South Korea

 Seoul skyline. || Emile-Victor Portenart, Unsplash

Seoul skyline. || Emile-Victor Portenart, Unsplash

Located on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, South Korea is a small but prosperous country in East Asia. Relative to the rest of the world, South Koreans enjoy a high standard of living, but the populace has been on high alert in recent years due to tensions with North Korea.

In the previous 1000 years of history, Korean states have largely been protective in nature, but have been active internationally, engaging in trade and warfare with its neighbours such as China and Japan. 

Historical Background

The earliest records of the Korean people date back to 2000 BCE when numerous tribal kingdoms emerged in the Korean Peninsula, the most powerful of them was Gojoseon, credited as the first Korean state. The kingdom reached the height of its prosperity in the Fifth Century BCE before it was conquered by the Chinese Han Dynasty.

Gojoseon's collapse returned Korea to its divided state. During the Fourth Century, the peninsula was dominated by three kingdoms, Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla. The kingdoms often clashed diplomatically, and in 668, with the help of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Silla conquered and reunified Korea again. In 935, internal strife due to a dispute with Silla's succession laws, which were determined by the bone rank system, fragmented the kingdom once more.

The next year, Korea was reunified under the Kingdom of Goryeo by Wang Geon. The new kingdom enjoyed relative stability until increased invasions from the Mongol Yuan Dynasty during the 14th Century. In midst of the turmoil, General Yi Seong-gye overthrew the Goryeo Dynasty in 1394, founding the new Kingdom of Joseon.

Joseon became Korea's first golden age, as a majority of Korean innovations were developed at that time. One of the most notable Joseon kings was Sejong, who developed the first Korean writing system, and also adopted Confucianism as the primary philosophy in court, which largely shaped Korean values today.

Joseon's prestige slowly faded during the 17th Century, as it was eventually absorbed into the Chinese Qing Dynasty's tributary system. By the late-19th Century, Joseon had also failed to keep up with the rapid industrialization of Europe and Japan. With mounting domestic pressure to modernize the country, plus increasing Japanese encroachment, the Joseon Dynasty declared the creation of the Korean Empire in 1897. The newly-crowned Emperor Gojong introduced many reforms to industrialize Korea and push back against Japanese influence. His efforts were ultimately futile, as by 1910, Japan had fully annexed Korea due to the decline of the Qing Dynasty, and would remain under Japanese control until its defeat by the Allied Powers in the Second World War.

The victorious Allies occupied all of the Korean Peninsula until 1948, and had initially planned to rebuild Korea as a unified state. But escalating Cold War tensions led to the division of Korea with the Soviet-backed North Korea, and the American-backed South Korea. In 1950, North Korea, with support from China and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War. South Korea, along with the United States and UN Peacekeeping Forces, eventually fought the war to a stalemate. An armistice was called in 1953, establishing the Demilitarized Zone that continues to separate the two countries today.

After the war, South Korea was marred by political instability with short-lived governments until 1961, when General Park Chung-hee seized power after a successful coup. Despite being touted as a brutal dictator, Park revived the South Korean economy under his leadership, a period known as the ‘Miracle on the Han River.’

Park was assassinated in 1979, and the country again plunged into turmoil as martial law was declared. The lack of civil freedoms prompted numerous student protests across the country, many of them ending in violence. These protests culminated in the June Democracy Movement in 1987, with anti-government demonstrations across the country. This event eventually led to democratization in South Korea and the creation of the current-day constitution.

Towards the turn of the 20th Century, South Korea has enjoyed continued growth in economic power and standards of living. The newly democratized nation granted greater civil liberties such as increased freedom of the press, and welfare programs such as new pension systems.

South Korea’s economic prosperity has also been highlighted by its direct involvement in international events, such as hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, as well as the 2002 FIFA World Cup alongside Japan.

Current Events

Today, South Korea maintains one of the world’s most developed economies and is an active member of the OECD. Its robust economy consists of large technological and engineering sectors, where many of its companies, such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai-Kia, have become influential internationally.

The primary issue in South Korean politics today has often been its relations with North Korea, and over the years, their relationship has ranged from guarded to openly hostile. In 1998, President Kim Dae-jung attempted to ease tensions by arranging planned visits with North Korean leaders. However, after allegations of corruption, where South Korea had secretly paid North Korea with substantial amounts of money to make the meetings successful, the Sunshine Policy eventually lost traction.

Today, along with American troops, South Korean military units actively patrol the Demilitarized Zone. Both the north and south have also installed loudspeakers that constantly broadcast propaganda, which have also resulted in occasional incursions. This year, the South Korean government is on high alert as North Korea's nuclear program has steadily progressed, as the country has developed an ICBM and a miniaturized nuclear bomb in just under three months. Over this time, Japan and South Korea have frequently met to discuss emergency response plans in case of a North Korean first strike.

Another key issue that often appears in South Korea’s foreign policy is its reconciliation with Japan after the Second World War. Today, the two countries have become close allies in trade and defence. However, Japan's increasingly supportive stance on its revisionist history, such as downplaying its role in atrocities committed during the war, and the denial of abducting women into sexual slavery for the Japanese Army have continued to draw ire from the South Korean population.

Domestically, it has only been months after South Korea's previous president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached and arrested on charges of bribery and abuse of power. Park, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, had been sharing state secrets with a close friend with no governmental position or clearance. Later investigations also revealed that Park's government had been colluding with numerous corporations in embezzling funds as well. A special election was held after her removal from power, where Moon Jae-in was elected President.

In 2018, South Korea is expected to host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

 South Korean President Moon Jae-in || Kim Kyung Hoon/ The Daily Beast

South Korean President Moon Jae-in || Kim Kyung Hoon/The Daily Beast

Government

South Korea is a unitary state with a limited degree of decentralization, as local governments are granted some form of autonomy. Its government consists of a unicameral National Assembly headed by a President, who serves as both the Head of Government and Head of State. Since the adoption of its current constitution in 1988, South Korea has largely expanded its civil rights and welfare system, and is considered a liberal democracy. Elections that select members of the National Assembly are held once every four years, while the President is directly elected and serves a non-renewable, five year term.

The current President of South Korea is Moon Jae-in, elected in a landslide special election in 2017 after the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. A member of the centre-left Democratic Party, Moon has promised greater government transparency after a corruption scandal removed the previous president from power. The son of North Korean refugees, Moon is known for his softer stance on North Korea, and supports peaceful contact between the two countries.

Culture and Media

Popular culture in South Korea has seen growing popularity across the world, in a phenomenon known as the ‘Korean Wave.’ Media such as South Korean music and soap operas have become famous worldwide, and has become a significant part of its economy.

South Korea has a free press, but a security law has banned the publication of content that praises or favourably describes North Korea. There is a diverse array of newspapers, cable news, and radio in the country with high engagement. South Korea’s public service broadcasters, which includes the Korea Broadcasting System and Munhwa Broadcasting System are among the nation’s most popular platforms.

South Korea boasts one of the highest rates of internet usage in the world, 88 percent of internet users are connected by a messaging service, while two-thirds on the web are connected on Facebook. Video games are one of the nation’s largest entertainment sectors, as South Korea are one of the strongest countries worldwide in eSports competitions.


Profile

OVERVIEW

POPULATION 50,617,000
1 Seoul ★ 9,904,000
2 Busan 3,449,000
3 Incheon 2,890,000
4 Daegu 2,466,000
5 Daejeon 1,538,000
6 Gwangju 1,503,000
Nominal GDP $1,377,873,110,000
Per Capita GDP $27,221

ECONOMIC INDICES

Human Development
; .901
Economic Freedom
; .715
Inequality (Gini Coefficient)
; .313

POLITICAL INDICES

Political Freedom
; 82
Press Freedom
; 66
Perceived Corruption
; 53

EXPORTS

TOTAL EXPORTS $538B
39% Machines $210B
20% Transportation $107B
8% Metals $45B
7% Plastics and Rubbers $37B
6% Mineral Products $33B

POPULATION GROWTH, ANNUAL%

ECONOMIC GROWTH, ANNUAL GDP%