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Far East Kingdoms

East Asia


Modern South Korea
AD 1948 - Present Day
Incorporating Heads of State (1948-2022)

Modern Korea is a divided nation thanks to a succession of events which began with Japanese Annexation at the start of the twentieth century and ended with the Korean War of 1950-1953. Today, having supplied much of the territory for two of Korea's historical 'Three Kingdoms', Baekje and Silla, along with the lesser, tribal confederation of Gaya, South Korea is now divided from North Korea

The new border was initially supplied by the thirty-eighth parallel, and then the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which effectively cuts the Korean peninsula in half. Across Korea Bay to the west is China, with Japan to the south and east, across the Korea Strait and the Sea of Japan.

Bearing a name which is said to descend from that of Koguryo (Koryŏ), Joseon Korea was annexed to Japan in 1910. It remained a satellite territory until the conclusion of the Second World War. Japan's defeat in 1945 saw Korea occupied by the allied powers for three years until summit meetings which were held after the conclusion of the war decided that Korea would be divided along the thirty-eighth parallel.

The USA would administer the southern half from a capital at Seoul - although US General Douglas MacArthur in fact controlled the south from his headquarters in occupied Tokyo - while Soviet Russia would do the same in the north.

The situation in the south was chaotic, with the American-backed administration under Syngman Rhee openly stating its intent to reunify Korea by force. The Americans greatly limited the amount of military equipment available to him, leaving the republic of the south with little more than a lightly-armed gendarmerie.

In the north Russia placed a client ruler in charge in the form of Kim Il-sung before withdrawing in 1948. With the south vocal but toothless, he created the North Korean People's Army. Russia insisted that the north was sovereign over all of Korea. When that proved not to be the case and the south declared its own sovereign status, war was almost inevitable in the febrile post-Second World War political climate.

Following just two years of increasingly hostile small-scale actions along the thirty-eighth parallel, North Korea's forces attacked South Korea on 25 June 1950. North Korean troops swept south, capturing most of the country. Under United Nations authorisation, a multinational force made up primarily of troops from the USA, Britain, and the British Commonwealth nations (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India), pushed back the North Koreans, prompting the Chinese to intervene.

More troops poured in and peace was only ensured when a ceasefire was agreed in July 1953. Since then the dividing line between the two Koreas has remained heavily militarised, possibly one of the most militarised borders in the world.

South Korea's flag

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information from A Concise History of Modern Korea: From the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present, Michael J Seth, from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, from The making of modern Korea, Adrian Buzo (Taylor & Francis, 2007), from Washington Post (16 & 20 September 1999), from S Korean President Resigns From Party (Washington Post, 7 May 2002), from Jubilation, Rage in S Korea (Washington Post, 13 March 2004), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Post War History (since 1945) (Japan-Guide.com), and BBC Country Profiles, and Maj-Gen A L Lerch dies in Korea at 53 (The New York Times), and South Korea Removes President Park Geun-hye (The New York Times), and Timeline on North Korea's Nuclear Program (The New York Times), and Park Geun-hye sentenced to 24 years in jail (The Guardian), and Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB).)

1945 - 1948

On 6 August 1945, an atom bomb is dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima by the US bomber, 'Enola Gay'. A further bomb dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August brings a declaration of surrender from Japan on 2 September.

Japan also surrenders its empire, including annexed territory in China and Korea. Korea is occupied by the victorious Second World War allies, with Russia controlling the northern half (soon to be known as North Korea) and the USA the southern half.

Korean War and the 38th parallel
The 38th parallel (latitude 38 N) crosses the border between North Korea and South Korea towards the western end of the present demilitarised zone (DMZ), but it is the post-Korean War DMZ which forms the actual border between the two states


Archibald V Arnold

US military governor, Sep-Dec. Retired 1948.

1945 - 1970

Crown Prince Uimin / Yi Un

Retained Annexation-period title but exiled until 1963. Died.

1945 - 1947

Archer L Lerch

US military governor, Dec-Sep. Died in office aged 53.

1947 - 1948

William F Dean

US military governor, Oct-Aug. PoW (1950-1953). Died 1981.

1948 - 1949

Charles G Helmick

US military governor, Aug-Jun. Handed over to Rhee.


South Korea holds a constitutional assembly in May, and a constitution is adopted, heralding the start of the country's 'First Republic'. Given the country's main external influence (the USA), it is unavoidable that a presidential form of government is selected, with a four-year term of office for the presidency.

An indirect presidential election is held in July according to the provisions of the constitution. Syngman Rhee becomes head of the new assembly, assuming the presidency and proclaiming the republic of Korea (South Korea) on 15 August 1948.

South Koreans of Jeju
One of the new republic's first acts under the dictatorial Syngman Rhee was to exterminate at least 30,000 civilians on the South Korean island of Jeju for resisting his US-supported governance of a strongly anti-communist country

1948 - 1960

Syngman Rhee

'President', 1952 (rigged elections). Later president for life.

1950 - 1953

After two years of increasingly hostile small scale actions along the thirty-eighth parallel, North Korea's forces attack South Korea on 25 June 1950. North Korean troops sweep south, capturing most of the country.

Under United Nations authorisation, a multinational force made up primarily of troops from the USA, and Britain and the Commonwealth nations (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India), pushes the North Koreans back to the Manchurian border.

Major-General William F Dean, former US military governor of South Korea, commands the 24th Infantry Division during the war, and is captured at the retreat from Taejon in 1950 as the advance of the invaders is slowed down.

This prompts communist China to intervene, pouring troops across the frontier and taking Korea as far south as Seoul. By 1951 the allies have stabilised a front line around the thirty-eighth parallel and the remainder of the Korean War consists of heavy fighting in this region, until a ceasefire is agreed in July 1953.

Nikita Kruschev and John F Kennedy
Photographed together here, John F Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev would, in 1962, play the world's biggest game of brinkmanship as the USA and Soviet Union vied for supremacy


South Korea's elected president, Syngman Rhee, orders a mass arrest of opposition politicians so that he can force through an amendment to the constitution which allows him to be re-elected by direct popular vote. He wins a normally-unlikely seventy-four percent of the vote.


Soon after an easy third election win, Syngman Rhee amends the constitution again so that he can run for an unlimited number of elections instead of the three originally stipulated. This places him into the category of would-be dictator.

1960 - 1961

Rhee wins 90% of the vote in his fourth election - a margin of victory normally only witnessed in dictatorships. Rhee also gets his own man elected to the post of vice-president with an apparent landslide victory. Finally the populace are stirred up enough to protest, leading to some of them being shot at a demonstration in Musan.

The resultant April Revolution forces Rhee to resign his office on 26 April 1960. A weak government is elected the following year at the start of the 'Second Republic' period, and this is quickly disposed of in a coup led by General Park Chung-hee on 16 May 1961.

April Revolution in South Korea of 1960
The April Revolution of 1960 saw mass demonstrations on the streets of Seoul, leading to the fall of the 'strongman' government of Syngman Rhee

1960 - 1962

Yun Po Sun

Elected president. Democrat. Puppet May 61. Assassinated.

1961 - 1979

Park Chung-hee

Military 'president' following a coup. Assassinated.

1962 - 1963

South Korea's economy begins a thirty year spurt of massive growth which leaves it amongst the world's richest nations by 1995. However, its position alongside ever-hostile North Korea ensures that it also has one of the world's top ten defence budgets.

The start of the Park-Chung-hee government with him as 'president' in 1963 also signals the start of the 'Third Republic' period. Two more republics come and go - the fourth in 1972 and the fifth in 1981 - before the 'Sixth Republic' begins in 1988.


The 'Blue House Assault' at the height of the Cold War sees North Korea send a team of thirty-one commandos from Pyongyang to assassinate South Korea's President Park Chung-hee. They are stopped just a hundred metres from the presidential Blue House.

North Korean military parade
In annual parades which are strongly redolent of those of communist Russia at its height, North Korea shows off its military hardware and one of the world's largest standing armies


Gunfights erupt and more than ninety South Koreans are killed, including many civilians on a bus. Only two of the commandos survives; one flees to the north and one is captured. A later assassination attempt on the president succeeds.

1970 - 2005

Yi Gu

Son of Yi Un. Retained unspoken claim to throne. Died 16 Jul.

1979 - 1987

Chun Doo-hwan

Military 'president' following a coup. Civilian in 1981.

1987 - 1988

The despotic 'presidency' of the former general (and civilian since February 1981), Chun Doo-hwan, comes to a voluntary end following the death by torture of a university student. Chun is pressured into allowing direct presidential elections which are narrowly won by Roh Tae-woo of his own Democratic Justice Party, thereby handing over the reigns of power to his democratically-elected successor.

The commencement in 1988 of the administration of the Roh Tae-woo government also heralds the start of the 'Sixth Republic' period in South Korea which survives to the present day.

South Korea's Chun Doo-hwan
Chun Doo-hwan, who brutally crushed opponents until mass demonstrations forced him out, was pressured into stepping aside to allow presidential elections

1988 - 1993

Roh Tae-woo

Elected president. Democratic Justice/Democratic Liberal.


North Korea accepts a proposal for exchange between the two Koreas, which leads to high-level talks and cultural and sporting exchanges. A joint communiqué in 1991 covering denuclearisation is agreed, and the two Koreas simultaneously become members of the UN.

1993 - 1998

Kim Young-sam

Elected president. Democratic Liberal/New Korea.

1998 - 2003

Kim Dae-jung

Elected president. Natl Congress for New Politics/Democrat.

1999 - 2002

South Korea joins a United Nations peacekeeping force which arrives on East Timor on 20 September 1999. In 2000, the National Congress for New Politics becomes the Democratic Party (so-called in Korean, but also otherwise known as the Millennium Democratic (or simply Democratic) Party, thanks to the efforts of Kim Dae-jung. In 2001, Kim Dae-jung resigns as leader of his own party. In 2002, he resigns entirely from the party.

UN accession in 1991 by the two Koreas
Prime Minister Chung Won-shik of South Korea (right) with Prime Minister Yon Hyong-muk of North Korea in Seoul, after signing a pact of reconciliation between their countries, in December 1991

2003 - 2008

Roh Moo-hyun

Elected president. Democrat. Temporarily suspended in 2004.

2005 - Present

Hereditary Prince Imperial Yi Won

Grandnephew of Sunjong. Current recognised head of Yi.


Yi Won is the son of Yi Gap, himself the son of the late King Sunjong's brother, Prince Imperial Ui. In the last days of the preceding head of the House of Yi, he had been adopted by the incumbent claimant, Yi Gu. Following Yi Gu's death a few days later, Yi Won is recognised as the head of the house and first in line for the throne should it ever be restored.

2005 - 2020

Empress Yi Haw-won

Half-aunt and rival claimant. Outlived all her children.


The late adoption and Yi Won's suitability to lead the House of Yi is contested by his half-aunt, Yi Hae-won. Her closer family insists on crowning her as empress of Korea (even if in name only), even though Yi Won's position is generally acknowledged both by the majority of the family and outside of it.

Her claim and any other rival claims are shown in green text in order to differentiate them from the accepted claim. Having outlived all four of her children, her claim would seem to have died with her on 16 July 2020.

2008 - 2013

Lee Myung-bak

Elected president. Grand National Party/Saenuri Party.

2013 - 2017

Park Geun-hye

Elected (female) president. Saenuri Party.

2013 - 2017

Park Geun-hye is the first female president of South Korea, daughter the Park Chun-hee who had taken power by force in 1961. Her reputation, whilst initially good, is hampered by a degree of incompetence in the handling of the Sewol ferry disaster.

President Park Geun-hye
Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president and the daughter of former dictator, Park Chung-hee, left office in 2017 only to be arrested on charges of corruption in March 2017 and sentenced to twenty-four years in prison in April 2018

A subsequent major scandal leads to her being impeached in December 2016. To a background of some of Korea's largest-ever public protests she is forced out of office in 2017.

2017 - 2022

Moon Jae-in

Elected president. Democratic Party of Korea.

2022 - On

Yoon Suk-yeol

Elected president. People Power Party.

Yi Kwon

Son of Yi Won. Born 1998. Heir apparent.

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