Korea and its Flag

The Korean name for Korea is "Hangeuk" and its people are called "Hangeuksaram". The ancient name for Korea is Choson, which means literally "the land of morning calm" and comes from the Choson (or Yi) dynasty of Korea's history (1392-1905). The name Korea comes from the Koryu dynasty of Korea's history (935-1392) during which westerners had their first contact with Korea.

The national anthem of Korea is "Aeguk Ka" (Love of Country). It was written during the Japanese occupation of Korea (circa 1905-1945) and was later set to music by Ahn Eak Tai.

The Korean flag is called Taeguk-ki and was adopted in August of 1882, not long after the "Hermit Kingdom" opened its front and back doors to foreign aggressive powers.

The central theme of the flag is that although there is constant movement within the sphere of infinity, there is also balance and harmony. The flag consists of three parts: a white field (or background), a red and blue circle in the center of the flag (containing a yin-yang like symbol), and four black trigrams surrounding the circle in each of the four corners of the flag.

The circle in the center is called TaegukKorean Flagand means the origin of all things in the universe. The red and blue paisleys within the circle represent eternal duality (heaven-earth, fire-water, good-evil, male- female, dark-light, life-death). The blue portion of the circle is called um and represents the negative aspects of this duality; the red portion of the circle is called yang and represents the positive aspects. Um- yang is the Korean equivalent of yin-yang.

The four black trigrams come from the Chinese book of I Ching. The trigrams also carry the idea of opposites and of balance. Each trigram (or gye) consists of three parallel lines, some of which are broken (split), and some of which are unbroken (solid). Each gye has a specific name and represents one or more concepts: In the upper left hand corner is K'un which consists of all solid lines and represents heaven, east, and spring; In the lower right hand corner is K'on which consists of all broken lines and represents earth, west, and summer; In the upper right hand corner is Kam which consists of one solid line surrounded by two broken lines and represents water, north, and winter; In the lower left hand corner is I which consists of one broken line surrounded by two solid lines and represents fire, south, and autumn.

South Korea


South Korea is a small country that occupies the southern part of the strategically important Korean peninsula of the East Asian mainland. The peninsula reaches to within 195 km (120 mi) of the largest Japanese island, Honshu, to the east. South Korea shares its only land border with North Korea, with which it was politically united until the end of World War II. In 1945, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel of latitude into two separate occupation zones (Soviet in the north and U.S. in the south). In 1948 these zones became the Communist-controlled Democratic People's Republic of Korea, otherwise known as North Korea, and the U.S.-supported Republic of Korea, or South Korea. Both republics seek eventual reunification of the peninsula through the political overthrow of the other. Seoul is the capital of South Korea.

Korea has a long history as a cultural bridge across which Chinese culture was transmitted to Japan and Japanese influences reached the mainland. Korean culture was greatly enriched by this contact, but Korea was dominated politically by both China and Japan for part of its history. Nevertheless, the Koreans have maintained their identity as a separate and distinct people. The name is derived from Koryo, the dynasty that ruled the peninsula from 918 to 1392. Following the devastation of the Korean War (1950Š53), both nations had to rebuild their economies; South Korea looked outward, developing a successful export-oriented economy. North Korea, one of the world's most highly regimented and isolated societies, focused on economic self-sufficiency.

The ultimate Dojang !


Korea as a whole occupies a predominantly mountainous peninsula, about 320 km (200 mi) wide, that extends southward from the Asian mainland for about 965 km (600 mi). The peninsula is bordered by the Yellow Sea on the west and the Sea of Japan (which the Koreans call the East Sea) on the east; the coastline is 8,700 km (5,400 mi) long. The western and southern coast of South Korea is irregular and dotted with more than 3,000 islands, most of them small and uninhabited. One large island is Cheju (Quelpart), a subtropical island located about 120 km (75 mi) to the south in the Korean Strait.

Only about 20% of the whole Korean peninsula is occupied by lowlands suitable for settlement and cultivation, and most of the population are concentrated in small, discontinuous coastal plains and inland valleys that open onto the western coast. The remaining 80% is too rugged for cultivation. The mountains drop steeply along the east coast, forming a narrow plain with few good harbors. To the west, the descent is more gentle and the land opens to the largest and richest agricultural lands. The T'aebaek Mountains form the backbone of the Korean peninsula, extending southward from Wonsan in North Korea almost to Pusan on South Korea's southeastern coast and forming the main watershed. These mountains rise steeply from a narrow coastal plain along the Sea of Japan. To the south, separating the western lowlands from the south coast and Pusan's Naktong Valley, is the Sobaek Range, which extends from northeast to southwest across the southern end of the peninsula and reaches 1,915 m (6,283 ft) at Mount Chii (Chiri). The highest point in South Korea is Mount Halla (1,950 m/6,398 ft) on Cheju Island.


Korea's best agricultural soils are alluvial and are found in river valleys and coastal plains. Even these, however, tend to be somewhat infertile and sandy and require heavy fertilizing. Soils in the mountains are generally thin and suitable only for cultivation by the slash-and-burn technique.


The climate of Korea is both continental and monsoonal, giving the country four distinct seasons. During the winter, the peninsula is usually swept by cold, dry north and northwest winds blowing from the interior of the Asian continent. South Korea has milder, shorter winters than the north, with an average January temperature of 5C (23F) at Seoul. During the summer, southerly monsoon winds, blowing onshore from the surrounding seas, predominate. Temperatures in July average 27C (80F) throughout the peninsula except in mountainous regions. The frost-free period, or growing season, averages 220 days in the south, making double cropping possible there. Annual precipitation is heaviest in the south, which receives more than 1,525 mm (60 in). Most precipitation occurs during the summer months.

Drainage, Vegetation, and Animal Life

The rivers of Korea are short and swift. They are widely used for irrigation and for generation of hydroelectricity but are of limited value for navigation. The most important rivers are the Taedong, Han, and Kum in central Korea, and the Naktong in the southeast.

Coniferous forests, including pine, fir, larch, and spruce trees, grow extensively in the north and at higher elevations farther south. Deciduous trees and pine forests predominate in warmer areas. Such wild animals as wolves, bears, leopards, and tigers are still found in some sparsely settled northern and peninsular upland areas. Development, however, has largely eliminated the deer, wild boar, and tigers that once made Korea's mountains famous as destinations for game hunters.


Korea is well endowed with mineral resources, including large deposits of coal, iron ore, copper, gold, silver, and tungsten. The political division of Korea left most coal and metals, as well as most of the commercial forests and hydroelectric power resources, in North Korea. South Korea, on the other hand, possesses the best agricultural land and a large labor force. It has therefore enjoyed more food sufficiency than the north.


Koreans are an ethnically homogenous Mongoloid people who have shared a common history, language, and culture since at least the 7th century, when the peninsula was first unified. The official language of both North and South is Korean (see Korean language), which is believed to have developed from a Tungusic base thousands of years ago, although many words have been borrowed from the Chinese and Japanese languages. The Korean alphabet, called hangul, was developed during the 15th century and is believed to have been the first phonetic alphabet in East Asia.

The majority of South Koreans profess Buddhism and Confucianism, the latter of which was Korea's official religion from the 14th to the early 20th century. About 25% of South Koreans are Christians. Also important are shamanism (see shaman), a widely practiced belief in natural spirits, and the strongly nationalistic religion known as Chundo Kyo (Tonghak before 1905), which was founded in the 19th century and combines elements of Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism.


The population (1998 est.) of South Korea is 46,400,000, and it therefore ranks among the world's most densely populated nations. The lowlands along the western coast are the most densely populated areas. Although the overall rate of population growth has slowed, South Korea is experiencing urban growth. The largest cities are Seoul, Pusan, Taegu, Inchon (Seoul's port), Kwangju, and Taejon.


Elementary education is free and compulsory for all students between the ages of 6 and 11, and 100% of this age group is enrolled in school. More than 75% of all children also attend secondary school. Opportunities for higher education have been greatly expanded since 1948; South Korea now ranks third in the world, after the United States and Canada, in the percentage of young people attending schools of higher education. Seoul National University (1946) is the leading institution of higher learning (see Korean universities). Some critics charged that the South Korean educational system, similar to that of Japan and focused on rote learning and advancement via scores on standardized examinations, contributed to the economic downturn of the late 1990s because it discouraged creativity and problem-solving skills. Educational reform has become a top priority of the South Korean government.

Health care has improved dramatically since 1948, with a consequent increase in life expectancy at birth. Traditional medical treatment, using herbs and acupuncture, now complements Western medicine.

The Arts

Korea's rich artistic and cultural heritage has been strongly influenced by centuries of close contact with China. Buddhism dominated Korean life from the 7th to the 12th century and left countless treasures that include the complex of temples and art works that can be seen in Kyongju, a city that was the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 to 935) and today calls itself a "museum without walls." Under the Koryo dynasty (918-1392), Korea produced an exquisite pottery known as celadon (for the green-blue color of the glaze) that is prized the world over. The Choson dynasty (1392-1910) produced numerous works of art, literature, music, and folk art that helped Korea evolve an artistic tradition entirely different from that of China and Japan.

The outside world has learned to appreciate art through collections at major museums in Japan, the United States, and Europe. Meanwhile, within Korea, private collectors have kept much of Korea's art heritage safe during the wars and upheavals of modern times; these collections are the core of several excellent museums in Seoul. The South Korean government maintains a national museum and an active program of support for artists and the preservation of cultural remains. Through a program that recognizes "intangible cultural properties" it supports artisans and craftspeople skilled in culturally important techniques, encouraging them to teach their skills to the younger generation. Certain performers are designated "living national treasures," and their performances are both popular and influential as Koreans adapt the old ways to new influences, creating entirely new forms of expression. (See also Korean art.)


After the Korean War the South Korean economy was dependent for many years on aid from the international community, primarily the United States. This dependence was aggravated in the 1950s by government policies that blocked contact with Japan out of resentment for abuses suffered during the colonial period (1910-45). Under the military regime of Gen. Park Chung Hee, who seized power in a 1961 coup, South Korea "normalized" its relations with Japan and accepted Japanese grants, loans, and investments. In the late 1960s South Korea contributed two army divisions to the Vietnam War, paid for and equipped by the United States, and also won lucrative U.S. military construction contracts, generating a "Vietnam boom" in the South Korean economy. The inflow of funds from these sources financed a government-orchestrated effort to pull South Korea's economy out of the doldrums. General Park's Economic Planning Board (EPB) set forth a series of Five Year Plans whose targets were always met early. The government coordinated the financing of development projects under South Korea's major conglomerates (called chaebol). The chaebol prospered by exporting consumer goods overseas, beginning with textiles and light electronics, then graduating to cars and, finally, to ships, steel, and computer chips. Though wages were kept low by government policies that outlawed trade unions, workers also began to enjoy rising standards of living. After the ordeals of colonialism and war, South Koreans seemed determined to work their way out of poverty.

By the 1980s, although political development was still slow and South Korea was in its third decade of military dictatorship, the economy was growing at annual rates exceeding 10% and the progress was visible everywhereŃfrom tall buildings and luxury cars to new subway systems and a rising consumer demand for imported luxury goods. The chaebol, with names like Hyundai, Samsung, LG, and Daewoo, were becoming world famous as suppliers of good-quality manufactures.

When former opposition leader Kim Young Sam was elected president in 1993, ending the era of generals-turned-presidents, he implemented many reforms. His economic reforms involved a certain amount of deregulation. One unforeseen consequence was overborrowing by the chaebol, which drew huge amounts from the newly deregulated banks in order to finance new expansion. To meet the demand, the banks borrowed from Japanese banks and other offshore sources, vastly increasing South Korea's foreign debt in a relatively short span of time. When the economic crisis that began in Thailand late in 1997 began to overtake the economies of the Pacific Rim, the South Koreans were not immune. Within a few weeks the South Korean currency lost half its value, and it became impossible to pay back the foreign loans. Deadlines came and went, and South Korea's credit plummeted. Unemployment increased from a rate of 2.1% in August 1997 to 7.6% by August 1998. With an estimated 8,000 South Koreans losing their jobs each day, the newly elected government of Kim Dae Jung took power in early 1998 facing a bleak situation. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) came to the rescue with a financial bailout package worth $57 billion, in return for which it demanded disciplinary measures against the banks and the chaebol. These policies of what the South Koreans called "the IMF era" were unpopular but necessary. As the pain continued, unemployment surged even further, and the five largest chaebol agreed to sell off or transfer nearly half of their subsidiary companies in an effort to improve their efficiency. It was estimated that the national economy, which had performed so brilliantly in the growth years, actually shrank by 5% in the first half of 1998 and by 6.5% during all of that year. The predicted growth rate for 1999 was only 0.5%.

Manufacturing and Power

Manufacturing provides most of South Korea's exports. Early postwar industrial development focused on such labor-intensive industries as electronics, footwear, and textile manufacturing. Rising wages caused the exodus of many such industries to other parts of Asia, and South Korea now competes with Japan in a variety of high-tech fields, including electronic equipment, steel, shipbuilding, automobiles, and chemicals. Seoul is the chief industrial center, followed by Pusan, Ulsan (automobiles, shipbuilding, petroleum refining), and Yochon (steel, petrochemicals). Many industrial raw materials must be imported.

After the Korean War, South Korea began a massive construction effort to develop electrical generating facilities, including nuclear power stations, which provide more than 40% of the nation's electricity. In 1995, 163 billion kW h of electricity were produced (33 times the 1966 output).

Agriculture, Fishing, and Forestry

About 21% of the land is farmed; agriculture provides about 10% of the national income. Rice is the principal summer, or wet-season, crop; wheat, barley, corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes are the major dry-season crops. South Korea's rice yields, among the highest in the world, are obtained through heavy use of fertilizers, hybrid seeds, irrigation, and mechanization, plus a strong system of cooperatives. The number of people involved in farming increased in 1998 as many of those who lost their jobs in the cities turned to farming in an effort to gain food self-sufficiency. Foodstuffs, including meat products, are imported in increasing quantity. Fish, a traditional part of the Korean diet, are abundant offshore and in the Sea of Japan. Since the 1950s fish production has increased tremendously, and South Korea now ranks third (following Japan and China) among Asian fish producers. Forests cover about 66% of the total land area, but demand greatly exceeds the yearly wood output. Extensive reforestation efforts have been launched.


The principal rail line connects Seoul, Taejon, Taegu, and Pusan. A second rail line runs from Seoul to the south and west, and a third serves the east coast. An extensive network of superhighways and new expressways, such as the one linking Seoul and Pusan, have led to a decline in the use of rail transportation, but the expansion of rapid transportation routes into every corner of the country has promoted higher living standards everywhere and the knitting together of the nation as never before. South Korean cities have excellent mass transport systems, including subway networks in Seoul and Pusan.


The keystone of South Korea's prosperity is foreign trade, which increased dramatically beginning in the 1960s. However, South Korean exports now face increasing competition from other industrialized nations. This fact, plus the financial woes of many of its neighbors, contributed to a major economic crisis in late 1997, when several of the nation's leading conglomerates sought bankruptcy protection. Despite a huge IMF bailout package to help restructure South Korea's ailing economy, and various measures designed to promote foreign investment, the country's economic problems have continued.


According to the constitution of 1987, the sixth since the founding of the Republic in 1948, legislative power is vested in the mostly popularly elected National Assembly and executive power in the president. The latter is elected to a single 5-year term. The president appoints the cabinet, headed by a prime minister. Roh Tae Woo was elected president in 1987 under the new constitution, which curtailed presidential powers, strengthened the legislature, and pledged military neutrality in politics after nearly three decades of military rule. Roh Tae Woo was succeeded as president in February 1993 by Kim Young Sam, who became the first civilian president of South Korea in more than three decades. In the midst of the economic crisis of 1997 opposition leader Kim Dae Jung won election to the presidency. When he took office on Feb. 25, 1998, he was forced to confront a formidable combination of tasks: building democracy while organizing economic recovery. Kim Dae Jung had spent most of his career opposing military rule and championing human rights. His victory was seen as a triumph for democracy in South Korea.

Robert B. Hall

Reviewed by Donald N. Clark


KOREA (NORTH AND SOUTH): Cumings, B., Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History (1997; repr. 1998); Hwang, E., The Korean Economies (1994); Lee, P. H., et al., eds., Sourcebook of Korean Civilization (1996); Macdonald, D. S., The Koreans, 3d ed., rev. by D. N. Clark (1996); Oberdorfer, D., The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (1997); Pratt, K., ed., Korea: A Cultural and Historical Dictionary (1996); Tennant, R., A History of Korea (1996); Thompson, K. W., Korea: A World in Change (1996); Yang, S. C., The North and South Korean Political Systems (1994).

SOUTH KOREA: Bedeski, Robert E., The Transformation of South Korea: Reform and Reconstruction in the Sixth Republic under Roh Tae Woo, 1987Š1992 (1994); Cotton, J., Politics and Policy in the New Korean State (1995); Kim, D., Mass Participatory Economy (1995); Lee, H., The Korean Economy (1996); Nahm, A. C., Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Korea (1993); Shapiro, M., The Shadow in the Sun 1990; Sigur, C. J., ed., Korea's New Challenges and Kim Young Sam (1993); Turner, J. E., et al., Villages Astir (1993).

Copyright (c) 1999 Grolier Interactive Inc.