South Korea is inhabited by about 48 million people, most of whom trace their distant ancestry to China and Siberia. About 10 percent came from the north, having fled south during the Korean War (1950-53) or are descended from the original refugees.
South Korean society is based on the teachings of Confucius (551-479 B.C.), a Chinese philosopher who taught respect for authority, reverence for family and parents, the duty to do one's best, and the importance of education.
Korean is one of the Altaic languages, which also include Turkish and Mongolian. Korean was originally written in Chinese characters, but in the 1440's a Korean alphabet, called hangul, was invented. Today a script that combines hangul and Chinese characters is used.
The main organized religions of Korea are Christianity (mainly Protestant), Buddhism, and a native religion called Chondokyo, or "religion of the heavenly way." Many South Koreans combine elements of various religions in different aspects of their lives. Some maintain the ancient folk religious beliefs known as shamanism.
Most students in South Korea stay in school through the ninth grade, and increasing numbers are continuing on to high school. More than 1 million students are enrolled in colleges and universities, such as Seoul National, Yonsei, and Korea universities.
South Korea's literacy rate is among the world's highest. Nearly 100 percent of the population can read and write.
Rice is a staple of the diet. Typical dishes include kimchi (spiced pickled cabbage), mandu (meat-filled dumplings), kuksu (noodles), and dried fish and other seafood. Bean curd, made from soybeans, is a basic source of protein. Western-style restaurants and foods, including American fast foods, have become increasingly popular. But rice and kimchi remain the principal elements of a meal.
Traditional Korean houses included an enclosed courtyard. The homes of the well-to-do had tile roofs and walls of stone or colored brick. The dwellings of poorer Koreans usually had thatched roofs and mud or stone walls. The floors were covered with a kind of oiled paper. People ate, sat, and slept on the floors of the main rooms. Heat was provided by the ondol system, in which flues conducted heat from the fireplace to stones beneath the floor. Today most city dwellers live in brick homes or modern apartment houses that are heated with gas or electricity. Nevertheless, some or all of the rooms are still kept warm in winter using the traditional floor-heating system.
Sports and Recreation
South Koreans enjoy a great many sports, including soccer, speed skating, baseball, basketball, volleyball, Ping-Pong, gymnastics, boxing, and wrestling. The martial arts, especially tae kwon do, are popular. Many Koreans have excelled in marathon (long-distance) running and have won prizes in this track event in international competitions, including the Olympic Games.
The rugged Central Mountains cover much of central and eastern South Korea. They include the Sobaek Mountains and the southern half of the T'aebaek Mountains. Most cities and farms are situated on two fertile plains: the Southwestern Plain, which covers the western half of the peninsula, and the Southern Plain, along the south coast.
The western and southern coasts of South Korea are dotted with some 3,000 islands, most of them unpopulated. Cheju, the largest island, contains Halla San, South Korea's highest peak, which rises 6,398 feet (1,950 meters). Cheju, with its thriving tourist industry, is known as the Asian Hawaii.
Rivers and Coastal Waters
The Korean Peninsula is surrounded by two major branches of the Pacific Ocean: the Yellow Sea to the west and the Sea of Japan to the east. South Korea's three principal rivers are the Han, Kum, and Naktong. The Han flows through Seoul and, with the Kum, waters the fertile plains in the southwest. The Naktong, the country's longest river, waters the southeast before emptying into the Korea Strait.
In the northwest, winters are long and cold. The average temperature in Seoul in January is about 23°F (-5°C). Summers are short and hot, and the average July temperature in the capital is about 80°F (27°C). Winters are much milder in the southwest.
South Korea is relatively poor in natural resources. Once heavily forested, it has been largely stripped of trees, especially near urban areas. However, a program of reforestation is being carried out. The country's sparse mineral resources include coal, tungsten, iron ore, molybdenum, limestone, and graphite.
Before Korea was divided after World War II (1939-45), manufacturing industries were concentrated in the North. Nevertheless, after the Korean War, South Korea experienced rapid economic growth. By concentrating on producing goods for export, it became one of the world's fastest-growing economies. This rapid growth helped raise the average income from $67 a year in 1961 to $16,000 by the year 2000.
The service sector employs more than two-thirds of South Korea's workforce and accounts for more than half its economy. The country also attracts more than 5 million foreign visitors every year, making tourism the fastest-growing service industry.
South Korea's industry, which has grown remarkably since the 1960's, accounts for 41 percent of the nation's economy. The country exports a variety of manufactured goods, including steel, automobiles, ships, chemicals, clothing, television sets, household appliances, and computers and semiconductors.
Agriculture and Fishing.
The agricultural sector employs about 12 percent of the workforce and accounts for 6 percent of the nation's economy. Fishing is especially important, as Koreans generally eat more fish than meat. South Korea is one of the world's major harvesters of seafood.
South Korea's rice production is among the highest in the world per unit of land. In addition to rice, staple food crops include soybeans, barley, corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. Cabbages, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a variety of fruits are also grown. Bees are raised for honey, and silkworms are cultivated for raw silk. Cattle, pigs, and chickens are also raised.
South Korea's main exports include electronic products, machinery, motor vehicles (particularly automobiles), steel, ships, and textiles and clothing. With no petroleum reserves, South Korea must import substantial amounts of crude oil. Other imports include food, machinery, chemicals, and chemical products. The country's main trading partner is the United States, followed by Japan and China.
South Korea's modern transportation system includes some 54,370 miles (87,540 kilometers) of highways and 1,940 miles (3,120 kilometers) of railway lines. More than 100 airports provide air service. Airports near Seoul and Pusan provide international service. Korean Air is the nation's largest airline.
South Korea has more than 120 television broadcast stations and 200 radio stations. Several daily newspapers are published, including ones in English, Chinese, and Japanese.
South Korea has one of the world's highest population densities. More than 80 percent of the people live in urban areas.
Seoul is South Korea's capital, largest city, and economic and cultural center. Situated on the Han River, it lies only 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. The city is home to nearly one-quarter of South Korea's total population.
Pusan, South Korea's second largest city, is the country's chief seaport and a major industrial center. See the article on Pusan.
Traditional Korea revered Chinese models and adapted many Chinese ways. An example is the use of Chinese characters in the Korean language. Korean art and literature also display Chinese influence, as well as Korea's own style. In painting, for example, Korean artists during the Chosun kingdom created exquisite Chinese-style landscapes and portraits, but they also produced works depicting Korean scenes and customs.
The events of South Korea's modern history have inspired many writers to produce tragic and satirical works. The ordeals of colonialism, war, urbanization, economic modernization, and the separation of families by the North-South division are common themes.
South Korea is a democratic republic. It is headed by a president and prime minister and a cabinet composed primarily of officials from the majority party in the one-house legislature, the National Assembly. Members of the National Assembly are elected to 4-year terms by popular vote from districts across the nation.
A new constitution, which went into effect in 1988, reduced the presidential term from seven to five years. There has since been a gradual trend toward lessening the central government's power over local affairs.
Primitive communities existed in Korea at least 4,000 years ago. But the ancestors of the people we know as Koreans first migrated southward into the peninsula from Siberia and from China about 2,000 years ago. During the first century A.D., Korean tribal states developed and eventually became the kingdoms of Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla before they were unified under the Silla in 668 A.D.
The Silla Kingdom (668-935), headquartered in the southeastern city of Kyongju, was Korea's first authentic dynasty. Its successor state, Koryo (918-1392), expanded Korea's boundaries. But Koryo was also forced to become part of the Mongol Empire.
Koryo fell in 1392, and the new kingdom of Chosun, based in Seoul, realigned Korea with China. Chosun embraced Confucianism as its state philosophy, creating the basis for much that remains in Korean life and thought today.
In 1637, Korea became dominated by the Manchus (who soon after became rulers of China), although the Korean kings remained on the throne until 1910. Under the Manchus, Korea became a hermit nation, cut off from the outside world except for China.
Japanese Occupation. During the 1800's, many nations took an interest in Korea, especially Japan. After defeating rivals for influence in Korea (notably China in 1895 and Russia in 1905), Japan established a protectorate over Korea and annexed it in 1910.
Japanese rule over the Korean people was very harsh. The Koreans were forced to speak Japanese, worship Japanese Shinto deities (gods), and even adopt Japanese names.
A Divided Korea
Korea was liberated from Japan by the Allies in 1945, at the end of World II, and was split into Soviet and American occupation zones. This division soon hardened into two new Korean states--communist-socialist North Korea and democratic-capitalist South Korea.
An attempt by North Korea to unify the peninsula by military force in 1950 led to the Korean War. In this war, United Nations forces defended the South and managed to rescue it from communist domination, but at terrible human and material cost. South Korea has since kept in close alliance with the United States, which maintains a military presence there. See the article on the Korean War.
Syngman Rhee was elected South Korea's first president in 1948. He was popular at first, but the South Korean people became discontented with his increasingly dictatorial rule. Rhee's government was overthrown in 1960. But it was followed in 1961 by a South Korean army dictatorship that ruled until 1987.
The military regimes of presidents Park Chung Hee (1961-79) and Chun Doo-hwan (1980-87) helped bring about South Korea's economic rebirth. But at the same time, the Korean people suffered through decades of repression and police control. Anti-government risings took place in 1980 and again in 1987, when a democracy movement succeeded in launching a new period of popular rule and human rights. In 1988, South Korea gained the world's attention when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympic Games.
South Korea, along with North Korea, was admitted to the United Nations in 1991. Later that year, the two Koreas signed a treaty of reconciliation and nonaggression. In 1998, South Korean president Kim Dae Jung further tried to ease tensions with the North, for which he was awarded the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize.
More recently, South Korea has broadened its diplomatic relationships, particularly with China, Japan, and Russia. Great efforts have also been made to restore relations with North Korea, but major differences still separate North and South.
In 2002, the World Cup tournament, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, afforded an opportunity for the South Koreans to show their country to the world. The success of South Korea's national soccer team in reaching the World Cup semifinals was more than a sports victory--it quickly became an occasion for national celebration.
Later that year, the South's reconciliation efforts with the North were disrupted when North Korea admitted it had been maintaining a secret nuclear weapons program.