South Korea

November 25, 2012 9:54 pm

South Korea is a land of striking contrasts. Rugged, forested mountains cover much of the country. Bustling cities and farms crowd the country’s few lowland areas. Thousands of islands dot the long, indented coastline.
In the early 1900s, most South Koreans worked on farms growing rice, the country’s main food crop. Since the 1960s, South Koreans have built many factories and modernized their farms. Today, South Korea is home to one of Asia’s largest economies.
Facts About South Korea
Official name
Republic of Korea
Official language
49,200,000 people
Rank among countries in population
Major cities
Seoul, Busan, Daegu
38,300 square miles
99,300 square kilometers
Rank among countries in area
Highest point
Mt. Halla
6,398 feet/1,950 meters
South Korean won
South Korea is one of two countries on the Korean Peninsula. This finger of land sticks out from China, between the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and the Yellow Sea. South Korea lies on the southern part of the peninsula. The country of North Korea lies to the north and shares a border with China.
In ancient times, the steep mountains of the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding seas sealed it off from the Asian mainland. Few wanderers traveled into Korea. The ancient tribes of Korea didn’t mix much with anyone else. As a result, the Korean Peninsula has just one main ethnic group—Korean. Koreans speak six forms, or dialects, of the Korean language.
In the past, Chinese culture had a strong influence on the Korean Peninsula. Koreans welcomed the ideas of Confucius, a great Chinese teacher who lived about 2,500 years ago. Confucius taught people to respect their elders and honor their ancestors. Grave Visiting Day remains an important holiday in South Korea. Families spend the day at the cemetery, decorating their ancestors’ graves.
Many Koreans practice an ancient Chinese religion called Daoism. Daoism teaches people to live simply and fit in with nature. Koreans learned about the Buddhist religion from the Chinese, too.
In Korea, new religions do not replace older ones. Koreans often blend beliefs from several religions, such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity. In the 1970s, a Korean preacher named Sun Myung Moon created a new religion called the Unification Church. His religion has spread to many other parts of the world.
For centuries, Koreans used the Chinese writing system. Chinese writing uses characters that stand for ideas instead of sounds. In the 1400s, Korean kings decided Korea needed its own writing system. In 1446, a team of Korean scholars introduced a new alphabet called Han-gul. In Han-gul, each mark stands for a sound rather than an idea. Koreans still use Han-gul as their writing system.
One kingdom ruled the Korean Peninsula from AD 668 until 1948, although it was conquered a few times. Korea was a province of China for several centuries. In 1910, Korea came under the rule of the Japanese. Then, in World War II (1939-1945), Japan was defeated. The victors included the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union, a communist country, and the United States, quickly became enemies. They could not agree on the future of Korea. In 1948, they divided the Korean Peninsula into two countries.
A communist government took over in North Korea. Under communism, everyone works for the government. The government owns all the land and businesses. South Korea became a capitalist country. Under capitalism, citizens are allowed to own land and private businesses.
In 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea. They hoped to unite the Korean Peninsula by force. The United Nations (UN) sent troops to stop the North Korean army. Most of the soldiers were Americans. China, a huge communist country, helped North Korea. The Korean War devastated Korea’s cities and killed millions of Korean people.
In 1953, the two sides agreed to stop fighting. They never signed a peace treaty. Instead, each side stationed troops along a thin strip of land separating the two countries. This strip of land is called the “demilitarized zone,” or DMZ. To this day, no one may set foot in the DMZ. As a result, the DMZ has become a refuge for wild animals and migrating birds.
After the war, South Korea prospered. Many factories were built. Seoul, South Korea’s capital, grew into the world’s fourth biggest city. In fact, nearly one-fourth of South Korea’s 49 million people live in Seoul.
Today, South Korea makes goods such as clothes, televisions, radios, telephones, automobiles, and steel. South Korea ships its manufactured goods all over the world.
During the late 20th century, reforms brought a stronger democracy to South Korea. In 1998, Kim Dae Jung won a democratic election to become president of South Korea. In 2000, Kim Dae Jung won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to improve South Korea’s ties with North Korea.
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