Country profile: South Korea
Country profile: South Korea
Since Korea’s division, the South has developed into one of Asia’s most affluent countries. The North has slipped into totalitarianism and poverty.
The Republic of Korea was proclaimed in August 1948 and received UN-backed support from the US after it was invaded by the North two years later.
The Korean War ended in 1953 without a peace agreement leaving South Korea technically at war for more than fifty years.
The following four decades were marked by authoritarian rule. Government-sponsored schemes encouraged the growth of family-owned industrial conglomerates, known as “chaebol”. Foremost among them were the Hyundai and Samsung groups.
They helped transform South Korea into one of the world’s major economies and a leading exporter of cars and electronic goods.
A multi-party political system was restored in 1987, and President Roh Tae-Woo launched an anti-corruption campaign against both his own party and his political predecessor.
Relations with its northern neighbour remain a major concern in Seoul, particularly over the North’s fragile economy and its nuclear ambitions. South Korea has resisted international calls for sanctions against the North and since the late 1990s it has pursued a “sunshine” policy of engagement.
This has involved aid – including shipments of fertiliser and rice – reunions between North and South Koreans, tourist projects and economic cooperation. South Korean companies employ thousands of North Korean workers at the Kaesong industrial complex, near the border.
The demilitarised zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea is the world’s most heavily-fortified frontier. But the US, which maintains tens of thousands of soldiers in South Korea, is pulling its forces away from the front line and plans to reduce troop numbers.
President: Lee Myung-bak
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took up office in February 2008, after having scored a record victory margin in December’s presidential election with his “Economy, First!” pledge.
Previously the CEO of Hyundai Construction and a former mayor of Seoul, Mr Lee is nicknamed “The Bulldozer” for his forcefulness. He has promised to boost growth, cut high youth unemployment and raise competitiveness in the face of challenges from China and Japan.
His Grand National Party won control of parliament in elections in April 2008, which observers predicted would allow him to push through his economic reforms. However, his approval ratings plummeted after he agreed to resume US beef imports in order to secure a free trade deal.
He was forced to apologise for failing to heed public concerns, and the domestic crisis sparked by the row over US beef imports is thought to have reduced his chances of implementing other promised reforms.
Mr Lee is the country’s first president with a business background. He entered politics in 1992 and became mayor of Seoul in 2002.
Lee expressed willingness to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il whenever necessary and has said his attitude to inter-Korean relations “will be pragmatic, not ideological”. He indicated he would will take a tougher line with Pyongyang than his predecessor.
Television is influential and the major terrestrial networks command the lion’s share of viewing and advertising. Many South Koreans subscribe to digital cable and satellite TV services.
Newspaper readership is high and there are more than 100 national and local dailies. The press is often critical of the government. Many newspapers are controlled by industrial conglomerates.
Since 2000, and Kim Dae-jung’s summit in North Korea, the media have adopted a warmer tone towards the North. But there have been cases of South Korean journalists being intimidated for giving favourable coverage to North Korea’s communist leadership.
South Korea is at the leading edge of the digital revolution. It is a trailblazer for high-speed and wireless internet services and has pioneered the distribution of TV via mobile devices. Online gaming is a national passion.