South Korea, officially Republic of Korea (2005 est. pop. 48,423,000), 38,022 sq mi (98,477 sq km), formally proclaimed on Aug. 15, 1948, has its capital at Seoul, the largest city. Busan, the second largest city, is the country's chief port, with an excellent natural harbor near the delta of the Nakdong River. Other important cities are Daegu and Incheon. South Korea is divided into nine provinces and seven independent metropolitan cities. Syngman Rhee, who had established a provisional Korean government in exile in 1919, was elected South Korea's first president in 1948.
Traditionally the agricultural region of the Korean peninsula, South Korea faced severe economic problems after partition. Attempts to establish an adequate industrial base were hampered by limited resources, particularly an acute lack of energy resources; most industry, prior to 1948, had been located in the North. War damage and the flood of refugees from North Korea further intensified the economic problem. The country depended upon foreign aid, chiefly from the United States, and the economy was characterized by runaway inflation, highly unfavorable trade balances, and mass unemployment.
The increasingly authoritarian rule of President Syngman Rhee, along with government corruption and injustice, added to the discontent of the people. The elections of Mar., 1960, in which Rhee won a fourth term, were marked by widespread violence, police brutality, and accusations by Rhee's opponents of government fraud. A student protest march in Apr., 1960, in which 125 students were shot down by the police, triggered a wave of uprisings across the country. The government capitulated, and Rhee resigned and went into exile.
Under the leadership of Dr. John M. Chang (Chang Myun), a new government was unable to correct the economic problems or maintain order, and in May, 1961, the South Korean armed forces seized power in a bloodless coup. A military junta under Gen. Park Chung Hee established tight control over civil freedoms, the press, and the economy, somewhat relaxing restrictions as its power solidified. Park was elected president in 1963, reelected in 1967, and, following a constitutional amendment permitting a third term, again in 1971.
Park's government was remarkably successful in fighting graft and corruption and in reviving the economy. Successive five-year economic development plans, first launched in 1962, brought dramatic changes. Between 1962 and 1972 manufacturing was established as a leading economic sector and exports increased dramatically. In Oct., 1972, President Park proclaimed martial law and dissolved the national assembly, asserting that such measures were necessary to improve South Korea's position in the reunification talks with North Korea. In Dec., 1972, President Park was elected to a new six-year term, under a revised constitution, by a national conference. In 1974, a Korean resident of Japan unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Park in Seoul, fatally wounding Park's wife.
A second assassination attempt on Park, in 1979, was successful, and he was succeeded by Choi Kyu-hah, who instituted military rule. After a period of internal turmoil, Chun Doo Hwan was elected president (1980). Reforms were made to shift power to the national assembly, and the country's dynamic, export-oriented economy continued to grow. Labor unrest and general dissatisfaction with the government, however, led South Korean leaders to draw up a new constitution in 1987, which mandated popular election of the president and a reduction of the presidential term to five years.
Roh Tae Woo, who was elected president and took office in 1988, fought rising inflation rates brought on by South Korea's growing economy. Roh attempted to improve relations with opposition politicians and with the North, also establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union (1990) and China (1992). In 1992, Kim Young Sam, a former opposition leader who had merged his party with Roh's, was elected president, becoming the first civilian to hold the office since the Korean War. President Kim launched a campaign to eliminate corruption and administrative abuse and began to encourage economic cooperation with the North.
In 1996 former presidents Chun and Roh were put on trial on corruption charges and also tried, with 14 former generals, on charges in connection with the 1979 coup following Park's death and the 1980 massacre of prodemocracy demonstrators in Gwangju (Kwangju). Both received prison sentences. Along with other Asian countries, South Korea experienced a financial crisis in late 1997, forcing it to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund.
In December, voters elected Kim Dae Jung, who had been a prodemocracy dissident during the country's period of military dictatorship, as South Korea's new president. The economy began to recover slowly from the effect of the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis in 1999, and economic reforms promoted sustained growth. Kim worked to open relations with the North, and in 2000 he traveled there for a historic meeting with Kim Jong Il. Subsequent progress in inter-Korean relations, however, was slow, leading many in the South to feel that too many concessions had been made.
Kim Dae Jung's government was hurt by a series of corruption scandals in 2001 and 2002, some of which involved the president's family. The government suffered further embarrassment in 2002 when two nominees for prime minister were rejected by the national assembly. Despite these setbacks, the ruling party's candidate for president, Roh Moo Hyun, won the election in Dec., 2002. Following the election, when North Korea moved to resume its nuclear weapons program, the South pursued a more conciliatory course than that of the United States, and strongly opposed any military action against the North.
A political party funding scandal in 2003 implicated the main South Korean parties and many businesses, but it was overshadowed in early 2004 by the impeachment of the president over a relatively minor election law violation, which involved his public support for the new Uri party (the president is required be politically neutral). The impeachment, which also accused Roh of incompetence, was reversed by the Constitutional Court, which restored him to office in May. In the meantime, Prime Minister Goh Kun was acting president, and the Uri party gained a majority of the National Assembly seats in an April election that amounted to a repudiation by the public of the impeachment. The election was the first in which a liberal party had won control of the South Korean legislature. Roh officially joined the party in May.
In Aug., 2004, Roh announced that executive and administrative functions of the government would be moved to a new capital carved from portions of Yeongi co. and Gongju city in South Chungcheong prov., with construction to begin in 2007 and the relocation to be completed by 2030. Intended to reduce Seoul's economic dominance and overcrowding, the proposal provoked constitutional challenges from its opponents. In October the constitutional court ruled that a referendum or a constitutional amendment would be required before the move could be made. Construction of Sejong City continued, however, as a government center, and the city was officially inaugurated in 2012.
The South revealed in Aug. and Sept., 2004, that its scientists had twice conducted experiments to enrich nuclear materials. Although the amounts of enriched plutonium and uranium were small, the admissions were embarrassing internationally and did not help the campaign against the North's nuclear program. Relations with Japan were strained in early 2005 over the ownership of the Liancourt Rocks (a perennial source of friction) and over Japanese school history textbooks that downplayed Japan's actions during World War II.
The Uri party, which had been hit by a number of scandals and ministerial resignations since winning control of parliament, lost its narrow majority in that body in Mar., 2005. In Apr., 2006, Han Myung-Sook, a member of the Uri party, became the first woman to be elected prime minister of South Korea; real power in the South Korean government, however, resides with the president. Local elections in May, 2006, resulted in significant losses for the Uri party. After the North's nuclear test in Oct., 2006, South Korea imposed some sanctions and supported the UN-adopted military sanctions, but remained committed to its policy of engagement with the North and the significant economic trade involved.
In early 2007, after the Uri party had suffered significant defections in the National Assembly Roh resigned from the party in an attempt to avoid further losses. Prime Minister Han resigned in March, and in April a free-trade agreement was reached with the United States. In October the leaders of the North and South met in a second summit in Pyongyang. The Dec., 2007, presidential election was won easily by Grand National party candidate Lee Myung Bak, the conservative former mayor of Seoul. Lee pursued a harder line than his predecessor in relations with the North, calling for it to make progress on human rights and nuclear disarmament. As a result, the North escalated tensions with South Korea.
In Apr., 2008, Lee's party won a majority in the parliamentary elections. That month South Korea agreed to resume imports of U.S. beef, banned five years before over concerns about mad cow disease. The news provoked weeks of antigovernment protests, which forced Lee to reconstitute his government and to renegotiate the agreement. The killing of a South Korean tourist by the North Korean military at Mt. Kumgang in North Korea led South Korea to suspend tourist visits to the site and increased tensions with the North, and by the end of 2008 the North had reacted to Lee's tougher approach to relations by closing the rail line between the two nations.
Tensions with the North continued into 2009, aggravated by actions that included the North's temporary closure of access to South Korean factories in the North and subsequent demands for wage and rent increases for those factories, the launches of a number of rockets by the North including a long-range missile, and a second nuclear test. Lee's government also was confronted by the opposition, whose legislators occupied the parliament for two weeks at the turn of the year to prevent passage of government bills and ratification of the free-trade treaty with the United States, and the suicide of former president Roh (May, 2009) after the government began investigating him for corruption.
Relations with the North improved a little in Aug., 2009, but Lee emphasized that the North must adhere to the 2007 six-party agreement, and relations generally remained difficult. The Mar., 2010, sinking of a South Korean warship near a maritime border disputed by the North led to new tensions between the two nations. A multinational investigation determined that the ship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo, and South Korea cut trade links with the North and took other action; unofficial food shipments to the North did not resume until mid-2011. In Nov., 2010, the unprovoked shelling of Yeonpyeong island, Southern territory off the SW coast of North Korea and near the same maritime border, further escalated tensions, and the failure of the government to respond more forcefully than it did led to the resignation of the defense minister. The North has also engaged in cyberattacks against government and commercial computer systems in the South.
A new free-trade agreement was signed with the United States in Dec., 2010 and was finally ratified in Nov., 2011. In the Apr., 2012, parliamentary elections the ruling New Frontier party (the former Grand National party) narrowly won a majority of the seats; both major parties had been tainted by corruption scandals. The December elections for president resulted in a narrow victory for Park Geun Hye, the New Frontier party candidate and the daughter of former president Park Chung Hee. She became South Korea's first woman president. In Jan., 2013, the South successfully launched a satellite; it was the third launch attempt since 2009.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.