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Diplomacy in Action

South Korea (04/05)


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.


Republic of Korea

Area: 98,477 sq. km. (38,022 sq. mi.); about the size of Indiana.
Cities (2004): Capital—Seoul (10.3 million). Other major cities—Pusan (3.8 million), Daegu (2.5 million), Incheon (2.5 million), Gwangju (1.4 million), Daejeon (1.4 million), Ulsan (1.0 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 (2004): 48.42 million.
Population annual growth rate (2004): 0.62%.
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 (2004): Infant mortality rate—7.05/1,000. Life expectancy—75.58 yrs (men 71.96 yrs.; women 79.54 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); Prime Minister (head of government). Legislative—unicameral National Assembly. Judicial—Supreme Court and appellate courts; Constitutional Court.
Subdivisions: Nine provinces, seven administratively separate cities (Seoul, Pusan, 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 (2004): Expenditures—$100.46 billion.
Defense (2004): $16.18 billion, about 2.8% of total GDP and 16.2% of government budget (prior to capital expenditures); about 676,000 troops.

Nominal GDP (2004): $680.1 billion.
GDP growth rate: 2002, 7.0%; 2003, 3.1%; 2004 4.6%.
Per capita GNI (2004): $14,162.
Consumer price index: 2003, 3.6%; 2004 3.6%.
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 (2004): Exports—$257.7 billion: electronic products (semiconductors, cellular phones, computers), automobiles, machinery and equipment, steel, ships, textiles. Major markets—China (including Hong Kong) (19.6%), U.S. (16.9%), European Union (12.8%), Japan (8.5%). Imports—$219.6 billion: crude oil, food, machinery and transportation equipment, chemicals and chemical products, base metals and articles. Major suppliers—Japan (20.6%), China (13.1%), U.S. (12.8%), European Union (10.8%).


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 48.42 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 has experienced 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 Korean language is related to Japanese and Mongolian. Although it differs grammatically from Chinese and does not use tones, a large number of Chinese cognates exist in Korean. 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. A phonetic writing system ("hangul") was invented in the 15th century by King Sejong to provide a writing system for commoners who could not read classic Chinese. Modern Korean uses hangul almost exclusively with Chinese characters 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. Chinese and Japanese are widely taught at secondary schools.

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 Chondogyo, ("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 colonial rule over Korea. As a result of Japan's efforts to supplant the Korean language and culture, memories of Japanese annexation still recall fierce animosity and resentment, especially among older Koreans. Nevertheless, import restrictions on Japanese movies, popular music, fashion, and the like have been lifted, and many Koreans, especially the younger generations, 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). Following China's entry on behalf of North Korea later that year, a stalemate ensued for the final two years of the conflict. Armistice negotiations, initiated in July 1951, were ultimately concluded on July 27, 1953 at Panmunjom, in the now Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The Armistice Agreement was signed by representatives of the Korean People's Army, the Chinese People's Volunteers, and the U.S.-led United Nations Command (UNC). Though the R.O.K. supported the UNC, it refused to sign the Armistice Agreement. A peace treaty has never been signed. The war left almost three million Koreans dead or wounded and millions of others homeless and separated from their families.

In the following decades, South Korea experienced political turmoil under autocratic leadership. President Syngman Rhee was forced to resign in April 1960 following a student-led uprising. The Second Republic under the leadership of Chang Myon ended after only one year, when Major General Park Chung-hee led a military coup. Park's rule, which resulted in tremendous economic growth and development but increasingly restricted political freedoms, ended with his assassination in 1979. Subsequently, a powerful group of military officers, led by Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan, declared martial law and took power.

Throughout the Park and Chun eras, South Korea developed a vocal civil society that led to strong protests against authoritarian rule. Composed primarily of students and labor union activists, protests movements reached a climax after Chun's 1979 coup and declaration of martial law. A confrontation in Gwangju in 1980 left at least 200 civilians dead. Thereafter, pro-democracy activities intensified even more, ultimately forcing political concessions by the government in 1987, including the restoration of direct presidential elections.

In 1987, Roh Tae-woo, a former general, was elected president, but additional democratic advances during his tenure resulted in the 1992 election of a long-time pro-democracy activist, Kim Young-sam. Kim became Korea's first civilian elected president in 32 years. The 1997 presidential election and peaceful transition of power marked another step forward in Korea's democratization when Kim Dae-jung, a life-long democracy and human rights activist, was elected from a major opposition party. The transition to an open, democratic system was further consolidated in 2002, when self-educated human rights lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun won the presidential election on a "participatory government" platform.

South Korea is a republic with powers shared between the presidency, the legislature and the judiciary. The president is chief of state and is elected for a single term of 5 years. The 299 members of the unicameral National Assembly are elected to 4-year terms—243 members are from single-seat districts and 46 members are chosen by proportional representation. 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—the capital of Seoul, along with Pusan, Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangju, Incheon and Ulsan. Political parties include the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), Grand National Party (GNP); Millennium Democratic Party (MDP); 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. In the April 2004 elections, the Uri Party won an slim, but outright majority in the National Assembly; however, subsequently lost it after a handful of Uri Party assembly members were forced out of their seats by combination of political in-fighting and election fund-raising scandals. By-elections are scheduled for April 2005.

Principal Government Officials
President—Roh Moo-hyun
Prime Minister—Lee Hae-chan
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Human Resource Development—Kim Jin-pyo
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Economy—Lee Hun-jai
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Science and Technology—Oh Myung
Minister of Agriculture and Forestry—Park Hong-soo
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—Jang Ha-jun
Minister of Government Administration & Home Affairs—Oh Young-kyo
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 Seong-kyu
Minister of Labor Affairs—Kim Dae-hwan
Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries—Oh Geo-don
Minister of National Defense—Yoon Kwang-ung
Minister of Planning and Budget—Byung Young-kyeon
Minister of Unification and Chairman of the Principals' Committee—Chung Dong-young
Ambassador to the U.S.—Hong Seok-hyun
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 Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Hagatna (Agana) in Guam.

The Republic of Korea's economic growth over the past 30 years has been spectacular. Per capita GNP, only $100 in 1963, exceeded $14,000 in 2004. South Korea is now the United States' seventh-largest trading partner and is the 11th-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 7.0% growth in 2002. Consumer over-shopping and rising household debt, along with external factors, slowed growth to near 3% again in 2003. Economic performance in 2004 improved to 4.6%, based largely on vibrant exports.

Economists are particularly 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 these structural concerns is the rigidity of South Korea's labor regulations and the need for more constructive relations between management and workers; the country's underdeveloped financial markets and a general lack of regulatory transparency are also key concerns. Restructuring of Korean conglomerates ("chaebols") and creating a more liberalized economy with a mechanism for bankrupt firms to exit the market are also important unfinished reform tasks. Korean policy makers are increasingly worried about diversion of corporate investment to China and other lower wage countries.

North-South Economic Ties
North and South Korea have moved forward on a number of economic cooperation projects. The following projects are most prominent:

  • Tourism: R.O.K.-organized tours to Mt. Kumgang in North Korea began with cruise boat tours in 1998. Overland tours to Mt. Kumgang began in 2003, five years after the cruise tours started.
  • Infrastructure Development: East and west coast railroad and roads links have been reconnected across the DMZ and work continues to improve these transportation routes. Much of the work done in North Korea has been funded by the R.O.K. On the west coast, the rail line and road are both complete as far north as the Kaesong Industrial Complex (six miles north of the DMZ), but little work is being done on the rail line north of Kaesong. On the east coast, the road is complete but the rail line is far from operational. As of March 2005, neither railroad link had been tested.
  • Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC): Following a June 2003 groundbreaking the KIC entered its pilot phase, when 15 R.O.K. companies began constructing manufacturing facilities. As of March 2005, three of the companies had already started manufacturing products. Plans for the complex's first phase envisage participation by 250 R.O.K. companies beginning in 2006.

Two-way trade between North and South Korea, legalized in 1988, had risen to $697 million by 2004. This total included a substantial quantity of non-trade goods provided to the North as aid (food, fertilizer, etc.) or as part of inter-Korean cooperative projects. Approximately half of the total trade consisted of commercial transactions and was trade based on processing-on-commission arrangements. The R.O.K. is North Korea's second largest trading partner.

In August 1991, South Korea joined the United Nations along with North Korea and is 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 and will serve as the chair of APEC during 2005.

Korean Peninsula: Reunification and Recent Developments
For almost 20 years after the 1950-53 Korean War, relations between North and South Korea were minimal and very strained. Official contact did not occur until in 1971, beginning with Red Cross contacts and family reunification projects in 1985. In the early 1990s, relations between both countries improved with the 1991 South-North Basic Agreement, which acknowledged that reunification was the goal of both governments, and the 1992 Joint Declaration of Denuclearization. However, divergent positions on the process of reunification, and North Korean weapons programs, compounded by South Korea's tumultuous domestic politics and the 1994 death of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, contributed to a cycle of warming and cooling of relations between North and South.

Relations improved again following the 1997 election of Kim Dae-jung. His "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the D.P.R.K. set the stage for the historic June 2000 inter-Korean summit between President Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. President Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for the policy, but the prize was somewhat tarnished by revelations of a $500 million dollar "payoff" to North Korea that immediately preceded the summit.

Relations again became tense following the October 2002 North Korean acknowledgement of a covert program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Following this acknowledgement, the United States, along with the People's Republic of China, proposed multilateral talks among the concerned parties to deal with this issue. At the urging of China and its neighbors, the D.P.R.K. agreed to meet with China and the United States in April 2003. In August of that year, the D.P.R.K. agreed to attend Six-Party Talks aimed at ending the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons that added the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Russia to the table. Two more rounds of Six-Party Talks between the United States, the Republic of Korea, Japan, China, and the D.P.R.K. were held in February and June of 2004. At the third round, the U.S. put forward a comprehensive proposal aimed at completely, verifiably, and irreversibly eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. All parties agreed to hold a fourth plenary by the end of September 2004. However, as of April 2005, the D.P.R.K. had refused to return to the table. The other parties have continued diplomatic efforts to restart the talks and have urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

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.

Under 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. Since that time in support of this commitment, the United States has maintained military personnel in Korea, including the Army's Second Infantry Division and several Air Force tactical squadrons. To coordinate operations between these units and the 676,000-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 U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

Several aspects of the security relationship are changing as the U.S. moves from a leading to a supporting role. In 2004 agreement was reached on the return of the Yongsan base in Seoul—as well as a number of other U.S. bases—to the R.O.K. and the eventual relocation of all U.S. forces to south of the Han River. In addition, the U.S. and R.O.K. Governments reached agreement to redeploy 12,500 of the 37,500 U.S. troops out of Korea by 2008. At the same time U.S. troops are being redeployed from Korea, the U.S. will bolster combined U.S./R.O.K. deterrent and defense capabilities by providing $11 billion in force enhancements in Korea and at regional facilities over the next four years.

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
Charg� d'affaires—Mark C. Minton
Commander in Chief, UNC—Gen. Leon LaPorte
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 Attach�—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�—Barry Tang
DHS-Citizenship & Immigration Services—Jose R. Olivares
DHS-Customs & Border Protection Representative—Stephen Bows
Federal Bureau of Investigation Legal Attach�—J. Sung Maeng

The U.S. Embassy in South Korea is located at 32 Sejong-no, Jongno-gu, Seoul 110-710; The mailing address from the U.S. is: American Embassy-Seoul, Unit 15550, APO AP 96205-5550 (tel.: 82-2-397-4114; fax: 82-2-738-8845). The U.S. Agricultural Trade Office (ATO) is located at 146-1, Susong-dong, Jongno-gu, Leema Bldg., Rm. 303, Seoul 110-140 (fax: 82-2-720-7921). The U.S. Export Development Office/U.S. Trade Center can be reached c/o U.S. Embassy (fax: 82-2-739-1628).

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. 1992.
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.

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