South Korea: History, Facts & Culture

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

South Korea is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, despite its small size. In this lesson, learn about South Korea's cultural roots, history, and important facts.

An Introduction to South Korea

South Korea Map
South Korea

Because of its worldwide influence, you might be surprised at how small South Korea is. South Korea lies on a small peninsula off the northeast coast of China and adjacent to the Japanese isles. Until World War II, Korea was a unified civilization first known as Gojoseon, an ancient state dating back as far as 2300 BC. The legendary founder of Gojoseon is known as Dangun, who unified the various tribes occupying the Korean peninsula at the time. Early Korean cultures were based on clans of families, and are known for their advanced metallurgy, rice cultivation, and large stone tombs known as Dolmen tombs.

Modern History: World War II and Korean Division

Dangun, mythical founder of Korea

Over millennia, Korea's dynasties battled China and Japan, but managed to keep their own culture, language, and traditions intact.The rise of the Japanese Empire, however, was the gravest threat Korea faced to its sovereignty. During the Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese Wars between 1894 and 1905, Japan took control of Korea after beating back both China and Russia. Korea became a key staging point for Japan on the Asian mainland. Japan relied heavily on Korea in World War II, but lost control of the territory after its defeat.

Cold War politics following World War II led to the establishment of the Soviet-backed communist North Korea, and US-backed capitalist South Korea. Shortly thereafter, North Korea invaded South Korea, leading to the Korean War. China and the Soviet Union backed North Korea, while the United States and United Nations backed South Korea. The war ended in a stalemate, claiming over a million lives, and the two countries are still technically at war. North and South Korea were divided along the 38th Parallel latitude line, where the two countries are still split today.

South Korea and its surroundings
South Korea and its surroundings

After the war, South Korea went through a period of rapid modernization, despite political instability and repressive government regimes. It wasn't until the 1980s that South Korea attained legitimate democracy, although exports and free trade allowed the country's economy to flourish. South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, who governed from 1998-2003, was the first to re-establish dialogue with North Korea through the Sunshine Policy, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. Dae-jung is also credited with significant welfare reforms and economic policies in South Korea.

South Korea Today: Economic World Leader and Technological Powerhouse


Today, South Korea is one of the world's premier countries in terms of education, household income, and technology. The country has the fastest internet on the planet, which is also one of the cheapest and most accessible due to government subsidies. South Korea even avoided the recent 2008 recession, with a steadily growing economy. Trade remains key to South Korea's economic success, and many of its brands are familiar to United States markets, including Hyundai, Samsung, and LG.

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