South Korea 101

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South Korea, formally known as the Republic of Korea, is enjoying one of the fastest rates of prolonged economic growth in modern history.  It is on track to become the ninth-largest economy and third-wealthiest nation in the world by 2025. This country of 49 million people is already one of the most scientifically and technologically advanced. More than 90 percent of all homes are connected to high-speed broadband Internet, making South Korea the most wired nation on the planet.


Led by large multinational corporations such as Hyundai, Samsung, and LG, it has become a global leader in shipbuilding, electronics, automobile manufacturing, robotics, and biotechnology.

Some have labeled this economic achievement a “miracle,” given the unstable security situation that South Korea has faced since its founding amid the division of the Korean peninsula in 1948. More than fifty years after the Korean War, which decimated South Korea’s capital Seoul, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) remains the most heavily fortified border in the world. Reunification has proven elusive.

Newly elected President Lee Myung-bak has promised continued prosperity. The South Korean government, however, acknowledges that its country’s future and economic stability is intimately connected to the question of reunification and how it might be achieved.  A sudden collapse of the communist North’s regime would be disastrous for South Korea. The success of cross-border partnerships aimed at improving the impoverished North’s economy is considered key to a successful, gradual reunification and regional stability.

South Korea is increasingly engaged in international affairs and seeks to expand its role in the world. The South Korean government’s main foreign policy goals are to pursue a peaceful and gradual reunification with the North, increase free market trade, and strengthen South Korea’s leadership and participation in peacekeeping, human rights, nuclear disarmament, regional security, environmental protection, and economic assistance. South Korea’s leaders view peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula as key to its growing role in international affairs. Since joining the United Nations in 1991, South Korea has demonstrated a commitment to multilateral diplomacy. Ban Ki-Moon, its former minister of foreign affairs and trade now serves as the eighth UN secretary-general.

South Korea maintains its multilateral relationships through membership in a variety of international, economic, and regional organizations—including the UN; the International Monetary Fund (IMF); the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; the UN Industrial Development Organization; and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Since joining the United Nations in 1991, South Korea has become the tenth-largest contributor to the organization with more than $32 million in annual assistance. It is engaged in regional dialogue as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Plus Three (ASEAN+3) and annual East Asia Summit.

South Korea has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and continues to urge North Korea to return to the NPT through its participation in the six-party talks. South Korea has demonstrated its commitment to global peacekeeping through its involvement in missions in Somalia, Western Sahara, Angola, East Timor, and Cyprus. Japan recently invited Korea to attend the 2008 G8 Summit in Hokkaido.

Since the Korean War, South Korea and the United States have built a closely integrated military and political alliance to counter the North Korean threat and ensure stability in Northeast Asia. Their foremost diplomatic task is to bring about the conditions for peaceful reunification of the peninsula, though they’ve often been at odds in their policy toward the North and the rise of anti-American sentiment in the region. About 25,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea. A still functioning UN Command controls all forces in South Korea, including the US and South Korean military.

More than one million Korean-Americans live in the United States, helping to strengthen the two countries’ relationship. The United States is also South Korea’s largest trading partner, purchasing more than 20 percent of its exports. In 2007, both countries’ governments reached a free trade agreement that would immediately eliminate nearly 85 percent of each side’s tariffs. The United States and South Korea, however, have yet to ratify the agreement, and experts predict a weakening US economy and growing political opposition to the measure could kill the deal.

The United States “continues to be the most important outside power in Korean affairs, maintaining a formidable troop presence on the peninsula, exerting a major influence on South Korean political and economic life, and continuing to be the most important negotiating target for North Korea,” wrote historian Don Oberdorfer in his book The Two Koreas. “Yet while the United States has a large stake in the future of the peninsula, the uncertain nature of its policies toward the [North] has diminished its effectiveness as the two Koreas move into a new relationship.”

There is widespread anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea due in part to unsettled Korean-Japanese disputes stemming from Japanese occupation during World War II. More than 100,000 Koreans were forced to serve in the Imperial Japanese Army. Visits by Japanese politicians to a shrine honoring Japanese war dead, as well as rewriting of Japanese schoolbooks to overlook past aggression, have served to inflame tensions. Both countries claim Liancourt Rocks, a group of small islands in the Sea of Japan that South Korea has occupied since 1954. The Japanese prime minister’s recent attendance at South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s inauguration suggests a possible thawing relationship.

One of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing South Korea is persuading North Korea to continue with denuclearization commitments it made in the six-party talks. The challenge could be made more difficult by a new administration managing the transition in inter-Korean relations. President Lee has been more vocal than his predecessor in criticizing the North on human rights issues and demanding denuclearization in exchange for financial and technical support for the North’s development.

The fluid relationship between the major external powers involved in the six-party talks—the United States, China, Russia, and Japan—also has the potential to complicate matters. The process could reignite old Cold War alliances or serve as the framework for a new multilateral approach to regional security.

President Lee sees strengthening his country’s relationship with the United States as a top foreign policy goal and is considering joining an American-led missile defense program. He has also indicated a desire to improve relations with Russia and China, as well as overcome historical animosities with Japan.

To strengthen regional security, South Korea is positioned to play a vital role in development of permanent Northeast Asian security architecture. Regional economic cooperation, as well as improving Internet and transportation networks, could help create regional unity.

South Korea presently has the sixth-largest military in the world with 687,000 members of an active force spread across an army, navy, air force, and marine corps. Its size ranks just behind that of North Korea, which claims an active force of more than one million. South Korean men are required to serve a period of two years in the military, though some educational waivers are allowed.

Most of South Korea’s forces are located along the border with North Korea, augmented by 25,000 US troops. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the most heavily fortified border in the world and remains the last front in the Cold War. The 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide tract of land cuts the Korean peninsula roughly in half and serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ was created in the 1953 armistice agreement that ended fighting during the Korean War, first sparked three years earlier by a Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea by the North. The armistice was never followed by a peace treaty, meaning the two Koreas remain technically at war. The United Nations estimates that a return to full-scale war on the Korean peninsula would result in 1.5 million deaths in the first twenty-four hours. To bolster its defensive posture, South Korea deployed more than 100 surface-to-surface US-made missiles in 2003 that are capable of striking most of North Korea, including the capital Pyongyang.

The South Korean force is responsible for maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of South Korea. It has increasingly been used, however, in UN peacekeeping missions including Somalia, Western Sahara, Angola, East Timor, and Cyprus. Stemming from its strong alliance with the United States, South Korea has also participated in every major US conflict in the last fifty years. The country deployed 320,000 of its troops to support American and South Vietnamese soldiers in the Vietnam War and most recently sent 3,300 soldiers to help rebuild northern Iraq.

South Korea rose from the ashes of the Korean War and went from being one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the richest in a period of four decades. Its per capita income has grown from $100 in 1963 to a fully developed $25,000 in 2007. Its economy continues to grow by 4 to 5 percent each year. This long period of sustained economic growth has become known as the “Miracle on the Han River,” given the unstable security situation South Korea has faced since its founding and the division of the Korean peninsula. In his 2007 campaign, President Lee Myung-bak ran on a promise of bolstering his country’s growth even further with his “7-4-7” pledge. He set a goal of reaching 7 percent annual growth and increasing per capita income to $40,000 within ten years to make South Korea the world’s seventh-largest economy.

South Korea’s economy has also proven resilient. Unlike other countries hit hard by the Asian financial crisis of 1997, South Korea responded by liberalizing its financial and economic sectors to weather the storm. Yet the economy is still dominated by large conglomerates—multinational corporations such as Hyundai, Samsung, and LG. That, combined with rigid employment regulations and corruption, serves to restrict South Korea’s economic freedom. South Korea has become a global leader in shipbuilding, electronics, automobile manufacturing, robotics, and biotechnology. These products make for a largely export-driven economy—with the United States, China, and Japan as South Korea’s major trading partners.

South Korea is also a global leader in several new emerging technologies and scientific research, including cloning, robotics, and biotechnology. A team of researchers at Seoul National University produced the world’s first cloned dog, Snuppy, in 2005. That accomplishment has now turned into a commercial venture, with an American placing the first $50,000 order for a cloned dog. Korea is presently the fourth-largest robot maker in the world for high-speed, intelligent, labor-intensive production practices. The country is also a leader in development of intelligence robots, an $8.5 billion industry that some believe holds as much potential as the automotive industry. The market continues to grow at 35 percent a year. Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology developed HUBO, the world’s first humanoid robot with a lifelike head. HUBO marked several breakthroughs, including lifelike skin that can reflect human emotions, two eyes that can see and move independent of one another, and five fingers that make a variety of gestures. Korea has also created the world’s first female android, EveR-1, which features an advanced human-like skin and can speak and understand simple Korean and English. In biotechnology, Korea has led the way to inexpensive vaccine development, stem-cell therapy, and disease diagnostics.

The biggest obstacle to further growth and economic stability in South Korea is how well the country manages increasing economic cooperation and potential reunification with the North. Some argue that reunification has already begun, with slowly evolving economic cooperation between the two countries. The challenge lies in the potential collapse of North Korea’s regime, which could cause a rapid reunification of two unequal countries and devastate the South Korean economy. South Korean officials have repeatedly stated they want to avoid the example set by the sudden collapse of East Germany in 1990 and the impact it had on the German economy. To compare, North Korea’s economy is far worse than East Germany’s economy was at that time. The income per capita ratio was about 3-to-1 in the divided Germany (about $25,000 for the West and $8,500 for the East). That income gap is about 13-to-1 in Korea (about $24,600 in South Korea and $1,900 in North Korea). The result of that gap is that many South Koreans, while supporting reunification in theory, want the process delayed until the North Korean economy can be developed and raised to an acceptable level. President Lee Myung-bak has said he’d like to see the North’s per capita income achieve $3,000.

South Korean corporate giant Hyundai is playing an important role in economic cooperation between the North and South. It’s built the Kaesong Industrial Park just across the border in North Korea, where workers from the North and South work side by side. It’s also reopened a railway between the two Koreas and constructed a resort at Mount Kumgang in North Korea that employs North Korean workers and offers tourists, including Westerners, a rare glimpse of the North.

Since the division of the Korean peninsula and modern founding of South Korea in 1948, the country has remained a democracy divided into executive, judicial, and legislative branches. A series of autocratic rulers, as well as the 1961 military coup of General Park Chung-hee (assassinated in 1979), left a history of political turmoil and only a short, recent period of stable leadership. Resistance and prodemocracy demonstrations in 1987 eventually led to the first direct election of a president in fifteen years. In 1998, longtime opposition leader Kim Dae-jung became president, marking the first time that the ruling party in Korea peacefully transferred power to a democratically elected opposition candidate. Kim ushered in a new era of reconciliation and cooperation with the North through the implication of his “sunshine” policy. Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts, and South Korea has since held two more peaceful presidential elections.

Koreans are the world’s most homogenous society, ethnically and linguistically, and there are few minorities in South Korea with the exception of some Chinese, Japanese, and Westerners. Most live in urban areas due to the economy’s rapid expansion that led to migration from rural areas. Since ancient times, Korea’s people have had a deeply rooted sense of homogeneity and have considered themselves a distinct people. Korea’s history, which includes several foreign invasions and a brutal Japanese occupation, may in part contribute to xenophobia that seems to cut across all sectors of society and has hindered economic relations with other countries. A financial crisis in 1997 helped jar South Korea from its isolationist nature and led to greater trade and economic cooperation with the world. Foreign business leaders, however, still report that xenophobic tendencies make doing business a challenge in South Korea. This homogeneity also contributes to a sense of nationalism and shared pride that may help explain Korea’s economic competitiveness. The average South Korean works 2,390 hours each year, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. That’s 34 percent more working hours than in the United States.

Nearly half of South Korea’s 48 million people express no religious preference. Of the remainder, about 23 percent are Christians—the largest Christian population in East Asia—and another 23 percent are Buddhists. The capital of Seoul is home to Yoido Full Gospel Church, which boasts the world’s largest Christian congregation of 830,000 members. Confucianism and Buddhism, Korea’s ancient and traditional belief systems dating back some 22 centuries, continue to have a distinct influence on the minds and lives of Koreans. Confucianism —which stresses duty, loyalty, honor, piety, respect for age and seniority, and sincerity—influences every facet of Korean life. This tradition puts a special emphasis on family, considered the most important part of society. The concept of “kibun”—someone’s pride, feelings, or state of mind—enters into every interpersonal relationship in Korea with the goal of maintaining harmony. In business, a manager’s kibun is damaged if employees don’t show proper respect, and an employee’s kibun is damaged if the manager criticizes him or her in public. Kibun is just one of six traditional concepts that influence the Korean psyche and make Koreans a unique people and sometimes difficult for non-Koreans to understand. Modern Buddhism in Korea involves more than 10,000 temples and 20,000 monks and has influenced Korean society, culture, and the arts. Similar to the missionary nature of Korea’s Christian population, Buddhist monks have recently begun employing marketing techniques to attract followers to their religion, opening monasteries for public visits, and offering weeklong training courses in the Buddhist tradition.


An effort is under way to globalize traditional Korean food—including the popular fermented vegetable dish, kimchi—as a way of gaining influence and international prominence, particularly in the Western world. Kim Jae-soo, agriculture counselor to the Korean embassy in Washington, DC, has even proposed toning down the strength of traditional Korean sauces and pastes for a Western palate. The government is actively promoting standardization of recipes and rethinking how to present the once abundant and lumped-together vegetable side dishes that make up a Korean meal into planned courses. Dishes like bibimbap, a rice bowl with vegetables, are morphing into a variety of choices similar to Italy’s spaghetti-based dishes. Korean food and traditional Korean barbecue has been predicted as a possible new food trend in the United States. The Korean government, meanwhile, is encouraging its restaurateurs and food producers to market the already established health benefits of the largely vegetarian Korean diet.

A growing and more sophisticated audience has given birth to an emerging film culture in South Korea in which a new generation of filmmakers is free to explore once taboo topics. While filmmakers in the 1980s used a grand narrative style to address political issues, younger filmmakers are developing a personal style often disconnected by an overriding political agenda. Films such as The President’s Last Bang, directed by Im Sang-soo, fictionalize historical events such as the assassination of former President Park Chung-hee by the country’s secret service. Other controversial films have explored and given modern-day relevance to the evolving relationship between the two Koreas. Joint Security Area, directed by Park Chan-wook, for example, presented the division of the peninsula in popular terms through the story of a murder in the DMZ. It became the highest grossing film in Korean history in 2001.

Tae Kwon Do, regarded as the world’s most popular martial art, originated in Korea and became an Olympic sport in 2000. The sport is recognized for its emphasis and use of kicking techniques, which distinguishes it from other martial arts. Tae Kwon Do has become a popular sport and exercise around the world—credited with developing strength, speed, balance, flexibility, and stamina. It is the national sport of South Korea and is an integral skill among combat troops in South Korea’s military. At the DMZ, South Korean soldiers face their enemies in the North by standing in a modified Tae Kwon Do stance.

With limited domestic resources, South Korea is almost entirely dependent on imported fuel to meet its energy consumption needs. It is presently the fifth-largest importer of oil in the world and a large importer of liquefied natural gas. While oil makes up the largest portion of South Korea’s energy consumption, its oil use has declined over recent years due to increases in use of coal, nuclear energy, hydropower, and other renewable energy sources.

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Sources: South Korean government Web site, The Two Koreas by Don Oberdorfer, CIA Fact Book, http//, International Herald Tribune, and others.

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