The history of the Korean Peninsula spans more than 5,000 strife-filled years. That's ironic for a place that has been called the "Land of the Morning Calm." But because of its strategic location, the peninsula suffered a seemingly endless series of invasions by China and Manchuria from the north and Japan from the east. In fact, the last war, the Korean War, never actually ended -- rather, it was halted by a cease-fire in 1953. That cease-fire solidified a painful split, with a communist dictatorship ruling the North and a more democratic regime ruling the South. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the area that marks the boundary between the two Koreas, is a painful reminder of the country's war-torn past.
While North Korea has suffered poverty and famine, South Korea has made incredible strides in the past few decades in its race toward modernization. South Korea, a country roughly the size of Great Britain, is the 15th-largest economy in the world. The city of Seoul, with its towering high-rises and modern infrastructure, is a testament to the innovative spirit of the Korean people.
The country is a land of contrasts and contradictions. The leader in developing technology for high-speed Internet and mobile phones, South Korea still holds dear its history and traditions. Just a few hours beyond Seoul's skyscrapers, you'll find tranquil temples nestled in verdant hillsides holding secrets of the land's past.
Today -- South Korea's history after the Korean War is marked by turbulent governments. The country has undergone five major constitutional changes, along with decades of authoritarian governments and military rule. Although an electoral college was created in the 1970s, South Korea did not hold its first democratic and fair presidential election until 1987. Despite its violent past, South Korea grew by leaps and bounds, especially in the decades from the 1960s to the 1990s. It is now the 4th largest economy in Asia and the 15th largest in the world. It is also one of the most wired countries in the world.
The president is the head of state of the Republic of Korea and is elected by direct popular vote for a 5-year term (with no possibility for reelection). Rhee Syngman took power in 1954 with an anticommunist platform, but his administration collapsed in the face of a student antigovernment movement, the April 19 Revolution, in 1960. In 1963, Park Chung-hee was elected president, and he ruled with military might until he was assassinated by his own men in 1979 (Im Sang-Soo's 2005 film, The President's Last Bang, is an excellent satire of the assassination). In 1980, Chun Doo-hwan came to power and continued his predecessor's authoritarian rule until a massive 1987 protest demanding democracy. At that point, Roh Tae-woo came to power, the country hosted the 1988 Olympics, and it joined the United Nations in 1991. Kim Young-sam became the country's first nonmilitary president in 1993 and saw the International Monetary Fund (IMF) collapse during his presidency. In 1997, Kim Dae-jung was elected and made efforts toward reviving the economy, and he hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002. The 16th president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun was elected in 2003 and committed suicide in May 2009, when he was embroiled in a bribery scandal.
After one of the lowest voter turnouts in history, Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party was elected president in 2007. The largely unpopular President Lee was the former CEO of Hyundai and served as the mayor of Seoul. Lee's term began in 2008 and will continue through February of 2013.
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