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Korea Flag


Full Country Name: The Republic of Korea
Country Profile: South Korea


Korea Map


yoga pants Area: 99,222 sq km (45% of the peninsula)
Population: 48.3 million (2002 estimate)
Capital City: Seoul (population: 10m)
People: Korean with a small Chinese minority
Language(s): Korean
Religion(s): Wide range of religion from Shamanism, the oldest, to Buddhism, Confucianism, Chondogyo, Catholicism, and Protestantism.
Currency: South Korean Won
Major political parties: Uri Party; Grand National Party (GNP); Democratic Labour Party (DLP); Millennium Democratic Party (MDP).
Government: Presidential system backed by unicameral National Assembly of 299 members elected for 4 years.
President: Roh Moo-hyun (elected December 2002).
Prime Minister: Lee Hai-Chan
Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister: Ban Ki-moon
Membership of international groupings/organisations: African Development Bank (AFDB), Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC), Asian Development Bank (ADB), Colombo Plan, Co-ordinating Committee on Export Controls, Customs Co-operation Council, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Group of 77 at the United Nations (G77), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAO), Interpol, International Finance Corporation (IFC), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Maritime Organisation (IMO), International Mobile Satellite Organisation, International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Organisation for Migration (IOM), International Standards for Organisation, International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), International Whaling Commission, International Wheat Council, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Organisation of American States and the Community of Andean Nations (OAS), Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), United Nations (UN), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), Universal Postal Union (UPU), World Health Organisation (WHO)World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), World Trade Organisation (WTO).


The Republic of Korea (ROK) forms the southern half of the Korean peninsula, that lies between China and Japan, and so is often referred to as South Korea. Its capital city, Seoul, is in the west. The ROK has a land area about the same size as Wales and Scotland combined. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), that separates the ROK from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the north, is a 250-mile long strip of land, running from the east coast to the west, close to the 38th parallel.

Mountains or upland account for 70% of the ROK (compared to 80% in the DPRK). The ROK has relatively few natural resources but, having more cultivable land, warmer weather and more rain than the DPRK, its agricultural sector is relatively productive.


Korea is an ancient civilisation. It developed from walled-town states and larger kingdoms and became united in the 7th century. After being 'opened' by Japan in 1876, China, Japan and Russia competed for influence until Japan annexed the country in 1910. The end of the Pacific War freed Korea from 35 years of Japanese rule but the country was left divided along the 38th Parallel at the start of the Cold War. The Republic of Korea (ROK) was founded in the south on 15 August 1948 and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north on 9 September the same year.

On 25 June 1950 the DPRK invaded the ROK and over-ran most of the country. A United Nations' Command (UNC) was established under UN Security Council resolutions to assist the ROK. After the successful defence of a 'perimeter' near the south-east city of Pusan and US landings near Seoul in September, UN and ROK forces beat DPRK forces back north, almost to the Chinese border. Chinese forces entered the war in November 1950 and the battle line was again pushed south of Seoul before UN and ROK forces held and then pushed Chinese and DPRK forces back to near the 38th Parallel. The war devastated the peninsula. Seoul changed hands four times and was reduced to rubble and, because of its air supremacy, the UNC was able to destroy almost every building of importance in the north. Over one million died on each side. DPRK losses were the greater. An armistice was signed between the DPRK/China and UNC on 27 July 1953. The ROK refused to sign but agreed to abide by its terms.

With the Korean War having been so bitterly fought, tension between DPRK and ROK remained high even after 1953. There were numerous armed clashes but the national dream of Korean reunification remained. In 1960, Kim Il Sung proposed pursuing reunification through confederation between equals, similar to China's 'one country, two systems', and, with minor refinements, this policy remains in place. In the early 1970s, the Koreas opened a Red Cross dialogue followed by political talks that produced the Joint Communiqué of July 1972 in which South and North Korea agreed to work for peaceful reunification.


The ROK operates under a presidential system although, with several constitutional amendments, there has been a gradual shift of power away from the President to the National Assembly. The President, and Head of State, is elected by popular vote for a single non-renewable five-year term. He appoints a Prime Minister who advises him on the appointment of Deputy Prime Ministers. The current President, Roh Moo-hyun, was elected in December 2002. The President performs his executive function through the State Council, a consultative body with no decision-making power, with 15 to 30 members.

The Legislative branch consists of a unicameral National Assembly of 299 seats for which elections are held every four years. After the last National Assembly elections in April 2004, the Uri Party was the largest party with 152 seats, followed by the Grand National Party (GNP) with 121 seats. The Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), formerly the second largest in the Assembly, now has only nine seats. President Roh left the MDP in late 2003, and joined the pro-government Uri Party, formed by his followers, on 20 May 2004.


The President is elected by popular vote for a single five-year term; last election held 19 December 2002. The Prime Minister is appointed by the President; deputy Prime Ministers are appointed by the President on the Prime Minister's recommendation. The appointment of Prime Minister must be endorsed by the National Assembly. The current Prime Minster, Lee Hai-Chan was appointed on 29 June 2004 after the resignation of Goh Kun in May 2004.


The South Korean National Assembly passed a motion to impeach President Roh on 12 March 2004. The motion was tabled by the main opposition parties in response to an alleged breach of electoral law, which requires public officials to remain politically neutral. The President was suspended from exercising his powers until the impeachment was adjudicated by the Constitutional Court. On 14 May 2004 the court rejected the impeachment and Roh was immediately reinstated. The judgement said that although the President had violated the law, his remarks did not constitute illegal election campaigning and were not adequate grounds for impeachment.


Basic Economic Facts

GDP: US$ 605bn (2003)
GDP per head: US $12,600 (2004)
Real GDP Growth: 5.5% (2004)
Inflation: 2.5 - 3.5% (2004)
Major Industries: steel, automobiles, shipbuilding, electronics, textiles, clothing and leather goods, chemicals
Major trading partners: US, Japan and China, UK (= 37% of Korean investment in the EU)
Aid & development: The IMF provided an emergency assistance package in late 1997 but this has been completely repaid.
Exchange rate: £1 = 2,2062 KRW (South Korean Won) (October 2004)

The ROK was one of the Asian 'miracle' economies. With its economy based on agriculture, the ROK was probably the poorer of the two Koreas until the start of the 1970s. But, from the start of the first economic development plans in 1962, the ROK was able to maintain growth at an average of 8% for three decades. With this rapid growth, the ROK was the world's eleventh largest economy by 1997.

But problems in the economy started to surface in January 1997 with the collapse of Hanbo Steel, the flagship company of one of Korea's largest chaebol (conglomerates). The effects of the Asian financial crisis were felt towards the end of the year with falls in the value of stocks and the won accelerating. The situation deteriorated so far that the Bank of Korea had to abandon its efforts to support the won and the government was reluctantly forced in December 1997 to appeal to the IMF for a $57bn rescue package.

In 1997, the newly elected President, Kim Dae-jung, committed the ROK to the conditions imposed by the IMF. In 1998, the economy had contracted severely: with per capita GDP in 1998 falling to just $6,200 (lower than in 1991) and unemployment hitting 8% in the 'IMF recession'. But, because of the government's policy commitment, the ROK stock market was the world's best performer in dollar terms in 1998 and, by 2000, real growth was back to just over 8%. The economy slowed through most of 2001 due in part to external factors and to fears that the Government's commitment to economic reform was waning. But the economy turned up in the last quarter and GDP grew by 3% in 2001. Despite the political situation on the Korean peninsula and the outbreak of SARS in the region, 2003 saw sustained growth of 3% and analysts forecast broader and stronger growth in 2004. The Korean Development Institute estimates that 5.2% average growth will be possible until 2011 if the ROK continues with economic reforms.

Korea is now placed 11th in world GDP.


As a result of the Korean War, the ROK had strong links with Western countries and competes with the DPRK for formal links with non-aligned states. However, from around the time of the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the ROK also pursued formal links with the Communist bloc under President Roh Tae-woo's 'Northern Policy'. By the early 1990s, it had established diplomatic relations with most of the members of the former Communist bloc and had even developed thriving commercial relations with China, the DPRK's closest ally. As the ROK's economy grew, it became more active in multilateral fora: joining the UN in 1991 and OECD in 1997, and hosting the third Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in October 2000.

ROK/DPRK relations

Relations between South Korea and the DPRK have remained tense since 1953, although in recent years there has been something of a thaw. Since the Seoul Olympics of 1988, both sides have pursued dialogue, with the eventual aim of re-unification. However, progress has been slow, and was affected by the death of Kim Il Sung on 8 July 1994. Four party talks proposed by US President Clinton occurred in 1997 (with the US and China) but had little success beyond getting all sides to the negotiating table.

After his inauguration in 1998, ROK President Kim Dae-jung decided to pursue dialogue and co-operation with the DPPK under his 'Sunshine Policy'. This aimed to reduce tension on the peninsula and encourage inter-Korean co-operation. This led to a Summit in Pyongyang between both leaders on June 12-14 2000. This concluded with a Joint Declaration of 15 June, in which the two sides agreed five common goals: to work independently for national unification; to recognise the common elements in the two sides' proposals for federation-confederation; to co-operate to promote a balanced national economy; to promote exchanges and co-operation; and to work towards the settlement of some humanitarian issues by 15 August 2000. Post-Summit, numerous meetings and Ministerial-level talks resulted in rapid growth in all forms of co-operation, especially the re-connection of North-South rail links.

Progress in the inter-Korean dialogue slowed after the US presidential elections in 2000, with North Korea questioning the Bush Administration’s cautious approach. President Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech in January 2002 provoked further DPRK response, and the DPRK withdrew from relations with South Korea shortly thereafter. These were fairly rapidly resumed. Relations began to improve following a call upon Kim Jong Il in 2002 by South Korean Senior Presidential Envoy, Lim Dong-won. This resulted in a joint press statement which said that 'both parties agreed to make concerted efforts to restore inter-Korean reconciliation' and set out a new timetable for the process.

On 29 June 2002 a naval skirmish occurred between the two parties, which resulted in South Korea losing a naval vessel and casualties on both sides. A subsequent investigation by the UN Military Armistice Commission considered North Korea to have provoked the incident. On 25 July, the DPRK expressed regret for the incident. This significantly improved relations between the Koreas. The two sides held a further ministerial meeting on 12-14 August 2002 in Seoul, and during further talks in September, agreements on practical co-operation, including broader road and rail links, were announced. Throughout this period, there appeared to be a significant reduction of tension on the Korean Peninsula.

However, these improving relations suffered a major setback when the DPRK, in October 2002, admitted to the visiting US Assistant Secretary James Kelly that it had been pursuing a covert nuclear weapons programme.

On 12 February 2003, the IAEA found the DPRK in breach of nuclear safeguards agreements and adopted a second resolution, referring the matter to the UN Security Council. Later that month, South Korea and the US announced their plans to hold their annual joint military exercises in March, to which North Korea responded with aggressive rhetoric. On 24 February and again on 10 March, North Korea fired shore-to-ship missiles into the sea between South Korea and Japan. But they were not ballistic missiles and the international reaction was low-key.

Following his inauguration on 25 February 2003, the new South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun made public announcements about his policy towards North Korea. Similar to the previous administration's 'Sunshine Policy', the focus would be on peace and prosperity for the Korean Peninsula and the East Asian region. In a joint declaration following the US/ROK summit in May, President Roh stated that future inter-Korean exchanges and co-operation would be conducted in light of developments on the DPRK nuclear issue. The North Koreans responded by calling into question South Korea’s commitment to the 15th June declaration between the two countries. Later in May, economic talks temporarily broke down for this reason, and the North stated that, 'immeasurable negative consequences' would befall the South if they persisted in raising the nuclear issue.

South Korea did not participate in trilateral talks held in April 2003 between the US, China and North Korea in Beijing, to discuss the nuclear issue. However they participated in a round of six-party talks (also including North Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the US) in August 2003. Six-Party talks reconvened in 2004, with talks in February and June The talks scheduled for September did not take place due to the North’s reluctance to take part, citing US hostile policies as the cause. In January 2005, newly appointed US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labelled North Korea an ‘outpost of tyranny’ alongside Iran, Cuba, Burma, Belarus and Zimbabwe during her confirmation hearing. These remarks were considered by the DPRK to be inflammatory, and were likened to Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ comment three years earlier. On 10 February 2005, the DPRK announced that it was suspending its participation in the talks indefinitely. The statement also repeated the DPRK’s assertion to have built nuclear weapons for self-defence. It is hoped that the talks will resume soon. (See DPRK Country Profile for further information.)

ROK's relations with the USA

Since the Korean War, the ROK's most important relationship has been with the United States. As well as defending it militarily, the USA was the major provider of economic assistance to the ROK and was the ROK's largest trading partner. South Korean forces fought alongside US forces during the Vietnam War. Although the US was originally the dominant partner in the relationship, as the Korean economy grew the relationship became much more balanced. Due to perceived US dominance and Korean national pride, there are sometimes signs of friction that have, at times, been exploited by more radical elements. But relations remain warm. There is often close policy co-ordination, especially on DPRK policies, and the ROK has actively supported the US war against terrorism.

During the 2002 Presidential election campaign, however, a wave of anti-Americanism swept through South Korea. Many people called for a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which regulates the legal status of US forces stationed in Korea. This was mainly in reaction to the accidental death of two South Korean schoolgirls, killed by a US army vehicle in June 2002, and contributed in part to the success of Roh Moo-hyun in the Presidential election. However, since his appointment, President Roh has stressed the importance and strength of the RoK/US relationship, and South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan visited the US in March 2003. Subsequently, President Roh met President Bush in the US in May, and a joint statement emphasising the strength of the UK/RoK relationship was released.

In June 2004, the US declared its intention by end-2005 to reduce by one third its 37,000 troops stationed in the ROK. The location of the remaining US forces would also be moved south (further from the DPRK border). Nonetheless, the ROK maintains a strong alliance with the USA. The RoK currently has 3,600 non-combat troops stationed in Irbil, making it the third largest contributor to the multi-national force in Iraq after the US and the UK. The Korean National Assembly recently voted to extend the deployment of its troops in Iraq until the end of 2005.

ROK's relations with Russia/China/Japan

After the Seoul Olympics, the ROK and USSR established trade offices in each other's capitals and then established full diplomatic relations in September 1990. With the ROK's lack of resources and the undeveloped Soviet Far East, the two economies seem complementary but, after an accumulation of trade debts by the Soviet/Russian side, relations have only developed slowly. Commercial relations with China developed at a relatively early stage mainly because of easier communications but also because over 2 million ethnic Koreans are living there. Although it was the DPRK's closest ally, China established diplomatic relations with the ROK in August 1992 and commercial links between the two countries have continued to thrive. Despite the normalisation of relations in 1965, links with Japan have remained strained because of memories of the colonial period and, until 1998, there were formal restrictions on Japanese exports to the ROK. After a visit to Tokyo by President Kim Dae-jung in October 1998, these restrictions were being steadily lifted but, after what the ROK saw as a resurgence of Japanese nationalism in mid-2001, relations cooled again and ROK civic groups started to boycott links with Japan. The South Korean public has protested against, and called for a halt to, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates the Japanese who died during the Second World War, including some class A war criminals. There are also ongoing sovereignty disputes with Japan over the Tokto islands. However, the two countries worked together to ensure the success of the World Cup, which took place in June 2002, and have demonstrated willingness to work together to resolve the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. President Roh Moo-hyun visited Japan in June 2003. 2005 is the Korea-Japan Friendship Year.

ROK's relations with the UK

The UK recognised the ROK when it was founded in 1948 and was quick to support UN actions on the peninsula during the Korean War. The UK also played a full part in the ROK's reconstruction and British know-how helped in the development of the shipbuilding and automotive industries. The UK and ROK have had full diplomatic relations since 1957. The strength of the relationship is reflected in the number of high-level visits in recent years. Kim Dae-jung's first overseas visit as President was to London in April 1998 to attend the ASEM II Summit, and he visited again in 2001. HM The Queen made a State Visit to the ROK in April 1999 and the Duke of York visited in 2001 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the UK involvement in the Korean War.

The Prime Minister visited Seoul in July 2003, as part of a tour of the Far East. His visit was the first by a major Western leader since the inauguration of President Roh Moo-hyun in February 2003. The two leaders held extensive talks on a range of issues.

Other recent Ministerial visits included, in 2003, Baroness Scotland (Lord Chancellor's Department) and Dr Lewis Moonie (Minister, MoD). FCO Minister Bill Rammell visited to attend President Roh Moo-hyun's inauguration ceremony in February.

President Roh Moo-hyun and the First Lady visited the UK in December 2004 at the invitation of HM The Queen. This was the first State Visit to the UK by a Korean President. President Roh’s programme included substantive talks with the Prime Minister, a High Technology Forum, and banquets at Buckingham Palace and Guildhall. The visit was considered to be a great success.

There are strong commercial links between the two countries. Although the financial crisis hit British exports to Korea hard and much ROK investment in the UK was put on hold, it led to an increase in British investment in the ROK. (See trade and investment links with the UK, below.)

Cultural and education links with the UK are also thriving. In 2002 the number of Korean students studying in the UK was over 16,000. The British Council has been established in Seoul since 1973, and now receives over 700 visitors a day, with unprecedented interest in their services.

Diplomatic Representation

The British Ambassador to the ROK is Mr Warwick Morris (since November 2003). Dr Cho Yoon-je arrived in London in February 2005 to take over from Mr Lee Tae-sik as ROK Ambassador to the UK.


Recent reports state that the ROK government generally respects the human rights of its citizens. However, problems remain in some areas. The overall situation has much improved since ROK moved away from authoritarian rule in the 1980s. There continue to be improvements, not least under the leadership of President Kim Dae-jung, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his work to promote democracy and human rights in East Asia. In 2001 the Korean National Assembly passed a new human rights act, creating a Human Rights Commission, independent of the judiciary, which is able to look at individual claims of human rights infringements.

Last reviewed – 15 April 2005


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