South Korea Table of Contents

Although a variety of different Asian peoples had migrated to the Korean Peninsula in past centuries, very few have remained permanently, so by 1990 both South Korea and North Korea were among the world's most ethnically homogeneous nations. The number of indigenous minorities was negligible. In South Korea, people of foreign origin, including Westerners, Chinese, and Japanese, were a small percentage of the population whose residence was generally temporary. Like their Japanese neighbors, Koreans tend to equate nationality or citizenship with membership in a single, homogeneous ethnic group or "race" (minjok, in Korean). A common language and culture also are viewed as important elements in Korean identity. The idea of multiracial or multiethnic nations, like India or the United States, strikes many Koreans as odd or even contradictory. Consciousness of homogeneity is a major reason why Koreans on both sides of the DMZ viewed their country's division as an unnatural and unnecessary tragedy.

Against the background of ethnic homogeneity, however, significant regional differences exist. Within South Korea, the most important regional difference is between the Kyongsang region, embracing North Kyongsang and South Kyongsang provinces in the southeast, and the Cholla region, embracing North Cholla and South Cholla provinces in the southwest. The two regions, separated by the Chiri Massif, nurture a rivalry said to reach back to the Three Kingdoms Period, which lasted from the fourth century to the seventh century A.D., when the kingdoms of Paekche and Silla struggled for control of the peninsula. Observers noted that interregional marriages are rare, and that as of 1990 a new fourlane highway completed in 1984 between Kwangju and Taegu, the capitals of South Cholla and North Kyongsang provinces, completed in 1984, had not been successful in promoting travel between the two areas. South Korea's political elite, including presidents Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan, and Roh Tae Woo, have come largely from the Kyongsang region. As a result, Kyongsang has been a special beneficiary of government development assistance. By contrast, the Cholla region has remained comparatively rural, undeveloped, and poor. Chronically disaffected, its people rightly or wrongly have a reputation for rebelliousness. Regional bitterness was intensified by the May 1980 Kwangju incident, in which about 200 and perhaps many more inhabitants of the capital of South Cholla Province were killed by government troops sent to quell an insurrection. Many of the troops reportedly were from the Kyongsang region.

Regional stereotypes, like regional dialects, have been breaking down under the influence of centralized education, nationwide media, and the several decades of population movement since the Korean War. Stereotypes remain important, however, in the eyes of many South Koreans. For example, the people of Kyonggi Province, surrounding Seoul, are often described as being cultured, and Ch'ungch'ong people, inhabiting the region embracing North Ch'ungch'ong and South Ch'ungch'ong provinces, are thought to be mild-mannered, manifesting true yangban virtues. The people of Kangwon Province in the northeast were viewed as poor and stolid, while Koreans from the northern provinces of P'yongang, Hwanghae, and Hamgyong, now in North Korea, are perceived as being diligent and aggressive. Cheju Island is famous for its strong-minded and independent women.

Population Trends

The population of South Korea has grown rapidly since the republic's establishment in 1948. In the first official census, taken in 1949, the total population of South Korea was calculated at 20,188,641 people. The 1985 census total was 40,466,577. Population growth was slow, averaging about 1.1 percent annually during the period from 1949 to 1955, when the population registered at 21.5 million. Growth accelerated between 1955 and 1966 to 29.2 million or an annual average of 2.8 percent, but declined significantly during the period 1966 to 1985 to an annual average of 1.7 percent. Thereafter, the annual average growth rate was estimated to be less than 1 percent, similar to the low growth rates of most industrialized countries and to the target figure set by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs for the 1990s. As of January 1, 1989, the population of South Korea was estimated to be approximately 42.2 million.

The proportion of the total population under fifteen years of age has risen and fallen with the growth rate. In 1955 approximately 41.2 percent of the population was under fifteen years of age, a percentage that rose to 43.5 percent in 1966 before falling to 38.3 percent in 1975, 34.2 percent in 1980, and 29.9 percent in 1985. In the past, the large proportion of children relative to the total population put great strains on the country's economy, particularly because substantial resources were invested in education facilities. With the slowdown in the population growth rate and a rise in the median age (from 18.7 years to 21.8 years between 1960 and 1980), the age structure of the population has begun to resemble the columnar pattern typical of developed countries, rather than the pyramidal pattern found in most parts of the Third World.

The decline in the population growth rate and in the proportion of people under fifteen years of age after 1966 reflected the success of official and unofficial birth control programs. The government of President Syngman Rhee (1948-60) was conservative in such matters. Although Christian churches initiated a family planning campaign in 1957, it was not until 1962 that the government of Park Chung Hee, alarmed at the way in which the rapidly increasing population was undermining economic growth, began a nationwide family planning program. Other factors that contributed to a slowdown in population growth included urbanization, later marriage ages for both men and women, higher education levels, a greater number of women in the labor force, and better health standards.

Public and private agencies involved in family planning included the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea, and the Korea Institute of Family Planning. In the late 1980s, their activities included distribution of free birth control devices and information, classes for women on family planning methods, and the granting of special subsidies and privileges (such as low-interest housing loans) to parents who agreed to undergo sterilization. There were 502,000 South Koreans sterilized in 1984, as compared with 426,000 in the previous year.

The 1973 Maternal and Child Health Law legalized abortion. In 1983 the government began suspending medical insurance benefits for maternal care for pregnant women with three or more children. It also denied tax deductions for education expenses to parents with two or more children.

As in China, cultural attitudes pose problems for family planning programs. A strong preference for sons--who in Korea's Confucian value system are expected to care for their parents in old age and carry on the family name--means that parents with only daughters usually continue to have children until a son is born. The government has encouraged married couples to have only one child. This has been a prominent theme in public service advertising, which stresses "have a single child and raise it well."

Total fertility rates (the average number of births a woman will have during her lifetime) fell from 6.1 births per female in 1960 to 4.2 in 1970, 2.8 in 1980, and 2.4 in 1984. The number of live births, recorded as 711,810 in 1978, grew to a high of 917,860 in 1982. This development stirred apprehensions among family planning experts of a new "baby boom." By 1986, however, the number of live births had declined to 806,041.

Given the size and age structure of the population in 1990, however, substantial increases are expected over the next few decades. According to the government's Economic Planning Board, the country's population will increase to between 46 and 48 million by the end of the twentieth century, with growth rates ranging between 0.9 and 1.2 percent. The population is expected to stabilize (that is, cease to grow) in the year 2023 at around 52.6 million people. In the words of Asiaweek magazine, the "stabilized tally will approximate the number of Filipinos in 1983, but squeezed into less than a third of their [the Philippines'] space."

Population Settlement Patterns

South Korea was one of the world's most densely populated countries, with an estimated 425 people per square kilometer in 1989--over sixteen times the average population density of the United States in the late 1980s. By comparison, China had an estimated 114 people, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) 246 people, and Japan 323 people per square kilometer in the late 1980s. Because about 70 percent of South Korea's land area is mountainous and the population is concentrated in the lowland areas, actual population densities were in general greater than the average. As early as 1975, it was estimated that the density of South Korea's thirty-five cities, each of which had a population of 50,000 or more inhabitants, was 3,700 people per square kilometer. Because of continued migration to urban areas, the figure was doubtless higher in the late 1980s.

In 1988 Seoul had a population density of 17,030 people per square kilometer as compared with 13,816 people per square kilometer in 1980. The second largest city, Pusan, had a density of 8,504 people per square kilometer in 1988 as compared with 7,272 people in 1980. Kyonggi Province, which surrounds the capital and contains Inch'on, the country's fourth largest city, was the most densely populated province; Kangwon Province in the northeast was the least densely populated province.

The extreme crowding in South Korea in 1990 was a major factor not only in economic development and in the standard of living but also in the development of social attitudes and human relationships. More than most other peoples, South Koreans have had to learn to live peacefully with each other in small, crowded spaces, in which the competition for limited resources, including space itself, is intense. Continued population growth means that the shortage of space for living and working will grow more severe. According to the government's Economic Planning Board, the population density will be 530 people per square kilometer by 2023, the year the population is expected to stabilize.


Like other newly industrializing economies, South Korea experienced rapid growth of urban areas caused by the migration of large numbers of people from the countryside. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Seoul, by far the largest urban settlement, had a population of about 190,000 people. There was a striking contrast with Japan, where Edo (Tokyo) had as many as 1 million inhabitants and the urban population comprised as much as 10 to 15 percent of the total during the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868). During the closing years of the Choson Dynasty and the first years of Japanese colonial rule, the urban population of Korea was no more than 3 percent of the total. After 1930, when the Japanese began industrial development on the Korean Peninsula, particularly in the northern provinces adjacent to Manchuria, the urban portion of the population began to grow, reaching 11.6 percent for all of Korea in 1940.

Between 1945 and 1985, the urban population of South Korea grew from 14.5 percent to 65.4 percent of the total population. In 1988 the Economic Planning Board estimated that the urban portion of the population will reach 78.3 percent by the end of the twentieth century. Most of this urban increase was attributable to migration rather than to natural growth of the urban population. Urban birth rates have generally been lower than the national average. The extent of urbanization in South Korea, however, is not fully revealed in these statistics. Urban population was defined in the national census as being restricted to those municipalities with 50,000 or more inhabitants. Although many settlements with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants were satellite towns of Seoul or other large cities or mining communities in northeastern Kangwon Province, which would be considered urban in terms of the living conditions and occupations of the inhabitants, they still were officially classified as rural.

The dislocation caused by the Korean War accounted for the rapid increase in urban population during the early 1950s. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them from North Korea, streamed into the cities. During the post-Korean War period, rural people left their ancestral villages in search of greater economic and educational opportunities in the cities. By the late 1960s, migration had become a serious problem, not only because cities were terribly overcrowded, but also because the rural areas were losing the most youthful and productive members of their labor force.

In the early 1970s, the Park Chung Hee government launched the Saemaul undong (New Community Movement) as a rural reconstruction and self-help movement to improve economic conditions in the villages, close the wide gap in income between rural and urban areas, and stem urban migration--as well as to build a political base. Despite a huge amount of governmentsponsored publicity, especially during the Park era, it was not clear by the late 1980s that the Saemaul undong had achieved its objectives. By that time many, if not most, farming and fishing villages consisted of older persons; relatively few able-bodied men and women remained to work in the fields or to fish. This trend was apparent in government statistics for the 1986-87 period: the proportion of people fifty years old or older living in farming communities grew from 28.7 percent in 1986 to 30.6 percent in 1987, while the number of people in their twenties living in farming communities declined from 11.3 percent to 10.8 percent. The nationwide percentages for people fifty years old or older and in their twenties were, in 1986, 14.9 percent and 20.2 percent, respectively.

In 1985 the largest cities were Seoul (9,645,932 inhabitants), Pusan (3,516,807), Taegu (2,030,672), Inch'on (1,387,491), Kwangju (906,129), and Taejon (866,695). According to government statistics, the population of Seoul, one of the world's largest cities, surpassed 10 million people in late 1988. Seoul's average annual population growth rate during the late 1980s was more than 3 percent. Two-thirds of this growth was attributable to migration rather than to natural increase. Surveys revealed that "new employment or seeking a new job," "job transfer," and "business" were major reasons given by new immigrants for coming to the capital. Other factors cited by immigrants included "education" and "a more convenient area to live."

To alleviate overcrowding in Seoul's downtown area, the city government drew up a master plan in the mid-1980s that envisioned the development of four "core zones" by 2000: the original downtown area, Yongdongp'o-Yoido, Yongdong, and Ch'amsil. Satellite towns also would be established or expanded. In the late 1980s, statistics revealed that the daytime or commuter population of downtown Seoul was as much as six times the officially registered population. If the master plan is successful, many commuters will travel to work in a core area nearer their homes, and the downtown area's daytime population will decrease. Many government ministries have been moved out of Seoul, and the army, navy, and air force headquarters have been relocated to Taejon.

In 1985 the population of Seoul constituted 23.8 percent of the national total. Provincial cities, however, experienced equal and, in many cases, greater expansion than the capital. Growth was particularly spectacular in the southeastern coastal region, which encompasses the port cities of Pusan, Masan, Yosu, Chinhae, Ulsan, and P'ohang. Census figures show that Ulsan's population increased eighteenfold, growing from 30,000 to 551,300 inhabitants between 1960 and 1985. With the exception of Yosu, all of these cities are in South Kyongsang Province, a region that has been an especially favored recipient of government development projects. By comparison, the population of Kwangju, capital of South Cholla Province, increased less than threefold between 1960 and 1985, growing from 315,000 to 906,129 inhabitants.

Rapid urban growth has brought familiar problems to developed and developing countries alike. The construction of large numbers of high-rise apartment complexes in Seoul and other large cities alleviated housing shortages to some extent. But it also imposed hardship on the tens of thousands of people who were obliged to relocate from their old neighborhoods because they could not afford the rents in the new buildings. In the late 1980s, squatter areas consisting of one-story shacks still existed in some parts of Seoul. Housing for all but the wealthiest was generally cramped. The concentration of factories in urban areas, the rapid growth of motorized traffic, and the widespread use of coal for heating during the severe winter months have caused dangerous levels of air and water pollution. Although environmental awareness is increasing, a polluted environment will adversely affect the quality of life in the cities for some time to come.

Koreans Living Overseas

Large-scale emigration from Korea began around 1904 and continued until the end of World War II. During the Japanese colonial occupation, many Koreans emigrated to Manchuria (present-day China's northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang), other parts of China, the Soviet Union, Hawaii, and the continental United States. Most emigrated for economic reasons; employment opportunities were scarce, and many Korean farmers lost their land after the Japanese introduced a system of land registration and private land tenure, imposed higher land taxes, and promoted the growth of an absentee landlord class charging exorbitant rents. Koreans from the northern provinces of Korea went mainly to Manchuria, China, and Siberia. Many people from the southern provinces went to Japan. Koreans were conscripted into Japanese labor battalions or the Japanese army, especially during World War II. In the 1940-44 period, nearly 2 million Koreans lived in Japan, 1.4 million in Manchuria, 600,000 in Siberia, and 130,000 in China. An estimated 40,000 Koreans were scattered among other countries. At the end of World War II, approximately 2 million Koreans were repatriated from Japan and Manchuria.

More than 4 million ethnic Koreans lived outside the peninsula during the early 1980s. The largest group, about 1.7 million people, lived in China. Most had assumed Chinese citizenship. The Soviet Union had about 430,000 ethnic Koreans. One observer noted that Koreans had been so successful in running collective farms in Soviet Central Asia that being Korean was often associated by other Soviets with being rich.

By contrast, many of Japan's approximately 700,000 Koreans had below-average standards of living. This situation occurred partly because of discrimination by the Japanese majority and partly because of the fact that a large number of resident Koreans, loyal to the North Korean regime of Kim Il Sung, preferred to remain separate from and hostile to the Japanese mainstream. The pro-North Korea Chosen soren (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) initially was more successful than the pro-South Korea Mindan (Association for Korean Residents in Japan) in attracting adherents among residents in Japan. Since diplomatic relations were established between Seoul and Tokyo in 1965, however, the South Korean government has taken an active role in promoting the interests of their residents in Japan in negotiations with the Japanese government. It also has provided subsidies to Korean schools in Japan and other community activities.

By the end of 1988 there were over 2 million South Korean overseas residents. North America was the preferred destination, as the choice of over 1.2 million. Korean immigrants in the United States and Canada gained a reputation for hard work and economic success. South Koreans also were overseas residents of Japan (at least 680,000), Central America and South America (85,000), the Middle East (62,000), Western Europe (40,000), other Asian countries (27,000), and Africa (25,000). A limited number of South Korean government-sponsored migrants settled in Chile, Argentina, and other Latin American countries. Because of South Korea's rapid economic expansion, an increasing number of its citizens reside abroad on a temporary basis as business executives, technical personnel, foreign students, and construction workers. A small number of overseas South Koreans had migrated back to South Korea primarily because of the much improved economic conditions and the difficulties in adjusting to living abroad.

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about South Korea.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress