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Diplomacy in Action

South Korea (10/04)


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

Flag of South Korea is white with a red (top) and blue yin-yang symbol in the center; there is a different black trigram from the ancient I Ching (Book of Changes) in each corner of the white field. 2004.


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--Busan (3.9 million), Daegu (2.5 million), Incheon (2.4 million), Gwangju (1.4 million), Daejeon (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): 48.3 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 (2004): 22.8 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, seven administratively separate cities (Seoul, Busan, Incheon, Daegu, Gwangju, Daejeon, Ulsan).
Political parties: Our Open Party/Uri Party (UP); Grand National Party (GNP); Millennium Democratic Party (MDP); United Liberal Democrats (ULD); Democratic People's Party (DLP).
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: 2002, 6.0%; 2003, 3.0%.
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--Electronics and electrical products, motor vehicles, shipbuilding, mining and manufacturing, petrochemicals, industrial machinery, textiles, footwear.
Trade (2003): Exports--$193.8 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--$178.8 billion: crude oil, food, machinery and transportation equipment, chemicals and chemical products, base metals and articles. Major suppliers--Japan (20.1%), U.S. (13.9%), China (12.3%), European Union (10.6%).


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 48.3 million people, South Korea has one of the world's highest population densities. Major population centers are located in the northwest, southeast, 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 spoken Korean language is very similar to Japanese and differs grammatically from Chinese. Korean also does not use tones. The language is related to Japanese, Mongolian, Hungarian, and other Ural-Altaic languages. Nevertheless, about 90% of all Korean vocabulary has Chinese roots. Chinese ideograms are believed to have been brought into Korea sometime before the second century BC. The learned class spoke Korean, but read and wrote Chinese. The phonetic writing system was invented in the 15th century by Chosun King Sejong to provide a writing system for commoners who could not read classic Chinese. Modern Korean is based almost entirely on the phonetic writing system, although Chinese characters remain in limited use for word clarification. Approximately 1,300 Chinese characters are used in modern Korean. English is taught as a second language in most primary and secondary schools, with unbalanced emphasis on rules of grammar. Chinese and Japanese are widely taught at secondary schools.

Only half of the population actively practices religion. Among this group, 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 experienced many invasions by its larger neighbors in its 2,000 years of recorded history. The country repelled numerous foreign invasions despite domestic strife, in part due to its protected status in the Sino-centric regional political model during Korea's Chosun dynasty (1392-1910). Historical antipathies to foreign influence earned Korea the title of "Hermit Kingdom" in the 19th century.

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 imperial rule over Korea. Memories of Japanese annexation still recall fierce animosity and resentment by older Koreans, as a result of Japan's efforts to supplant the Korean language and culture. Nevertheless, restrictions on Japanese movies, popular music, fashion, etc. have been lifted, and younger Koreans eagerly follow Japanese pop culture.

Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers in 1945, signaling the end of World War II, 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 (R.O.K.) was established, with Syngman Rhee as the first President; on September 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) 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 United Nations Command (UNC). Shifting battle lines and continuous bombing of the North inflicted a high number of civilian casualties and wrought immense destruction. Following China's entry on behalf of North Korea in 1950, and the stabilization of the front line the following summer, stalemate ensued for the final 2 years of the conflict.

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 R.O.K.-supported United Nations Command. A peace treaty has never been signed, and the R.O.K. refused to sign the Armistice Agreement.

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 Gwangju in 1980 left at least 200 civilians dead but consolidated nationwide support for democracy. In 1987, South Korea was able to hold its first democratic elections in many years.

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 single 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 judiciary is independent under the constitution. The country has nine provinces and seven administratively separate cities--Seoul, Busan, Incheon, Daegu, Gwangju, Ulsan and Daejeon. Political parties include the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP); Grand National Party (GNP); and, Our Open Party/Uri Party (UP). Suffrage is universal at age 20.

In December 2002, President Roh Moo-hyun was elected to a single 5-year term of office. The Uri Party is the current majority party in the National Assembly following elections that were most recently held in April 2004. 

Principal Government Officials
President--Roh Moo-hyun
Prime Minister--Lee Hae-chan
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Human Resource Development--Ahn Byung-young
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Economy--Lee Hun-jai
Minister of Agriculture and Forestry--Ho Sang-man
Minister of Commerce, Industry and Energy--Lee Hee-boem
Minister of Construction and Transportation--Kang Dong-suk
Minister of Culture and Tourism--Chung Dong-chae
Minister of Environment-- Kwak Kyul-ho
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade--Ban Ki-moon
Minister of Gender Equality--Ji Eun-hee
Minister of Government Administration & Home Affairs--Huh Sung-kwan
Minister of Government Policy Coordination—Han Duck-soo
Minister of Health and Welfare--Kim Geun-tae
Minister of Information and Communication--Chin Dae-je
Minister of Justice--Kim Seung-kyu
Minister of Labor Affairs--Kim Dae-hwan
Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries--Chang Seung-woo
Minister of National Defense--Yoon Kwang-woong
Minister of Science and Technology--Oh Myung
Minister of Planning and Budget--Kim Byung-il 
Minister of Unification and Chairman of the Principals' Committee --Chung Dong-young
Ambassador to the U.S--Han Sung-joo         
Ambassador to the UN--Kim Sam-hoon

Korea maintains an embassy in the United States at 2450 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-939-5600). Consulates general are located in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Houston, Honolulu, and Hagatna (Guam).

The Republic of Korea's economic growth over the past 30 years has been spectacular. Per capita GNP, only $100 in 1963, exceeded $10,000 in 2003. South Korea is now the United States' seventh-largest trading partner and is the 12th-largest economy in the world.

In the early 1960s, the government of Park Chung Hee instituted sweeping economic policy changes emphasizing exports and labor-intensive light industries, leading to rapid debt-financed industrial expansion. The government carried out a currency reform, strengthened financial institutions, and introduced flexible economic planning. In the 1970s 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 the 1980s and early 1990s.

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 some International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance, but based largely on 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 contributed to slower 3.3% growth in 2001, prompting consumer stimulus measures that led to 6.0% growth in 2002. Consumer over-shopping and rising household debt, along with external factors, slowed growth to below 3% again in 2003. Economic performance in 2004 is expected to improve somewhat, although based largely on vibrant exports.

Economists are concerned that South Korea's economic growth potential has fallen, due to structural problems that are becoming increasingly apparent, along with a rapidly aging population. Foremost among the structural concerns is South Korea's rigid labor market, although the country's underdeveloped financial markets and a general lack of regulatory transparency are also key concerns. Restructuring of Korean conglomerates (chaebols), bank privatization, and creating a more liberalized economy with a mechanism for bankrupt firms to exit the market are also important unfinished reform tasks. Korean industry is increasingly worried about diversion of corporate investment to China.

North-South Trade 
Two-way trade between the two Koreas has increased from $18.8 million in 1989 to $724 million in 2003. In 2003, South Korea imported $289.2 million worth of goods from North Korea, mostly agro-fisheries and metal products, while shipping $434.9 million worth of goods, mostly humanitarian aid commodities including fertilizer and rice, materials to construct railways and roads, as well as the component parts for processing-on-commission businesses in North Korea. The R.O.K. is North Korea's second-largest trading partner, after China. Numerous ventures by the Hyundai Asan Corporation have contributed to North Korea's economy, including the Mount Keumgang (Diamond Mountain) tourist site. Last year alone, 88,130 visitors traveled by Hyundai-operated passenger ships, and via land routes, as part of this tourism initiative, raising the total number of South Koreans to visit the North to over half a million. Nearly 1,023 North Koreans traveled to South Korea in 2003, mainly for joint sporting events. Hyundai Asan and KOLAND, a Korean Government agency, are co-developing an 800-acre industrial complex in Kaesong, located just north of the DMZ. The year 2003 saw significant progress on reconstructing road and rail links across the DMZ with the Seoul-Kaesong link of the Gyeongui (Western line) scheduled for completion by mid-2004.

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, the 2002 World Cup Soccer Tournament (co-hosted with Japan), and the 2002 Second Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies.

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 R.O.K. 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.

Korean Peninsula: Reunification and Recent Developments
Since the 1950-53 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 "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with North Korea, coupled with a $500 million payment to the D.P.R.K., set the stage for the historic June 2000 inter-Korean summit. President Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for the policy, but the prize was somewhat tarnished by revelations of the massive payoff to North Korea that immediately preceded the summit.

Relations have again become tense following the October 2002 North Korean admission of a covert highly-enriched uranium program. Following this admission, the United States, along with the People's Republic of China, proposed multilateral talks among the concerned parties to deal with this issue. Under pressure from China and its neighbors, the D.P.R.K. agreed to meet with China and the United States in April 2003 and again in August 2003 in six-party talks that added the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Russia to the table. In October 2003, President Bush announced his willingness to document multilateral security assurances with the D.P.R.K., leading to discussion of a second round of six-party talks. On February 25, 2004 and June 23, 2004, all six parties sat down in Beijing for second and third rounds of talks aimed at the complete, verifiable, and irreversible elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

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. 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. An agreement has been reached concerning the return of the Yongsan base in the heart of Seoul--as well as a number of other U.S. bases--to the R.O.K. and the relocation of most U.S. forces south of the Han River.

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, although a range of serious sectoral and structural barriers still remain. 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--Christopher R. Hill
Commander in Chief, UNC--Gen. Leon LaPorte
Deputy Chief of Mission--Mark C. Minton
Counselor for Political Affairs--Eric John
Counselor for Economic Affairs--Kurt W. Tong
Counselor for Management Affairs--An Le
Counselor for Public Affairs--Don Q. Washington
Consul General—Michael Kirby
Counselor for Commercial Affairs--Carmine D'Aloisio
Counselor for Agricultural Affairs--Larry Senger
Chief, Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group, Korea (JUSMAG-K)--Col. John R. Freund, U.S. Army
Defense Attache--Col. Steven F. Beal, U.S. Army
Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge--Christopher Browning
Foreign Broadcast Information Service Seoul Bureau Chief--Karen Schmoll
DHS-Immigration & Customs Enforcement Attach´┐Ż--Barry Tang
DHS- Citizenship & Immigration Services--Jose R. Olivares
DHS-Customs & Border Protection Representative--Stephen Bows
Federal Bureau of Investigation Legal Attache--J. Sung Maeng

The U.S. Embassy in South Korea is located at 32 Sejong-Ro, Chongro-Ku, Seoul 110-710; 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.
Library of Congress. South 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 roundup Monday through Friday.
--Korea Web Weekly--; links 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.

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

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