South Korea



The Korean peninsula is a challenging part of the world. While North Korea gets a lot of attention for their nuclear ambitions and anti-western rhetoric, their neighbor to the south is making headlines of their own. The recent election of Moon Jae-in as President of South Korea is likely to bring some significant shifts in regional policy and create ripples throughout the world. Join Active Minds as we explore the country of South Korea, past, present, and future.

Key Lecture Points

  • South Korea shares a long history with North Korea of being invaded and fought over by its neighbors, Japan and China.  In 1910 Japan annexed Korea, beginning a brutal colonial period that lasted till the end of WWII.  At the end of WWII Korea was divided into two occupation zones, one under US authority and the other under Soviet authority. In 1948 the Republic of Korea was established under President Syngman Rhee; thereafter, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the North under Kim Il Sung.
  • In 1950 North Korea, backed by the USSR, invaded South Korea in an attempt to unify the peninsula by force.  Under the UN flag, a US-led coalition of 16 countries came to the assistance of South Korea.  By July 1953, after 2 million dead and massive destruction, an armistice was signed, ending the fighting at the 38th parallel, at about the same place where it started.  From this point, the two countries developed into radically different political and economic systems.
  • In the 1960s the South Korean economy grew rapidly, fueled by exports and rapid industrialization.  One of the so-called “Asian Tigers”, South Korea became a hub of global manufacturing in automobile and ship building, electronics and information technology, aided by the dominance of large family-led conglomerates called chaebols.
  • In 2016 President Park Geun-hye, a conservative and North Korea hardliner, became the central figure in a wide-ranging corruption and cronyism scandal that resulted in her impeachment.  The scandal created widespread anger among the people at the state of the economy and the influence wielded by the chaebols.  In May 2017 liberal Moon Jae-in was elected president in a landslide election.
  • As he begins his presidency, Moon must deal with Chinese economic retaliation against South Korea for the US installation of THAAD on South Korean territory; Kim Jong Un’s escalating missile and nuclear tests; an anemic economy; calls for reforms to the chaebol system; a rapidly aging population; low birth rate and a wealth gap.

Exploration Questions

  • How has the history of Korea been influenced by its geographic proximity to China and Japan?  What are the major themes of Korean history and how do they play out in South Korea today?
  • What are the major issues challenging President Moon as he begins his presidency?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think North and South Korea can be reunified?  Why or why not?
  • What do you remember about the Korean War?  How did it impact your life?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Ahrens, Frank.  Seoul Man. Harper Business, 2016. 252 pages.  This first-hand account by an American who worked for three years at Hyundai and who became the highest ranking non-Korean executive in the company, provides insights into the South Korean business culture.
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  • Hong, Euny.  Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture.  Picador USA, 2014. 267 pages.  This Korean-American journalist describes how South Korea remade itself into a world pop culture powerhouse as a strategy to become a major world power.
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  • Breen, Michael.  The New Koreas: The Story of a Nation.  Thomas Books, 2017.  480 pages.  The author examines the complex history of Korea, its division and South Korea’s emergence as an economic powerhouse.
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