South Korea | Facts and History

From Kingdom to Democracy With a Tiger Economy

Women in hanbok perform a Korean folk dance. Multi-bits via Getty Images

South Korea's recent history is one of amazing progress. Annexed by Japan early in the 20th century, and ravaged by World War II and the Korean War, South Korea lapsed into military dictatorship for decades.

Beginning in the late 1980s, however, South Korea created a representative democratic government and one of the world's top high-tech manufacturing economies. Despite lingering unease about the relationship with neighboring North Korea, the South is a major Asian power and an inspiring success story.

Capital and Major Cities

Capital: Seoul, population 9.9 million

Major Cities:

  • Busan, 3.4 million
  • Incheon, 2.9 million
  • Daegu, 2.4 million
  • Daejeon, 1.5 million
  • Gwangju, 1.5 million
  • Ulsan, 1.2 million
  • Suwon, 1.2 million
  • Changwon, 1.1 million


South Korea is a constitutional democracy with a three-branched government system.

The executive branch is headed by the president, directly elected for a single five-year term. Park Geun Hye was elected in 2012, with his successor to be elected in 2017. The president appoints a Prime Minister, subject to approval from the National Assembly.

The National Assembly is a unicameral legislative body with 299 representatives. Members serve for four years.

South Korea has a complicated judicial system. The highest court is the Constitutional Court, which decides matters of constitutional law and impeachment of government officials. The Supreme Court decides other top appeals. Lower courts include appellate courts, district, branch, and municipal courts.

Population of South Korea

South Korea's population is approximately 50,924,000 (2016 estimate). The population is remarkably homogenous, in terms of ethnicity - 99% of the people are ethnically Korean. However, the number of foreign laborers and other migrants is gradually increasing.

Much to the government's concern, South Korea has one of the world's lowest birthrates at 8.4 per 1,000 population. Families traditionally preferred to have boys. Sex-preference abortion resulted in a large sex imbalance of 116.5 boys born for every 100 girls in 1990. However, that trend has reversed and while the male to female birth rate is still slightly imbalanced, the society now values girls, with a popular slogan of, "One daughter raised well is worth 10 sons!"

South Korea's population is overwhelmingly urban, with 83% living in cities.


The Korean language is the official language of South Korea, spoken by 99% of the population. Korean is a curious language with no obvious linguistic cousins; different linguists argue that it is related to Japanese or to the Altaic languages such as Turkish and Mongolian.

Until the 15th century, Korean was written in Chinese characters, and many educated Koreans can still read Chinese well. In 1443, King Sejong the Great of the Joseon Dynasty commissioned a phonetic alphabet with 24 letters for Korean, called hangul. Sejong wanted a simplified writing system so that his subjects could more easily become literate.


As of 2010, 43.3 percent of South Koreans had no religious preference. The largest religion was Buddhism, with 24.2 percent, followed by all Protestant Christian denominations, at 24 percent, and Catholics, at 7.2 percent.

There are also tiny minorities who cite Islam or Confucianism, as well as local religious movements such as Jeung San Do, Daesun Jinrihoe or Cheondoism. These syncretic religious movements are millenarian and draw from Korean shamanism as well as imported Chinese and Western belief systems.


South Korea covers an area of 100,210 sq km (38,677 sq miles), on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. Seventy percent of the country is mountainous; arable lowlands are concentrated along the west coast.

South Korea's only land border is with North Korea along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It has sea borders with China and Japan.

The highest point in South Korea is Hallasan, a volcano on the southern island of Jeju. The lowest point is sea level.

South Korea has a humid continental climate, with four seasons. Winters are cold and snowy, while summers are hot and humid with frequent typhoons.

Economy of South Korea

South Korea is one of Asia's Tiger Economies, ranked fourteenth in the world according to GDP. This impressive economy is based largely on exports, particularly of consumer electronics and vehicles. Important South Korean manufacturers include Samsung, Hyundai, and LG.

Per capita income in South Korea is $36,500 US, and the unemployment rate as of 2015 was an enviable 3.5 percent. However, 14.6 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

The South Korea currency is the won. As of 2015, $1 US = 1,129 Korean won.

History of South Korea

After two thousand years as an independent kingdom (or kingdoms), but with strong ties to China, Korea was annexed by the Japanese in 1910. Japan controlled Korea as a colony until 1945, when they surrendered to the Allied forces at the end of World War II. As the Japanese pulled out, Soviet troops occupied northern Korea and U.S. troops entered the southern peninsula.

In 1948, the division of the Korean Peninsula into a communist North Korea and a capitalist South Korea was formalized. The 38th parallel of latitude served as the dividing line. Korea became a pawn in the developing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Korean War, 1950-53

On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the South. Just two days later, South Korean President Syngman Rhee ordered the government to evacuate from Seoul, which was quickly overrun by northern forces. That same day, the United Nations authorized member nations to provide military assistance to South Korea, and U.S. president Harry Truman ordered American forces into the fray.

Despite the rapid U.N. response, South Korea's troops were sadly unprepared for the North Korean onslaught. By August, the Korean People's Army (KPA) of the North had pushed the Republic of Korea Army (ROK) into a tiny corner on the southeast coast of the peninsula, around the city of Busan. The North had occupied 90 percent of South Korea in less than two months.

In September of 1950, U.N. and South Korean forces broke out of the Busan Perimeter and began to push the KPA back. A simultaneous invasion of Incheon, on the coast near Seoul, drew off some of the North's forces. By early October, U.N. and ROK soldiers were inside of North Korean territory. They pushed north toward the Chinese border, prompting Mao Zedong to send the Chinese People's Volunteer Army to reinforce the KPA.

Over the next two and a half years, the adversaries fought to a bloody stalemate along the 38th Parallel. Finally, on July 27, 1953, the U.N., China and North Korea signed an armistice agreement that ended the war. South Korean president Rhee refused to sign. An estimated 2.5 million civilians were killed in the fighting.

Post-War South Korea

Student uprisings forced Rhee to resign in April 1960. The following year, Park Chung-hee led a military coup that signaled the beginning of 32 years of military rule. In 1992, South Korea finally elected a civilian president, Kim Young-sam.

Throughout the 1970s-90s, Korea quickly developed an industrial economy. It is now a fully-functioning democracy and a major East Asian power.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "South Korea | Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). South Korea | Facts and History. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "South Korea | Facts and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).