The Republic of Korea (대한민국 — Daehan Min-guk), or South Korea, occupies the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula, which extends some 680 miles (1,100 kilometers) from the Asian mainland. This mountainous peninsula is flanked by the Yellow Sea to the west, and the Sea of Japan (East Sea) to the east. Its southern tip lies on the Korea Strait and the East China Sea. The country, including all its islands, lies between latitudes 33° and 39°N, and longitudes 124° and 130°E. Its total area is 38,622.57 square miles (100,032 km²). About three thousand islands, mostly small and uninhabited, lie off the western and southern coasts of South Korea. Highly urbanized at 92%, South Koreans lead a distinctive urban lifestyle; half of them live in high-rises concentrated in the Seoul Capital Area with 25 million residents and the world’s sixth leading global city with the fourth largest economy and seventh most sustainable city in the world.
South Korea can be divided into four general regions: an eastern region of high mountain ranges and narrow coastal plains; a western region of broad coastal plains, river basins, and rolling hills; a southwestern region of mountains and valleys; and a southeastern region dominated by the broad basin of the Nakdong River. South Korea’s terrain is mostly mountainous, most of which is not arable. Lowlands, located primarily in the west and southeast, make up only 30% of the total land area.
South Korea’s tiger economy soared at an annual average of 10% for over 30 years in a period of rapid transformation called the Miracle on the Han River. A long legacy of openness and focus on innovation made it successful. Today, it is the world’s fifth largest exporter with the G20’s largest budget surplus and highest credit rating of any country in East Asia. It has free trade agreements with 75% of the world economy and is the only G20 nation trading freely with China, the United States and the European Union simultaneously.
Since 1987, South Korea’s constitution has guaranteed a multi-party democracy with universal suffrage, high government transparency and universal healthcare. High civil liberties led to the rise of a globally influential pop culture such as K-pop and K-drama, a phenomenon called the Korean Wave, known for its distinctive fashionable and trendy style. Home of the United Nations Green Climate Fund and GGGI, South Korea is a leader in low carbon green growth, committed to helping developing countries as a major DAC and Paris Club contributor. It is the world’s third least ignorant country in the Index of Ignorance, ranking eighth highest for peaceful tolerance and inclusion of minorities on the Fragile States Index.
South Korea is a developed country driven by a highly educated and skilled workforce, having the world’s eighth highest median household income, the highest in Asia, with its singles in particular earning more than all G7 nations. Globally, it ranks highly in personal safety, job security, ease of doing business and healthcare quality, with the world’s third highest health adjusted life expectancy and fourth most efficient healthcare system. It is the world’s largest spender on R&D per GDP, leading the OECD in graduates in science and engineering and ranking third in the Youth Wellbeing Index. Home of Samsung, LG and Hyundai-Kia, South Korea was named the world’s most innovative country in the Bloomberg Innovation Index, ranking first in business R&D intensity and patents filed per GDP. In 2005, it became the world’s first country to fully transition to high-speed Internet and today it has the world’s fastest Internet speed and highest smartphone ownership, ranking first in ICT Development, e-Government and 4G LTE coverage.
Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of the Empire of Japan to the Allied Powers on August 15, 1945. General Order No. 1 for the surrender of Japan (prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of U.S. military forces and approved on August 17) prescribed separate surrender procedures for Japanese forces in Korea north and south of the 38th parallel. After Japan’s surrender to the Allies (formalized on September 2), division at the 38th parallel marked the beginning of Soviet and U.S. trusteeship over the North and South, respectively. This division was meant to be temporary and was first intended to return a unified Korea back to its people until the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and Republic of China could arrange a trusteeship administration. In February 1945, the Yalta Conference discussed the issue of trusteeship for Korea.
U.S. forces landed at Incheon on September 8, 1945 and established a military government shortly thereafter. Lt. General John R. Hodge, their commander, took charge of the government. Faced with mounting popular discontent, in October 1945 Hodge established the Korean Advisory Council. A year later, an interim legislature and interim government were established, headed by Kim Kyu-shik and Syngman Rhee respectively. However, these interim bodies lacked any independent authority or de jure sovereignty, which was still held by the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea based in China, but U.S. leaders chose to ignore its legitimacy, partly because of it communist alignment.
Political and economic chaos — arising from a variety of causes — plagued the country in this period. The after-effects of the Japanese exploitation remained in the South, as in the North. In addition, the U.S. military was largely unprepared for the challenge of administering the country, arriving with no knowledge of the language, culture or political situation. Thus many of their policies had unintended destabilizing effects. Waves of refugees from North Korea and returnees from abroad added to the turmoil.
In December 1945, a conference convened in Moscow to discuss the future of Korea. A 5-year trusteeship was discussed, and a U.S.-Soviet joint commission was established. The commission met intermittently in Seoul but deadlocked over the issue of establishing a national government. In September 1947, with no solution in sight, the United States submitted the Korean question to the United Nations General Assembly.
The resolution from the UN General Assembly called for a UN-supervised general election in Korea, but after the North rejected this proposition, a general election for a Constitutional Assembly took place in the South only, in May 1948. A constitution was adopted, setting forth a presidential form of government and specifying a four-year term for the presidency. According to the provisions of the Constitution, an indirect presidential election took place in July. Syngman Rhee, as head of the new assembly, assumed the presidency and proclaimed the Republic of Korea (South Korea) on August 15, 1948.
With the establishment of Rhee’s government, de jure sovereignty also passed into the new government. On September 9, 1948, a communist regime, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), was proclaimed under Kim Il-sung. However, on December 12, 1948, by its resolution 195 in the Third General Assembly, the United Nations recognized the Republic of Korea as the sole legal government of Korea.
In 1946, the North implemented land reforms by confiscating private property, Japanese and pro-Japanese owned facilities and factories, and placed them under state ownership. Demand for land reform in the South grew strong, and it was eventually enacted in June 1949. Koreans with large landholdings were obliged to divest most of their land. Approximately 40 percent of total farm households became small landowners. However, because preemptive rights were given to people who had ties with landowners before liberation, many pro-Japanese groups obtained or retained properties.
The country now divided, the relationship between the two Koreas turned more antagonistic as time passed. The Soviet forces having withdrawn in 1948, North Korea pressured the South to expel the United States forces, but Rhee sought to align his government strongly with America, and against both North Korea and Japan. Although talks towards normalization of relations with Japan took place, they achieved little. Meanwhile, the government took in vast sums of American aid, in amounts sometimes near the total size of the national budget. The nationalist government also continued many of the practices of the U.S. military government. In 1948, the Rhee government repressed military uprisings in Jeju, Suncheon and Yeosu.
The main policy of the First Republic of South Korea was anti-communism and “unification by expanding northward”. The South’s military was neither sufficiently equipped nor prepared, but the Rhee administration was determined to reunify Korea by military force with aid from the United States. However, in the second parliamentary elections held on May 30, 1950, the majority of seats went to independents who did not endorse this position, confirming the lack of support and the fragile state of the nation.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. Led by the U.S., a 16-member coalition undertook the first collective action under the United Nations Command (UNC) in defense of South Korea. Oscillating battle lines inflicted a high number of civilian casualties and wrought immense destruction. With the People’s Republic of China’s entry on behalf of North Korea in late 1950, the fighting came to a stalemate close to the original line of demarcation. Armistice negotiations, initiated in July 1951, finally concluded on July 27, 1953 at Panmunjeom, now in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Following the armistice, the South Korean government returned to Seoul on the symbolic date of August 15, 1953.
After the armistice, South Korea experienced political turmoil under years of autocratic leadership of Syngman Rhee, which was ended by student revolt in 1960. Throughout his rule, Rhee sought to take additional steps to cement his control of government. These began in 1952, when the government was still based in Busan due to the ongoing war. In May of that year, Rhee pushed through constitutional amendments which made the presidency a directly-elected position. To do this, he declared martial law, arrested opposing members of parliament, demonstrators, and anti-government groups. Rhee was subsequently elected by a wide margin.
Rhee regained control of parliament in the 1954 elections, and thereupon pushed through an amendment to exempt himself from the eight-year term limit, and was once again re-elected in 1956. Soon after, Rhee’s administration arrested members of the opposing party and executed the leader after accusing him of being a North Korean spy.
The administration became increasingly repressive while dominating the political arena, and in 1958, it sought to amend the National Security Law to tighten government control over all levels of administration, including the local units. These measures caused much outrage among the people, but despite public outcry, Rhee’s administration rigged the March 15, 1960, presidential elections and won by a landslide.
On that election day, protests by students and citizens against the irregularities of the election burst out in the city of Masan. Initially these protests were quelled with force by local police, but when the body of a student was found floating in the harbor of Masan, the whole country was enraged and protests spread nationwide. On April 19, students from various universities and schools rallied and marched in protest in the Seoul streets, in what would be called the April Revolution. The government declared martial law, called in the army, and suppressed the crowds with open fire. Subsequent protests throughout the country shook the government, and after an escalated protest with university professors taking to the streets on April 25, Rhee submitted his official resignation on April 26 and fled into exile.
After the student revolution, power was briefly held by an interim administration under the foreign minister Heo Jeong. A new parliamentary election was held on July 29, 1960. The Democratic Party, which had been in the opposition during the First Republic, easily gained power and the Second Republic was established. The revised constitution dictated the Second Republic to take the form of a parliamentary cabinet system where the President took only a nominal role. This was the first and the only instance South Korea turned to a parliamentary cabinet system instead of a presidential system. The assembly elected Yun Bo-seon as President and Chang Myon as the prime minister and head of government in August, 1960.
The Second Republic saw the proliferation of political activity which had been repressed under the Rhee regime. Much of this activity was from leftist and student groups, which had been instrumental in the overthrow of the First Republic. Union membership and activity grew rapidly during the later months of 1960, including the Teachers’ Union, Journalists’ Union, and the Federation of Korean Trade Union. Around 2,000 demonstrations were held during the eight months of the Second Republic.
Under pressure from the left, the Chang government carried out a series of purges of military and police officials who had been involved in anti-democratic activities or corruption. A Special Law to this effect was passed on October 31, 1960. Forty thousand people were placed under investigation; of these, more than 2,200 government officials and 4,000 police officers were purged. In addition, the government considered reducing the size of the army by 100,000, although this plan was shelved.
In economic terms as well, the government was faced with mounting instability. The government formulated a five-year economic development plan, although it was unable to act on it prior to being overthrown. The Second Republic saw the hwan lose half of its value against the dollar between fall 1960 and spring 1961.
Although the government had been established with support of the people, it had failed to implement effective reforms which brought about endless social unrest, political turmoil and ultimately, the May 16 coup d’état.
The May 16 coup, led by Major General Park Chung-hee on May 16, 1961, put an effective end to the Second Republic. Park was one of a group of military leaders who had been pushing for the de-politicization of the military. Dissatisfied with the cleanup measures undertaken by the Second Republic and convinced that the current disoriented state would collapse into communism, they chose to take matters into their own hands.
The National Assembly was dissolved and military officers replaced the civilian officials. In May 1961, the junta declared “Pledges of the Revolution”: anticommunism was to be the nation’s main policy; friendly relations would be strengthened with allies of the free world, notably the United States; all corruption and government misdeed would be disposed and “fresh and clean morality” would be introduced; the reconstruction of a self-reliant economy would be priority; the nation’s ability would be nurtured to fight against communism and achieve reunification; and that government would be returned to a democratic civilian government within two years.
As a means to check the opposition, the military authority created the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) in June 1961, with Kim Jong-pil, a relative of Park, as its first director. In December 1962, a referendum was held on returning to a presidential system of rule, which was allegedly passed with a 78% majority. Park and the other military leaders pledged not to run for office in the next elections. However, Park became presidential candidate of the new Democratic Republican Party (DRP), which consisted of mainly KCIA officials, ran for president and won the election of 1963 by a narrow margin.
Park’s administration started the Third Republic by announcing the Five Year Economic development Plan, an export-oriented industrialization policy. Top priority was placed on the growth of a self-reliant economy and modernization; “Development First, Unification Later” became the slogan of the times and the economy grew rapidly with vast improvement in industrial structure, especially in the basic and heavy chemical industries. Capital was needed for such development, so the Park regime used the influx of foreign aid from Japan and the United States to provide loans to export businesses, with preferential treatment in obtaining low-interest bank loans and tax benefits. Cooperating with the government, these businesses would later become the chaebol.
Relations with Japan were normalized by the Korea-Japan treaty ratified in June 1965. This treaty brought Japanese funds in the form of loans and compensation for the damages suffered during the colonial era without an official apology from the Japanese government, sparking much protest across the nation.
The government also kept close ties with the United States, and continued to receive large amounts of aid. A status of forces agreement was concluded in 1966, clarifying the legal situation of the U.S. forces stationed there. Soon thereafter, Korea joined the Vietnam War, eventually sending a total of 300,000 soldiers from 1964 to 1973 to fight alongside U.S. troops and South Vietnamese Armed Forces.
Economic and technological growth during this period improved the standard for living, which expanded opportunities for education. Workers with higher education were absorbed by the rapidly growing industrial and commercial sectors, and urban population surged. Construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway was completed and linked Seoul to the nation’s southeastern region and the port cities of Incheon and Busan. Despite the immense economic growth, however, the standard of living for city laborers and farmers was still low. Laborers were working with low wages to increase the price competitiveness for the export-oriented economy plan, and farmers were in near poverty as the government controlled prices. As the rural economy steadily lost ground and caused dissent among the farmers, however, the government decided to implement measures to increase farm productivity and income by instituting the Saemauel Movement (“New Village Movement”) in 1971. The movement’s goal was to improve the quality of rural life, modernize both rural and urban societies and narrow the income gap between them.
Park ran again in the election of 1967, taking 51.4% of the vote. At the time the presidency was constitutionally limited to two terms, but a constitutional amendment was forced through the National Assembly in 1969 to allow him to seek a third term. Major protests and demonstrations against the constitutional amendment broke out, with large support gaining for the opposition leader Kim Dae-jung, but Park was again re-elected in the 1971 presidential election.
Parliamentary elections followed shortly after the presidential election where the opposition party garnered most of the seats, giving them the power to pass constitutional amendments. Park, feeling threatened, declared a state of national emergency on December 6, 1971. In the midst of this domestic insecurity, the Nixon Doctrine had eased tensions among the world superpowers on the international scene, which caused a dilemma for Park, who had justified his regime based on the state policy of anti-communism. In a sudden gesture, the government proclaimed a joint communiqué for reunification with North Korea on July 4, 1972, and held Red Cross talks in Seoul and Pyongyang. However, there was no change in government policy regarding reunification, and on October 17, 1972, Park declared martial law, dissolving the National Assembly and suspending the constitution.
The Fourth Republic began with the adoption of the Yushin Constitution on November 21, 1972. This new constitution gave Park effective control over the parliament and the possibility of permanent presidency. The president would be elected through indirect election by an elected body, and the term of presidency was extended to six years with no restrictions on reappointment. The legislature and judiciary were controlled by the government, and educational guidelines were under direct surveillance as well. Textbooks supporting the ideology of the military government were authorized by the government, diminishing the responsibilities of the Ministry of Education.
Despite social and political unrest, the economy continued to flourish under the authoritarian rule with the export-based industrialization policy. The first two five-year economic development plans were successful, and the 3rd and 4th five-year plans focused on expanding the heavy and chemical industries, raising the capability for steel production and oil refining. However, large conglomerate chaebols continuously received preferential treatment and came to dominate the domestic market. As most of the development had come from foreign capital, most of the profit went back to repaying the loans and interest.
Students and activists for democracy continued their demonstrations and protests for the abolition of the Yushin system and in the face of continuing popular unrest, Park’s administration promulgated emergency decrees in 1974 and 1975, which led to the jailing of hundreds of dissidents. The protests grew larger and stronger, with politicians, intellectuals, religious leaders, laborers and farmers all joining in the movement for democracy. In 1978, Park was elected to another term by indirect election, which was met with more demonstrations and protests. The government retaliated by removing the opposition leader Kim Young-sam from the assembly and suppressing the activists with violent means. In 1979, mass anti-government demonstrations occurred nationwide, in the midst of this political turmoil, Park Chung-hee was assassinated by the director of the KCIA, Kim Jae-gyu, thus bringing the 18-year rule of military regime to an end.
After the assassination of Park Chung-hee, prime minister Choi Kyu-hah took the president’s role only to be usurped 6 days later by Major General Chun Doo-hwan’s 1979 Coup d’état of December Twelfth. In May of the following year, a vocal civil society composed primarily of university students and labor unions led strong protests against authoritarian rule all over the country. Chun Doo-hwan declared martial law on May 17, 1980, and protests escalated. Political opponents Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil were arrested, and Kim Young-sam was confined to house arrest.
On May 18, 1980, a confrontation broke out in the city of Gwangju between protesting students of Chonnam National University and the armed forces dispatched by the Martial Law Command. The incident turned into a citywide protest that lasted nine days until May 27 and resulted in the Gwangju massacre. Immediate estimates of the civilian death toll ranged from a few dozen to 2000, with a later full investigation by the civilian government finding nearly 200 deaths and 850 injured. In June 1980, Chun ordered the National Assembly to be dissolved. He subsequently created the National Defense Emergency Policy Committee, and installed himself as a member. On July 17, he resigned his position of KCIA Director, and then held only the position of committee member. In September 1980, President Choi Kyu-ha was forced to resign from president to give way to the new military leader, Chun.
In September of that year, Chun was elected president by indirect election and inaugurated in March of the following year, officially starting the Fifth Republic. A new Constitution was established with notable changes; maintaining the presidential system but limiting it to a single seven-year term, strengthening the authority of the National Assembly, and conferring the responsibilities of appointing judiciary to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. However, the system of indirect election of the president stayed and many military persons were appointed to highly ranked government positions, keeping the remnants of the Yushin era.
The government promised a new era of economic growth and democratic justice. Tight monetary laws and low interest rates contributed to price stability and helped the economy boom with notable growth in the electronics, semi-conductor, and automobile industries. The country opened up to foreign investments and GDP rose as Korean exports increased. This rapid economic growth, however, widened the gap between the rich and the poor, the urban and rural regions, and also exacerbated inter-regional conflicts. These dissensions, added to the hard-line measures taken against opposition to the government, fed intense rural and student movements, which had continued since the beginning of the republic.
In foreign policy, ties with Japan were strengthened by state visits by Chun to Japan and Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro to Korea. U.S. President Ronald Reagan also paid a visit, and relations with the Soviet Union and China improved. The relationship with North Korea was strained when in 1983 a terrorist bomb attack in Burma killed 17 high-ranking officials attending memorial ceremonies and North Korea was alleged to be behind the attacks. However, in 1980 North Korea had submitted a “one nation, two system” reunification proposal which was met with a suggestion from the South to meet and prepare a unification constitution and government through a referendum. The humanitarian issue of reuniting separated families was dealt with first, and in September 1985, families from both sides of the border made cross visits to Seoul and Pyongyang in an historic event.
The government made many efforts for cultural development: the National Museum of Korea, Seoul Arts Center, and National Museum of Contemporary Art were all constructed during this time. The 1986 Asian Games were held successfully, and the bid for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul was successful as well.
Despite economic growth and success in diplomatic relations, the government that gained power by coup d’etat was essentially a military regime and the public’s support and trust in it was low when the promises for democratic reform never materialized. In the 1985 National Assembly elections, opposition parties won more votes than the government party, clearly indicating that the public wanted a change. Many started to sympathize with the protesting students. The Gwangju Massacre was never forgotten and in January 1987, when a protesting Seoul National University student died under police interrogation, public fury was immense. In April 1987, President Chun made a declaration that measures would be taken to protect the current constitution, instead of reforming it to allow for the direct election of the president. This announcement consolidated and strengthened the opposition; in June 1987, more than a million students and citizens participated in the nationwide anti-government protests of the June Democracy Movement.
On June 29, 1987, the government’s presidential nominee Roh Tae-woo gave in to the demands and announced the June 29 Declaration, which called for the holding of direct presidential elections and restoration of civil rights. In October 1987, a revised Constitution was approved by a national referendum and direct elections for a new president were held in December, bringing the Fifth Republic to a close.
The Sixth Republic was established in 1987 and remains the current republic of South Korea.
Roh Tae-woo became president for the 13th presidential term in the first direct presidential election in 16 years. Although Roh was from a military background and one of the leaders of Chun’s coup d’etat, the inability of the opposition leaders Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam to agree on a unified candidacy, led to his being elected. The first female presidential candidate, Hong Sook-ja, even withdrew from the race in order to back Kim Young Sam against Roh.
Roh was officially inaugurated in February 1988. The government set out to eliminate past vestiges of authoritarian rule, by revising laws and decrees to fit democratic provisions. Freedom of the press was expanded, university autonomy recognized, and restrictions on overseas travels were lifted. However, the growth of the economy had slowed down compared to the 1980s, with strong labor unions and higher wages reducing the competitiveness of Korean products on the international market, resulting in stagnant exports, while commodity prices kept on rising.
Shortly after Roh’s inauguration, the Seoul Olympics took place, raising South Korea’s international recognition and also greatly influencing foreign policy. Roh’s government announced the official unification plan, Nordpolitik, and established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, China, and countries in East Europe.
An historic event was held in 1990 when North Korea accepted the proposal for exchange between the two Koreas, resulting in high-level talks, and cultural and sports exchanges. In 1991, a joint communiqué on denuclearization was agreed upon, and the two Koreas simultaneously became members of the United Nations.
Kim Young-sam was elected president in the 1992 elections after Roh’s tenure. He was the country’s first civilian president in 30 years and promised to build a “New Korea”. The government set out to correct the mistakes of the previous administrations. Local government elections were held in 1995, and parliamentary elections in 1996. In a response to popular demand, former presidents Chun and Roh were both indicted on charges linked to bribery, illegal funds, and in the case of Chun, responsibility for the incident in Gwangju. They were tried and sentenced to prison in December, 1996.
Relations with the North improved and a summit meeting was planned, but postponed indefinitely with the death of Kim Il-sung. Tensions varied between the two Koreas thereafter, with cycles of small military skirmishes and apologies. The government also carried out substantial financial and economical reforms, joining the OECD in 1996, but encountered difficulties with political and financial scandals. The country also faced a variety of catastrophes: a train collision and a ship sinking in 1993, and the Seongsu Bridge and Sampoong Department Store collapses in 1994 and 1995. These incidents, which claimed many lives, were a blow to the civilian government.
In 1997, the nation suffered a severe financial crisis, and the government approached the International Monetary Fund for relief funds. This was the limit to what the nation could bear and led to the opposition leader Kim Dae-jung winning the presidency in the same year. This is the first time an opposition candidate won the presidency.
In February 1998, Kim Dae-jung was officially inaugurated. South Korea had maintained its commitment to democratize its political processes and this was the first transfer of the government between parties by peaceful means. Kim’s government faced the daunting task of overcoming the economic crisis, but with the joint efforts of the government’s aggressive pursuit of foreign investment, cooperation from the industrial sector, and the citizen’s gold-collecting campaign, the country was able to come out of the crisis in a relatively short period of time.
Industrial reconstruction of the big conglomerate chaebols was pursued, a national pension system was established in 1998, educational reforms were carried out, government support for the IT field was increased, and notable cultural properties were registered as UNESCO Cultural Heritage sites. The 2002 FIFA World Cup, co-hosted with Japan, was a major cultural event where millions of supporters gathered to cheer in public places.
In diplomacy, Kim Dae-jung pursued the “Sunshine Policy”, a series of efforts to reconcile with North Korea. This culminated in reunions of the separated families of the Korean War and a summit talk with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. For these efforts, Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. However, between a lack of peaceful cooperation from North Korea and the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, changing the view of the U.S. on North Korea, the efficacy of the Sunshine Policy was brought into question. With added allegations of corruption, support waned in the later years of the administration.
Roh Moo-hyun was elected to the presidency in December 2002 by direct election. His victory came with much support from the younger generation and civic groups who had hopes of a participatory democracy, and Roh’s administration consequently launched with the motto of “participation government”. Unlike the previous governments, the administration decided to take a long-term view and execute market-based reforms at a gradual pace. This approach did not please the public, however, and by the end of 2003, approval ratings were falling.
The Roh administration succeeded in overcoming regionalism in South Korean politics, diluting the collusive ties between politics and business, empowering the civil society, settling the Korea-United States FTA issue, continuing summit talks with North Korea, and launching the high-speed train system, KTX. But despite a boom in the stock market, youth unemployment rates were high, real estate prices skyrocketed and the economy lagged.
In March 2004, the National Assembly voted to impeach Roh on charges of breach of election laws and corruption. This motion rallied his supporters and affected the outcome of the parliamentary election held in April, with the ruling party becoming the majority. Roh was reinstated in May by the Constitutional Court, who had overturned the verdict. However, the ruling party then lost its majority in by-elections in 2005, as discontinued reform plans, continual labor unrest, Roh’s personal feuds with the media, and diplomatic friction with the United States and Japan caused criticism of the government’s competence on political and socioeconomic issues and on foreign affairs.
In April 2009, Roh Moo-hyun and his family members were investigated for bribery and corruption; Roh denied the charges. On May 23, 2009, Roh committed suicide by jumping into a ravine.
Roh’s successor, Lee Myung-bak, was inaugurated in February 2008. Stating “creative pragmatism” as a guiding principle, Lee’s administration set out to revitalize the flagging economy, re-energize diplomatic ties, stabilize social welfare, and meet the challenges of globalization. In April 2008, the ruling party secured a majority in the National Assembly elections. Also that month, summit talks with the United States addressed the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and helped ease tensions between the two countries caused by the previous administrations. Lee agreed to lift the ban on U.S. beef imports, which caused massive protests and demonstrations in the months that followed, as paranoia of potential mad cow disease gripped the country.
Many issues plagued the government in the beginning of the administration: controversies regarding the appointment of high-ranking government officials, rampant political conflicts, accusations of oppression of media and strained diplomatic relationships with North Korea and Japan. The economy was affected by the global recession as the worst economic crisis since 1997 hit the country. The Lee administration tackled these issues by actively issuing statements, reshuffling the cabinet, and implementing administrative and industrial reforms.
After regulatory and economic reforms, the economy bounced back, with the country’s economy marking growth and apparently recovering from the global recession. The administration also pursued improved diplomatic relations by holding summit talks with the United States, China and Japan, and participating in the ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit to strengthen ties with other Asian countries. The 2010 G20 summit was held in Seoul, where issues regarding the global economic crisis were discussed.
Park Geun-hye was inaugurated in February 2013. She was the eleventh and most recent President of South Korea. She was the first woman to be elected as the South Korean president, but was unable to successfully serve the 18th presidential term due to a scandal which led to impeachment in December 2016. She was the first woman to be elected as a head of state in the modern history of Northeast Asia. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn acted as President of South Korea pending completion of investigations into the actions of Park Geun-hye, and in the absence of any intervening election. The impeachment was upheld by the Constitutional Court on March 10, 2017, ending Park’s presidency and forcing her out of office.
Scott #1258 was released in 1981, a 70-won photogravure stamp portraying Cheomseongdae (첨성대), an astronomical observatory in Gyeongju, South Korea — the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in Asia, and possibly even the world. It was constructed in the seventh century in the kingdom of Silla, whose capital was Seorabeol, or present-day Gyeongju. Cheomseongdae was designated as the country’s 31st national treasure on December 20, 1962. Modeled on Baekje’s Jeomseongdae, which now exists only in historical records, the Cheomseongdae influenced the construction of a Japanese observatory in 675, and Duke Zhou’s observatory in China in 723.
According to Samguk Yusa, Cheomseongdae was constructed under the reign of Queen Seondeok (632-647) near the capital of the kingdom. Cheomseongdae means “star gazing platform”. in Korean. The tower is built out of 362 pieces of cut granite which some claim represent the 362 days of the lunar year. It has 27 circular layers of stones (some associate it with the fact that Queen Seondeok was considered to be the 27th ruler of Silla or the constellation of stars) surmounted by a square structure. Twelve of the layers are below the window level and 12 are above. There are 12 large base stones set in a square, with three stones on each side. These sets of 12 may symbolize the months of the year. The tower is 5.7 meters wide at the base and 9.4 meters tall, and filled with earth up to the level of the window. Its construction style parallels that used at the Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju.