Korea possesses a unique and ancient cultural history. It was a Chinese vassal state for many centuries. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea and, until 1945, ruthlessly ran the country as a colony. The northern area became an industrial center economically integrated into Manchuria while the south remained largely agricultural. After Japan's defeat in World War II, the northern part of the peninsula was occupied by the Soviets with the Americans occupying the south. In 1948, the Soviets assisted in establishing the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Americans, under the auspices of the UN, organized elections for South Korea. Both Soviet and American troops left the Korean peninsula by 1949. DPRK forces attacked the south and sought to unify the nation in 1950. Relative peace was not established until North Korean forces, backed by their Communist allies, were driven north of the 38th parallel by UN forces. The armistice on 21 June 1953 established a military demarcation line and demilitarized zone around the 38th parallel, which remains the border between North and South Korea today.
Military regimes controlled Korean politics from 1948 through the 1980s. Syngman Rhee ruled the nation with an iron fist from 1948 to 1960 and established the precedent for successive military rule. After a short democratic interlude, Park Chung Hee and four other military officers seized power in 1961. After Park's assassination in 1979, Chun Doo Hwan (1980–87) and Roh Tae Woo (1987–92) continued the military line of succession. Roh Tae Woo, however, began to move the nation toward democracy. By institutionalizing his political party, the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP), he began moving away from centralized presidential leadership. In the December 1992 elections, Kim Young Sam became the first non-military candidate to become president. Kim Dae Jung won the presidential election of December 1997. Kim's "sunshine policy" toward North Korea was geared to improve relations between the two countries and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his commitment to democracy and human rights in Asia.
The 1988 Korean Constitution provides for a strong popularly elected president and a unicameral legislature, the 273-member National Assembly. The president is elected for a five-year term, and legislators serve for four years. Upon election, the president is responsible for appointing the prime minister, who serves upon legislative confirmation. While the president lacks the power to dissolve the legislature, he selects his cabinet members from the members of a State Council consisting of elected legislators. He also serves as the head of his party. As of January 2003, seats in the National Assembly were distributed as follows: the Grand National Party (GNP), 133 seats; Roh Moo Hyun's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), 118 seats; United Liberal Democrats (ULD), 15 seats; and Democratic People's Party (DPP), 2 seats.