South Korea - A Country Overview

A brief overview of the Republic of Korea, commonly known as South Korea: its geographic location, history, government, climate, security, tourism and international community...


South Korea is in eastern Asia and occupies the southern half of the Korean Peninsula and many islands. It borders both the Sea of Japan (also known as the East Sea) and the Yellow Sea. Its only land border is with North Korea along the 238 Km Korean Demilitarised Zone, a 4,000m strip of heavily guarded land separating the two countries.

The majority of the country is hilly and mountainous and much of the uplands of the Korean Peninsula remain forested. There are wide cultivated coastal plains in the west and south of the country. The highest point in the country is the Hallasan volcano, which is 1,950m in height and found on Jeju Island. It is considered to be an active volcano though it has not erupted for hundreds of years. South Korea has three main mountain ranges: the T'aebaek and Sobaek ranges, and the Chiri Massif.

Seoul, which is on the river Han, is now one of the world's largest cities and is the capital of South Korea.


According to myths, Korea was formed in 2333 BC by the god-king Tangun. Archaeological evidence, however, shows signs of life on the Korean Peninsula 700,000 years ago. It has existed either independently or as a collection of states for thousands of years and has experienced many invasions from neighbouring countries. Many of these were repelled despite considerable internal turmoil. Historically, the country has not welcomed foreign influence. It was a single independent country from the seventh century, when it was formed from three states, until the 20th century. The Russo-Japanese war resulted in the country becoming a protectorate of Japan in 1905 before being annexed as a colony in 1910. The following years of colonial rule were a time of growing resentment as Japan tried to suppress the Korean language and culture.

Independence was regained at the end of World War Two when Japan surrendered to the United States in 1945. The Republic of Korea (ROK) was formed in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula on 15 August 1948. In the north of the peninsula a Communist style government was formed in September of the same year: the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The Korean War broke out when northern troops invaded South Korea in June 1950. They were backed by China and the Soviet Union. Troops from the United Nations and the United States fought with soldiers from the southern Republic of Korea to defend it from the Communist north. In 1953 an armistice was signed by the Korean People's Army, the Chinese People's volunteers, and the United States-led United Nations Command, splitting the peninsula along a demilitarised zone. The war resulted in over three million Koreans being injured or killed and countless families separated by the divide along the 38th parallel.

With help from economic aid from the United States, South Korea subsequently experienced rapid economic growth while the north remained economically and politically isolated from the rest of the world. The decades following the war were politically turbulent with autocratic leaders and strong protests by students and labour union activists against authoritarian rule.

After 32 years of military rule Kim Young-sam became the first civilian president of South Korea in 1993. In 1997 Kim Dae-jung was elected from a major opposition party. He had been a life-long human rights and democracy activist and his election marked a huge step forwards in the country's democracy. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his Sunshine Policy regarding North Korea. A family reunification programme was started in 1985 and continues to this day. Serious tensions remain with North Korea which is highlighted by the sinking of the warship Cheonan by North Korea in 2010 and the artillery attack on South Korean soldiers and civilians later in the same year.

Politics and Government

South Korea is a republic whose president is the head of state and whose prime minister is the head of government. It is a multi-party system. The president is elected for a single five-year term in office by popular vote. The prime minister is appointed by the president with the consent of the National Assembly. The National Assembly (Kukhoe) is made up of 299 seats; 245 are decided in single seat constituencies, the rest being elected by proportional representation. Members serve a four-year term. Legislative power is shared by the government and the National Assembly. A State Council is appointed by the president after recommendation by the prime minister.

The country is divided into nine provinces and seven cities which are administratively separate: Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Incheon, Ulsan, Daejeon and Gwangju. The legal system in South Korea is a mixture of European civil law, Anglo-American law and classical Chinese thought. A Supreme Court is run by justices appointed by the president with the consent of the National Assembly. South Korea joined the United Nations in 1991, as did North Korea.


South Korea traditionally had an agricultural economy, which shifted towards manufacturing, and with service industries becoming increasingly important. It has a state-led market economy which has grown since the Korean War. The country benefited from economic aid from the United States following the war. It has developed from being one of the world's poorest countries to become one of the world's top 20 economies today.

Growth was initially achieved through close ties between government and business and a combination of import restrictions and carefully targeted credit. The government promoted raw material and technology imports over consumer goods at the same time as encouraging savings and investment over consumption. However, problems with this model came to light in the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8. The country had high levels of debt and huge amounts of short-term foreign borrowing. Following the resulting drop in the economy, the government encouraged more openness to foreign imports and investment and was helped to recover by assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The global economic downturn of recent years resulted in a major slowing of South Korea's economy, although it has begun to recover as a result of a growth in exports, low interest rates and expansionary fiscal policies.

The economy has a broad manufacturing base on which it depends to drive economic growth. The major industries are textiles, electronics, steel, chemicals and shipbuilding. South Korea is also a leading ocean fishing nation. It exports more goods to China for the size of its economy than any other country in the world, which helped its economy recover. Much of the economic growth is due to large conglomerates, or chaebol. Such companies, for example Samsung Electronics and Hyundai, produce more than half of the country's output and employ just under a quarter of the workforce.

South Korea currently has low unemployment and much of its economic success is related to the long working hours that are typical in the country. It is considered a model of successful economic growth by many of the world's poorest countries.


South Korea lies in the region of the East Asian monsoon. It has a temperate climate with four distinct seasons. Winters are cold, dry and long while a typical summer is short, hot and humid. January is the coldest month of the year. There is nowhere else in the world at the same latitude that experiences such an extreme winter with so much snow and frost.

There is more rainfall in summer as the monsoon passes over the country bringing high levels of humidity. Two-thirds of the annual rainfall occurs in the monsoon season, between June and September. Serious droughts can occur particularly in the southwest of the country where there is intense rice cultivation. Temperatures decrease northwards across the country, most notably in winter.

South Korea typically experiences between one and three typhoons each year, usually in late summer. Typhoons bring torrential rain and can cause considerable flooding.


The Korean peninsula has remained largely peaceful since the signing of the armistice agreement following the Korean War. However, tensions between the two nations are constantly in flux. South Korea maintains a high state of readiness to potential military threats from North Korea and there are regular military training exercises held throughout the country. These can include civil defence drills where sirens are sounded, transport stopped and some people asked to take shelter. These can be held at short notice. Visitors should remain aware of such drills and exercises through the local media.

The overall crime rate in South Korea is low. Burglary, both from homes and hotel rooms, pick-pocketing, purse snatching and assault are more common in the larger cities such as Seoul and Busan, as well as popular tourist destinations, such as Itaewon. Travellers should be cautious in popular nightlife areas and should use only legitimate taxis or other forms of public transport. Demonstrations, which can sometimes become violent, are not uncommon in South Korea. They are best avoided.

Foreigners Living in the Country

South Korea has one of the most homogeneous populations in the world, which are thought to be descended from several Mongol tribes that migrated from Central Asia. The country has experienced very high levels of emigration with many South Koreans living in Japan, the United States, China and the former Soviet Union.

Compared with many other rich countries, South Korea has a relatively small number of foreign immigrants. There is a significant Chinese population living in South Korea and there are now many foreigners living in the country to teach English.


Tourism is a fast-growing industry in South Korea, thanks to its many attractions, from the mountainous countryside to its long and spectacular coastline. There are many beaches which are popular with visitors; Jungmun beach at Jeju-do is perfect for waterskiing and windsurfing while Naksan beach is renowned for its beautiful sunrise.

South Korea has 20 national parks which showcase the country's scenery. Sporting activities within these parks include walking and water sports; alternatively visitors can learn about the country's history. Jirisan is the largest national park and the Asiatic black bear can be spotted in its mountainous terrain.

There are many temples, historical sites and palaces around South Korea which are popular with tourists wanting to learn more about the country's history, religion and culture. There are over 900 Buddhist temples on the Korean Peninsula; Bulguksa being the best known. Many of the countries historical monuments have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Jogmyo Shrine is over 500 years old and is where the Joseon Dynasty Kings were worshipped. The ceremony is still performed in its original form today.

The Demilitarised Zone, which marks the boundary between North and South Korea is also popular with tourists. The area can be explored on organised tours, of which there are many. These may include a military base, North Korea's infiltration tunnels, an observatory and the Panmunjeom, the joint security area in the heart of the demilitarised zone where negations between the two countries are held. Special tours also show the beautiful countryside around the zone.

To find out more about tourist attractions in South Korea, see the Official Korea Tourism Organisation website, Visit Korea

Further Information