South Korea is a sovereign state in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula. It is neighboured by China to the west, Japan to the east, and North Korea to the north. With an estimated population of 50 million, it covers a total area 98,480 square kilometres which includes partially forested mountain ranges separated by deep, narrow valleys. Its main exports are wireless telecommunications equipment, motor vehicles and computers. Korea was one nation under the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties until the end of the Korean Empire in 1910, when Japan began a 35-year period of colonial rule. Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers in 1945 and three years later the country split in two, beginning decades of conflict between North and South. The current president of The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is Park Geun-hye. She is the first woman to be elected as President in South Korea.
Ray of sunshine
It would be premature to assume that the governments of North and South Korea will soon resolve their many differences, despite the historic meeting set for June. But their planned summit is remarkable, perhaps the most significant political development on the peninsula since the Korean War ended in 1953.
It happens because Pyongyang is being forced into the world by grim reality. The North's economy is in ruins and its people near starvation.
These facts, coupled with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's determined 'sunshine policy', have coaxed the reclusive Kim Jong-il to the table. Realistically, he has nowhere else to go.
The former Soviet Union, which once propped up the North, is defunct. In the past, Pyongyang played Moscow against Beijing, but both have different priorities now.
Some aid agencies have given up on the North after finding food supplies meant for hungry children being diverted to the elite and the army. And the US sent ex-defence secretary William Perry last May to issue a stark warning that its nuclear weapons programme had to go.
Wisely, the North was not boxed into a corner; promises of more aid for better behaviour were left on the table. Thus North Korea has everything to gain from normal contact with the global community - and above all with South Korea.
The June summit will mark the first meeting of 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il with any head of state since he succeeded his father in 1994. It is the first truly high-level North-South summit. Previously, Pyongyang had tried to ignore the South and deal directly with the major powers.
Kim Dae-jung's policy has brought a small break in the clouds. It is mainly up to Pyongyang to determine if this will bring clear skies.