The Korean Peninsula (lat. 33˚-43˚; long. 124˚-132˚) lies in the middle of Northeast Asia, flanked by China to its west and Japan to its east. The peninsula is 950 km long longitudinally and 540 km wide latitudinally. The total area of South Korea is 100,364 ㎢. Excluding the northern end, which is joined to the Asian continent, the peninsula is surrounded by water on three sides, with flat land and mountains accounting for 30% and 70% of the entire territory, respectively. Mountains over 1,000 m above sea level make up only 15% of the mountainous areas, while mountains lower than 500 m account for 65%.
The Taebaeksan Mountain Range forms the backbone of the peninsula, with the eastern part of the range rising higher than the western part. Rivers, both small and large, originate from the high mountainous areas in the east and flow toward the West and South Seas, forming plains suitable for grain cultivation.
The climate created by the mountainous areas in the east has an impact on people’s lives. The easterly wind’s passage across the mountainous areas is subject to the Foehn effect, creating a warm and dry wind in the western downwind side of the mountain range. People living in the areas to the east of the high mountains experience considerable inconveniences with regard to transportation, as these areas have undergone very little development compared to the area to the west of the high mountains.
However, the slow pace of development has brought at least one advantage to local residents: the natural scenery has remained unspoiled, and many people now choose these areas as travel destinations. The East Sea has a relatively straight, featureless coastline, and the difference between high and low tide is only 30 cm. However, the sea along the coast is generally deeper than 1,000 m. According to the result of a sonar measurement carried out by the Korea Hydrographic and Oceanographic Agency, the deepest part of the East Sea lies in the area north of Ulleungdo Island (2,985 m deep). In contrast, the sea along the West Sea is shallow, which has led to the formation of wide tidal flats.
During the summer holiday season, Haeundae Beach in Busan attracts around 1 million visitors per day. Gyeongpodae Beach in Gangneung and Daecheon Beach on the West Sea are also popular holiday destinations during the summer.
In winter, people enjoy skating and skiing across the country. There are many ski slopes in Gangwon-do. Winter snowfall in the mountainous areas of Gangwon-do sometimes reaches 50–60 cm in a day or two. The average daytime temperature in spring and fall is maintained at 15˚C–18˚C. In these seasons, the sky is clear and the weather is pleasant and agreeable, encouraging many people to engage in outdoor activities or go on a trip.
Recently, the Korean Peninsula has shown signs of transition to a subtropical climate amid the phenomenon of global warming. In summer, the temperature rises above 35˚C. In spring, azaleas and forsythias bloom earlier than in the past. Over the past 4–5 years, many new and extraordinary climate-related records have been reported.
Summer heat waves have become more common, and precipitation patterns are also changing. During the monsoon seasons in the past, rain used to fall nationwide because of the influence of a wet front. Today, torrential downpours, which bring rain to a concentrated area, are often observed. In winter, heavy snow also tends to fall in concentrated regions. Only 10 years ago, it was usual for cold and warm weather to succeed each other on the peninsula every three or four days, but that pattern has almost completely disappeared as well.
Archaeologists think that people started settling in the Korean Peninsula around 700,000 BCE during the Paleolithic Age.
South Korea’s 2019 population was estimated at 51.71 million, and according to the 2018 Population and Housing Census, 49.8% of the population resided in the Seoul metropolitan area. This was up by 0.7% from 49.1% in 2010, showing a distinct trend toward the concentration of the population in the capital.
Meanwhile, the country’s low birth rate has emerged as a serious social problem. In 2019, the total fertility rate, meaning the average number of childbirths by fertile women, stood at 0.92, with the number of newborns reaching 302,700, all of which were the lowest ever recorded.
Meanwhile, the life expectancy of South Koreans reached 82.7 years (as of 2018), higher than the OECD average (80.7 years).
The international migration of South Koreans began at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, with people leaving for China and Russia. Around the mid-20th century, after the 1945 Liberation of Korea, the United States was their main destination, though Koreans also started to emigrate to diverse regions around the world including Europe, the Middle East, and South America. As a result, the number of overseas South Koreans amounted to 7.49 million (2019). Statistics showed that the largest number of Korean expatriates was in the United States (2.54 million), followed by China (2.46 million), and Japan (820,000).
Since 2011, the net inflow of population has outnumbered the net outflow. The number of foreign nationals residing or working in the country has increased dramatically, particularly since 2000. Despite fluctuations every year, the number of inflows of foreign nationals has been increasing as a whole. According to Statistics Korea, the number of foreigners entering Korea reached 293,000 in 2010, 373,000 in 2015, and 438,000 in 2019, respectively.
With respect to the purposes of their entry into the country, a short-term stay (34.5%) topped the list, followed by employment (26%), study (14.9%), and arrivals of overseas Koreans (12%). Although not included in the major rankings, the number of people entering the country because of permanent residence and marriage increased by 7.7% year on year (as of 2019).
Korea has a unique language and its own writing system, “Hangeul,” which was invented by King Sejong (1397-1450) during the Joseon dynasty. Koreans are very proud of this remarkable achievement. Hangeul is a very efficient and easy script to learn and use, and most of all, its promulgation was exactly recorded, which is unique in the world.
Hangeul is composed of 14 consonant letters (ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ) and 10 vowel letters (ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ). It can express virtually all the sounds produced by nature and humans.
Every year, UNESCO presents the King Sejong Literacy Prize to people who have made a distinguished contribution to the elimination of illiteracy. The inclusion of “King Sejong” in the name of the prize may be said to be a tacit recognition of his greatest accomplishment, the creation of Hangeul, which is easy to learn and use.
National Flag (Taegeukgi)
The Taegeukgi consists of a red and blue taegeuk pattern in the center with four black trigrams located at each corner against a white background. The Taegeukgi was first used as the national flag when the Korean Empire was proclaimed in 1897. Today, the pattern has somewhat changed from the flag used at that time.
Mainly designed around the taegeuk pattern that Koreans have long enjoyed using in their lives, the national flag represents the Korean people’s ideals of endless creation and prosperity in harmony with the universe.
The white background symbolizes brightness, purity, and peace-loving ethnic characteristics. The taegeuk symbolizes harmony between yin (blue) and yang (red), which embodies the truth about Mother Nature: All things in the universe are created and evolved through the interaction between yin and yang.
The four trigrams indicate the mutual changes and development of yin and yang through the combinations of horizontal lines(yin:and yang:) Among them, geongwae() symbolizes the sky; gongwae() the earth; gamgwae() water; and rigwae() fire. The four trigrams represent movement and harmony centered around the taegeuk.
The country has adopted a Presidential system in which the President is elected by the direct vote of the people for a five-year term. President Moon Jae-in was sworn in as the 19th president of South Korea on May 10, 2017.
The government is composed of three independent branches: the Executive branch; the Legislative branch composed of 300 four-year term members of the National Assembly; and the Judiciary branch, which includes 14 six-year term Supreme Court justices. There are 17 upper-level local governments and 226 lower-level local governments. The heads of the local governments and the members of local councils are each elected for a four-year term.
In 1948, the two Koreas established their respective governments: the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Defined as two different countries under international law, they joined the United Nations simultaneously. The Constitution of South Korea, however, regards North Korea as part of the Republic of Korea.