Korea in focus

A People and History in Harmony


In the past two decades, Korea has been one of the fastest developing nations in the world - both in economic and social terms. Rapid industrial and economic growth has seen the Republic nearly reach developed nation status in a remarkably short time. The Korean people also find themselves in the midst of a new era of democratic development following the birth of the civilian Administration of President Kim Young Sam on February 25, 1993. This wiped out the negative legacy of decades of military-backed authoritarian rule. The country has since been implementing bold political and economic reforms to eradicate corruption and revitalize and restructure the economy with the goal of building a New Korea - a mature and vibrant industrial democracy.

This rapid economic and social development has brought Korea increased international exposure and recognition, as the Republic begins to expand its role on the international stage. Testifying to this was the successful hosting of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the largest held in history up to that time. This was following by the 1993 hosting of an international exposition, the Taejon Expo ‘93.  Both the Seoul Olympics and the Taejon Expo played an important role in deepening ties between Korea and countries all over the world and gave an impetus to the Korean economy.

This era of stability and expanding international ties represents the most exciting period in the country’s history - and yet, in retrospect, Korea has, in its 5,000-year history, quite an enviable record for governments of longevity and stability. The country’s last dynasty, the Yi Dynasty of the Choson Kingdom, lasted 500 years.

The Koreans of today, while enormously proud of their country’s past, look at Korea’s role and reputation  from a more recent historical perspective; but, in order to understand today’s Korea - its land, people, culture, history, and recent economic and political transitions - it is necessary to look at both the past and the present. “Korea In Focus” aims to give you a brief overview to help in your general awareness of Korea today. More detailed information can be obtained from individual organizations or government offices.


The Korean Peninsula, located in Northeast Asia, is bordered on the north by China and Russia and juts towards Japan to the southeast. Since 1948, the 221,487  square kilometers which make up the entire Peninsula have been divided, roughly along the 38th parallel, into the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north. The Republic of Korea covers 99,221 square kilometers, a land area a little more than twice the size of Switzerland.

Seoul is the capital of the country which is made up of nine provinces; other major cities include Pusan, Taegu, Inch’on, Kwangju, and Taejon.

The landscape is spectacular in its variations and about 70 percent of it is mountaneous. The oceans around the Peninsula are a major source of livelihood and recreation for Koreans. The shoreline is dotted by more than 3,000 islands.

The Peninsula’s longest river is the Amnokkang (790 km) in the North. One of the South’s major waterways is the Han-gang River, which flows through Seoul to the West Sea (Yellow Sea).


A look back at the 5,000 years of Korean history reveals triumphs and tragedies, successes and struggles which have been instrumental in shaping the Korea and Koreans of today. One remarkable fact that emerges from such a historical  examination is that Korea has largely been ruled by long-term, stable governments. Korea’s kindoms and  dynasties generally lasted about 500 years or more.

Although Korea’s traceable history began considerably earlier that the seventh century, it was the Shilla Unification in 668 that Korea, as a historical entity with a cohesive culture and society, came to occuрy most of the Peninsula as it exists today.

It was almost a decade after the end of the war before the Republic of Korea had recovered sufficiently to establish stability and start the momentum for its now remarkable recovery and development. The three decades since then have been a time of spectacular progress which has seen the creation of a modern, industrialized nation.


Korea is homogeneous society, although there have been historic and prehistoric migrations of Chinese, Mongols and Japanese. Koreans are very conscious of the ethnic differences and cultural distinctions which give them their unique identity.

The population of the Republic of Korea was estimated at 44.1 million in 1993. Its population density is among the world’s highest and Seoul, the capital, has more than 10 million inhabitants. The annual population growth in the Republic has dropped from an average of 2.7 percent in the 1960-66 period to only 0.90 percent in 1993.  The slowdown is also partly the result of the increasing number of young working women.

The country’s rapid industrialization is responsible for today’s concentration of population in urban centers.  The proportion of Koreans living in cities has jumped from only 28 percent in 1960 to 74.4 percent as of 1990 - very similar to the 73 to 76 percent levels in the United States, Japan and France.


The Korean language is spoken  by some 60 million people living on the Peninsula and its outlying islands as well as some 1.5 million Koreans living in other parts of the world.

Korean belongs to the Ural-Altaic language group, which is found in an narrow band from Korea and Japan across Mongolia and central Asia to Turkey. Korean is a non-tonal language, with agglutinative and polysynthetic elements.


Religion in today’s Korea covers a broad spectrum of faiths and beliefs. Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam and numerous other indigenous religions exist in Korea. Although none of them dominates, they all influence contemporary culture.


Education has been at the heart of Korea’s growth by training and supplying the manpower needed for rapid industrial and economic expansion.

A multi-tiered educational system is currently in use, encompassing elementary school (six years), middle school (three years), high school (three years), and college (four years), as well as various graduate and professional programs.

The government has eased regulations on overseas study. This new policy also encourages those in the teaching profession to take advantage of opportunities for training abroad.


The tremendous pace of domestic economic growth in the past two decades has been reflected in the expansion of transportation facilities and the increases in Korea’s annual passenger and cargo volumes. The annual volume of passenger transportation rose from 1.6 billion persons in 1996 to 14.24 billion in 1993.

Seoul has a well-developed mass transit system of subways, buses, and taxis. Airport shuttles or city buses are conveniently available and operate throughout the city. The subway system is the eighth longest in the world, carrying 1,388 million people in 1993. Its four lines reach most major locations in the city.

Korea has three international airports in Seoul (Kimpo), Pusan (Kimhae) and Cheju (Cheju), all of which are equipped with modern air traffic control facilities and support systems. Korean Air’s worldwide network serves 43 cities in 24 nations, including recently inaugurated flights to Rome. The newly launched Asiana Airlines recently started international flights with regular service to fourteen cities in Japan, the U.S., Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and Bangkok.

All expressway system also connects Seoul with provincial cities and towns, putting any place in mainland South Korea within a one-day round trip of the capital. Express buses transport passengers to and from all principal cities and resorts in the country.

The railway also serve the entire country through an efficient and extensive network. The super-express train, Saemaul, runs 444.5 kilometers from Seoul to Pusan in four hours and 10 minutes. There are also ordinary express and local trains.

Ocean liners, cruise ships, and passenger-carrying freighters visit Korean ports. A ferry service links Pusan with Chejudo Island and the Japanese ports of Shimonoseki, Kobe and Hakada. Another ferry service recently started between Inch’on and Tianjin China.


Telephone services have rapidly expanded  during the last decade, particularly during the last 5 Years (1988-”92). During these years, with the investment of US$2.64 billion in communications annually, 1.76 million new telephone circuits were installed each year, increasing the total number of telephone lines to 10.14 million as of 1993. Virtually every home in the country now has its own telephone and all the telephone circuits are connected by automatic switching systems.

Also, through the launch of KOREASAT scheduled in 1995, Korea will be able to provide satellite communication services by using its own satellite from October 1995.


Looking Ahead to the 21st Century

In the last quarter century, Korea’s economic growth has been among the fastest in the world. The country has overcome obstacles and challenges to transform itself from a subsistence-level economy into one of the world’s leading newly industrialized countries. Today, however, the Korean economy faces the new challenges of internationalization and globalization in an increasingly complex global economic environment.

Past Performance and Policies

Since Korea launched its First Five-Year Economic Development Plan in 1962, the country’s real GNP has expanded by an average of more than 8 percent per year. As a result, Korea’s GNP has grown from US$2.3 billion in 1962 to US$328.7 billion in 1993; per capita GNP has increased from a meager US$82 in 1962 to US$7,466 in 1993 at current price levels.

The industrial structure of the  Korean economy has also been completely transformed. The agricultural sector’s share of GNP declined from 37.0 percent in 1962 to 7.1 percent in 1993. The manufacturing sector’s share has increased from 14.4 percent to 27.1 percent in the same period. The service sector accounted for only 24.1 percent of GNP in 1962 but grew to 40.0 percent in 1993.

Korea’s merchandise trade volume increased from US$500 million in 1962 to US$166 billion in 1993. The nation continuously posted trade deficits until 1985 when its foreign debt reached US$46.8 billion, the fourth largest in the world. From 1986 to 1989, Korea recorded current account surpluses and its debt declined.

Trends of Major Economic Indicators

GNPUS$ bil.
Per Capita GNPUS$8.22422,1942,2425,8837,0077,466
GNP Growth Rate%
Domestic Savings%3.317.929.129.835.934.934.9
Trade VolumeUS$ bil.0.52.839.861.4134.9158.4166.0
Producer Price%
Consumer Price%8.315.928.

Inflation in Korea was one of the major economic problems in the 70s and early 80s, during which consumer prices rose at annual rates of 10-20 percent. Since 1982, Korea has managed to keep inflation down to a single digit. The ratio of domestic savings to GNP grew from 3.3 percent in 1962 to 34.9 percent in 1993.

Recent Challenges

Beginning in 1989, the Korean economy began experiencing slower growth, high inflation and a deterioration in the balance of payments. The GNP growth rate fell to 6.7 percent in 1989 from the 12 percent level of previous years. A slump in the growth of the manufacturing sector, from 18.8 percent in 1987 and 13.4 percent in 1988 to 13.7 percent in 1989, contributed largely to this decline in GNP growth rate. The export growth rate on a customs clearance basis, which was 36.2 percent in 1987 and 28.4 percent in 1988, fell to just 2.8 percent in 1989. Reflecting this fall in the export growth rate, the current account surplus lowered to around US$5.1 billion, a significant drop from the 1988 surplus of US$14.2 billion.

In 1991, the economic growth rate showed signs of recovery. The GNP grew during the year 9.1 percent. However, most of this growth was attributed to an increase in domestic demand, particularly domestic consumption. Exports increased 10.3 percent compared to 1990, while the growth rate of imports increased 17.7 percent. The trade balance deteriorate rapidly to a US$7.0 billion deficit in 1991 from the US$4.6 billion surplus in 1989. In addition, price stability, which had served to boost Korea’s competitiveness, weakened. Consumer prices, which had risen on an annual average of 2-3 percent between 1984 and 1987, rose 9.3 percent in 1991.

Recent Economic Trends

‘91‘92‘93‘94. 1 ~ 6
GNPGrowth Rate in %
Manufacturing SectorGrowth Rate in %
Private ConsumptionGrowth Rate in %
InvestmentGrowth Rate in %
EquipmentGrowth Rate in %
Producer Price%
Consumer Price%
Balance of Payments7.
ExportUS$ bil.69.675.181.043.1
ImportsUS$ bil.76.677.379.144.7
Current Account
BalanceUS$ bil.

In 1992, the Korean economy rapidly cooled off, with the GNP growth rate dipping to 5.0 percent, influenced chiefly by blunted investment in capital goods. The consumer price index rose just 6.2 percent, and the deficit in the balance of payments also dropped to US$4.5 billion.

At that time, the Korean economy faced many challenges on both the internal and external fronts. Part of the economic slowdown may be explained by the cyclical adjustment of the economy after three consecutive years of rapid growth. However, the stagnation was more likely the result of a structural deterioration in competitiveness, due to a combination of the lingering legacies of the past government-led economic management system, which had now become inefficient, and the disappearance of the advantages derived from the once ample availability of low-cost labor: Thus the country was forced to search for a new driving force sufficient for sustained economic growth.

Major Tasks and Policy Directions

To revitalize the economy, the Kim Young Sam Administration, which was inaugurated  in February 1993 as the first civilian democratic government in over three decades, is endeavoring to construct a new developmental paradigm called “the New Economy”. This signals a clean departure from the  past, when the government directed and controlled the concentrated investment of capital, labor and other resources in selected “strategic” industrial sectors to achieve rapid economic growth. Instead, the New Economy will promote the autonomy and  creativity of all economic actors in order to maximize efficiency, while ensuring the equitable distribution of income. In that way, it seeks to enable the nation to leap into the ranks of the developed nations within the next five years.

As an initial step, the new Administration implemented a short-term 100-Day Plan for the New Economy in March 1993, designed to promptly create conditions conductive to revitalizing the economy. This was followed by the development of a new five-year economic development plan. Formally announced in July 1993, the Five-Year Plan for the New Economy was conceived primarily to lay the basis for joining the ranks of advanced countries and thus to effectively prepare for the eventual unification of the Korean Peninsula.

The Government will continue its efforts to ensure the effective implementation of the five-year plan through the spontaneous participation of the people by reforming economic institutions including the improvement or simplification of existing financial and tax systems and administrative measures. Furthermore, the Government will continue to endeavor to fully realized the nation’s economic growth potential, strengthen its international competitiveness, and improve the economic conditions of the public.

If the plan is implemented as intended, the Korean economy is projected to change as follows:

First with increased efficiency and greater realization of growth potential, the gross national product should rise at an average annual rate of about 6.9 percent, raising per capita GNP to US$14,076 in 1998.

Second, greater price stability should prevail as balance is maintained between the more steadily rising demand and the more briskly expanding supply, while wage increases are linked to rises in productivity. The stabilization of the value of the won currency should help stabilize the prices of imported goods and services. The net effect should be to hold down the rise in consumer prices to an annual average of 3.7 percent, the increase in producer prices to an annual average of 1.6 percent and the rise in the GNP deflator to an annual average of 4.6 percent.

Targets of the 5-Year Plan for the New Economy

GNP growth, %
Per capita GNP, US$6,5186,7497,3068,1969,33910,71612,30514,07614,0762)
Rise in producer prices, %
Rise in consumer prices, %
Rise in GNP deflator, %
Balance on curren account,
US$ billion
Exports 1) ,US$ billion69.675.182.382.399.3110.1122.6136.3136.32)
Rate of increase, %(10.2)(7.9)(9.5)(9.5)(10.2)(10.9)(11.3)(11.2)(10.4)
Imports, US$ billion76.677.381.381.395.8105.3116.1128.1128.12)
Rate of increase, %(17.5)(1.0)(5.1)(5.1)(9.3)(9.9)(10.2)(10.3)(8.8)

Note: 1) On a balance-of-payments basis

 2) In terms of 1998 current market prices

The Real name Financial Transaction System

On August 12, 1993, the President took a decisive step toward revitalizing the economy and eliminating corruption by announcing the inplementation of the long-anticipated real-name financial transaction system. In the past, it had been possible to open accounts and conduct business transactions under false names, directly and indirectly fostering institutionalized-corruption and illegal financial dealings. Deeming this reform as the most important in the creation of a New Korea, the President announced this action in a Presidential Emergency Decree, stating that the real-name system was essential for cutting the dark link between politics and business.

With the introduction of the real-name financial transaction system, it appears that financial dealings are  becoming fully transparent and underground economic dealings and nonproductive land speculation are diminishing. It is hoped the funds that had been channeled into political circles in the past as a result of government-business collusion are now available for more productive activities.

Encouraging Signs

The implementation of a real-name financial transaction system, the easing of administrative controls, expanded capital investment by major enterprises, and increased financial and  administrative support for small-and medium-sized enterprises all combined to lay a solid foundation for another economic take-off. Exports rose 7.6 percent in 1993 to US$82.4 billion, while imports grew just 2.5 percent. Korea was thus able to register a US$600 million trade surplus last year for the first time in four years.  The current account also yielded a surplus of US$200-300 million.  Industrial production has been growing at about a 10 percent rate during the first half of 1994. Furthermore, labor disputes decreased markedly last year, while the composite stock index of the Seoul Stock Exchange climbed markedly. In view of these indications, the Korean economy seems to be well on the way to revitalization.

External Policies for Greater International Cooperation

Import Liberalization

Korea is committed to fulfilling its international responsibilities. It positively supports the trend toward openness and utilizes it as a catalyst for further enhancing the international competitiveness of industry and thus speeding the advancement of the economy, so that it can join the group of advancedcountries.

Since 1980, Korea has made continuous efforts toward import liberalization. The import liberalization rate increased from 68.6 percent  in 1980 to 98.1 percent in 1993. The average tariff rate decreased from 24.9 percent to 8.9 percent during the same period and is expected to be only 7.9 percent by the end of 1994, the same average level of tariffs found in OECD member countries.

In October 1989, Korea decided to relinquish GATT balance of payments protection which mostly covers agricultural products. According to the decision Korea will move to eliminate its remaining restrictions or otherwise make them conform with GATT rules by July 1, 1997.

Liberalizing Foreign Exchange Transactions and Capital Markets

In June 1993, the Korean Government made public the third-phase of the blueprint for financial liberalization and internationalization, which was implemented from the second half of 1993. Under the plan, procedures for various foreign exchange transactions are being gradually simplified. Beginning in 1994, the ceiling on foreign investment in the stock market will be gradually raised, and the bond market will also be gradually opened to foreign investment. Initially, from 1994 foreign investors will be allowed to purchase convertible bonds, even those issued by small-and medium-sized domestic enterprises.

Foreign-invested firms engaged in the manufacture of high-tech products or banking and other services are currenlty allowed to induce foreign credit repayable within three years. Beginning in  1997, the liberal inducement of foreign credit by both domestic and foreign-invested enterprises will be allowed.

Increasing Opportunities for Foreign Investors

In June 1993, the Korean Government also announced a five-year plan for liberalizing foreign investment. Under the plan, 132 of the 224 business lines currently being protected from foreign competition will be opened to foreign investment in five phases, over a period of five years starting from July 1993. With the implementation of this plan, of the total 1,148 business lines under the standard industrial classification of Korea, 1,056 will be open to foreign competition. This means that the foreign investment liberalization rate will rise from 83 percent as of June 2, 1993 to 93.4 percent by 1997.

Included among the business lines to be opened to foreign competition under the plan are most of the service industries including distribution and transportation, hospital management, vocational training and “value-added” communications.

The business conditions for foreign-invested firms will also be greatly improved through various measures, including relaxed control on the acquisition of land by foreign-invested firms, the augmented protection of foreign intellectual rights, and other similar steps.

Cooperation with the Rest of the World, Including Developing Nations and Socialist Countries

Expanding Trade and Economic Exchanges

The Republic of Korea has emerged as a major global trader by steadily pursuing freer trade and greater openness, while promoting its business presence around the world. In the past, Korea’s foreign trade concentrated on the developed world - mainly the United States, Japan and the EU. In more recent years, however, it has rapidly expanded trade and capital cooperation with Southeast Asia, former and present socialist countries and Third World nations as well.

Especially since the 1988 Seoul Olympics, economic interactions with the former Soviet republics have been brisk. The Republic of Korea is also increasing its support of economic development efforts in the Third World on the basis of its more than three decades’ experience with successful domestic development.

The nation will continue to pursue expanded and more diversified trade and to promote economic cooperation on a long-term basis with the rest of the world, taking into consideration the individual economic characteristics of each country.

With the United States, the Republic of Korea will pursue not only expanded bilateral trade and increased mutual private investment and technological cooperation but also government-to-government cooperation in industrial technologies. As for Japan, the Republic will pursue Forward-lookoing practical economic relations and will, in particular, strive to attract Japanese investment more effectively. Since Korea does not have serious trade issues with the EU it will focus on promoting overall economic cooperation, including mutual investment and industrial and technological cooperation.

With the dinamically growing Asian economies, such as China and Southeast Asian Nations, the Republic of Korea will endeavor to continue to expand two-way trade, especially by helping to meet their expanding needs for capital goods and intermediate products to support their continuing rapid development, while increasing imports from them as much as possible. The nation will also encourage Korean business investment in these countries and make efforts to build an industrial structure complementary with theirs.

The Republic of Korea is increasing its official development assistance to developing countries proportionate to its economic strength. In this, efforts are being made to combine such assistance with private Korean investment, with the aim of maximizing its effect, while developing two-way trade and other economic ties on a long-term basis.

Economic ties with the Commonwealth of Independent States and East European countries will continue to focus on commercial applications of  their high technologies and other forms of technological cooperation and joint development of natural resources.

Korea Trade with and Investment in Various Countries and Regions

Country or RegionTrade (US$ bil.)Investment (US$ mil.)
U.S.A.27.1 (30.7)36.1 (21.7)165.3 (40.3)380 (30.3)
Japan22.1 (25.0)31.6 (19.0)1.4 (0.3)6 (0.5)
EU11.2 (12.7)19.6 (11.8)6.5 (1.6)157 (12.5)
China1.7 (1.9)9.1 (5.5)6.0 (1.5)260 (20.7)
Southeast Asia8.9 (10.1)27.8 (16.7)130.5 (31.8)179 (14.3)