Korean Choson, Jap. Chosen or Tyosen, historic region (85,049 sq mi/220,277 sq km), E. Asia. A peninsula, 600 mi (966 km) long, Korea separates the Yellow Sea (and Korea Bay, a northern arm of the Yellow Sea) on the west from the East Sea (previously the Sea of Japan on the east). On the south it is bounded by Korea Strait (connecting the Yellow Sea and the East Sea) and on the north its land boundaries with China (c.500 mi/800 km) and with Russia (only c.11 mi/18 km) are marked chiefly by the great Yalu and Tumen rivers. Seoul was the traditional capital.

Land and People

The Korean peninsula is largely mountainous; the principal series of ranges, extending along the east coast, rises (in the northeast) to 9,003 ft (2,744 m) at Mt. Paektu, the highest peak in Korea. Most rivers are relatively short and many are unnavigable, filled with rapids and waterfalls; important rivers, in addition to the Yalu and Tumen, are the Han, the Kum, the Taedong, the Naktong, and the Somjin. Off the heavily indented coast (c.5,400 mi/8,690 km long) lie some 3,420 islands, most of them rocky and uninhabited (of the inhabited islands, about half have a population of less than 100); the main island group is in the Korean Archipelago in the Yellow Sea. The climate of Korea ranges from dry and extremely cold winters in the north to almost tropical conditions in parts of the south.

Many Koreans are Confucianists or Buddhists, although the people tend to be eclectic in their religious practices. Korean Confucianism, for example, has developed into more of an ethical system than a religion, and its influence is wide and pervasive. Of the various indigenous religions, Chon-do-gyo (a native mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism) is the most influential. South Korea has a large number of practicing Christians, almost half of the population; the Christian religion was introduced by missionaries in the late 19th cent. and had a particular appeal during the years of Japanese occupation. The North Korean government has actively suppressed religion as contrary to Marxist belief.

Korean is spoken in both countries, and English is often taught in South Korean schools. South Korea has some 200 institutions of higher learning, about one half of which are in Seoul; these include colleges and universities, graduate schools, junior colleges, and other specialized institutions. The emphasis in North Korea has been on specialized and technical education. There are many technical colleges, and the major university, Kim Il Sung, is on the outskirts of Pyongyang.


Korea once had large timber resources. In the North, reforestation and conservation programs have helped reverse the effects of excessive cutting during the Japanese occupation (1910–45). Predominant trees are larch, oak, alder, pine, spruce, and fir. Forests in the South were depleted as a result of illegal cutting after 1945 and damage during the Korean War (1950–53). However, reforestation programs have helped to remedy the loss.

Korea has great mineral wealth, most of it (80–90%) concentrated in the North. Of the peninsula's five major minerals—gold, iron ore, coal, tungsten, and graphite—only tungsten and amorphous graphite are found principally in the South. South Korea has only 10% of the peninsula's rich coal and iron deposits. Its minerals are widely scattered, and mining operations are generally small scale, although tungsten is an important export item. In the North, modern mining methods have been instituted, and minerals and metals account for a significant portion of the country's export revenue. North Korea is especially rich in iron and coal and has some 200 different kinds of minerals of economic value. Some of the other more important minerals that are produced are copper, lead, zinc, uranium, manganese, gold, silver, and tungsten.

Because of the mountainous and rocky terrain, less than 20% of Korean land is arable. Rice is the chief crop, with wet paddy fields constituting about half of the farmland. Paddies are found along the coasts, in reclaimed tidal areas, and in river valleys. Barley, wheat, corn, soybeans, and grain sorghums are also extensively cultivated, especially in the uplands; other crops include cotton, tobacco, fruits, potatoes, beans, and sweet potatoes. Before the country was divided (1945), the colder and less fertile north depended heavily upon the south for food. Agricultural self-sufficiency became a major goal of the North Korean government, and mechanized methods were introduced. Both governments expanded irrigation facilities, constructed numerous dams, and initiated land reclamation projects; however, the North has suffered severe food shortages. Livestock plays a minor role in Korean agriculture, especially in the North, where the steep and often barren hills are unsuitable for large-scale grazing. In the South, cattle are used largely as beasts of burden, and although chickens and rabbits are raised, relatively little meat is eaten.

Fish remains the chief source of protein in the Korean diet. The fishing waters off Korea are among the best in the world; the long coastline and numerous islands, inlets, and reefs provide excellent fishing grounds, and the presence of both a warm and a cold current attracts a great variety of species. Octopus and shrimp are also caught, and seaweed is valuable; agar (a seaweed product) is an important export item. Deep-sea fishing is expanding, and Korean ships now range into the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Almost all of the deep-sea catch (consisting largely of tuna) is canned and exported. In the 1990s, South Korea's fish catch was the seventh largest in the world.

The Korean economy was shattered by the war of 1950 to 1953. Postwar reconstruction was abetted by enormous amounts of foreign aid (in the North from Communist countries and in the South chiefly from the United States) and intensive government economic development programs. The greatest industrial advances were made during the 1960s; in that decade the South experienced an 85% increase in productivity and a 250% rise in per capita gross national product. Economic development throughout Korea has been uneven, with the South showing significantly greater gains. By the mid-1990s, the per capita gross domestic product of the South was 15 times that of the North. In the South the traditional consumer goods industries (textiles, garments, footwear, food processing) are still important, but heavy industry has been established and a great variety of products are now manufactured; these include electrical and electronic equipment, steel, automobiles, chemicals, cement, ships, and ceramic goods.

The North, too, has changed from a predominantly agricultural society (in 1946) to an industrial one; with abundant mineral resources and hydropower, 60% of its national product is now derived from mining and manufacturing. Development has been impeded, however, by the rigid economic system, and the economy severely affected by a loss of trading partners after the collapse of the Communist world. Major North Korean products include iron, steel, and other metals; machinery; military products; textiles (synthetics, wool, cotton, silk); and chemicals.

The industrialization of both North and South has been accompanied by improved transportation. By the end of the Korean War the rail system had been destroyed, and paved highways were almost nonexistent. The railroads have been extensively rebuilt, and the South Korean government has completed a series of superhighways connecting Seoul with numerous major cities. There is domestic air service, and international airports are located at both Seoul and Pyongyang. The expansion of port facilities at Pusan and Inchon has vastly increased their capacity.

History: Early History to Japanese Rule

Chinese and Japanese influences have been strong throughout Korean history, but the Koreans, descended from Tungusic tribal peoples, are a distinct racial and cultural group. Dan Gun founded Korea in 2333 B.C.  After 100 B.C. the Chinese colony of Lolang, established near Pyongyang, exerted a strong cultural influence on the Korean tribes settled in the peninsula. The kingdom of Koguryo, the first native Korean state, arose in the north near the Yalu River in the 1st cent. A.D.;, and by the 4th cent. it had conquered Lolang. In the south, two kingdoms emerged, that of Paekche (c.A.D.; 250) and the powerful kingdom of Silla (c.A.D.; 350). With Chinese support, the kingdom of Silla conquered Koguryo and Paekche in the 7th cent. and unified the peninsula.

Under Silla rule, Korea prospered and the arts flourished; Buddhism, which had entered Korea in the 4th cent., became dominant in this period. In 935 the Silla dynasty was peacefully overthrown by Wang Kon, who established the Koryo dynasty (the name was selected as an abbreviated form of Koguryo). During the Koryo period, literature was cultivated, and although Buddhism remained the state religion, Confucianism—introduced from China during the Silla years—controlled the pattern of government. In 1231, Mongol forces invaded from China, initiating a war that was waged intermittently for some 30 years. Peace came when the Koryo kings accepted Mongol rule, and a long period of Koryo-Mongol alliance followed. In 1392, Yi Songgye, with the aid of the Ming dynasty (which had replaced the Mongols in China) seized the throne.

The Yi dynasty, which was to rule until 1910, built a new capital at Seoul and established Confucianism as the official religion. Early in the Yi period (mid-15th cent.) an efficient Korean phonetic alphabet as well as printing with movable metal type were developed. In 1592 an invasion of the Japanese conqueror Hideyoshi was driven back by the Yi dynasty with Chinese help, but only after six years of great devastation and suffering. Manchu invasions in the first half of the 17th cent. resulted in Korea being made (1637) a vassal of the Manchu dynasty. Korea attempted to close its frontiers and became so isolated from other foreign contact as to be called the Hermit Kingdom. All non-Chinese influences were excluded until 1876, when Japan forced a commercial treaty with Korea.

To offset the Japanese influence, trade agreements were also concluded (1880s) with the United States and the countries of Europe. Japan's control was tightened after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), when Japanese troops moved through Korea to attack Manchuria. These troops were never withdrawn, and in 1905 Japan declared a virtual protectorate over Korea and in 1910 formally annexed the country. The Japanese instituted vast social and economic changes, building modern industries and railroads, but their rule (1910–45) was harsh and exploitative. Sporadic Korean attempts to overthrow the Japanese were unsuccessful, and after 1919 a provisional Korean government, under Syngman Rhee , was established at Shanghai, China.

A Country Divided

In World War II, at the Cairo Conference (1943), the United States, Great Britain, and China promised Korea independence. At the end of the war Korea was arbitrarily divided into two zones as a temporary expedient; Soviet troops were north and Americans south of the line of lat. 38°N. The Soviet Union thwarted all UN efforts to hold elections and reunite the country under one government. When relations between the Soviet Union and the United States worsened, trade between the two zones ceased; great economic hardship resulted, since the regions were economically interdependent, industry and trade being concentrated in the North and agriculture in the South.

In 1948 two separate regimes were formally established—the Republic of Korea in the South, and the Democratic People's Republic under Communist rule in the North. By mid-1949 all Soviet and American troops were withdrawn, and two rival Korean governments were in operation, each eager to unify the country under its own rule. In June, 1950, the North Korean army launched a surprise attack against South Korea, initiating the Korean War , and with it, severe hardship, loss of life, and enormous devastation.

After the war the boundary was stabilized along a line running from the Han estuary northeast across the 38th parallel, with a "no-man's land," 1.24 mi (2 km) wide and occupying a total of 487 sq mi (1,261 sq km), on either side of the boundary. Throughout the 1950s and 60s an uneasy truce prevailed; thousands of soldiers were poised on each side of the demilitarized zone, and there were occasional shooting incidents. In 1971 negotiations between North and South Korea provided the first hope for peaceful reunification of the peninsula; in Nov., 1972, an agreement was reached for the establishment of joint machinery to work toward unification.

The countries met several times during the 1980s to discuss reunification, and in 1990 there were three meetings between the prime ministers of North and South Korea. These talks have yielded some results, such as the exchange of family visits organized in 1989. The problems blocking complete reunification, however, continue to be substantial. Two incidents of terrorism against South Korea were widely attributed to North Korea: a 1983 bombing that killed several members of the South Korean government, and the 1987 destruction of a South Korean airliner over the Thailand-Myanmar border. In 1996, North Korea said it would cease to recognize the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, and North Korean troops made incursions into the zone. In 1999 a North Korean torpedo boat was sunk by a South Korean vessel in South Korean waters following a gun battle. The emotional appeal of reunification continues to be a factor. Militant students in South Korea have staged several protests demanding the withdrawal of United States military forces from Korea and the reunification of the peninsula. Despite the problems involved, it is likely that the North-South dialogue will continue.

North Korea

North Korea, officially Democratic People's Republic of Korea (1995 est. pop. 23,487,000), 46,540 sq mi (120,538 sq km), founded on May 1, 1948, has its capital at Pyongyang , the largest city. North Korea is divided into nine provinces and three special cities.

North Korea, although nominally a republic governed by a representative assembly, is actually ruled by the Communist party (known in Korea as the Korea Workers' party). Until his death in 1994, all governmental institutions were controlled by Kim Il Sung (widely known as "The Great Leader"), who had been premier and then president since the country's inception in 1948. A personality cult had glorified Kim, but by the mid-1990s the rapid economic growth of North Korea's early years had given way first to stagnation and then to hardship, and there was widespread dissatisfaction with the repressive regime. Increasingly, Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, had assumed the day-to-day management of the government and, at Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, the son took over leadership of the country. He was named secretary of the Communist party in 1997 and consolidated his power with the title of National Defense Commission chairman in 1998.

After the Korean War, the Communist government of North Korea used the region's rich mineral and power resources as the basis for an ambitious program of industrialization and rehabilitation. With Chinese and Soviet aid, railroads, industrial plants, and power facilities were rebuilt. Farms were collectivized, and industries were nationalized. In a series of multiyear economic development plans, the coal, iron, and steel industries were greatly expanded, new industries were introduced, and the mechanization of agriculture was pushed. By the mid-1990s more than 90% of the economy was socialized and 95% of the country's manufactured products were made by state-owned enterprises. A serious population loss, resulting from the exodus of several million people to the South, was somewhat offset by the immigration of Chinese colonists and Koreans from Manchuria and Japan.

North Korea maintained close relations with the Soviet Union and China (military aid treaties were signed with both countries in 1961) but preserved a degree of independence; the Sino-Soviet rift facilitated this. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China became North Korea's most important ally. The country made some strides toward its goal of self-sufficiency, but large expenditures on its military and centralized control have been a drag on the economy.

Relations with the United States have remained tense because of the U.S. military presence in Korea and its economic assistance to South Korea. In 1968, North Korea seized the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo and imprisoned its crew for 11 months, and in 1969 it shot down an American reconnaissance plane. More recently, the United States imposed (1988) sanctions on North Korea for alleged terrorist activity and expressed concern over reports that North Korea was building a nuclear weapons plant. New tensions mounted on the peninsula in 1994 after confirmation that the country had developed a nuclear program. After direct talks with the United States, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in return for shipments of oil and the construction of two new light-water reactors for power. North Korea launched a medium-range missile over Japan in 1998; in 1999, the United States eased trade sanctions against the country in exchange for North Korea's agreement to halt its missile testing temporarily.

South Korea

South Korea, officially Republic of Korea (1995 est. pop. 45,554,000), 38,022 sq mi (98,477 sq km), formally proclaimed on Aug. 15, 1948, has its capital at Seoul , the largest city. Pusan , the second largest city, is the country's chief port, with an excellent natural harbor near the delta of the Naktong River. Other important cities are Taegu and Inchon . South Korea is divided into nine provinces and six special cities. Syngman Rhee , who had established a provisional Korean government in exile in 1919, was elected South Korea's first president in 1948.

Traditionally the agricultural region of the Korean peninsula, South Korea faced severe economic problems after partition. Attempts to establish an adequate industrial base were hampered by limited resources, particularly an acute lack of energy resources; most industry, prior to 1948, had been located in the North. War damage and the flood of refugees from North Korea further intensified the economic problem. The country depended upon foreign aid, chiefly from the United States, and the economy was characterized by runaway inflation, highly unfavorable trade balances, and mass unemployment.

The increasingly authoritarian rule of President Syngman Rhee, along with government corruption and injustice, added to the discontent of the people. The elections of Mar., 1960, in which Rhee won a fourth term, were marked by widespread violence, police brutality, and accusations by Rhee's opponents of government fraud. A student protest march in Apr., 1960, in which 125 students were shot down by the police, triggered a wave of uprisings across the country. The government capitulated, and Rhee resigned and went into exile.

A Second Republic of Korea, under the leadership of Dr. John M. Chang (Chang Myun), was unable to correct the economic problems or maintain order, and in May, 1961, the South Korean armed forces seized power in a bloodless coup. A military junta under Gen. Park Chung Hee established firm control over civil freedoms, the press, and the economy, somewhat relaxing restrictions as its power solidified. Park was elected president in 1963, reelected in 1967, and, following a constitutional amendment permitting a third term, again in 1971.

Park's government was remarkably successful in fighting graft and corruption and in reviving the economy. Successive five-year economic development plans, first launched in 1962, brought dramatic changes. Between 1962 and 1972 manufacturing was established as a leading economic sector and exports increased at an average annual rate of 41%. In Oct., 1972, President Park proclaimed martial law and dissolved the national assembly, asserting that such measures were necessary to improve South Korea's position in the reunification talks with North Korea. In Dec., 1972, President Park was elected to a new six-year term, under a revised constitution, by a national conference. In 1974, a Korean resident of Japan unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Park in Seoul, fatally wounding Park's wife.

South Korea's economic growth continued with the third Five-Year Economic Plan (1972–76), during which the gross national product rose an average of 11.2%. A second assassination attempt on Park in 1979 was successful, and he was succeeded by Choi Kyu-hah, who quickly instituted a strong military rule. After a period of internal turmoil, Chun Doo Hwan was elected president (1980), ushering in the Fifth Republic. Reforms were made to shift power to the national assembly, and the country's dynamic, export-oriented economy continued to grow. Labor unrest and general dissatisfaction with the government, however, led South Korean leaders to draw up a new constitution in 1987, which mandated popular election of the president and a reduction of the presidential term to five years.

Roh Tae Woo, who was elected president and took office in 1988, fought rising inflation rates brought on by South Korea's growing economy. Roh attempted to improve relations with opposition politicians and with the North, also establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union (1990) and China (1992). In 1992, Kim Young Sam , a former opposition leader who had merged his party with Roh's, was elected president, becoming the first civilian to hold the office since the Korean War. President Kim launched a campaign to eliminate corruption and administrative abuse and began to encourage economic cooperation with the North.

In 1996 former presidents Chun and Roh were put on trial on corruption charges and also tried, with 14 former generals, on charges in connection with the 1979 coup following Park's death and the 1980 massacre of prodemocracy demonstrators in Kwangju. Both received prison sentences. Along with other Asian countries, South Korea experienced a financial crisis in late 1997, forcing it to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund. In December, voters elected Kim Dae Jung , who had been a prodemocracy dissident during the country's period of military dictatorship, as South Korea's new president. The economy appeared to be recovering in 1999.


See S.-J. Kim, The Politics of Military Revolution in Korea ( 1971); P. M. Bartz, South Korea ( 1972); W. E. Henthorn, A History of Korea ( 1972); R. A. Scalapino and C.-S. Lee, Communism in Korea ( 2 vol., 1973); E. S. Mason, The Economic and Social Modernization of the Republic of Korea ( 1980); T.-H. Kwak et al., ed., Korean Reunification ( 1985); I. L. Bird, Korea and Her Neighbors ( 2 vol., 1986); J. K. Park and B. C. Koh, ed., The Foreign Relations of North Korea ( 1987); G. D. Hyde, South Korea: Education, Culture, and Economy ( 1988); K.-B. Lee, A New History of Korea (tr. 1988); A. C. Nahm, Korea: Tradition and Transformation ( 1988); L.-J. Cho and Y. H. Kim, ed., Economic Development in the Republic of Korea ( 1989); R. Nilsen, South Korea Handbook ( 1989); B. Cumings, Korea's Place in the Sun ( 1997); D. Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas ( 1997); N. Eberstadt, The End of North Korea ( 1999).


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