Country profiles

IssueJune - Aug 2003
Feature by Christie Church, Tuva Ravn Eggan

Here we have tried to compile basic facts about each of the countries this issue focuses on. We have specifically included information about issues such as military service, the arms trade, refugees and human rights, all of which should be of particular interest to our readers.

NE Asian religions

North-East Asia is rich in spiritual currents, with Buddhist, Christian, Taosit, Confucian and shamanic traditions.

  • Confucianism Outside of the region little is known about Confucianism. Even though is has provided a system of social and ethical philosophy in China - and further afield - since 500BC. Confucianism has no separate church, but works on the idea that everyday life is the arena for religion.
  • Taoism Taoism is based on the belief that the first cause of the universe is the Tao, a force flowing through life. Believers aim to become one with the Tao. Today closely associated with Buddhism, Taoism developed in China around the same time as Confusianism.
  • Shinto Shinto is a Japanese religion that believes in the divinity of the imperial family “Unlike most other religions, Shinto has no real founder, no written scriptures, no body of religious law, and only a very loosely-organized priesthood” and “Shintoists generally follow the code of Confucianism”. (Source: http://www.religioustolerance. org/shinto.htm )
  • Chondogyo Chondogyo is a native religion of Korea. It rests on the idea that a divine saviour will rescue the world. It was originally known as Tonghak (Eastern Learning).
  • Buddhism Finally, the foundations of Buddhism lie on the belief that a person goes through many cycles of birth, life and death until he or she releases his or her attachment to desire and the self. He or she can then attain Nirvana, a state of liberation and freedom from suffering.

South Korea

(Republic of Korea)

Population: 48.3 million
Independence: 15 August 1945 (from Japan)
Government type: republic
Head of state: Kim Dae-jung
Capital: Seoul
Life expectancy: 75 years
Literacy: 98%
Suffrage: 20 years, universal
Current major conflicts: North Korea
State army: 8,990,488 (2002 est)
Typical annual military expenditure: unknown
Military expenditure as % GDP: 2.8%
Conscription status: Men, aged 19-40, usually 26 months.
Conscientious objection: the right to refuse military service is not legally recognised and there are no provisions for suitable service. (Draft evasion is punishable by up to three years imprisonment.)
External debt: 120.5 billion (2001)
Death Penalty: retentionist (No executions since 1998 when President Kim Dae-Jung took charge. A bill to abolish the death penalty was introduced by legislators in the National Assembly, but was not passed during 2000.)
Censorship: The Korean government uses a compulsory filtering system for “PC Bangs” (Cyber cafe's), schools and public libraries. The system blocks access to websites that the Korean government considers to be “harmful to minors”. Websites selected for blocking included mainstream lesbian and gay websites. This violates the South Korean constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, speech and of the press.
Religion: Christian 49%, Buddhism 47%, Confucianism 3%, Shamanism, Chondogyo (religion of the heavenly way), and other 1%.
Ethnic groups: Homogeneous (except for about 20 000 Chinese).
Refugees: Since it signed the UN Refugee Convention in 1992, the South Korean government had not granted refugee status to asylum seekers from any country other than North Korea. There were fears that asylum-seekers were deported to countries where they risked grave human rights violations, in violation of the principle of non-refoulement. Furthermore, the asylum determination process appeared to be weighted against the applicant, with inadequate interpretation facilities during interviews and no support for asylum-seekers while they await the decision.

North Korea

(Democratic People's Republic of Korea)

Population: 22.2 million
Independence: 15 August 1945 (from Japan)
Government type: authoritarian “socialist”, one-man dictatorship
Head of state: Kim Jong II
Capital: Pyongyang
Life expectancy: 71.3 years
Literacy: 99 %
Suffrage: 17 years of age
State army: 3,574,050 (2001 est.)
Typical annual military expenditure: unknown
Military expenditure as % GDP: 31.3%
Conscription status: Yes - men aged 18-40, for 5-8 years in the army (5-10 in navy, 3-4 in air force).
Conscientious objection: the right to refuse military service is not legally recognised and there are no provisions for suitable service.
External debt (in US $): 12 billion (1996 est)
Death Penalty: retentionist
Censorship: Several reports suggest the existence of serious and hidden patterns of human rights violations, including public executions, torture detentions of political prisoners and so on. However, information and access to the country remains tightly restricted, which makes it difficult to verify these reports.
Religion: traditionally Buddhism and Confucianism, some Christian and syncretic Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way). Autonomous religious activities now almost nonexistent; government-sponsored religious groups exist to provide illusion of religious freedom.
Ethnic groups: racially homogeneous, there is a small Chinese community and a few ethnic Japanese.
Refugees: More than 200,000 North Koreans have fled into north-eastern China in recent years trying to save themselves and their families from famine. Some were forced to return to North Korea. Little is known about what happened to the returnees but a number of sources reported that they often faced long interrogation sessions and torture. Some returnees were sent to prison or labour camps where conditions were reported to be extremely harsh.


Population: 127.3 million
Independence: 660 BC (traditional founding by Emperor Jimmu)
Government type: constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government
Head of state: His Imperial Majesty Akihito (Prime Minister is Koizumi Junichiro).
Capital: Tokyo
Life expectancy: 81 years
Literacy: 99%
Suffrage: 20 years of age
Current major conflicts: N/A
State army: 25,637,387 (2002 est.)
Typical annual military expenditure (US $): 38,468m (2001 est.)
Military expenditure as % GDP: 1%
Conscription status: Recruitment at 18.
Conscientious objection: There is no known legal provision for conscientious objection.
External debt: N/A
Death Penalty: retentionist
Censorship: Article 21 of the Japanese Constitution 1) Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. 2) No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated.
Religion: Shinto and Buddhist 84%, other 16% (including Christian 0.7%).
Ethnic groups: Japanese 99%, others 1% (Korean 511,262, Chinese 244,241, Brazilian 182,232, Filipino 89,851, other 237,914) (2000).
Refugees: Amnesty International's 2002 report states that from the 353 people who applied for asylum, 26 were recognised as refugees and 67 were granted special permission for residence. There were reports of ill treatment of asylum-seekers, including the denial of access to medical care, in immigration detention centres, where many were detained for long periods.


Population: 1.2 billion
Independence: N/A
Government: “Communist” republic
Head of State: Hu Jintao
Capital: Beijing
Life expectancy: 71.8 years
Literacy: 85.2%
Suffrage: 20 years old
Current major conflict: None. Though ongoing dispute over Tibet.
State army: 2,470,000 active; 500,000 reserve
Typical annual military expenditure: US$780bn
Military spending as % of GDP: 1.7%
Conscription status: Yes - men aged 18-35, with a provision for obligatory service for women if the government deems it necessary
External debt: US $162bn
Death penalty: Yes
Religion: Officially atheist, but Buddhists, Taoists, Lamaists, Muslims and Christians do practise
Censorship: Television is owned and operated by Chinese Central Television (CCTV), which also produces
the nation's only nightly news broadcast. The government recently lifted a ban on Google and other internet search engines. Religion: Officially atheist.
Major ethnic groups: Han Chinese
Refugees: 241,500 (1997)


Population: 21,500,583
Independence: No, but President Chen maintains that independence from China is “a basic human right” and Taiwan has been admitted to trade organisations which require statehood.
Government: Multi-party democracy
Head of State: Chen Shui-bian
Capital: Taipei
Life expectancy: 76.5 years
Literacy: 94%
Suffrage: 20 years old
Current major conflict: None
State army: 200,000 active; 1,500,000 reserve
Typical annual military expenditure: US $8bn
Military spending as % of GDP: 2.8%
Conscription status: Yes, males 19-40; conscientious objection allowed on religious grounds since 2000
External debt: US $40bn
Death penalty: Yes
Censorship: Taiwan's major political party, the Kuomingtang (KMT), and its members own all television and radio stations throughout the country. Newspapers must be licenced and their content is regulated by the government.
Religion: Buddhist
Major ethnic groups: Taiwanese (84%)
Refugees: few within its borders, but financially supports Afghan refugees since the incidents of 11 September.

Hong Kong

Population: 7,210,505
Independence: No. Leased from China by Britain for 99 years; China regained sovereignty in 1997.
Government: A special administrative region of China; governed under the People's Republic-approved Basic Law
Head of State: Hu Jintao
Capital: N/A
Life expectancy: 77 years
Literacy: 92.2%
Suffrage: 18 years old
Current major conflict: None
State army: Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army
Typical annual military expenditure: N/A; defence spending is the responsibility of China
Military spending as % of GDP: N/A
Conscription status: Yes; males 18-35
External debt: US$2807.9 bn (233.3% of GDP)
Death penalty: No
Censorship: Media governed under Basic Law, which states that publications against the Chinese government are illegal.
Religion: Taoist, Buddhist
Major ethnic groups: Chinese (98%)
Refugees: 1,200 (1997)

See more of: Tools & Resources