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Country of the Week: South Korea

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’ve arrived in fantastic South Korea. While the North may garner more international headlines, the South stands proud as a highly developed and prosperous country with a long history and a bright future.

  • Capital (and Largest City): Seoul
  • Population (2015): 51,468,000 (27th)
  • Total Area: 100,210 km² (109th)
  • Official Language: Korean
  • Currency: South Korean won (₩) (KRW)
palace south korean sunset mountain lake

Gyeongbokgung Palace located in northern Seoul

History

The history of Korea begins millennia ago, roughly around the year 2000 BC. The specifics of this time are lost to the ages, but it is thought that a strong dynasty rose to control much of the Korean Peninsula and parts of modern day China. Closer to the year 100 BC, Han Chinese exerted significant influence over Korea and controlled much of the land for hundreds of years. Korea really began to come into its own around the year 600, when three kingdoms that ruled over the country became (aptly) known as the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Eventually one, Silla, unified the disparate kingdoms in 676 and ruled over the vast majority of the Peninsula.

While Buddhist culture and art thrived, Silla did not last long. Internal strife led to a changing of the guard, and Goryeo (a nearby kingdom) eventually rose to power in Korea. Once again unified under the banner of King Taejo, Korea flourished for centuries – until the Mongols came. After a series of invasions weakened the country, Goryeo remained in power but was now beholden to the Mongol invaders. Despite this Korea persevered, eventually giving way to the Joseon Dynasty, which moved the capital to Seoul (then called Hanseong) and achieved relative peace and prosperity.

Despite an invasion from Japan and strife with the Manchurians, Korea managed to hold its own through much of the 17th and 18th centuries. Similar to Japan, Korea maintained an isolationist policy, remaining closed to the rest of the world. This earned the country the nickname ‘the Hermit Kingdom’ – a moniker that is still used today to refer to the North.

Japan conquered the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and only relinquished sovereignty at the end of WWII in 1945. After Japan surrendered, Korea was occupied by the victorious allies (similar to Germany), with the Soviets in the North and the Americans in the south. While reunification was initially on the cards, the toxic relationship between the USSR and USA led to the creation of distinct governments. The communist North was soon declared the overlord of the entire peninsula by the Soviets, who continued to back them with military support. Things continued to escalate until June 25, 1950 when the North invaded the South

The Korean War lasted until 1953. While the North initially pushed the South close to defeat, a UN force intervened on the South’s behalf. In response, the Chinese intervened on the North’s behalf, with the two sides eventually fighting it out to a stalemate. The bloody back and forth resulted in Seoul changing hands a total of four times during the course of the conflict.

Following an armistice, a demilitarized zone at the border was declared and the two countries remained separate. In the South, the autocratic President Rhee was ousted in a coup and General Park Chung-hee took over control of the government. While the economy grew rapidly (thanks in part to exports), the General ruled as a dictator until he was assassinated in 1979. A further coup d’état followed this with General Chun Doo-hwan seizing control, after which he declared martial law. After the torture of a student in 1987, Chun was finally ousted from power and elections were held.

Since then, South Korea has greatly increased its presence on the world stage. The country hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988 and co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The nation remains in constant conflict with the totalitarian North, as well as involvement with other regional disputes. Despite this, South Korea remains a prosperous, democratic, and open country.

neon lights city seoul shopping crowded

Myeong-Dong in Seoul – the most popular shopping district in the city

Culture

It can be said that there are two distinct elements of South Korean culture. On one hand, there is a traditional culture that is shared with the North and developed over the thousands of years prior to World War II. On the other, there is the more modern culture that has developed independently of the North since 1945. In addition, foreign invaders and various powers have all made their mark on the region, resulting in a mix of traditions, architectural styles, and more.

Korean cuisine and etiquette is distinct from that of nearby China or Japan. Largely based around rice and noodles, dishes are often steamed and served together in large bowls. Kimchi (a spicy vegetable dish) is one of the most popular examples of Korean food and is enjoyed worldwide.

Korean music has also become well known across the world. K-pop (Korean pop) dominates the charts at home and has found success abroad (think Gangnam Style). In addition to these newer sounds, trots and ballads remain popular amongst the older demographic.

Sports are popular throughout the country, ranging from team games to martial arts. Taekwondo originated in South Korea and has become one of the most popular martial arts in the world. Soccer however is considered the most popular sport, with the national team one of the strongest in Asia. Baseball has also found a large following, even rivaling soccer as the most followed sport in the country.

kimchi food plate korean cuisine

Cabbage kimchi. Kimchi is one of the famous examples of Korean cuisine

Geography

Consisting of the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, the country can be broken into four distinct natural regions. There are mountain ranges and coastal plains in the east, more coastal plains in the west along with rivers and hills, mountains and valleys in the southwest, and a massive river basin in the southeast. The end result is that much of the country is mountainous, with little to no farming. In addition to the mainland, South Korea controls thousands of islands (mostly small and uninhabited) off the coast.

The largest city and capital of South Korea is Seoul. The area surrounding the capital is densely populated, with the 25.6 million people (the world’s second largest metropolitan area behind only Tokyo) accounting for half the country’s population. It is an advanced global city, serving as a commercial, political, and cultural hub of both South Korea and the region as a whole.

mountains landscape korea

Seoraksan Mountin – much of South Korea is mountainous

Did you know?

  • Fast food delivers in South Korea, so you can get McDonald’s 24/7 (for better or worse)
  • Cosmetics are popular amongst Korean men
  • Consuming alcohol in public is legal
  • There are hundreds of varieties of Kimchi
  • Adultery used to be illegal until recently
  • When a baby is born, they are considered to be 1 year old
  • Couples like to show off their relationship, and they are often seen wearing matching clothing
  • Wi-Fi is almost everywhere in the country
  • The country is estimated to have the highest average IQ in the world
city night lights mountain tower south korea seoul

Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world

Last Word

While still technically at war with North Korea, the South has developed well on its own and can be considered one of the most advanced and prosperous countries in the world.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems. See all of our previous countries HERE.

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