Abstract Aim The Korean peninsula is elongated in shape and is connected to the Asian continent on the north. The peninsular effect – a decline in species density or richness as a function of distance from the mainland base (towards the distal tip) of a peninsula – was evaluated for plants and animals in different peninsulas. The aims of the present study were to describe the pattern of butterfly species diversity and to determine what factors may be responsible for this pattern along the Korean peninsula. The distribution pattern of butterfly species in South Korea before and after the Korean War was also investigated. Location South Korea (34–38 ° N, 126–129° E). Methods Forty-three quadrats, each 1/2° latitude by 1/2° longitude, and three data sets – butterfly distribution data from 1938 to 1950, butterfly distribution data from 1976 to 1999, and the combined data – were analysed. The influence of four variables – latitude, longitude, area and maximum altitude – on each quadrat was investigated using multiple regression analysis. Results and conclusion The analyses revealed a marked peninsular effect: there was a significant positive correlation between butterfly species richness and latitude. Additionally, habitat diversity, expressed as maximum altitude, was significantly correlated with butterfly species richness. I conclude that both the geographical orientation and habitat diversity contribute to butterfly species diversity across South Korea. Comparison of ranges between the older and recent data sets suggests that geographical distributions of several species are dramatically reduced in size. These species may be used for future conservation activities in South Korea.