With Japan’s surrender to the United States in 1945 at the end of the World War II, Korea regained its independence after more than three decades of control by its occupier. In 1948, it was split into two new states—the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea, which was established in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, while a Communist-style government was installed in the north (the DPRK, or North Korea). The relationship between the two nations has since been tumultuous and South Korea is a state often defined by its contrasts to its close neighbour to the north.
The tensions between North and South Korea peaked with the Korean War (1950-53). The conflict developed into a clash of global powers when US troops and UN forces backed South Korea in its defence against North Korean attacks, which were supported by China and the Soviet Union. A settlement was reached in 1953, splitting the peninsula along a demilitarized zone at about the 38th parallel. Since then, despite a general mutual desire to have a reunification-based relationship, North and South have had little long-term success in achieving good bilateral ties.
In the early 1990s, relations between the two countries improved with the 1991 ‘Basic Agreement,’ which acknowledged that reunification was the goal of both governments. However, conflicting positions on the reunification process and the North Korean weapons programs were primary reasons for the lack of success. Relations improved further following the 1997 South Korea election of Kim Dae-jung. His ‘Sunshine Policy’ of engagement with the North set the stage for the historic June 2000 inter-Korean summit between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. However, relations soured again following the October 2002 North Korean acknowledgement of a covert program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
In 1993, Kim Young-sam became South Korea’s first civilian president following 32 years of military rule and South Korea today is a fully functioning modern democracy.
Since the 1960s, South Korea has achieved rapid economic growth with per capita income rising to roughly 14 times the level of North Korea — a sharp contrast with four decades ago, when the country’s GDP per capita was comparable with poorer countries in Africa and Asia. Economic considerations are given a high priority in South Korean foreign policy. The Republic of Korea maintains diplomatic relations with more than 170 countries and a broad network of trading relationships. In August 1991, South Korea joined the United Nations along with North Korea and is active in most UN specialized agencies and many international forums.
In addition to domestic consumption, South Korean mainstream culture, including televised dramas, films, and popular music, have gained popularity in other countries and have generated significant exports to various parts of the world, particularly Asia.