The Korean War (1950-53) resulted in nearly 4 million deaths and a formalized division between North and South Korea along a demilitarized zone. While North Korea pursued a harsh communist system, South Korea followed the western economic model, first under four decades of authoritarian military regimes, and now as a democracy.
South Korea's economy grew rapidly: after the Korea War, its per capita income rose at 14 times the level of its northern neighbor. Although it was impacted by the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, South Korea boasts one of the world's major economies, led by global brand names such as Samsung and Hyundai.
South Korea has major concerns about the nuclear ambitions of its northern neighbor. South Korea has pursued a "sunshine" policy with North Korea, all the while resisting foreign pressures for sanctions against the other nation. In 2000, history was made when the presidents of North and South Korea met in a summit meeting. A second summit took place in 2007. South Korea has also been part of the six party talks, negotiating with the North on curbing its nuclear program. However, in early 2009, North Korea threw out its military and political agreements with South Korea, increasing tensions between the countries.
South Korea continues to provide aid to North Korea. There have been reunions between North and South Korean families. In addition, South Korean companies employ thousands of North Korean workers at an industrial complex near the border.
In 1993, Kim Young-sam became South Korea’s first civilian president. Lee Myung-bak, the current president, achieved a record victory with his “Economy, First!” slogan. A former CEO of Hyundai Construction, Lee’s goals include boosting economic growth, reducing unemployment among youth and raising competitiveness as South Korea faces challenges from China and Japan.
Sources: BBC, International Crisis Group, CIA World Factbook