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In 1945, Soviet Union and United States troops occupied the northern and southern halves of the country respectively. The two Cold War rivals helped establish governments sympathetic to their own ideologies, leading to Korea's current division into two political entities: North Korea and South Korea Despite promises of an independent and unified Korea in the 1943 Cairo Declaration, escalating Cold War antagonism between the United States and Soviet Union eventually led to the establishment of two separate governments: the communist North and the capitalist South. The Soviet Union promptly installed Kim Il-sung as the North Korean premier. While many Koreans wanted a national election to choose a leader for the whole country, the Communists refused to participate in elections by blocking entry into North Korea. Democratic elections were held in South Korea only, and Syngman Rhee was elected president. The Republic of Korea was the sole legitimate government of Korea recognized by the United Nations at that time.

On June 25, 1950, the North invaded the South at the instigation of Stalin, tacitly approved by Mao Zedong. Thus began a bloody war that caused the deaths of more than 4 million civilians and soldiers alike, now referred to as the Korean War. The United Nations intervened on behalf of South Korea when it became apparent that the superior Communist forces would easily take over the entire country. The Soviet Union and China backed North Korea, with China sending millions of troops across the border. The war eventually reached a stalemate. The 1953 armistice split the peninsula along the demilitarized zone at about the original demarcation line. No peace treaty was ever signed, however, and therefore the two countries are technically still at war.

In 1960, a student uprising led to the resignation of president Syngman Rhee, whose government had become autocratic and corrupt. Then followed a period of profound civil unrest and general political instability. General Park Chung-hee led a military coup (the "5.16 coup d'etat") against the weak and ineffectual government the following year. Park took over as president from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, overseeing rapid export-led economic growth as well as severe political repression.

The year following Park's assassination was marked by considerable political turmoil as the previously repressed opposition leaders all clamored to run for the presidential office. In 1980, General Chun Doo-hwan launched a coup d'etat against the transitional government of Choi Gyu Hwa, the former prime minister under Park and interim president, to assume the presidency. Chun's seizure of power triggered national protest asking for democrazation, particularly protests in Gwangju, South Cholla province. Chun sent in the special forces to suppress the city, and many students and civilian were killed brutally. The protesters armed under the name of Civil Army, but at least suppressed by military force (Gwangju Massacre). Chun stated his intent to serve only a single term from the outset and eventually allowed direct presidential elections in 1988 under pressure from widespread popular demonstrations. That year, Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. South Korea's economic development was also largely due to the many large, family owned businesses within the country, which came to be known as Chaebols. Some of the most famous and richest Chaebols include Samsung, LG and Hyundai.


In 1996, South Korea became a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Despite a severe setback caused by the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the country was able to re-emerge as a major economic power. In 2004, South Korea joined the "trillion dollar club" of world economies and, today, its standard of living approximates some of the less affluent countries in Western Europe such as Portugal and Spain.In June 2000, as a part of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy of engagement, a North-South summit took place in North Korea's capital Pyongyang. That year, Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work for democracy and human rights and efforts at reconciliation between the two Koreas. Since then, trade and investment between the two Koreas have increased dramatically as a result of regular contacts in relations and economic ties. South Korea is one of the Four Asian Tigers, along with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

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