OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Korea
FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Republic
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Korean
AREA: 37,901 sq mi (98,190 sq km)
MAJOR MOUNTAIN RANGES: Taebaek Mountains, Sobaek Mountains
MAJOR RIVERS: Han, Kum, Naktong
South Korean Flag
Map of South Korea
Korea is a 750-mile-long (1,200-kilometer-long) peninsula located in the easternmost part of the Asian continent. Today, the country is split into South and North Korea, but in the minds of most of its citizens, it remains a single nation that cannot be divided.
South Korea has many mountains, but they are small compared with others around the world. Over millions of years, their peaks have been worn down by rain and wind. Most summits are below 3,300 feet (1,000 meters).
On South Korea's Jeju Island and along a narrow strip in the south, high humidity and rainfall give rise to tropical evergreen jungles. The peninsula is also surrounded by about 3,000 volcanic islands.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
South Korea is a crowded country, with 1,294 citizens for every square mile (499 per every square kilometer) of land. Koreans' lives are heavily influenced by Confucianism, a Chinese philosophy that teaches respect and morality.
South Korea is a small country with a lot of people, so there is a huge demand for space. As a result, many of the country's natural habitats have been squeezed into smaller areas. There are 21 national parks, but the only areas of true wilderness left are the mountain forests.
Tigers used to roam the Korean peninsula, but today there may be none left at all. Some think a few may live in the dangerous Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Korea's tigers were wiped out by hunters who wanted their bones to use in traditional medicines.
South Korean Won,
Photograph by Kschua, Dreamstime
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
The official name of South Korea is the Republic of Korea (ROK). That is because its government claims to be in charge of the whole of Korea and does not recognize North Korea as separate. The ROK government is headed by a president, who is elected to a five-year term.
South Korea has one of the strongest economies in Eastern Asia. Most of its wealth comes from manufacturing and service industries, such as banking. It exports ships, cars, computers, and other electronic items.
People have been living in Korea for at least 10,000 years. Archaeologists believe the ancestors of today's Koreans came from Mongolia and Siberia.
Korea's first kingdom was Old Chosun, which ruled the northwest and parts of China for more than 22 centuries. In 108 B.C. it was overthrown by Chinese armies, and three new kingdoms emerged: Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla. In the A.D. 660s, the Silla, with the help of Chinese troops, won control of the country.
By A.D. 901 Korea had once again broken into three kingdoms. In 936, a powerful noble named Wang Kon unified the country under the name Koryo. This kingdom lasted until 1392, when the Yi family seized the throne and began the Choson dynasty, which ruled until 1910.
The first Europeans to reach Korea were sailors on a Dutch merchant ship that ran aground on Jeju Island in 1656. They were held prisoner for 13 years, but one man escaped and returned home. His tales inspired European traders to go to Korea, but their ships were banned from Korean ports until the 19th century.
In 1894, Japan and China sent soldiers to put down an uprising in Korea. Afterward, they and Russia fought for control of Korea, which Japan won in 1910. When Japan lost in World War II, its territories, including Korea, were taken over by the Allies. Soviet troops occupied the north while U.S. troops stayed in the south.
In 1950, the communists in the north invaded the south, sparking the beginning of the Korean War. The war raged until 1953, and more than 2.5 million Koreans, Americans, Chinese, and others died. The war was never officially ended, and the Koreas remain divided.