Koreans rejoiced at Japan's World War II defeat. However, their joy was short-lived. Liberation did not instantly bring about the independence for which the Koreans had fought so fiercely. Rather, it resulted in a country divided by ideological differences caused by the emerging Cold War. Korean efforts to establish an independent government were frustrated as U.S. forces occupied the southern half of the peninsula and Soviet troops took control of the north.
In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that called for general elections in Korea under the supervision of a UN Commission.
However, the Soviet Union refused to comply with the resolution and denied the UN Commission access to the northern half of Korea. The UN General Assembly then adopted another resolution calling for elections in areas accessible to its commission. The first elections in Korea were carried out on May 10, 1948, in the areas south of the 38th parallel.
This artificial line came to divide the Korean Peninsula into South and North.
Syngman Rhee, a U.S.- educated intellectual and former independence fighter, was elected the first President of the Republic of Korea in 1948. Rhee's foresight was instrumental in establishing a separate government in South Korea, laying the groundwork for democracy and a market economy.
Meanwhile, a communist regime was set up north of the 38th parallel under the leadership of Kim Il-sung with Soviet support.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion of the South, triggering a three-year war that drew in U.S., Chinese, and other foreign forces. The entire peninsula was devastated by the conflict. A ceasefire was signed in July 1953.
Despite his historic contribution, Rhee was ousted from power in 1960 by student demonstrations protesting his protracted rule and election frauds.
Korea's growth-oriented, export-led economic development since the 1960s. Under the leadership of Park Chung-hee, the general-turned-president, the development of Korea was so remarkable that it earned the name "the Miracle on the Han River." Following 18 years of authoritarian rule, however, Park was assassinated in 1979. Subsequently, South Korea was ruled by Chun Doo-hwan, another general-turned-president until direct presidential elections were restored in 1987, which saw the election of another former general, Roh Tae-woo. But it was not until 1993 when civilian democracy was restored. Seoul hosted the Olympics in 1988 and Korea co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup soccer games with Japan.
Through expanding international trade and exchange, Korea has demonstrated to the world its rich cultural heritage as well as modern technology. In the 1950s, Korea ranked among the poorest countries. Today, its economy is the 15th largest in the world, and the nation is poised to become an active player on the global economic stage following the hosting of the G20 Summit in 2010.
The Republic of Korea has steadily followed the path to mature democracy and economic prosperity. Even though the legacies of the Cold War still linger on this peninsula and global economic crises have affected it, South Korea has been demonstrating remarkable resilience in coping with these challenges and looks forward to an even brighter future.