The Korean War (1950-1953) left indelible marks on the Korean Peninsula and the world surrounding it. The entire peninsula was reduced to rubble; casualties on both sides were enormous. The chances for peaceful unification had been remote even before 1950, but the war dashed all such hopes. Sizable numbers of South Koreans who either had been sympathetic or indifferent to communism before the war became avowed anticommunists afterwards. The war also intensified hostilities between the communist and noncommunist camps in the accelerating East-West arms race. Moreover, a large number of Chinese volunteer troops remained in North Korea until October 1958, and China began to play an increasingly important role in Korean affairs. Because tension on the Korean Peninsula remained high, the United States continued to station troops in South Korea, over the strenuous objections of North Korean leaders. The war also spurred Japan's industrial recovery and the United States' decision to rearm Japan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

At the time of Korean War there was only one bridge over the over the Han river in Seoul and it was destroyed by North Korean troops. After the war many bridges were built and there now are a couple dozen bridges over the river. At the height of the conflict there were only 1 million people in Seoul. Today, there are around 25 million in the Seoul metropolitan area.

By the time the armistice was signed in 1953, North Korea had been devastated by three years of bombing attacks that had left almost no modern buildings standing. Both Koreas had watched as their country was ravaged and the expectations of 1945 were turned into a nightmare. Furthermore, when Kim's regime was nearly extinguished in the fall of 1950, the Soviet Union did very little to save it — China picked up the pieces. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “After the war the boundary was stabilized along a line running from the Han estuary generally northeast across the 38th parallel to a point south of Kosong (Kuum-ni), with a "no-man's land" or demilitarized zone (DMZ), 1.24 miles (2 kilometers) wide and occupying a total of 487 square miles (1,261 square kilometers), on either side of the boundary. The western border in the ocean, though, was not defined, and fighting has occasionally occurred at sea. Throughout the 1950s and 60s an uneasy truce prevailed; thousands of soldiers were poised on each side of the demilitarized zone, and there were occasional shooting incidents. In 1971 negotiations between North and South Korea provided the first hope for peaceful reunification of the peninsula; in Nov., 1972, an agreement was reached for the establishment of joint machinery to work toward unification. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Destruction During the Korean War and Hardship Afterwards

During the Korean War, Americans dropped 425,000 bombs on Pyongyang a city of 400,000 people before the war One of the war’s bloodiest battles took place at Heartbreak Ridge. Another occurred at Pork Chop Hill.

The United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs in Korea, not counting the 32,557 tons of napalm, Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago professor who’s written several books on North Korea, wrote in “The Korean War: A History.” This compared with 503,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater in World War II. “If we keep on tearing the place apart, we can make it a most unpopular affair for the North Koreans,” Defense Secretary Robert Lovett said after the napalm and aerial bombing campaigns of 1950 and 1951, according to Cumings. “We ought to go right ahead,” Lovett said. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, May 17, 2017 /]

Dean Rusk said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops. Air Force commanders complained that they’d run out of targets. “The physical destruction and loss of life on both sides was almost beyond comprehension, but the North suffered the greater damage, due to American saturation bombing and the scorched-earth policy of the retreating U.N. forces,” Armstrong of Columbia wrote. /

It took a while for South Korea to recover. In the 1950s many villagers ate meat only once a year, and subsisted on rice and kimchi and a little fish. When times were particularly bad they lived off of a mixture of barely and rice. After the Korean War people scavenged for grass and bark to survive. Classic studies showed that many people had their growth stunted by malnutrition but recovered intellectually.

Postwar South Korea

In 1952 Syngman Rhee, who had assumed the presidency of South Korea in 1948 after election by the National Assembly, was elected president by popular vote. Rhee’s presidency was characterized by efforts to cling to power, and the 1950s were a time of economic and social hardship in South Korea. Rhee’s increasingly corrupt efforts to remain in office reached their nadir in the 1960 elections. The obvious malfeasance at work in that vote led to widespread protest, known today as the April 19 Student Revolution. Rhee was forced, at last, to step down. In the interim until new elections, political instability and the absence of a clear successor to Rhee, among other factors, laid the foundations for the military coup that followed. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”:“The increasingly authoritarian rule of President Syngman Rhee, along with government corruption and injustice, added to the discontent of the people. The elections of March 1960, in which Rhee won a fourth term, were marked by widespread violence, police brutality, and accusations by Rhee's opponents of government fraud. A student protest march in April 1960, in which 125 students were shot down by the police, triggered a wave of uprisings across the country. The government capitulated, and Rhee resigned and went into exile. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

In 1961 a group of military officers loyal to Major General Park Chung Hee carried out a coup d’état. The years between 1961 and 1987 were characterized by increasing domestic political repression and power struggles, including the assassination of President Park in 1979 by the chief of the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency. Political leadership during this time was almost exclusively in the hands of the military and former military leaders. At the same time, by the 1970s the South Korean economy was experiencing a period of unprecedented growth. Although democratic growth was constrained, standards of living rose.

Society Changes in South Korea After the Korean War

The transformation of South Korean society during the Rhee era was of revolutionary proportions because of the convergence of a number of forces. A major impetus for social change was the greatly enhanced opportunity for education. Although Japan had introduced a modern education system to Korea, opportunities for Koreans were purposely limited, particularly at the secondary and university levels. Educational opportunities were greatly expanded immediately after the Japanese defeat, and the trend continued through the Korean War and afterwards. Higher education provided more opportunities for upward mobility to a large number of young people. This opening also meant greater political awakening among the young, particularly in view of the strong emphasis placed on democratic values and ideas by teachers and intellectuals. For the first time, Korean youths were provided open access to democratic ideas both at school and through the mass media. These Western ideas became the norm against which to judge the government in power when the exigencies of the war period were removed. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

A land reform law enacted in June 1949 also had a leveling effect on Korean society. Under this law, nearly 1 million sharecroppers, or approximately 40 percent of total farm households, became small landowners. The reform also brought about the decline of the landlord class that had formed the backbone of traditional Korean society for centuries. Because big business and industrial groups did not emerge until the late 1950s and early 1960s, almost everyone in society was placed on an equal footing.*

The Korean War had the most significant effect on the social system. The movement of large armies up and down the length of the peninsula was accompanied by civilian refugees. People of diverse backgrounds intermingled for prolonged periods, deeply affecting everyone's way of life. The indiscriminate destruction of property during the war also had the effect of homogenizing Korean society.*

The war caused hundreds of thousands of young men from rural areas to enlist in the army, exposing them to modern organization, technologies, and a new world outlook. The war also gave rise to a large officer corps that later developed into an increasingly significant social group.*

Better education and the government's postwar economic policies contributed to accelerated urbanization. Reconstruction projects created jobs in the cities, while the government's effort to control the prices of farm products made it unprofitable to till small farm plots. The urban population increased rapidly from 11.6 percent in 1940 to 24.4 percent in 1955 and 28.3 percent in 1960. These changes had a direct impact on politics because the better-educated and urbanized elements became increasingly vocal and more independent in their political judgments.*

South Korea Responds to the North Korean Military Buildup

Under presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee, the South Korean military remained largely dependent on the United States to deter a second North Korean invasion and to provide much of the training and equipment needed by the armed forces. When the First Republic (1948-60) fell, South Korea's military institutions were stronger relatively than most of its other government agencies. Each service had a well-established school system and adequate supplies of weapons, ships, and aircraft from World War II and the Korean War. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Because of internal politics and Syngman Rhee's policy of controlling the promotion and assignment of all general rank officers, the military leadership was already at the edge of involvement in the nation's politics.Park Chung Hee and the other military leaders who participated in the May 1961 coup d'état that brought down the Second Republic (1960-61) were motivated largely by dissatisfaction with their corrupt and ineffective military and civilian superiors. They believed that South Korea's survival as a nation depended on the reestablishment of social and economic stability. *

They viewed the strength of the armed forces and the reinstitution of the National Security Act of 1960 and other laws intended to reduce civil disturbances as necessary means to restore order and promote sound economic development. By 1963 when Park won election to the presidency of the Third Republic (1963-72) as a civilian, he already had placed other former military leaders, mostly members of the eighth class of the Officer Candidate School who had graduated in 1949, in key government positions.*

Economy of South Korea After the Korean War

After World War II, the Americans redistributed land held by colonial Japan. In 1949, the South Korean government introduced land reform. People with titles to large landholdings were forced to hand most of their land over to the people who actually tilled it.

In addition to military aid, between 1953 and 1970, the United States government gave South Korea almost four billion dollars in economic assistance. The South continued with land redistribution begun World war II, a process which was relatively easy because most of the land in Korea had been owned by the Japanese or Japanese sympathizers. Division of the peninsula into North and South Korea made it impossible for Koreans to exchange products between northern industries and southern farms. Both sides suffered and lost their economic equilibrium.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: “South Korea opted for a free-enterprise economy at the time of independence and has since sought to consolidate it with a great deal of success. The mainly agrarian nation began to industrialize in the 1950s. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

South Korea transformed its traditional agrarian subsistence economy to a primarily industrialized one in little more than a generation. Throughout the 1950s the economy in South Korea grew but sputtered. Countries like Ghana and Pakistan had a higher per capita incomes than South Korea in the early 1960s, and North Korea actually had a higher standard of living than South Korea up until the 1970s.

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “The Korean economy was shattered by the war of 1950 to 1953. Postwar reconstruction was abetted by enormous amounts of foreign aid (in the North from Communist countries and in the South chiefly from the United States) and intensive government economic development programs. Its relatively insignificant industries mainly served its domestic market until the early 1960s, when the South Korean government encouraged massive industrialization. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

“Traditionally the agricultural region of the Korean peninsula, South Korea faced severe economic problems after partition. Attempts to establish an adequate industrial base were hampered by limited resources, particularly an acute lack of energy resources; most industry, prior to 1948, had been located in the North. War damage and the flood of refugees from North Korea further intensified the economic problem. The country depended upon foreign aid, chiefly from the United States, and the economy was characterized by runaway inflation, highly unfavorable trade balances, and mass unemployment.

Korean Economy Inherited from the Japanese Occupation

North Korea inherited the basic infrastructure of a modern economy because of Japan's substantial investment in development during the Japanese occupation. The Japanese had developed considerable heavy industry, particularly in the metal and chemical industries, hydroelectric power, and mining in the northern half of Korea, where they introduced modern mining methods. The southern half of the country produced most of the rice and a majority of textiles. The hydroelectric power and chemical plants were said to be second to none in Asia at that time in terms of both their scale and technology. The same applied to the railroad and communication networks. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993*]

There were, however, serious defects in the industrial structures and their location. The Korean economy, geared primarily to benefit the Japanese homeland, was made dependent on Japan for final processing of products; heavy industry was limited to the production of mainly raw materials, semifinished goods, and war supplies, which were then shipped to Japan proper for final processing and consumption. Japan did not allow Korea to develop a machine tool industry. Most industrial centers were strategically located on the eastern or western coasts near ports so as to connect them efficiently with Japan. Railroad networks ran mainly along the north-south axis, facilitating Japan's access to the Asian mainland. Because the Japanese occupied almost all the key government positions and owned and controlled the industrial and financial enterprises, few Koreans benefited from acquiring basic skills essential for modernization. Moreover, the Japanese left behind an agrarian structure — land tenure system, size of landholdings and farm operation, pattern of land use and farm income — that needed much reform. Farms were fragmented and small, and landownership was extremely unequal. Toward the end of the Japanese occupation, about 50 percent of all farm households in Korea were headed by tenant farmers.*

The sudden withdrawal of the Japanese and the subsequent partition of the country created economic chaos. Severance of the complementary "agricultural" south from the "industrial" north and from Japan meant that North Korea's traditional markets for raw materials and semifinished goods — as well as its sources of food and manufactured goods — were cut off. Furthermore, the withdrawal of the entrepreneurial and engineering skills supplied mainly by Japanese personnel affected the economic base. Thus the task facing the communist regime in North Korea was to develop a viable economy, which it reoriented mainly toward other communist countries, while at the same time to rectify the "malformation" in the colonial industrial structure. Subsequently, the problem was compounded further by the devastation of industrial plants during the Korean War (1950-53). North Korea's economic development therefore did not tread a new path until after the Korean War.*

Japanese Role in Korea's Economic Development

The Japanese, who dominated Korea from the late 1890s to 1945 and who governed Korea as a colony from 19l0 to 1945, were responsible for the initial economic modernization of Korea. Before 1900 Korea had a relatively backward agricultural economy. According to scholar Donald S. Macdonald, for centuries most Koreans lived as subsistence farmers of rice and other grains and satisfied most of their basic needs through their own labor or through barter. The manufactures of traditional Korea — principally cloth, cooking and eating utensils, furniture, jewelry, and paper — were produced by artisans in a few population centers. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Following the annexation of Korea in 19l0, Japan thrust a modern blend of industrial capitalism onto a feudal agrarian society. By the end of the colonial period, Japan had built an extensive infrastructure of roads, railroads, ports, electrical power, and government buildings that facilitated both the modernization of Korea's economy and Japan's control over the modernization process. The Japanese located various heavy industries — steel, chemicals, and hydroelectric power — across Korea, but mainly in the north.*

The Japanese government played an even more active role in developing Korea than it had played in developing the Japanese economy in the late nineteenth century. Many programs drafted in Korea in the 1920s and 1930s originated in policies drafted in Japan during the Meiji period (1868-1912). The Japanese government helped to mobilize resources for development and provided entrepreneurial leadership for these new enterprises. Colonial economic growth was initiated through powerful government efforts to expand the economic infrastructure, to increase investment in human capital through health and education, and to raise productivity.*

In some respects, South Korean patterns of development after the early 1960s closely followed the methodology introduced by the Japanese fifty years earlier — industrialization from above using a strong bureaucracy that formulated and implemented economic policies. Many of the developments that took place in Chosen, the Japanese name for Korea during the period of colonization, had also occurred in pre-World War II Japan; they were implementation of a strong education system and the spread of literacy; the rise of a strong, authoritarian government that combined civilian and military administration to govern the state with strict discipline; the fostering and implementation of comprehensive economic programs by the state through its control of the huge national bureaucracy; the close collaboration between government and business leaders; and the development of industries by the major Japanese zaibatsu (commercial conglomerates).*

Some political analysts, for example, Bruce Cumings and Gavan McCormick, have been impressed with the common elements in prewar and postwar economic growth in South Korea and especially with top-down government management of the economy. Economists, such as Paul W. Kuznets, however, also draw attention to the dysfunctional aspects of the colonial legacy and find some of the discontinuities important.*

It is also important to note that between the end of World War II and Park Chung Hee's ascension to power in 1961, there was a major rupture, both politically and economically, from the Japanese colonial period. There was considerable disruption after 1945 because of plant exhaustion; the loss of linkages with Japanese capital and with upstream and downstream industrial facilities; the loss of technical expertise, distribution systems, and markets; and the subsequent obliteration of the industrial plant during the Korean War (1950-53). *

Devastated South Korea Begins Rebuilding in the 1950s

In 1960, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in Asia. The per capita income of South Korea in 1962 was US$87. Pakistan and Nigeria were richer. Ghana’s per capita income was roughly double that of North Korea’s. Before 1962, 80 percent of foreign investment in South Korea was foreign aid, mostly from the United States. Peace Corp workers were sent to Korea. There were some textile factories but basically no manufacturing, no banks, no real businessmen and no people who spoke foreign languages other than Japanese.

The Korean War had destroyed most of South Korea's production facilities. The South Korean government began rehabilitation as soon as the battle zone near the thirty-eighth parallel stabilized in 1952. The United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency and members of the UN, principally the United States, also provided badly needed financial assistance. Seoul depended heavily on foreign aid, not only for defense, but also for other expenditures. Foreign aid constituted a third of total budget in 1954, rose to 58.4 percent in 1956, and was approximately 38 percent of the budget in 1960. The first annual United States economic aid bill after the armistice was US$200 million; aid peaked at US$365 million in 1956 and was then maintained at the US$200 million level annually until the mid-1960s. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

1950s. South Korea mechanized and expanded its agricultural sector. The scarcity of raw materials and the need to maintain a large army caused a high rate of inflation, but by 1958 prices had stabilized. The government also intensified its effort to increase industrial production, emphasizing power generation and textile and cement production. In order to reduce dependence on imports, such principal items as fertilizer and steel began to be produced domestically.*

The average rise in the gross national product (GNP) was 5.5 percent from 1954 through 1958. Industrial production led the advance, growing by nearly 14 percent per year. The tightening of fiscal and monetary policies in 1958, coupled with the phasing out of the United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency program and the reduction in direct aid from the United States in 1957, caused a shortage of raw materials for import-dependent industries and led to an overall economic decline. By 1958 Liberal Party leaders paid more attention to political survival than to economic development. The government adopted a comprehensive Seven-Year Economic Development Plan in January 1960, but before the plan could be implemented, the student revolution brought down the government.*

Rapid Development in South Korea in the 1960s

In 1953 industrialized North Korea was richer than largely agricultural South Korea. In 2002, South Korea had a GNP or US$505 billion while North Korea’s was only US$15 billion. South Korea has been described as being “a poster boy for having made the difficult journey from a poor developing country to a vibrant and prosperous economy.” It has achieved this in a high-threat environment with possibility of war with North Korea hoovering nearby.

Through export-led industrialization, South Korea transformed itself from a poverty-stricken nation into an economic powerhouse faster than perhaps any other country. The road to development in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South began with sweatshops that produced garments and shoes and light assembly plants that produced toys and cheap electronics. In the 1960s, South Korea made wigs and false teeth mainly for export. At that time South Korea was still emerging from the Korean War.

The U.S. played a significant roles in South Korea's economic growth. Between 1945 and 1971 the U.S. lent South Korea US$3.8 billion. The Vietnam War was a big boost. Industries were launched to supply the American military. The Four Tigers—South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore—raised the per-capita incomes sixfold between 1965 and 1995. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand tripled their income levels in the same period.

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies: “Its relatively insignificant industries mainly served its domestic market until the early 1960s, when the South Korean government encouraged massive industrialization. Unlike many developing countries, South Korea chose an export-led industrialization strategy to produce labor-intensive products that could be produced more cheaply than in North America and Western Europe and therefore competitive and exportable to those markets. Initially, the emphasis was on light industry products such as fabric and clothing, later supplemented by assembly-line production of electronic products like radios or black-and-white television sets. By the late 1960s, South Korea became a major producer of telecommunication devices and computer parts.” [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “The greatest industrial advances were made during the 1960s; in that decade the South experienced an 85 percent increase in productivity and a 250 percent rise in per capita gross national product. Economic development throughout Korea has been uneven, with the South showing significantly greater gains. The per capita gross domestic product of the South is more than 15 times that of the North. In the South such consumer goods industries as textiles, garments, and footwear have given way to heavy industry, consumer electronics, and information industries. A great variety of products are now manufactured; these include electrical and electronic equipment, automobiles, chemicals, ships, steel, and ceramic goods. South Korea exports semiconductors, wireless telecommunications equipment, motor vehicles, computers, steel, ships, and petrochemicals. Imports include machinery, electronics, oil, steel, transportation equipment, organic chemicals, and plastic. The main trading partners are China, Japan, and the United States.” [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.