South Korea has 51 million people. Around half, ie 25 million people, live around the capital area of Seoul. South Korea has the 4th largest economy in Asia, and the 11th  largest in the world. Between 1960 and 2010, South Korea rose from one of the poorest countries in the world to a developed and high-income country (an original ‘Asian Tiger’). For 50 years, its economy grew by an average of 7% annually, contracting in only 2 of those years. From the end of the Korean War (1953) till 1961, South Korea received a substantial US$3 billion donation from USA, a privilege for being on the hottest frontier of the Cold War. The policy of foreign economic and military support continued for decades. Under President Park Chung Hee’s authoritarian regime (1961 to 1979), South Korea went through a stunning export-led economic growth and modernisation. The chaebols, ie family conglomerates, started to dominate the domestic economy and later became internationally competitive. People’s wages and working conditions steadily improved, resulting in increased domestic consumption. South Korea rose to middle income status by the 1980s. Between 1982 and 1987, its GDP grew by an average 9.2%. Today, South Korea has become a leading economy and a technological powerhouse, rivalling countries such as USA in information and communication technology. South Korea’s current strengths lie in its healthcare system, rule of law, ease of doing business, job security, safety and transparency of its government. Its citizens enjoy one of the world’s fastest internet connection speed and the most densed high-speed railway network. Education is highly regarded and around two thirds (67%) of South Koreans, aged between 25 and 34 years, hold a university degree, the highest among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The South Korean entertainment industry has boomed abroad, particularly in the phenomenon known as “K Pop”. South Korea, which offers some of the world’s best skincare products, has been reported to have the highest per capita rate of cosmetic surgery, with one third (33%) of women aged between 19 and 29 having gone under the knife (most popular procedure is eyelid surgery). The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides South Korea and North Korea is one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world – it is 4 kms wide and stretches 245 kms from the East Sea to the Yellow Sea.

  1. In about 2,000 words, I will describe major events that affected South Korea from 1900 to the present.
  2. 1900 – The Korean imperial government under King Gojong aimed to become a strong and independent nation by implementing domestic reforms, strengthening military forces, developing commerce and industry, and surveying land ownership. Modernisation continues as a railroad between the port of Incheon and Seoul opens and an electricity company provides public lighting and a streetcar system.
  3. 1905 – Japan Korea Treaty of 1905. Korea becomes a protectorate of Imperial Japan. Japan’s control of Korea is officially recognised. Following the signing of the treaty, many Korean intellectuals and scholars set up various organisations and associations, embarking on movements for independence.
  4. 1907 – Korean King Gojong is forced to abdicate after Japan learned that he sent secret envoys to the Second Hague Conventions to protest against the protectorate treaty, leading to the accession of Gojong’s son, Sunjong as emperor.
  5. 1909 – A former Japanese Resident-General of Korea, Ito Hirobumi is assassinated by a Korean independence activist, An Jung-geun, for Ito’s intrusions on Korean politics. This prompted the Japanese to ban all political organisations in Korea and proceed with plans for annexation.
  6. 1910 – Japan Korea Annexation Treaty of 1910. Having gradually increased its power and even forcing Emperor Sunjong to abdicate, Japan annexes Korea, beginning a 35 year colonial rule. Korea is controlled by Japan under a Governor-General of Korea (appointed by Japan). After the annexation, Japan set out to suppress many traditional Korean customs, including the Korean language itself. Economic policies were implemented primarily for Japanese benefit. European-style transport and communication networks were constructed across the nation in order to extract resources and exploit labour. The banking system was consolidated and the Korean currency abolished. During the colonial years, many Koreans fight against the Japanese rule.
  7. 1919 – After the Korean emperor died in January 1919 with rumours of being poisoned, independence rallies against the Japanese colonizers took place nationwide on 1 March 1919. The March 1 Independence Movement has a provisional government formed outside of Korea. In Korea, this movement was suppressed by force and about 7,000 people were killed by Japanese soldiers and police. An estimated 2 million people took part in pro-liberation rallies, although Japanese records claim participation rate was less than half a million.
  8. 1937 – A Colonial policy turns toward a complete “Japanization” of Korea.
  9. 1938 – Governor-General of Korea begins ‘Order to Japanese-style name changes’ policy.
  10. 1939 – (to 1942) Thousands of Korean workers are conscripted into the Japanese army.
  11. 1945 – Japan surrenders to the Allies and Korea becomes independent.
  12. 1945 – The Korean peninsula is divided between Soviet and USA occupation forces at the 38th parallel. Despite bitter opposition from Koreans, the Allies agree to direct Korean affairs through a provisional government, staffed by Koreans, for at least five years.
  13. 1948 – The United Nations recognises Republic of Korea and Syngman Rhee becomes president.
  14. 1948 – (to 1960) Military rule under President Syngman Rhee results in economic stagnation.
  15. 1950 – South Korea declares independence, sparking a North Korean invasion. North Korean forces occupy Seoul for 90 days before United Nations forces led by USA and South Korean troops mount a counterattack.
  16. 1950 – The Korean War begins. China enters the war assisting North Korea. South Korea is sustained by crucial USA military, economic and political support.
  17. 1953 – The Korean War, which has cost 2 million lives, is halted by the Korean Armistice Agreement. It remains in force until today.
  18. 1960 – A student uprising against electoral fraud begins the April Revolution which overthrows the autocratic First Republic of South Korea. President Syngman Rhee resigns and goes into exile. Yun Po-son is elected to lead South Korea.
  19. 1961 – Military forces, headed by General Park Chung Hee, overthrow the Second Republic of South Korea in what is known as the Military Coup of 16 May 1961 – Yun Po-son’s unstable democratically elected government falls. General Park Chung Hee heads a military government until his assassination in 1979.
  20. 1963 – General Park Chung Hee restores some political freedom and proclaims Third Republic. Major programme of industrial development begins. President Park Chung Hee developed the South Korean economy through a series of highly successful Five-Year Plans. South Korea’s economic development was spearheaded by the chaebol, family conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG Corporation. The chaebol received state-backing via tax breaks and cheap loans, and took advantage of South Korea’s inexpensive labour to produce exportable products. The government made education a very high priority to create a well-educated populace capable of contributing to the economy. Despite occasional political instability, the South Korean economy subsequently saw enormous growth for nearly 40 years. The unparalleled economic miracle brought South Korea from one of the poorest states in the world after the Korean War into a fully developed country within a generation. As president, Park Chung Hee oversaw a period of rapid export led economic growth enforced by political repression.
  21. 1972 – President Park Chung Hee declares Emergency Martial Law and changes the Constitution to allow him to become a permanent ruler.
  22. 1979 – USA president Jimmy Carter visits South Korea.
  23. 1979 – After surviving 2 earlier assassination attempts (one of which killed his wife), President Park Chung Hee is assassinated by Kim Jaegyu, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) who is also the president’s security chief. When Army Chief of Staff, Jeong Seung-hwa learned of what happened, he ordered Major General Chun Doo-hwan, commander of the Security Command, to take Director Kim Jaegyu into custody and investigate the incident. Eventually, everyone involved in the assassination was arrested, tortured and later executed. In the process, General Chun Doo-hwan emerged as a new political force and he subsequently seized power in the coup of 12 December 1979 and also gained military power.
  24. 1980 – Martial Law is declared by Chun Doo-hwan throughout South Korea. The city of Gwangju becomes a battleground between dissenters and the Armed Forces (18–27 May 1980). The official death toll was 200 people, but some reports claim over 1,000 casualties.
  25. 1980 – (to 1990) South Korea has the fastest rise in average GDP per capita in the world during this decade.
  26. 1981 – Chun Doo-hwan is indirectly elected to a 7-year term as president. Martial law ends, but government continues to have strong powers to prevent dissent.
  27. 1981 – Increasing shift towards high-tech and computer industry.
  28. 1986 – Constitution is changed to allow the direct election of the president.
  29. 1987 – Following sustained national protests, with the strongest concentration in Seoul, South Korea’s last military dictator President Chun Doo-hwan steps down to allow democratic elections, ending authoritarian rule. General Roh Tae-woo succeeds President Chun. President Roh Tae-woo grants greater degree of political liberalisation and launches an anti-corruption drive. South Korea transitioned into a market-oriented democracy, largely due to popular demand for political reform. As a result, South Korea is today considered among the most advanced democracies in Asia, with the highest level of press freedom. 
  30. 1988 – 24th Olympic Games is held in Seoul. The international showcase leads to increased trade and diplomatic relations. First free parliamentary elections are held.
  31. 1988 – Moving on from cheap, lower-value light industry exports, the South Korean economy eventually moved onto more capital-intensive, higher-value industries, such as information technology, shipbuilding, auto manufacturing, and petroleum refining.
  32. 1991 – South Korea joins the United Nations.
  33. 1993 – President Roh Tae-woo is succeeded by Kim Young Sam, a former opponent of the regime and the first freely-elected civilian president.
  34. 1996 – South Korea is admitted to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
  35. 1996 – Former presidents Roh Tae-woo and Chun Doo-hwan go on trial for corruption, sedition, and treason. Both were later released from prison in December 1997, pardoned by President Kim Young-sam.
  36. 1997 – Asian Financial Crisis battered South Korea.
  37. 1998 – Opposition leader Kim Dae-jung sworn is in as president.
  38. 2002 – Roh Moo-hyun, from governing Millennium Democratic Party, wins closely-fought presidential elections.
  39. 2006 – Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon is appointed as the United Nations new secretary-general.
  40. 2007 – Conservative Lee Myung-bak wins landslide victory in presidential election.
  41. 2008 – Government announces US$130bn financial rescue package to shore up South Korea’s banking system and stabilise markets amid the global financial crisis.
  42. 2009 – Former president Roh Moo-hyun (2002 to 2008) commits suicide for allegedly taking bribes on 23 May 2009, by jumping from a mountain cliff behind his home, after saying that “there are too many people suffering because of me” in a suicide note on his personal computer.
  43. 2010 – Japan apologises to South Korea for colonisation on the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910.
  44. 2012 – Park Geun-hye, a daughter of former president Park Chung Hee, of the conservative Saenuri party is elected as the first female and the 11th president of South Korea.
  45. 2013 – Hyundai KIA automotive group is South Korea’s largest automaker, 2nd largest in Asia, and 5th largest in the world, manufacturing some 7.5 million new cars and trucks.
  46. 2016 – Following mass demonstrations in Seoul, President Park Geun-hye is embroiled in a political crisis over revelations that she allowed a personal friend, with no government position, Ms Choi Soon-sil to meddle in affairs of the state.
  47. 2016 – The impeachment vote of President Park Geun-hye takes place, with 234 members in the 300-member National Assembly voting in favour of the impeachment and temporary suspension of her presidential powers and duties.
  48. 2017 – The court upheld the impeachment in a unanimous 8–0 decision, removing Park Geun-hye from the presidency.
  49. 2017 – The centre-left candidate Moon Jae-In becomes president after official votes were counted on 10 May 2017, replacing Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn.
  50. 2018 – Former president Park Geun-hye is sentenced to 24 years in prison for multiple counts of abuse of power, bribery and coercion; she is currently held at the Seoul Detention Centre.
  51. 2019 – South Korea becomes a leading economy and a technological powerhouse, rivalling countries such as USA in information and communication technology. Its citizens enjoy one of the world’s fastest internet connection speed and the most densed high-speed railway network. The South Korean entertainment industry has boomed abroad, particularly in the phenomenon known as “K Pop”.  
  52. 2020 – (to 2021) COVID-19 pandemic caused more than 1,700 deaths in South Korea. South Korea records more deaths than births, resulting in a population decline for the first time on record.
  53. 2021 – South Korea has 51 million people.

© Comasters May 2021.

  • Jim KABLE
    Posted at 16:27h, 03 May

    Too much to say – too little study for my words to carry much significance BUT I am just now reading US historian/political analyst James Bradley’s 2015 book China Mirage about the constant interference of his country in the affairs of East Asia – the 19th century oligarchs of the US who made much of their money from the opium trade in China -(more so even than the British) who pushed Japan into its coloniser role – and who betrayed treaty understandings with Korea and its King to hand it over to the Japanese. The war against China which led to the current division into North and South is more US interference – the US still has over 40,000 troops in SKorea. Poised as ever to provoke NKorea and nearby China – of course. I lived many years – as you know in Japan. The beach across from a fishing port where we lived for five years was where over 140 Korean coal mining “slaves” remain buried from a WWII era mine collapse under the sea. I attended several annual memorial services held there to remember those men – and around 20 Japanese, too. In other contexts I taught Japanese-Koreans with the Japanese names their ancestors had been forced to take by the Japanese authorities in historic times. There is a lot of unfinished business as regards apologies and compensation due to Korea from Japan – but it’s a quite fraught and complex matter. In the 21st century Korea has become a popular entertainment culture for Japan – as your referred to – especially TV drama series and K-Pop (an adaptation of an earlier J-Pop as far as I could see) – a non-threatening kind of soft cultural enjoyment without reference to the colonial era – and a long-term history of invasion and theft and kidnap by the Japanese of Koreans (builders and potters/crafts people in the late 16th century under Toyotomi Hideyoshi.. And then there is the fact that much of Japanese early cultural underpinnings arrived from what is now known as Korea…Even to the origins of the HJapanese Imperial Family…

    • comasters1
      Posted at 13:10h, 05 May

      It is good that in in 2010, Japan apologised to South Korea for colonising Korea 100 years earlier. From 1910 to 1945, Japan tried to draw as much economic gain they could from Korea. Japan had been tough, even cruel, colonial masters. Colonial ‘culture’ lost its appeal after World War Two. I would say that in the 1940s, the USA contributed positively to many European and Asian nations. Like Margaret Thatcher, I say the USA and its leaders made the world a better place by helping to defeat Germany and Japan, ending World War Two. The Cold War from 1945 to 1991 is the War of Communism vs Capitalism, and Capitalism won, albeit problems remain. The generation of people born after 1945, in general, (including me) are lucky never to have seen war in our backyard!

  • Albert Lee
    Posted at 20:01h, 05 May

    Another good and informative article on a country we hear a lot of today because of its technological prowess with global brands such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai and KIA. My knowledge of history of Korea was a bit scanty until I read the book ‘The China Mirage’ by James Bradley. Japan’s imperialism was actually encouraged by US President Theodore Roosevelt and he allowed Japan to colonise Korea as a counter measure against the expansionism of Russia. Likewise US did not object when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. It was only in 1941 when US was drawn into the conflict following the bombing of Pearl Harbour that US started to treat Japan as a foe. Prior to that US was responsible for supplying oil and gas to Japan to keep their tanks operating on the ground and war planes in the air.

    The Korean War of 1950 – 1953 was probably unwarranted.and it was caused by US making a push to the north with the the assumption that China would not come to the aid of N Korea. They thought China which was so poor and weak militarily would not dare to take on the might of the American army. But Mao was not prepared to allow foreign forces to come so close to the Chinese border and so they joined the war. My take is that the Americans and allied forces were overwhelmed by the Chinese army and finally retreated to 38th parallel and the Korean Armistice Agreement signed. I would say US lost the war to China, do you agree? Just like US lost to the Vietcongs in the Vietnam War.

    Amazing that the Korean Peninsula today is still a very hot spot with large presence of American troops and N Korea remaining a hermit nation armed with nuclear weapons. No sign yet of a peaceful unification.

    • comasters1
      Posted at 16:26h, 06 May

      So, James Bradley in his book The China Mirage is saying USA encouraged Japan’s imperialism – that is sad. Japan was supposed to end colonialism in Asia, but instead it took over the British and other European’s roles in governing Malaya, Singapore, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Philippines and Burma (Myanmar) – for their own (Japan’s) economic benefit. Japan was intimidating and crueller than the Europeans including the Germans! USA was tricked by Japan just before 7 Dec 41 – Japan said they are benign in New York – but their attack on Pearl Habor woke up the World Giant to henceforth fight themselves in World War Two, not only supplying military hardware to the Allies. North Korea started the war with South Korea. USA’s entry into that war was to stop communism, and because USA sent troops to North Korea, China then sent troops to halt USA. China did not want USA as its doorstep. No one won the Korean War. Today, North Korea is failing economically.