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Diplomacy in Action

South Korea (03/03)


For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Republic of Korea

Area: 98,500 sq. km. (38,000 sq. mi.); about the size of Indiana.
Cities (1998): Capital--Seoul (11 million). Other major cities--Pusan (3.9 million), Taegu (2.5 million), Inchon (2.4 million), Kwangju (1.4 million), Taejon (1.3 million).
Terrain: Partially forested mountain ranges separated by deep, narrow valleys; cultivated plains along the coasts, particularly in the west and south.
Climate: Temperate.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Korean(s).
Population (2000): 47.5 million.
Annual growth rate (2000): 0.93%.
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 (2000 est.): Infant mortality rate--7.85/1,000. Life expectancy--men 70.75 yrs.; women 78.5 yrs.
Work force (1998 est.): 22.0 million. Services--68%; mining and manufacturing--20%; agriculture--12%.

Type: Republic with powers shared between the president and the legislature.
Liberation: August 15, 1945.
Constitution: July 17, 1948; last revised 1987.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state). Legislative--unicameral National Assembly. Judicial--Supreme Court and appellate courts; Constitutional Court.
Subdivisions: Nine provinces, six administratively separate cities (Seoul, Pusan, Incheon, Taegu, Kwangju, Taejon).
Political parties: Millennium Democratic Party (MDP); Grand National Party (GNP); United Liberal Democrats (ULD); Democratic People's Party.
Suffrage: Universal at 20.
Central government budget (2000): Expenditures--$101 billion .
Defense (1996): $12 billion, about 2.8 of total GDP and 15.5%of government budget (prior to capital expenditures); about 650,000 troops.

Nominal GDP (2002 est.): About $425.0 billion
GDP growth rate: 2001, 3.3%; 2002 , 6.0%.
Per capita GNI (2002 est.): $9,800.
Consumer price index: 2001 avg. increase, 4.1%; 2002, 2.8%.
Natural resources: Limited coal, tungsten, iron ore, limestone, kaolinite, and graphite.
Agriculture, including forestry and fisheries: Products--rice, vegetables, fruit. Arable land--22% of land area.
Industry: Types--Mining and manufacturing: textiles, footwear, electronics and electrical equipment, shipbuilding, motor vehicles, petrochemicals, industrial machinery.
Trade (2002): Exports--$162.5 billion: electronic products (semiconductors, cellular phones, computers), automobiles, machinery and equipment, steel, ships, textiles. Major markets--China (including Hong Kong) (20.7%), U.S. (20.2%), European Union (12.8%), Japan (9.3%). Imports--$152.1 billion: crude oil, food, machinery and transportation equipment, chemicals and chemical products, base metals and articles. Major suppliers--Japan (19.7%), U.S. (13.7%), China (11.4%), European Union (10.1%).


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 an 47 million people, South Korea has one of the world's highest population densities. Major population centers are located in the northwest and in the plains south of Seoul-Incheon.

Korea experiences 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).

The word order of the Korean and Japanese languages are similar. Korean does not use tones. The writing system was invented in the 15th century by King Sejong to replace the system of borrowed Chinese characters, although they are still in limited use. English is taught as a second language in most primary and intermediate schools.

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 Chongdogyo, ("Heavenly Way") a traditional religion.


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 repelled numerous foreign invasions despite domestic strife, in part due to its protected status in Sino-Centric regional political model. Historical antipathies to foreign influence earned Korea the title of "Hermit Kingdom".

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. Japanese colonial rule still recalls fierce animosity and resentment by Koreans, as a result of Tokyo's efforts to supplant the Korean language and culture.

However, Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers 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 was established, with Syngman Rhee as the first president; on September 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea 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 U.N. Command (UNC). Oscillating battle lines inflicted a high number of civilian casualties and wrought immense destruction. With China's entry on behalf of North Korea in 1951, stalemate settled in close to the original line of demarcation.

Armistice negotiations, initiated in July 1951, finally concluded on July 27, 1953 at Panmunjom, in the now Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The resulting Armistice Agreement was signed by the North Korean army, Chinese People's Volunteers and the U.S.- led and ROK supported United Nations Command. A peace treaty has never been signed.

Domestically, South Korea experienced political turmoil under years of autocratic leadership. Military coups and assassinations characterized the country's first decades. But a vocal civil society emerged that led to strong protests against authoritarian rule. Composed primarily of university students and labor unions, protests reached a climax after Major General Chun Doo Hwan's 1979 military coup and declaration of martial law. A confrontation in Kwangju in 1980 left at least 200 civilians dead but consolidated nationwide support for democracy, paving the road for the first democratic elections in 1987.


South Korea is a republic with powers shared between the president and the legislature. The president is chief of state and is elected for a term of 5 years. The 273 members of the unicameral National Assembly are elected to 4-year terms. South Korea's judicial system comprises a Supreme Court, appellate courts, and a Constitutional Court. The country has nine provinces and six administratively separate cities--Seoul, Pusan, Inchon, Taegu, Kwangju, and Taejon. Political parties include the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP); Grand National Party (GNP); United Liberal Democrats (ULD); and Democratic People's Party. Suffrage is universal at age 20.

Principal Government Officials
President--Roh Moo-hyun
Prime Minister--Goh Kun
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Human Resource Development--Yoon Deok-hong
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Economy--Kim Jin-pyo
Minister of Agriculture and Forestry--Kim Young-jin
Minister of Commerce, Industry and Energy--Yoon Jin-sik
Minister of Construction and Transportation--Choi Jong-chan
Minister of Culture and Tourism--Lee Chang-dong
Minister of Environment--Han Myung-sook
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade--Yoon Young-kwan
Minister of Government Administration & Home Affairs--Kim Doo-kwan
Minister of Health and Welfare--Kim Hwa-joong
Minister of Information and Communication--Chin Dae-je
Minister of Justice--Kang Kum-sil
Minister of Labor Affairs--Kwon Ki-hong
Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries--Huh Sung-kwan
Minister of National Defense--Cho Young-kil
Minister of Science and Technology--Park Ho-koon
Minister of Unification-- Jeong Se-hyun
Minister of Gender Equality--Chi Eun-hee
Director General of National Security Council--Ra Jong-il

Korea maintains an embassy in the United States at 2450 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-939-5600).


The Republic of Korea's economic growth over the past 30 years has been spectacular. Per capita GNP, only $100 in 1963, exceeded $9,800 in 2002. Soth is now the United States' sixth-largest trading partner and is the 12th-largest economy in the world.

In the early 1960s, the Park government instituted sweeping economic reforms emphasizing exports and labor-intensive light industries. The government carried out a currency reform, strengthened financial institutions, and introduced flexible economic planning. In the 1970's Korea began directing fiscal and financial policies toward promoting heavy and chemical industries, as well as consumer electronics and automobiles. Manufacturing continued to grow rapidly in teh 1980's and early 1990's.

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 crisis with IMF assistance, and carried out 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 account for the drop in growth rates in 2001 to 3.3%, but in 2002 Korea pulled out a very respectable 6.0% growth rate. Restructuring of Korean conglomerates (chaebols), bank privatization, and creating a more liberalized economy with a mechanism for bankrupt firms to exit the market remain Korea's most important unfinished reform tasks.

North-South Trade
Since 1988, two-way trade between the two Koreas has increased from $18.8 million in 1989 to $647.1 million in 2002. In 2002, South Korea imported $271.57 million worth of goods from North Korea, mostly agro-fisheries and metal products, while shipping $371.55 million worth of goods, mostly humanitarian aid commodities including fertilizer and textiles as inputs for North Korean garment manufacturers. The ROK is now North Korea's third-largest trading partner, after China and Japan. Numerous ventures by the Hyundai Corporation have contributed to North Korea's economy, including the Mount Keumgang (Diamond Mountain) tourist site. Last year alone, 84,347 visitors traveled by Hyundai-operated passenger ships, and most recently via land routes, as part of this tourism initiative, raising the total number of South Korean visitors to over half a million. A mere 1,141 North Koreans traveled to South Korea, mainly for joint sporting events. Hyundai Asan is also lined up to be the South Korean party that will help develop a 800-acre industrial complex in Kaesong, located near the DMZ, subject to final agreements, including between Seoul and Pyongyang. The year 2002 witnessed significant progress on the Seoul-Sinuiju railroad, on both reconstructing road and rail links across the DMZ.


In August 1991, South Korea joined the United Nations along with North Korea and has remained 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 and the 2002 World Cup Soccer Tournament (co-hosted with Japan).

The Republic of Korea maintains diplomatic relations with more than 170 countries and a broad network of trading relationships. The United States and Korea are allied by the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty. Korea and Japan coordinate closely on numerous issues. This includes consultations with the United States on North Korea policy.

Economic considerations have a high priority in Korean foreign policy. The ROK 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.


Since the Korean War, relations between North and South Korea have been strained. Official contact did not occur until in 1971, beginning with Red Cross contacts and family reunification projects. However, divergent positions on the process of reunification, North Korean weapons programs and South Korea's tumultuous domestic politics contributed to a cycle of warming and cooling of relations between North and South.

Relations improved following the 1997 election of Kim Dae-jung. His policy of "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with North Korea set the stage for the historic June 2000 Inter-Korean summit. President Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for the policy.

Relations have again become tense, however, following the October 2002 North Korean admission of a covert nuclear program.


The United States believes that the question of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula is, first and foremost, a matter for the Korean people to decide.

In the 1954 U.S.-R.O.K. Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States agreed to help the Republic of Korea defend itself against external aggression. In support of this commitment, the United States currently maintains approximately 37,000 service personnel in Korea, including the Army's Second Infantry Division and several Air Force tactical squadrons. To coordinate operations between these units and the 650,000-strong Korean armed forces, a Combined Forces Command (CFC) was established in 1978. The head of the CFC also serves as Commander of the United Nations Command (UNC) and the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK).

Several aspects of the security relationship are changing as the U.S. moves from a leading to a supporting role. South Korea has agreed to pay a larger portion of USFK's stationing costs and to promote changes in the CFC command structure. On December 1, 1994, peacetime operational control authority over all South Korean military units still under U.S. operational control was transferred to the South Korean Armed Forces.

As Korea's economy has developed, trade has become an increasingly important aspect of the U.S.-Korea relationship. The U.S. seeks to improve access to Korea's expanding market and increase investment opportunities for American business. The implementation of structural reforms contained in the IMF's 1998 program for Korea improved access to the Korean market. Korean leaders appear determined to successfully manage the complex economic relationship with the United States and to take a more active role in international economic fora as befits Korea's status as a major trading nation.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Thomas C. Hubbard
Commander in Chief, UNC--Gen. Leon LaPorte
Deputy Chief of Mission--Evans J.R. Revere
Counselor for Political Affairs--Eric John
Counselor for Economic Affairs--Frederic W. Maerkle
Counselor for Administrative Affairs--James A. Forbes
Counselor for Public Affairs--Stephen R. Rounds
Consul General--Bernard Alter
Counselor for Commercial Affairs--John Peters
Counselor for Agricultural Affairs--Grant A. Pettrie
Chief, Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group, Korea (JUSMAG-K)--Col. Claude Crabtree
Defense Attache--Col. Thomas R. Riley, U.S. Army
Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge--Christopher Browning
Foreign Broadcast Information Service Seoul Bureau Chief--Sidney Seiler
Immigration and Naturalization Service--Stephen P. Bows
Customs Service Customs Attache-- Celmouth Stewart Jr. Federal Bureau of Investigation Legal Attache--Lee Sung-kyu

The U.S. Embassy is located at 82 Sejong-Ro, Chongro-Ku, Seoul; Unit 15550, APO AP 96205-0001; tel. 82-2-397-4114; fax 82-2-738-8845. The U.S. Agricultural Trade Office is located at 146-1, Susong-dong, Chongro-Ku, Leema Bldg., Rm. 303, Seoul 110-140; fax 82-2-720-7921. The U.S. Export Development Office/U.S. Trade Center is c/o U.S. Embassy; fax 82-2-739-1628. Its director is Camille Sailer.

Additional Resources.  The following general country guides are available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402:

Library of Congress. North Korea: A Country Study. 1994.
Department of State. The Record on Korean Unification 1943-1960. 1961.
Department of the Army. Communist North Korea: A Bibliographic Survey. 1971.

Internet Resources on North and South Korea.  The following sites are provided to give an indication of Internet sites on Korea. The Department of State does not endorse unofficial publications, including Internet sites.

--R.O.K. Embassy--
--Korea Society-- --links to academic and other sites.
--Nautilus Institute--; produced by the Nautilus Institute in Berkeley, California, and includes press round-up Monday through Friday.
--Korea Web Weekly-- to North Korean sites.
--Korea Herald--; South Korean English-language newspaper.
--Korea Times--; South Korean English-language newspaper.
--(North) Korean Central News Agency--
--Korean Politics--; provides information on South Korean politics and links to South Korean Government sites.

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