However, to the north of the 38th parallel, a general election under UN supervision could not be carried out due to the Soviet Union’s opposition. On September 9, 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was proclaimed as a communist country, and Kim Il-sung, who had served as an officer of the Soviet Russian Army, was sworn in as the President. Amid the confrontation between a free democracy in the south and a communist dictatorship in the north, the ROK government led by President Rhee Syngman was burdened with many issues such as establishing domestic order, eliminating vestiges of Japanese imperialism, and overcoming ideological confrontations between the left and the right.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops armed with Soviet-made tanks and fighters invaded the South, thus triggering an all-out war. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion and published a resolution recommending that its member states provide military assistance to South Korea. When the tide of the war turned against the North with the intervention of the UN Forces, the Chinese Red Army intervened in the war on the North’s side. The two sides engaged in fierce battles until, on July 27, 1953, the two sides finally signed the armistice agreement. President Rhee Syngman did not sign the agreement, calling strongly for the prolongation of the war with the goal of unifying the entire country in the South’s favor.

Transition 1.jpg
Gyeongbu Expressway. South Korea’s first national expressway connecting Seoul and Busan opened in 1970.

The three-year-long internecine war started by the Communists reduced the entire Korean Peninsula to rubble. Millions of troops and civilians were killed. Most of the country’s industrial facilities were destroyed. South Korea became one of the poorest countries in the world. However, the war taught South Koreans the preciousness of freedom. The experience provided the foundation that inspired patriotism in the hearts of young students and uniformed soldiers alike, and became the principal engine of the country’s modernization.

President Rhee Syngman strengthened his authoritarian rule. In 1960, the ruling Liberal Party rigged the Presidential election. Young students took to the streets in protest. The situation deteriorated when many demonstrators were shot by the police, which led to massive protests called the April 19 Revolution. President Rhee Syngman announced his step-down and took refuge in Hawaii. Shortly thereafter, the Constitution was amended, and a cabinet system and the bicameral National Assembly were adopted. Under the new constitution, the regime led by Prime Minister Jang Myeon was launched, but the political situation became extremely fragile amid political struggles and continued street demonstrations by students.

In May 1961, a group of young army officers led by General Park Chung-hee seized power in a coup d’état. In the presidential election held on October 15, 1963, after two years of military rule, Park Chung-hee, having retired from the military, was elected as President and inaugurated in December that same year. The government led by President Park set up a 5-year economic development plan under the slogan of “modernization of the fatherland” and achieved rapid economic growth by implementing an export-oriented policy.

Observers called it “the Miracle on the Hangang River.” The country vigorously pushed ahead with the development of national land, including the construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway and subway lines in large cities. The country also carried out the Saemaeul Undong (New Community Movement), turning the impoverished agricultural society into a country focused mainly on manufacturing.

Since the South Korean government was established in 1948, the country has transformed itself from one of the most impoverished countries in the world to an economic powerhouse and an exemplar of liberal democracy.

When the government announced the Yusin (Revitalization Reform) in October 1972, which was designed to extend the term of the incumbent government after eighteen years of dictatorship, students and ordinary people continued to engage in the democratization movement. After the assassination of President Park on October 26, 1979, a new group of army officers led by General Chun Doohwan (Singunbu) seized power through a coup d’état. Singunbu suppressed by force the voices calling for democratization, including the May 18 Democratization Movement. Chun Doo-hwan was sworn in as the President and ruled with an authoritarian grip. The Chun Doo-hwan government concentrated on economic stabilization, successfully bringing inflated prices under control. Under his leadership, the country accomplished continued economic growth.

On June 29, 1987, Roh Tae-woo, a presidential hopeful of the ruling party, made a special announcement to the effect that he would accept the people’s request for democratization and direct election of the President. On December 16, 1987, he was elected to a five-year term as President and sworn in as President on February 25, 1988. The Roh Tae-woo administration established diplomatic relations with Communist countries including the Soviet Union, China, and those in Eastern Europe. During his term, the two Koreas joined the UN simultaneously on September 17, 1991.

The Kim Young-sam government, which was inaugurated in 1993, strove to eliminate corruption by making it a rule for high-ranking public officials to register all their assets and by prohibiting the use of false names in all financial transactions. The level of transparency in business transactions was considerably enhanced by this measure. The government also implemented the local autonomy system in full force. President Kim Dae-jung took office in 1998 and his government succeeded in overcoming the foreign exchange crisis that had hit the country one year earlier, and strove to develop both democracy and the market economy. In its relations with North Korea, the government adopted the Sunshine Policy. On June 15, 2000, the leaders of the two Koreas met at a summit held in Pyongyang, North Korea, and made a joint statement. Then, the two Koreas established a system of reconciliation and cooperation, and agreed on the reunion of dispersed family members, the connection of the Gyeongui and Donghae railroad lines, the revitalization of unification movements led by the private sector, and the expansion of economic cooperation, including sightseeing in Geumgangsan Mountain.

The Roh Moo-hyun government, which was inaugurated in 2003, concentrated on three leading objectives: the realization of democracy with the participation of the people, balanced social development, and the realization of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia. The government also held the second summit between the leaders of the two Koreas in Pyongyang on October 4, 2007 and the same year signed an FTA with the United States.

The Lee Myung-bak administration, which was inaugurated in 2008, announced five leading indicators in a bid for the establishment of a new development system with the focus on changes and practicality. The government stressed that it would be a government that would serve the people. It also made efforts to streamline the government organization, privatize public corporations equipped with higher efficiency, and reform administrative regulations. Other policies adopted by the government included the forging of a creative alliance with the United States as befits the 21st century, and the creation of a global Korea under the South-North Economic Community.

With the election of the first female president of the Republic of Korea in December 2012, the Park Geun-hye administration was launched, presenting a new vision of the people’s happiness and the nation’s development. Her government also stressed the need for implementing the creative economy saying, “A creative economy based on science technologies and ICT is a challenge that we must take on for our economic breakthrough and the only growth engine of the Korean economy.”

Launched in May 2017, the Moon Jae-in administration unveiled its national vision: “A Nation of the People, a Just Republic of Korea,” which signifies the embodiment of the spirit of the candlelight rallies, in conjunction with five policy goals to achieve the national vision: a Government of the People, an Economy Pursuing Mutual Prosperity, a Nation Taking Responsibility for Each Individual, Well-balanced Development across Every Region, and a Peaceful and Prosperous Korean Peninsula. As part of these efforts, the government has worked to eradicate authoritarian culture, communicate with the people, and restore democracy. It has also created more jobs, reduced the incidence of irregular work, and increased the minimum wage in efforts to realize a “people-oriented economy.”

Moreover, the Moon Jae-in administration has paved the way to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula and open an era of peace by holding inter-Korean summits as well as South Korea–US and South Korea–China summits. In the face of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the government has also focused on building infrastructure, improving related regulations, and securing key technologies for future generations.

Yoon Suk Yeol, the 20th President of the Republic of Korea

In May 2022, Yoon Suk Yeol was sworn in as the 20th president of the Republic of Korea.