Facts about Korea

Geography and People

Geography Climate
People and Population Language


Korea is situated on the Korean Peninsula, which spans 1,100 kilometers north to south. The Korean Peninsula lies on the northeastern section of the Asian continent, where Korean waters are joined by the western-most parts of the Pacific. The peninsula shares its northern border with China and Russia. To its east is the East Sea, beyond which neighboring Japan lies. In addition to the mainland peninsula, Korea includes some 3,000 islands.

Korea encompasses a total of 222,154 square kilometers-almost the same size as Britain or Rumania. Some 45 percent of this area, or 99,000 square kilometers, is considered cultivatable area, excluding reclaimed land areas. Mountainous terrain accounts for some two-thirds of the territory like Portugal, Hungary or Ireland.

The Mt. Taebaeksan range runs the full length of the east coast, where the lashing waves of the East Sea have carved out sheer cliffs and rocky islets. The western and southern slopes are rather gentle, forming plains and many offshore islands honeycombed with inlets.

The peninsula features so many scenic mountains and rivers that Koreans have often likened their country to a beautifully embroidered brocade. The highest peak is Mt. Baekdusan in North Korea, which rises up 2,744 meters above sea level along the northern border facing China. Mt. Baekdusan is an extinct volcano where a large volcanic lake, named Cheonji, has been formed. The mountain is regarded as an especially important symbol of the Korean spirit and is mentioned in Korea's national anthem.

Considering its territorial size, Korea has a relatively large number of rivers and streams. These waterways played crucial roles in shaping the lifestyle of Koreans, and in the nation's industrialization. The two longest rivers in North Korea are the Amnokgang River (Yalu, 790 kilometers) and the Dumangang River (Tumen, 521 kilometers).These rivers originate from Mt. Baekdusan and flow to the west and the east, respectively. They form the peninsula's northern border.In the southern part of the peninsula, the Nakdonggang River (525 kilometers) and the Hangang River (514 kilometers) are the two major waterways. The Hangang river flows through Seoul, the capital of Korea, and serves as a lifeline for the heavily concentrated population in the central region of modern Korea, just as it did for the people of the ancient kingdoms that developed along its banks.

Surrounding the peninsula on three sides, the ocean has played an integral role in the life of the Koreans since ancient times, contributing to the early development of shipbuilding and navigational skills.


Korea has four distinct seasons. Spring and autumn are rather short, summer is hot and humid, and winter is cold and dry with abundant snowfall.

Temperatures differ widely from region to region within Korea, with the average being between 6oC (43oF) and 16oC (61oF). The average temperature in August, the hottest period of the year, ranges from 19oC (66oF) to 27oC (81oF), while in January, the coldest month, temperatures range from -8oC (17oF) to 7oC (43oF).

In early spring the Korean Peninsula experiences "yellow sand / dust" carried by wind from the deserts in northern China. But in mid-April, the country enjoys balmy weather with the mountains and fields garbed in brilliant wild flowers. Farmers prepare seedbeds for the annual rice crop at this time.

Autumn, with its crisp air and crystal blue sky, is the season most widely loved by Koreans. The countryside is particularly beautiful, colored in a diversity of rustic hues. Autumn, the harvest season, features various folk festivals rooted in ancient agrarian customs.

People and Population

Koreans are one ethnic family and speak one language. Sharing distinct physical characteristics, they are believed to be descendants of several Mongol tribes that migrated onto the Korean Peninsula from Central Asia.

In the seventh century, the various states of the peninsula were unified for the first time under the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935). Such homogeneity has enabled Koreans to be relatively free from ethnic problems and to maintain a firm solidarity with one another.

As of the end of 2003, Korea's total population was estimated at 48,386,000 with a density of 485 people per square kilometer. The population of North Korea is estimated to be 22,400,000.

Korea saw its population grow by an annual rate of 3 percent during the 1960s, but growth slowed to 2 percent over the next decade. Today, the rate stands at 0.6 percent, and is expected to further decline to 0.06 percent by 2020.

A notable trend in Korea's demographics is that it is growing older with each passing year. Statistics show that 6.9 percent of the total population of Korea was 65 years or older in 1999 and 7.9 percent of the total in 2002.

In the 1960s, Korea's population distribution formed a pyramid shape, with a high birth rate and relatively short life expectancy.

However, the structure is now shaped more like a bell with a low birth rate and extended life expectancy. Youth (under the age of 15 years) will make up a decreasing portion of the total, while senior citizens (65 years or older) will account for some 15.1 percent of the total by the year 2020.

The nation's rapid industrialization and urbanization in the 1960s and 1970s has been accompanied by continuing migration of rural residents into the cities, particularly Seoul, resulting in heavily populated metropolitan areas. However, in recent years, an increasing number of people have begun moving to suburban areas of Seoul.


All Koreans speak and write the same language, which has been a decisive factor in forging their strong national identity. Koreans have developed several different dialects in addition to the standard used in Seoul.

However, the dialects, except for that of Jeju-do province, are similar enough for native speakers to understand without any difficulties.

Linguistic and ethnological studies have classified the Korean language in the Altaic language family, which includes the Turkic, Mongolic and Tungus-Manchu languages.

The Korean Alphabet Hangeul, was created by King Sejong the Great during the 15th century. Before its creation, only a relatively small percentage of the population could master the Chinese characters due to their difficulty.

In attempting to invent a Korean writing system, King Sejong looked to several writing systems known at the time, such as old Chinese seal characters and Uighur and Mongolian scripts.

The system that they came up with, however, is predominantly based upon phonological studies. Above all, they developed and followed a theory of tripartite division of the syllable into initial, medial and final phonemes, as opposed to the bipartite division of traditional Chinese phonology.

Hangeul which consists of 10 vowels and 14 consonants, can be combined to form numerous syllabic groupings. It is simple, yet systematic and comprehensive, and is considered one of the most scientific writing systems in the world. Hangeul is easy to learn and write, which has greatly contributed to Korea's high literacy rate and advanced publication industry.

The History of Korea

From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century The Founding of the Republic of Korea

From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century

The beginning of Korea dates back to 2333 B.C., when Dangun, the legendary son of the Heavenly God and a woman from a bear-totem tribe, established the first kingdom. Historians refer to this earliest era of Korean history as the Gojoseon (Ancient Joseon) period.

Ancient Korea was characterized by clan communities that combined to form small town-states. The town-states gradually united into tribal leagues with complex political structures, which eventually grew into kingdoms. Among various tribal leagues, Goguryeo (37 B.C.- A.D. 668), situated along the middle course of the Amnokgang River (Yalu), was the first to mature into a kingdom.

Goguryeo's aggressive troops conquered neighboring tribes one after another, and in 313, they even occupied China's Lolang outposts.
Baekje (18 B.C.-A.D.660), which grew out of a town-state located south of the Hangang River in the vicinity of present-day Seoul, was another confederated kingdom similar to Goguryeo. During the reign of King Geunchogo (r. 346-375), Baekje developed into a centralized and aristocratic state.

The Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) was located the furthest south on the peninsula, and was initially the weakest and most underdeveloped of the Three Kingdoms. However, because it was geographically removed from Chinese influence, it was more open to non-Chinese practices and ideas. Its society was markedly class-oriented and later developed the unique Hwarang Corps(elite youth group) as well as an advanced Buddhist practice.
Unified Silla and Balhae

By the mid-sixth century, the Silla Kingdom had brought under its control all of the neighboring Gaya Kingdoms, a group of fortified town-states that had developed in the southeastern region of the peninsula from the mid-first century to the mid-sixth century. Silla also effected a military alliance with Tang China to subjugate the Goguryeo and Baekje Kingdoms. Subsequently, Silla fought against Tang China when the latter exposed its ambition to incorporate the territories of Goguryeo and Baekje.

Silla repelled the Chinese in 676. Then in 698, the former people of Goguryeo who resided in south-central Manchuria established the Kingdom of Balhae. Balhae included not only people of Goguryeo, but also a large Malgal population.

Silla repelled the Chinese in 676. Then in 698, the former people of Goguryeo who resided in south-central Manchuria established the Kingdom of Balhae. Balhae included not only people of Goguryeo, but also a large Malgal population.

Balhae established a government system centered around five regional capitals, which was modeled after the Goguryeo Kingdom's administrative structure. Balhae possessed an advanced culture which was rooted in that of Goguryeo.

Balhae prosperity reached its height in the first half of the ninth century with the occupation of a vast territory reaching to the Amur river in the north and Kaiyuan in south-central Manchuria to the west. It also established diplomatic ties with Turkey and Japan. Balhae existed until 926, when it was overthrown by the Khitan. Then many of the ruling class, who were mostly Koreans, moved south and joined the newly founded Goryeo Dynasty.

Silla unified the Korean Peninsula in 668 and saw the zenith of their power and prosperity in the mid-eighth century. It attempted to establish an ideal Buddhist country. The Bulguksa temple was constructed during the Unified Silla period. However, the state cult of Buddhism began to deteriorate as the nobility indulged in luxury. Also there was conflict among regional leaders who claimed authority over the occupied kingdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje. In 935, the king of Silla formally surrendered to the court of the newly founded Goryeo Dynasty.

Goryeo Despite frequent foreign invasions, the Korean Peninsula has been ruled by a single government since the Silla unification in 668 while maintaining its political independence and cultural and ethnic heritage. Both the Goryeo (918-1392) and the Joseon (1392-1910) Dynasties consolidated their authority and flourished culturally, while repelling such intruders as the Khitans, Mongols and Japanese.

The Goryeo Dynasty was founded by Wang Geon, a general who had served under Gungye, a rebel prince of the Silla Kingdom. Choosing his native town of Songak (the present-day Gaeseong in North Korea) as the capital, Wang Geon proclaimed the goal of recovering the lost territory of the Goguryeo Kingdom in northeast China.

He named his dynasty Goryeo, from which the modern name Korea is derived. Although the Goryeo Dynasty could not reclaim lost lands, it achieved a sophisticated culture represented by cheongja or blue-green celadon and flourishing Buddhist tradition. No less significant was the invention of the world's first movable metal type in 1234, which preceded Gutenberg of Germany by two centuries. About that time, Korean skilled artisans also completed the herculean task of carving the entire Buddhist canon on large woodblocks.

These woodblocks, numbering more than 80,000, were intended to invoke the influence of Buddha for the repulsion of the Mongol invaders. Called the Tripitaka Koreana, they are now stored at the historic Haeinsa temple.

In its later years, the Goryeo Dynasty was weakened by internal struggles among scholar officials and warriors, and between Confucianists and Buddhists. The Mongol incursions that began in 1231, left Goryeo as a Mongol vassal state for nearly a century despite the courageous resistance from Goryeo's people.

In 1392, General Yi Seong-gye established a new dynasty called Joseon. The early rulers of Joseon, in order to counter the dominant Buddhist influence during the Goryeo period, supported Confucianism as the guiding philosophy of the kingdom.

The Joseon rulers governed the dynasty with a well-balanced political system. A civil service examination system was the main channel for recruiting government officials. The examinations served as the backbone for social mobility and intellectual activity during the period. The Confucian-oriented society, however, highly valued academic learning while disdaining commerce and manufacturing.

During the reign of King Sejong the Great (1418-1450), Joseon's fourth monarch, Korea enjoyed an unprecedented flowering of culture and art. Under King Sejong's patronage, scholars at the royal academy created the Korean alphabet, called Hangeul. It was then called Hunminjeong-eum, or "proper phonetic system to educate the people."

King Sejong's interest in astronomical science was comprehensive. Sundials, water clocks, celestial globes and astronomical maps were produced at his request. He abdicated the throne to his son, King Munjong (1450-1452), but his death in 1452 brought an 11-year-old crown prince, Danjong, to the throne.

In 1592, Japan invaded the Joseon Dynasty to pave the way for its incursion into China. At sea, Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598), one of the most respected figures in Korean history, led a series of brilliant naval maneuvers against the Japanese, deploying the Geobukseon (turtle ships), which are believed to be the world's first iron-clad battleships. 

On land, volunteer peasant fighters and contingents of Buddhist monks gallantly engaged the enemy.
The Japanese began to withdraw from Korea following the death of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The war finally ended in 1598, but had a disastrous impact upon both Korea's Joseon Dynasty and Ming China.
During the war, numerous Korean artisans and technicians, including potters, were forcibly taken to Japan.

From the early 17th Century, a movement advocating Silhak, or practical learning, gained considerable momentum among liberal-minded scholar-officials as a means of building a modern nation.

They strongly recommended agricultural and industrial improvement along with sweeping reforms in land distribution. The conservative government aristocrats, however, were not ready to accommodate such a drastic change.

In the latter half of the Joseon era, government administration and the upper classes came to be marked by recurring factionalism. To rectify the undesirable political situation, King Yeongjo (1724-1776) eventually adopted a policy of impartiality. He was thus able to strengthen the royal authority and achieve political stability.

King Jeongjo (1776-1800) maintained the policy of impartiality and set up a royal library to preserve royal documents and records. He also initiated other political and cultural reforms. This period witnessed the blossoming of Silhak. A number of outstanding scholars wrote progressive works recommending agricultural and industrial reforms, but few of their ideas were adopted by the government.

In the 19th century, Korea remained a "Hermit Kingdom," adamantly opposed to Western demands for diplomatic and trade relations. Over time, a few Asian and European countries with imperialistic ambitions competed with each other for influence over the Korean Peninsula. Japan, after winning wars against China and Russia, forcibly annexed Korea and instituted colonial rule in 1910.

Colonial rule stimulated the patriotism of Koreans. Korean intellectuals were infuriated by Japan's official assimilation policy, which even banned Korean-language education in Korean schools. On March 1, 1919, Koreans staged nationwide protests during which thousands of lives were lost.

Although it failed, the March 1 Independence Movement created strong bonds of national identity and patriotism among Koreans. The movement led to the establishment of a Provisional Government in Shanghai, China, as well as an organized armed struggle against the Japanese colonialists in Manchuria. The Independence Movement is still commemorated among Koreans every March 1, which is designated a national holiday.

The lives of Koreans deteriorated under colonial rule until Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945. During the colonial period, Japan's economic exploitation of Korea continued.

The Founding of the Republic of Korea

Koreans rejoiced at Japan's World War II defeat. However, their joy was short-lived. Liberation did not instantly bring about the independence for which the Koreans had fought so fiercely.

Rather, it resulted in a country divided by ideological differences caused by the emerging Cold War. Korean efforts to establish an independent government were frustrated as U.S. forces occupied the southern half of the peninsula and the Soviet troops took control of the north.

In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that called for general elections in Korea under the supervision of a U.N. Commission.

However, the Soviet Union refused to comply with the resolution and denied the U.N. Commission access to the northern half of Korea. The U.N. General Assembly then adopted another resolution calling for elections in areas accessible to the U.N. ommission. The first elections in Korea were carried out on May 10, 1948, in the areas south of the 38th parallel. This parallel came to divide the Korean Peninsula into north and south.

Syngman Rhee was elected the first President of the Republic of Korea in 1948. Meanwhile, north of the 38th parallel, a Communist regime was set up under the leadership of Kim Il-sung.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion of the South, triggering a three-year war which was joined by U.S., Chinese and other foreign forces. The entire peninsula was devastated by the conflict. A cease-fire was signed in July 1953.

The war left almost three million Koreans dead or wounded and millions of others homeless and separated from their families. Serious social disorder continued under the government of President Syngman Rhee

Korea's democracy was not mature at the time, and the country experienced tremendous political and economic difficulties.
President Rhee stepped down in April 1960 as a result of a student-led uprising. The Second Republic was established as Chang Myon of the Democratic Party formed a government in August 1960.

However, the new government was brought down by a coup d'etat led by Major General Park Chung-hee on May 16, 1961.
The Supreme Council for National Reconstruction headed by General Park took over the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of the government.

Park became President in an election in 1963. Park's government pursued rapid industrialization and achieved high economic growth during the 1960s and 70s, often dubbed "the Miracle on the Hangang River," but his rule was accompanied by severe restriction of people's political rights and civil liberties.

The assassination of President Park in October 1979 brought a transition period under martial law. Choi Kyu-hah, who was installed as a caretaker President, resigned in August 1980, and Chun Doo-hwan, leader of a powerful officers' group, was elected President by the National Conference for Unification, an electoral college.

Pro-democracy movements intensified throughout the 1980s and presidential election by direct popular vote was restored in a constitutional revision in 1987.

Roh Tae-woo, also a former general, was elected President under the new Constitution but the democratic advances achieved during his administration set the stage for the election of the first civilian president in 32 years.

Kim Young-sam, a long-time pro-democracy activist, was elected president in 1992 on the ruling party ticket.

In the 1997 presidential election, Kim Dae-jung, leader of the major opposition National Congress for New Politics (NCNP), was elected. His administration, called the "Government of the People," was created through the first-ever peaceful transfer of power from the ruling to an opposition party in Korean constitutional history.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration, or the "Participatory Government," was launched on February 25 2003. he Roh administration, the 16th in the republic's history, set forth three goals: "Democracy with the People," "Society of Balanced Development," and "Era of Peace and Prosperity in Northeast Asia."

The Roh Moo-hyun government was born by the strength of the people's power. The voluntary fund-raising and election campaigns by those citizens who cherish principles and commonsense led to Roh's victory in the presidential election. First and foremost, the Roh government was created on the basis of the power of popular participation. As such, popular participation will play a pivotal role in the future operation of the government, as it did during its birth.


Constitution and Government

The Constitution The President The Executive Branch
The Legislature The Judiciary Local Government

The Constitution

On July 17 1948, the first Constitution of the Republic of Korea was adopted. As the nation underwent political upheavals in pursuit of democratic development, the Korean Constitution has been amended nine times, the last time on October 29 1987.

The current Constitution represents a major advancement in the direction of full democratization. Apart from a legitimate process of revision, a number of substantive changes are notable. They include the curtailment of presidential powers, the strengthening of the power of the legislature and additional devices for the protection of human rights. In particular, the creation of a new, independent Constitutional Court played a vital role in making Korea a more democratic and free society.

The Constitution consists of a preamble, 130 articles, and six supplementary rules. It is divided into 10 chapters: General Provisions, Rights and Duties of Citizens, the National Assembly, the Executive, the Courts, the Constitutional Court, Election Management, Local Authority, the Economy, and Amendments to the Constitution.

The basic principles of the Korean Constitution include the sovereignty of the people, separation of powers, and the pursuit of peaceful and democratic unification of South and North Korea, the pursuit of international peace and cooperation, the rule of law and the responsibility of the state to promote welfare.

The Constitution envisages a liberal democratic political order. It not only declares in its Preamble that the Republic of Korea aims to "further strengthen the basic free and democratic order," but also institutionalizes the separation of powers and the rule of law. The Constitution adopts a presidential system supplemented by parliamentary elements. It provides political parties with constitutional privileges and protection while imposing on them constitutional duties not to impair the free and democratic political order.

In Article 10, the Constitution declares that, "All citizens shall be assured of human worth and dignity and have the right to pursue happiness. It shall be the duty of the State to confirm and guarantee the fundamental and inviolable human rights of individuals." Based on this basic provision, the Constitution provides for individual civil, political and social rights that have become the norm in democratic countries.

The President

The President of the Republic of Korea, elected by nationwide, equal, direct and secret ballot, stands at the apex of the executive branch.

The President serves a single five-year term, with no additional terms being allowed. This single-term provision is a safeguard for preventing any individual from holding the reins of government power for a protracted period of time. In the event of presidential disability or death, the Prime Minister or members of the State Council will temporarily serve as the President as determined by law.

Under the current political system, the President plays five major roles. First, the President is head of state, symbolizing and representing the entire nation both in the governmental system and in foreign relations.

He receives foreign diplomats, awards decorations and other honors, and grants pardons. He has the duty to safeguard the independence, territorial integrity, and continuity of the state and to uphold the Constitution, in addition to the unique task of pursuing the peaceful reunification of Korea.

Second, the President is the chief administrator, and thus enforces the laws passed by the legislature while issuing orders and decrees for the enforcement of laws. The President has full power to direct the State Council and a varying number of advisory organs and executive agencies. He is authorized to appoint public officials, including the Prime Minister and heads of executive agencies.

Third, the President is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has extensive authority over military policy, including the power to declare war.

Fourth, the President is the chief diplomat and foreign policy maker. He accredits or dispatches diplomatic envoys, and signs treaties with foreign nations.

Finally, the President is chief policy maker and a key lawmaker. He may propose legislative bills to the National Assembly or express his views to the legislature in person or in writing. The President cannot dissolve the National Assembly, but the Assembly can hold the President ultimately accountable to the Constitution by means of an impeachment process.

The Executive Branch

Under Korea's presidential system, the President performs his executive functions through the State Council made up of 15 to 30 members and presided over by the President, who is solely responsible for deciding all important government policies.

The Prime Minister is appointed by the President and approved by the National Assembly. As the principal executive assistant to the President, the Prime Minister supervises the administrative ministries and manages the Office for Government Policy Coordination under the direction of the President. The Prime Minister also has the power to deliberate major national policies and to attend the meetings of the National Assembly

Three Deputy Prime Ministers are assigned to carry out the particular affairs delegated by the Prime Minister.Minister of Finance and Economy and Minister of Education and Human Resources Development and Minister of Science & Technology hold offices of Deputy Prime Minister at the same time.

Members of the State Council are appointed by the President upon recommendation by the Prime Minister. They have the right to lead and supervise their administrative ministries, deliberate major state affairs, act on behalf of the President and appear at the National Assembly and express their opinions. Members of the State Council are collectively and individually responsible to the President only.

In addition to the State Council, the President has several agencies under his direct control to formulate and carry out national policies: the Board of Audit and Inspection, the National Intelligence Service, the Civil Service Commission and the Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption. Heads of these organizations are appointed by the President, but the presidential appointment of the Chairman of the Board of Audit and Inspection is subject to the approval of the National Assembly.

The Board of Audit and Inspection has the authority to audit the financial accounts of central and local government agencies, government corporations, and related organizations. The board is also vested with the power to inspect abuses of public authority or misconduct by public officials in their official duties. The results of audit are reported to the President and the National Assembly, although the board is responsible only to the chief executive.

The Legislature

Legislative power is vested in the National Assembly, a unicameral legislature. The Assembly is composed of 299 members serving a four-year term.

Out of the 299 members, 243 members are elected by popular vote, while the remaining 56 seats allocated to each political party that has obtained 3/100 or more of the total valid votes or five or more seats in the local constituency election.

The proportional representation system is aimed at appointing Assembly members who will represent national interests rather than local interests.

To be eligible for election, a candidate must be at least 25 years of age. One candidate from each electoral district is selected by a plurality of votes.

An Assembly member is not held responsible outside the Assembly for any opinions expressed or votes cast in the legislative chamber. During a session of the Assembly, no Assembly member may be arrested or detained without consent of the Assembly except in the case of a flagrant criminal act.

In case of apprehension or detention of an Assembly member prior to the opening of a session, the member must be released during the session upon the request of the Assembly.

Two types of legislative sessions are provided for, regular and special. The regular session is convened once a year from September through December and special sessions may be convened upon the request of the President or one-fourth or more of the members of the Assembly. The period of a regular session is limited to 100 days and to 30 days for special sessions. If the President requests the convening of a special session, he must clearly specify the period of the session and the reasons for the request.

Except as otherwise provided in the Constitution or law, the attendance of more than one half of the entire Assembly members, and the concurrent vote of more than one half of the Assembly members present, are necessary to make decisions of the National Assembly binding. In the case of a tie vote, the matter is considered to be rejected by the Assembly. Legislative meetings are open to the public, but this rule may be waived with the approval of more than one half of the members present or when the Speaker deems it necessary to do so in the interest of national security.

The National Intelligence Service is authorized to collect strategic intelligence of internal as well as external origin and information on subversive and international criminal activities. It also plans and coordinates the intelligence and security activities of the government.

The Civil Service Commission, established in 1999, is responsible for the fair and efficient personnel management of civil servants.

The Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption, established in 2002, has the authority to take all necessary measures to prevent corruption; to design and evaluate anti-corruption policies, to enhance education and public relations and to inspect report and protect whistle-blowers.

The Judiciary

The Judiciary of Korea consists of three levels of courts: the Supreme Court, High Courts, and District Courts including the specialized Patent Court, Family Court and Administrative Court.

The courts exercise jurisdiction over civil, criminal, administrative, electoral, and other judicial matters, while also overseeing affairs related to the registration of real estate, census registers, deposits, and judicial clerks.

The Supreme Court is the highest judicial tribunal. It hears appeals from the decisions rendered by lower courts and court-martial verdicts. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is appointed by the President with the consent of the National Assembly. Other justices are appointed by the President upon the recommendation of the Chief Justice. The term of office for the Chief Justice after approval by the National Assembly is six years and a second term is not allowed. The Chief Justice must retire from office at the age of 70. The term for other justices is six years but they may be re-appointed in accordance with the provisions of law, although they must retire from office when they reach the age of 65.

High Courts hear appeals from decisions in civil, criminal and administrative cases rendered by district and family courts and try special cases designated by law.

The Patent Court reviews decisions rendered by the Patent Office as an intermediate appellate jurisdiction. The Supreme Court is the final tribunal over patent disputes.

District Courts are located in Seoul and in the following 12 cities: Incheon, Suwon, Chuncheon, Daejeon, Cheongju, Daegu, Busan, Changwon, Ulsan, Gwangju, Jeonju and Jeju.

The Family Court is empowered to hear all cases involving matrimonial, juvenile, or other domestic matters. The Administrative Court handles administrative cases only.

District Courts outside of Seoul perform the functions of the Administrative Court in their respective districts.In addition to these courts there are military tribunals which exercise jurisdiction over offenses committed by members of the Armed Forces and their civilian employees.

Local Government

The Constitution of the Republic of Korea states in Article 117 that, "Local governments deal with matters pertaining to the welfare of local residents, manage properties, and may within the limit of laws, enact provisions relating to local autonomy regulations."

The Local Autonomy Act was adopted in 1949, and local councils were operated until 1961 when the military government disbanded them.

Rapid regional development during the 1970s and 1980s, however, strengthened the demand for more autonomous local governments. In order to meet this demand more efficiently, the central government began in the mid-1980s to encourage feasibility studies and to make plans for the resumption of local autonomy.

In 1988, the government initiated a revision of the Local Autonomy Act. According to the new act, Local council elections took place in March 1991, for various si (city), gun (county), and gu( autonomous district) and in June 1991, for metropolitan cities and do (provinces). Elections for governors and mayors were held in 1995.

Currently, there are 16 higher-level local governments, including seven metropolitan city governments and nine do governments, and 232 lower-level local governments including 74 si (city) governments, 89 gun (county) governments, and 69 gu (autonomous district) governments within the metropolitan cities.

Local government heads manage and supervise administrative affairs except as otherwise provided by law. The local executive functions include those delegated by the central government such as the management of public properties and facilities and assessment and collection of local taxes and fees for various services. Higher-level local governments have boards of education which carry out matters related to education and culture in each community.

Higher-level local governments basically serve as intermediaries between the central and lower-level local governments.

Lower-level local governments deliver services to the residents through an administrative district (eup, myeon, and dong) system. Each lower-level local government has several districts which serve as field offices for handling the needs of their residents. Eup, Myeon, and Dong offices are engaged mainly in routine administrative and social service functions.

South Korea and North Korea

Historical Background Inter-Korean Exchanges & Cooperation

Historical Background

The 1950-1953 Korean War not only resulted in a tremendous loss of life and destruction of property, but also left a wide rift among Koreans.

After the war, both sides confronted each other across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), amidst the tension of the Cold War.

While North Korea pursued Communist unification based on its logic of a so-called "One Joseon (meaning one Korea)," South Korea considered its government as the only legitimate entity on the Korean Peninsula with unification being an extension of its sovereignty. These rigid, uncompromising views made accommodation between the two sides impossible until the 1960s.

However, the international environment became more reconciliatory in the 1970s. The two Koreas recognized each other's government, which marked an epochal change in their attitudes toward reunification. The first positive sign of change came on Liberation Day in 1970 with a call from the South for bona fide peaceful competition with the North.

In August of the following year, South and North Korean Red Cross representatives held the first face-to-face meeting in 26 years since the division. Both governments cooperated with each other in trying to achieve family reunions for those separated during the Korean War.

In 1972, the two governments reached an agreement on principles of unification, and announced the results in the July 4 South-North Joint Communique. Since then, both governments have continued to talk intermittently and had contacts through various channels despite many obstacles.

In 1985, a memorable event resulted from the Red Cross Talks: members of separated families, 50 from each side, visited the other side to find their long-lost relatives. Other notable events were the South-North Economic Talks (1984) and preliminary conferences for South-North National Assembly Talks (1985). Unfortunately, these additional channels of talks between the South and the North were suspended for various political reasons.

In the 1990s, rapid changes occurred in Socialist bloc countries, which politically influenced the Korean Peninsula. Of note, in 1990, the South-North High Level Talks between the Prime Ministers from both sides started and in 1991 produced the "South-North Basic Agreement." It recognized that the South and North were in a "temporary special relationship" in the process toward reunification.

Inter-Korean Exchanges & Cooperation

Trade between South and North Korea was legalized in South Korea by the July 7 Special Declaration of 1988. In 2003, trade between the two Koreas reached US$724.21 million.

Based on a policy of separating economics from politics, South Korea introduced a measure to expand inter-Korean economic cooperation on April 30, 1998. Seoul now allows executives of major business companies as well as economic organizations to visit North Korea for business purposes.

In the area of trade and business ventures, the government has increased the number of goods for import on a blanket approval basis while reducing the number of items that require prior approval from 205 to 186. The government also eased restrictions on shipments to North Korea of manufacturing facilities for the production of goods by South Korean enterprises in North Korea and eased restrictions on the amount of investment allowed in the North.

While maintaining a strong national security system, the government will steadily expand inter-Korean economic cooperation as relations between the South and North continue to improve.

Inter-Korean trade in 2003 recorded at $724.2 million, up 12.9 percent from a year earlier. A total of $289.2 million worth of merchandise was shipped from North Korea to South Korea, a 6.5 percent increase, while $434.9 million worth of goods were sent to the North, a 17.5 percent surge. A bulk of North Korean exports includes agricultural, fishery, and textile products. Major South Korean goods were chemical industrial and textile products. Cargo and cruise operations between North and South Korea totaled 2,022 in 2003, up 10.7 percent from the previous year. Inter-Korean shipping, on the other hand, posted 1.04 million metric tons, 0.7 percent down.

Korean Lifestyle

Lifestyle Family Life
Names Festivals


It is generally surmised that Paleolithic man began to inhabit the Korean Peninsula about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, although it has yet to be confirmed if they were the ethnic ancestors of present-day Koreans.

Some Paleolithic men lived in caves, while others built structures on level ground. They lived on fruit and edible roots and by hunting and fishing.

Neolithic man appeared in Korea around 4000 B.C., with signs of their active presence around 3000 B.C. being found across the peninsula. It is believed that the Neolithic people formed the ethnic stock of the Korean people. Neolithic people dwelled near the seashore and riverbanks before advancing into inland areas. The sea was their main source of food. They used nets, hooks and fishing lines to catch fish and gather shellfish. Hunting was another way to procure food. Arrowheads and spear points have been found at Neolithic sites. Later, they began to engage in farming using stone hoes, sickles and millstones.

Rice cultivation started during the Bronze Age, generally thought to have lasted in Korea until around 400 B.C. People also lived in pits, while dolmen and stone cist tombs were used predominantly for burials during the period.

As agriculture became a principal activity, villages were formed and a ruling leader emerged along with supreme authority. Law became necessary to govern the communities. In Gojoseon (2333 B.C.-194 B.C.), a law code consisting of eight articles came into practice, but only three of the articles are known today. They are as follows: First, anybody who kills another shall immediately be killed. Second, those who injures another's body shall compensate in grain. Third, those who steals other's possessions shall become a slave of his victim.

Traditional Korean houses remained relatively unchanged from the Three Kingdoms period through the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

Ondol, a unique Korean under-floor heating system, was first used in the north. Smoke and heat were channeled through flues built under the floor. In the warmer south, ondol was used together with wooden floors. The major materials of traditional houses were clay and wood. Giwa, or black-grooved tiles for roof, were made of earth, usually red clay. Today, the presidential mansion is called Cheong Wa Dae, or Blue House, after the blue tiles used for its roof.

Family Life

In traditional Korea, the typical family was large with three or four generations usually living together. Because infant mortality was high and a big family was thought of as a blessing, having many children was desired.

However, the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the country in the 1960s and 1970s were accompanied by an effective birth control drive, and the average number of children in a family has been dramatically decreased to two or less in the 1980s.

Having a long Confucian tradition under which the eldest son takes over as head of the family, a preference for sons was prevalent in Korea. To tackle the problem of male preference, the government has completely rewritten family-related laws in a way that ensures equality for sons and daughters in terms of inheritance.

Industrialization of the country has made life more hectic and complicated. Young married couples have begun to separate from their extended families and start their own homes. Now almost all families are couple-centered nuclear families.


Korean names have almost invariably consisted of three Chinese characters that are pronounced with three Korean syllables. The family name comes first, while the remaining two characters form the given name.

However, this old tradition no longer remains intact. Of course, the majority still follow this tradition, but more and more people make their children's names in pure Korean words that cannot be written in Chinese characters.

But the family names remain unchanged in most cases. Changes are more varied for given names.

There are about 300 family names in Korea, but only a handful make up the vast majority of the population. Among the most common names are Kim, Lee, Pak or Park, An, Jang, Jo or Cho, Choe or Choi, Jong or Cheong, Han, Gang or Kang, Yu or Yoo and Yun or Yoon.

Korean women do not change their family name upon marriage. When Americans call a woman Mrs. Smith that means she is the wife of a man named Smith. In Korea, when a married woman says she is Mrs. Kim, it usually means that her surname at birth was Kim.

Some women call themselves by their husbands' family names but this is very rare. Koreans do not refer to others by their given names except among very close friends. Even among siblings, the younger ones are not supposed to address their elders by given names but rather eonni, meaning elder sister, or oppa, meaning elder brother.


In bygone days, festivals were lavish religious observances. It was during the Confederated Kingdoms period that harvest thanksgiving festivals began to be observed officially.

They included the yeonggo (spirit-invoking drums) of Buyeo, dongmaeng (worship of the founder) of Goguryeo, and mucheon (dance to Heaven) of Dongye. Usually, festivals were conducted in the tenth month, according to the lunar calendar, after harvests were over, with the exception of yeonggo on the 12th month.

The tradition of enjoying the autumnal harvest and greeting the new year in merriment continued through the later kingdoms and dynasties, although each kingdom had its addition and deletion of holidays. Due to the hectic pace of life today, modern Korea has lost many of its traditional holidays.

But a few holidays are still celebrated fervently. One such day is Seol, the first day of a year by the lunar calendar, which falls sometime in late January to late February by the Western calendar. The entire family gathers on that day.

Dressed mostly in hanbok or their best outfits, the family observes ancestral rites. After the ceremonies, the younger members make a traditional deep bow to their elders.

Other major holidays include Daeboreum, the first full moon of the year after Seol. During this holiday, farmers and fishermen pray for a bountiful harvest and catch, and ordinary households express yearning for a fortuitous year and the prevention of bad luck by preparing special dishes of seasonal vegetables.

On Dano, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, farmers took a day off from the field for joint festivities marking the completion of sowing, while women washed their hair in special water prepared by boiling iris with the hope of preventing misfortune. Dano was a major holiday in the old days, but interest has decreased except in a few provinces.

Chuseok, the autumnal full moon day that falls on the 15th day of the eighth month by the lunar calendar, is probably the most anticipated festive day for modern Koreans.

Department of Asian Studies

Staidéar Áiseach

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