Prehistory: Paleolithic excavations show that humans inhabited the Korean Peninsula 500,000 years ago. From around 4000 B.C., neolithic-age humans also inhabited the area, leaving behind pottery and ground and polished stone tools. Around 2000 B.C., a new pottery culture spread into the peninsula from China.
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Early History: By the fourth century B.C., a number of walled-town states had been noted in Korea by Chinese officials. The most illustrious site, known to historians as Old Chos4n, was located in what today is the southern part of northeastern China and northwestern Korea. Old Chos4n civilization was based on bronze culture and consisted of a political federation of walled towns. The boundary formed by the Amnokgang (Yalu) and Tumangang (Tumen) has been recognized for centuries as Korea’s northern limit. However, this was not always the case; Koreans ranged far beyond this border into northeastern China and Siberia, where sizable Korean minorities still live in the twenty-first century.
Three Kingdoms: With the rise of the power and expansion of the Han empire in China (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), Old Chos4n declined. A new iron culture gradually emerged on the Korean Peninsula, and in the first three centuries A.D. a large number of walled-town states developed in southern Korea. Among them, the state of Paekche was the most important as it conquered its southern neighboring states and expanded northward to the area around present-day Seoul. To the north, near the Amnokgang, the state of Kogury4 had emerged by the first century A.D. and expanded in all directions up through 313 A.D. A third state—Silla—developed in the central part of the peninsula. These three states give name to the Three Kingdoms Period (first–seventh centuries A.D.). Although eventually Silla, allied with China, defeated both Paekche and Kogury4 to unify the peninsula by 668, modern-day North Korean historians claim the Kogury4 legacy as a key development in their history. During the Three Kingdoms Period, Confucian statecraft and Buddhism were introduced to the Korean Peninsula and served as unifying factors. By 671 Silla had seized Chinese-held territories in the south and pushed the remnants of Kogury4 farther northward; Chinese commandaries (which dated back at least to the second century B.C.) had been driven off the peninsula by 676, thereby guaranteeing that the Korean people would develop independently, largely without outside influences.
Kory4 Dynasty: Silla’s indigenous civilization flourished. Its aristocracy, centered in the capital, Ky4ngju, located in southeastern Korea near the modern-day port of Pusan, was renowned for its high level of culture. Among its most notable artifacts is the world’s oldest example of woodblock printing, the Dharani sutra, dating back to 751. As Silla declined, a new state, known to historians as Later Kogury4, emerged in the central peninsula. When Wang K4n, the founder of the new state, assumed the throne in 918, he shortened the dynastic name from Kogury4 to Kory4, the word from which the modern name Korea emerged. In 930 Kory4 defeated the forces of Later Paekche (which also had emerged as Silla declined) and the remnants of Silla. The Kory4 dynasty (918–1392), with its capital at Kaes4ng, forged a tradition of aristocratic continuity that lasted well beyond the Kory4 dynasty into the modern era. The Kory4 elite admired the civilization that emerged from the Song dynasty China (618–1279), and an active exchange of trade goods and artistic styles took place during this period. In the thirteenth century, Kory4 was subjected to invasions by the Mongols. Once defeated, Kory4’s armies, using Korean ships, participated in the ill-fated Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281. The Mongols continued to hold domains in Kory4 even after their defeat by China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and the Kory4 court divided into pro-Mongol and pro-Ming factions.
Chos4n Dynasty: The pro-Ming faction at the Kory4 court was victorious, and its leader, Yi S4ng-gye, founded Korea’s longest dynasty, the Chos4n (1392–1910), with its capital at Seoul. Yi S4ng-gye initiated land reforms, declared state ownership of property, and built a new tax base. Although some traditional class structures were uniquely Korean, Chos4n society became deeply influenced by Confucianism; a new secular society developed, and a new Korean mass culture emerged. A phonetic-based alphabet—Han’gßl (Korean script)—was promulgated in 1446 at the direction of King Sejong (reigned 1418–50), who also fostered the extensive use of movable metal type for book publications 50 years before Gutenberg. Scholars persisted in the use of Chinese characters (known as Hanja), however, and Han’gßl did not come into general use until the early twentieth century. North Korea now uses the same system (which it calls Chos4n’gul, also meaning Korean script), with some variations, exclusively, whereas in the South, Hanja occasionally are still used separately and along with Han’gßl.
Chos4n was faced with major Japanese invasions between 1592 and 1598 that brought widespread devastation to the peninsula. A notable achievement in warfare occurred during this period, when Admiral Yi Sun-shin and his fleet of ironclad “turtle boats” defeated Japanese naval forces. Although the Japanese were defeated by combined Korean and Ming forces and Chos4n began to recover, a new emerging force—the Manchu—invaded both Korea and China. The Manchu founded a new dynasty in China—the Qing (1644–1911)—and established tributary relations with Chos4n. Chos4n then experienced a long period of peace. However, as China declined and Japan emerged as a modernizing regional power in the late nineteenth century, Seoul began reforms in an effort to keep the foreign powers at bay. Nevertheless, in 1876 Japan imposed an unequal treaty on the Chos4n court that opened three Korean ports to Japanese commerce and gave Japanese nationals extraterritorial rights. China’s influence over Korea came to a definitive end as a result of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95. At the same time, a large peasant rebellion—led by Tonghak (Eastern Learning) Movement advocates—broke out, and the Chos4n court invited in Chinese troops. By 1900 the Korean Peninsula had become the focus of an intense rivalry between the foreign powers then seeking to carve out spheres of influence in East Asia. Japan and Russia sought to divide their interests in Korea by dividing the kingdom in two at the thirty-eighth parallel. Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, in which Japan was victorious, Russia recognized Japan’s paramount rights in Korea. Unchallenged internationally, Japan turned Korea into its colony in 1910.
Japanese Occupation: From 1910 to 1945, Korea was under the yoke of Japanese colonial control. Tokyo imposed a Japanese ruling elite, a new central state administration, a modern non-Confucian education system, Japanese investment, and even the Japanese language. This unwelcome imposition was considered illegitimate and humiliating by Koreans and built on a traditional love/hate relationship with the island empire. Inevitably, Korean nationalism and an armed resistance emerged. Nationalist and communist groups developed in the 1920s to set the scene for the future divisiveness on the Korean Peninsula. The Korean Communist Party (KCP) was founded in Seoul in 1925. At the same time, various nationalist groups emerged, including an exiled Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai. When Japan invaded neighboring Manchuria in 1931, Korean and Chinese guerrillas joined forces to fight the common enemy. After the defeat of Japan in 1945, resistance to Japan became the main legitimating doctrine of North Korea; North Koreans trace the origin of their army, leadership, and ideology back to this resistance. For the next five decades, the top North Korean leadership would be dominated by a core group that had fought the Japanese in the old Manchu homeland, Manchuria. One of the guerrilla leaders was Kim Il Sung (1912–94).
Divided Nation and the Korean War: Despite Koreans’ aspiration for independence and unity, the end of World War II in the Pacific saw the division of the Korean Peninsula at the thirty-eighth parallel. Soviet troops, including Korean resistance fighters, occupied the northern half in August 1945, and U.S. troops occupied the southern half in September. The Cold War had arrived in Korea. Separate state institutions emerged on both sides of the thirty-eighth parallel, and in February 1946 an Interim People’s Committee led by Kim Il Sung became the first central government. Land reform followed, and the KCP merged with other political forces to create the new and powerful Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) in August 1946. During the next two years, Kim and his allies consolidated their political power and he became the preeminent figure in the North. On September 9, 1948, three weeks after the Republic of Korea was established in the South, Kim declared the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) with its capital at P’y4ngyang. While balancing relations with both a newly unified and communist-led People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, Kim prepared for war with the South. South Korea, with U.S. help, had suppressed the guerrilla threat in the South, but Kim ordered his troops across the thirty-eighth parallel, and the Korean War, or, as the North Koreans call it, the Fatherland Liberation War (1950–53) broke on June 25, 1950. North Korea’s successful drive deep into the South was countered by the combined U.S. and South Korean attack all the way to the Amnokgang (Yalu) in the fall of 1950. At that point, China sent its own troops to fight with the Korean People’s Army, and the U.S.-South Korea forces were driven out of the North. After a two-year stalemate, an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, and a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was established at the thirty-eighth parallel. The armistice and the heavily guarded DMZ are still in effect and are symbolic of both the division of the Korean Peninsula and the commitment of the United States to contain the North.
The Era of Kim Il Sung: Kim’s regime established a socialist command economy, with priority development on heavy industry. Agriculture was collectivized. A Marxist-Leninist political model of autonomy and self-reliance—called chuch’e (sometimes rendered juch’e)—was popularized starting in 1955 as the guiding ideology in politics, economics, national defense, and foreign policy. By 1956, Kim Il Sung had achieved unchallenged supremacy in the KWP. With tight control over all aspects of the North Korean polity and society, Kim Il Sung became the “Great Leader” and the object of a pervasive personality cult.
After years of intransigence between North and South, meetings were held that led to the July 4, 1972, announcement that both sides would seek reunification peacefully, independent of outside forces, and with common efforts toward creating a “great national unity” that would transcend the many differences between the two systems. Despite this announcement, when the United States dropped its decision to withdraw troops from Korea in 1979, North Korea upgraded its army and began building invasion tunnels under the DMZ. In the early 1980s, there were three-way talks among the United States, North Korea, and South Korea, and China sponsored talks between P’y4ngyang and Washington. U.S.-Soviet détente also mitigated North Korea’s warlike stance although South Korea’s growing prestige and economic success put P’y4ngyang on the defensive. Some breakthroughs occurred, such as the visits of southerners from divided families to the North and South Korean economic investment in the North. Nevertheless, other tensions, such as those created by North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons capability, arms sales to nations opposed to the United States, and support to terrorist activities and international drug trafficking, kept the divisiveness secure.
The Era of Kim Jong Il: The Kim Il Sung era suddenly came to an end when Kim died unexpectedly on July 8, 1994. Planned North Korean-U.S. talks in Geneva were postponed. The succession was publicly slow in coming. Although Kim’s son, Kim Jong Il, had been groomed as heir apparent since 1980 and had succeeded his father as chairman of the National Defense Commission and commander in chief of the armed forces in April 1993, he did not emerge as general secretary of the KWP until October 1997. Like his father before him, Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader,” continued to rule in dictatorial fashion, and North Korea continued as the world’s most reclusive society amidst severe economic decline, famine, and an increasingly disaffected society.