New Internationalist

South Korea

April 1988

new internationalist
issue 182 - April 1988


South Korea
South Korea The recent elections have added to the already heady atmosphere in South Korea as its capital, Seoul, prepares to host the 1988 Olympics. The old divide between north and south in the country was almost overshadowed by the rivalry in the south between the two Kims, the opposition leaders. The new president, the first directly elected in 16 years after student demonstrations forced an end to military rule, will have his work cut out in trying to redress the economic imbalances in the country.

Before Japan annexed Korea in 1910, most Koreans were farmers. Japanese dominance ended in 1945. American and Soviet troops received the surrender respectively in the south and north of the peninsula, so laying the ground for today's two opposing political and economic systems.

South Korea is relatively poor in mineral resources compared to its northern neighbour. It relies for its wealth on its fishstocks - it is now one of the world's largest ocean-fishing nations - and also on its 20,000 factories. Most industries are privately owned, as are the farms which produce rice as the staple food and barley, beans and potatoes. Despite mechanization, people and bullocks working in the fields is still a common sight.

While the economy has grown dramatically, at about 12 per cent a year recently, the workers are suffering. Denied the right to organize trade unions in practice, they are subject to the worst working conditions in the world according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Saddled with nearly $45 billions of foreign debt, South Korea is trying to wrench itself from economic dependence on the US, finding new markets in the EEC and China. But American influence remains strong. Western clothing for both men and women is one sign. More ominous is the presence of the 41,000 US troops with their recently upgraded, enlarged nuclear arsenal.

The modernity of nuclear weapons and high-rise buildings clashes with the tradition of bullock-ploughs and one-story houses: Western secularity vies with Confucianism; the north of the country is distinct from the south, whose east and west regions are split. South Korea is a very mixed country, difficult to administer. Some people fear that the new-found political freedoms will dent economic performance and raise the spectre of a return to military rule.

Seoul, the capital, is like a beehive with millions of people constantly on the move. Not all of them are willing participants in this flux however. The lavish building works for the Games have meant that the city's shanty dwellers - about one in three of the population - are finding themselves swept out of their homes as the bulldozers follow in the wake of riot police, clearing the ground of people and rubble.

Larry Jagan

Leader: President Roh Tae Woo

Economy: GNP per capita $2,150 (US $16,690)
Monetary unit: Won
Main exports: iron and steel manufactures, textiles, cars, ships, electronics, chemical and petroleum products, raw silk and fish.
Imports include
crude oil, raw materials, machine tools for industry and consumer goods. Rice, barley, beans, potatoes and wheat are grown. The moist climate favours forest development but excessive logging before 1945 has destroyed original hardwoods

People: 42 million

Health: Infant mortality 25 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)

Culture: Traditional life in countryside, Westernized in towns. Most families own a radio, many have TV. There are about 40 daily newspapers Compulsory elementary education.
Language: Korean. Some words are Chinese derivatives, language structure is like Japanese. South Koreans mix Chinese characters with Korean phonetics.
Religion: Buddhism and Shamanism. Confucianism also important. Christianity increased with Western influence. About 7m Buddhists and 4m Chrislians.

Sources: State of the World's Children 1988; Asia Yearbook 1987; Encyclopaedia of Developing Nations

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Wealthy urban élite amid widespread poverty.

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Depends heavily on primary product imports to make exports for limited markets. Large foreign debt.

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Slowly improving

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Military-backed conservative party candidate elected after suspected ballot-rigging

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Among the highest in Asia. Women 88%, Men 96%.

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Limited political freedom. Tightly controlled media.

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69 years
(US 75 years)

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This feature was published in the April 1988 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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