Country profile: South Korea
In 2002, South Korean president Kim Dae-jung opened Dorasan railway station on the Korean peninsular’s 38th parallel, which marks the country’s border with North Korea. It was a key milestone in the ‘sunshine policy’, which won Kim a Nobel Peace Prize. On the platform, a map demonstrates that, if made functional, this section of the Gyeongui Line would connect the South to the Eurasian rail network and beyond, making it possible – technically – to travel by train from Seoul to London.
The violent severance of one Korea into two in 1948 is a wound unhealed. Today the tracks remain eerily quiet, and the empty Dorasan station exists as a speculative piece of architecture – a symbol of hope for reunification as well as a hauntological monument of South Korea’s transition to liberal democracy.
Korea was unified from three distinct kingdoms and for much of the second millennium AD was governed under the Joseon dynasty, which was succeeded by the Korean Empire in 1897. Imperial Japan defeated Russia in a war of territorial control in 1905 and governed Korea as a colony until its own defeat at the end of World War Two, after which it was divided along the 38th parallel into North and South Korea, in the respective spheres of influence of the Soviet Union and the United States.
Independence did little to relieve the country’s extreme national trauma, with almost a million South Korean civilian casualties in the US and UK-backed Korean War of 1953, and autocratic governance until Kim’s election in 1993.
Under conditions of hardship and large-scale loss of civilian life, in the course of just 60 years, South Korea underwent a transformation from a largely agrarian peasant nation to the 10th largest economy on the planet. Much of this growth took place under military dictator Park Chung-hee, who oversaw a period of rapid industrialization, worker suppression and the emergence of a formidable manufacturing trade. Industry remains dominated by the chaebols – family-run business conglomerates, such as Samsung, Hyundai, LG, SK and Lotte – which emerged in the 1960s and 70s.
Today South Korean soft power is expressed via K-Pop, K-Drama and a 10-step skincare regime coveted by consumers across the world. It is through this globally-exported popular culture that many Western audiences learn about South Korean life. Min Jin Lee’s book Pachinko charts the effects of Protestant missionary efforts, which in South Korea allowed civilians to express nationalist opposition to Japanese assimilation. In Bong Joon-Ho’s upstairs-downstairs film Parasite, the nation’s housing crisis, lack of social mobility and income inequality are played out to tragi-comedic effect. Equally popular has been Netflix’s Squid Game.
While economic growth, life expectancy and general standard of living in South Korea have accelerated, the country’s treatement of women is its most limiting factor. Many of the women sexually enslaved by the Japanese during World War II are still alive and continue to face stigma. Economic and political discrimination and gender-based violence persist. Overwork and inequality contribute to both a shockingly high suicide rate and a shockingly low birth rate, as a growing number of women reject deeply conservative gender expectations and economic penalties on motherhood. It is jarring how infrequently one spots a baby or child in Seoul.
The latest coinage of the Korean wave is K-Trumpism – following the election, by a narrow margin, in March 2022 of rightwing president Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party, who campaigned on an overtly anti-feminist, anti-worker platform. His victory makes improving the lot of South Korean women an even steeper struggle.
AT A GLANCE
LEADER: President Yoon Suk-yeol.
ECONOMY: GNI per capita $34,980 in 2021 (Japan $42,620).
Monetary unit: Won (1 KRW = $0.00071).
Main exports: Integrated circuits, cars and vehicle parts, refined petroleum, ships, office machinery.
POPULATION: 51.8 million. Annual population growth: 0.24%. People per square kilometre 511 (Japan 336).
HEALTH: Under-5 mortality rate: 2.64 deaths per 1,000 live births (Japan 1.9). Maternal mortality rate per 1,000 live births: 11 (Japan 5). Universal health insurance system administrated by the state, but a proportion of healthcare is privately funded.
ENVIRONMENT: Temperate climate with rainier summers and cold winters. Hazards include air pollution, acid rain and water pollution from the discharge of sewage and industrial effluents.
CULTURE: South Korea is one of the world’s most ethnically homogenous countries and does not collect ethnic data. There are over a million Chinese nationals living in the country, but most are ethnic Koreans. Traditional elements of Joseon era culture like hanbok clothes, celadon pottery, herbal medicine and shamanism have survived decades of cultural suppression by Japan and today are interwoven with modern popular culture.
RELIGION: Protestant 19.7%, Buddhist 15.5%, Roman Catholic 7.9%, none 56.9%. Many Koreans also take part in some Confucian traditions.
LANGUAGE: Korean (official) with some regional dialects. Chinese population speak Mandarin and Cantonese while some elderly residents may still speak Japanese, which was the official language during the period of occupation.
HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.916 (Japan 0.919), rank 19 (joint with Japan) out of 191 countries.
INCOME DISTRIBUTION ★✩✩✩✩
There is a widening gap between rich and poor, with South Korea ranking third highest among OECD countries for income inequality. The richest percentile has access to luxury goods and gated accommodation while poverty particularly impacts elderly people in rural areas.
Literacy rates are extremely high at almost 98%.
LIFE EXPECTANCY ★★★★★
Life expectancy in South Korea has rapidly risen over the past 60 years and is now among the highest in the world, with women expected to live past 90 by 2030.
POSITION OF WOMEN ★★✩✩✩
South Korea is a highly patriarchal culture. Eighty percent of violent crime victims in South Korea are women.
Though South Korea has a comparatively liberal civil society, legislation enables intelligence gathering and the curtailing of freedom of expression, which places some limits on the press. Discrimination against women and minorities remains a serious matter.
SEXUAL MINORITIES ★★✩✩✩
Under the influence of Christian conservatives, the government still fails to offer LGBTQI+ people protection from discrimination or hate crime. Neither same-sex marriage nor same-sex adoption is legal.
The new administration is set on lowering corporation tax, reducing the minimum wage, promoting labour casualization and cutting welfare spending.