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Country profile: South-korea
President: Lee Myung-bak
The Republic of Korea
religions: Buddhism, Christianity
South Korea is a mountainous country with only
22 percent arable land and less rainfall than
most other neighboring rice-growing countries. A
major land reform in the late 1940s and early
1950s spread ownership of land to the rural
peasantry. Individual holdings, however, were
too small (averaging one hectare, which made
cultivation inefficient and discouraged
mechanization) or too spread out to provide
families with much chance to produce a
significant quantity of food. The enormous
growth of urban areas led to a rapid decrease of
available farmland, while at the same time
population increases and bigger incomes meant
that the demand for food greatly outstripped
supply. The result of these developments was
that by the late 1980s roughly half of South
Korea's needs, mainly wheat and animal feed
corn, was imported.
Compared with the industrial and service
sectors, agriculture remained the most sluggish
sector of the economy. In 1988 the contribution
of agriculture to overall GDP was only about
10.8 percent, down from approximately 12.3
percent the previous year. Most economists
agreed that the country's rural areas had gained
more than they had contributed in the course of
industrialization. Still, the growth of
agricultural output, which averaged 3.4 percent
per year between 1945 and 1974, 6.8 percent
annually during the 1974-79 period, and 5.6
percent between 1980 and 1986, was credible. The
gains were even more impressive because they
added to a traditionally high level of
productivity. On the other hand, the overall
growth of the agriculture, forestry, and fishing
sector was only 0.6 percent in 1987 as compared
with the manufacturing sector, which grew 16
percent during 1986 and 1987. During the first
half of 1989, the agriculture, forestry, and
fisheries sector grew 5.9 percent, as opposed to
manufacturing's 2.9 percent.
Since Korea's division, the South has developed into one of Asia's most affluent countries. The North has slipped into totalitarianism and poverty.
The Republic of Korea was proclaimed in August 1948 and received UN-backed support from the US after it was invaded by the North two years later.
The Korean War ended in 1953 without a peace agreement leaving South Korea technically at war for more than fifty years.
The following four decades were marked by authoritarian rule. Government-sponsored schemes encouraged the growth of family-owned industrial conglomerates, known as "chaebol". Foremost among them were the Hyundai and Samsung groups.
The South-North border is the world's most heavily-fortified frontier
They helped transform South Korea into one of the world's major economies and a leading exporter of cars and electronic goods.
Though the South Korean economy is now the third largest in Asia and the 13th in the world, the high levels of foreign debt held by the country's banks have left them exposed to the fallout from the global credit crisis.
A multi-party political system was restored in 1987, and President Roh Tae-Woo launched an anti-corruption campaign against both his own party and his political predecessor.
Relations with its northern neighbour remain a major concern in Seoul, particularly over the North's fragile economy and its nuclear ambitions. South Korea has resisted international calls for sanctions against the North and since the late 1990s it has pursued a "sunshine" policy of engagement.
This has involved aid - including shipments of fertiliser and rice - reunions between North and South Koreans, tourist projects and economic cooperation. South Korean companies employ thousands of North Korean workers at the Kaesong industrial complex, near the border.
However, the period of "sunshine" appeared to be over with the election in 2008 of conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who adopted a tougher tone towards the North. A spate of missile tests by Pyongyang in 2009 further heightened tensions.
The demilitarised zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea is the world's most heavily-fortified frontier. But the US, which maintains tens of thousands of soldiers in South Korea, is pulling its forces away from the front line and plans to reduce troop numbers.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took up office in February 2008, after having scored a record victory margin in December's presidential election with his "Economy, First!" pledge.
President Lee has promised to push through economic reforms
Previously the CEO of Hyundai Construction and a former mayor of Seoul, Mr Lee is nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for his forcefulness. He has promised to boost growth, cut high youth unemployment and raise competitiveness in the face of challenges from China and Japan.
His Grand National Party won control of parliament in elections in April 2008, which observers predicted would allow him to push through his economic reforms. However, his approval ratings plummeted after he agreed to resume US beef imports in order to secure a free trade deal.
He was forced to apologise for failing to heed public concerns, and the domestic crisis sparked by the row over US beef imports is thought to have reduced his chances of implementing other promised reforms.
In the autumn of 2008, Mr Lee warned that the South Korean economy could be even more badly affected by the global credit crisis than it was by the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.
Lee Myung-bak is the country's first president with a business background. He entered politics in 1992 and became mayor of Seoul in 2002.
Mr Lee has expressed willingness to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il whenever necessary and has described his attitude to inter-Korean relations as "pragmatic, not ideological". He has pledged to take a tougher line with Pyongyang than his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.
Television is influential and the major terrestrial networks command the lion's share of viewing and advertising. Many South Koreans subscribe to digital cable and satellite TV services.
Newspaper readership is high
Newspaper readership is high and there are more than 100 national and local dailies. The press is often critical of the government. Many newspapers are controlled by industrial conglomerates.
Since 2000, and Kim Dae-jung's summit in North Korea, the media have adopted a warmer tone towards the North.
Reporters Without Borders notes that "although it is never used", part of the national security law allows for a journalist to be imprisoned for expressing "sympathy" with the Pyongang regime.
South Korea is at the leading edge of the digital revolution. It is a trailblazer for high-speed and wireless internet services; in September 2008 officials said almost every household had a high-speed net connection.
The country has pioneered the distribution of TV via mobile devices and the internet (IPTV). Online gaming is a national passion.