electronic equipment, oil, steel, transport equipment, textiles, organic chemicals, grains
Natural Resources
coal, tungsten, graphite, molybdenum, lead, hydropower potential
Current Environmental Issues
air pollution in large cities; water pollution from the discharge of sewage and industrial effluents; drift net fishing
Telephones (main lines in use)
23.1 million (1998)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
8.6 million (1998)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
11 (1999)

According to the Koreans, the first of their kin was born in 2333 BC. Scientists with slightly less respect for Korean mythology believe Korea was first inhabited around 30,000 BC, when tribes from central and northern Asia stumbled on the peninsula. Under constant pressure from China, these tribes banded together to found a kingdom in the 1st century AD. By 700 AD the Silla Kingdom of Korea was hitting its cultural stride, littering the country with palaces, pagodas and pleasure gardens and influencing the development of Japan's culture. But in the early 13th century the Mongols reached Korea and gave it their customary scorched-earth treatment. When the Mongol Empire collapsed, the Choson Dynasty took over and a Korean script was developed.

In 1592 Japan invaded, followed by China - the Koreans were routed and the Chinese Manchu Dynasty moved in. Turning its back on the mean and nasty world, Korea closed its doors to outside influence until the early 20th century.

Japan invaded the peninsula in 1904, and officially annexed it in 1910. The Japanese, who hung on until the end of WWII, were harsh masters, and anti-Japanese sentiment was strong. After the war, the USA occupied the south of the peninsula, while the USSR took over the north. Elections to decide the fate of the country were held only in the south, and when the south declared its independence, the north invaded. The ensuing war lasted until 1953 (or is still continuing, if you count MASH re-runs).

By the time the war ended, two million people had died and the country had been officially divided. After a few years of semi-democracy in the South, martial law was declared in 1972. The next 15 years rollercoastered between democracy and repressive martial law, hitting a stomach-heaving low in 1980 when 200 student protesters were killed in the Gwangju massacre. By the late 1980s the country was at flashpoint - student protests were convulsing the country and workers all over Korea were walking off the job to join them. Among the demands were democratic elections, freedom of the press and the release of political prisoners. The government wasn't budging and civil war looked imminent until, to everyone's jaw-dropping surprise, President Chun suddenly decided that everything the protesters were asking for was alright by him.

In 1988 - the year Seoul hosted the Olympic Games - elections were held and Roh Tae-woo, another military figure, was elected president. Student protests continued apace, but, contrary to expectations, Roh significantly freed up the political system. Relations were re-established with China and the Soviet Union. In 1992, Roh was replaced by Kim Young-sam and his Democratic Liberal Party. Kim's hobby horse was corruption, and during his term of office several politicians were prosecuted for abusing the system. Most notably, ex-presidents Chun and Roh were brought to book for their role in the Gwangju massacre. Roh was sentenced to 22 years, Chun to death, but in December 1997, Kim granted them a presidential pardon and the two were released from prison. 1997 was a very bad year for South Korea's economy, with the won taking a tumble and tourism dropping dramatically. In February 1998, former dissident Kim Dae-jung became president, the first time a non-conservative had headed the country in its 50 years of independence. Kim promised to introduce economic and democratic reforms and improve relations with North Korea.

By mid-1998 the South Korean economy was actually shrinking - something that hadn't occurred for nearly two decades. Rising bankruptcies and soaring unemployment led to large-scale labour unrest, but the economy is now on the move again.

Making good on promises of more neighbourly relations with North Korea, Kim made an historic visit to shake the hand of reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, in June 2000. As a sign of good faith he allowed the North Korean government to arrange for his security. In October 2000 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and as part of a partnership with Japan and the USA continues to pursue a policy of cooperation with North Korea. In December 2001 he became the first Asian leader to speak before the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

A naval battle early the following year against North Korea that left four dead (and claimed an estimated 30 North Korean victims) highlighted the fragility of the rapprochement. In December 2002, Roh Moo-hyun won the presidency, but by early 2004 he was hanging on to power by a thread. Parliament voted to impeach him, but its decision was reversed by the Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, a site for the country's new capital city was chosen in the Yeongi-Kongju area and the US announced plans to reduce its troop numbers by a third.