Early History: The Korean people share a common heritage in spite of the modern-day split between North and South Korea. Human habitation of the Korean Peninsula dates back 500,000 years. Excavations have found pottery and stone tools from Neolithic-age settlements ca. 4000
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B.C. and evidence that by 2000 B.C. a pottery culture had spread to the peninsula from China. Starting in about 1100 B.C., migration from China into the Korean Peninsula established the city of P’y4ngyang. 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.
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 Amokgang (Yalu), 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.). Eventually Silla, allied with China, defeated both Paekche and Kogury4 to unify the peninsula by 668. 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 (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’gßl), with some variations, exclusively, whereas in the South, Hanja occasionally still are used separately and along with Han’gßl.
Chos4n was faced with major Japanese invasions and warfare 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 Korea and Ming forces and Chos4n began to recover, a new emerging force—the Manchu—invaded both Korea and China. The Manchu established 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: The first three decades of Japanese occupation alternated between cycles of strict repression and periods of relative openness. In the first decade of occupation, Koreans were not allowed to publish newspapers or form political groups. Korean resentment of such treatment led in the spring of 1919 to a series of protests that became known as the March First Independence Movement. The colonial authorities responded with violence, killing an estimated 7,000 Koreans. In the aftermath of the protest movement, Japanese colonial policy underwent a period of liberalization, and a new “cultural policy” allowed Koreans to publish newspapers, organize labor unions, and partake in limited freedom of expression. These reforms come to a halt in the 1930s when Japan’s military leaders made Korea a staging ground for the second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), and later World War II. Koreans were conscripted as laborers and later soldiers in the Japanese Imperial Army, and a period of unprecedented repression followed. Japan established assimilation policies forbidding use of the Korean language, shut down Korean-language newspapers, and built ShintÇ shrines throughout the country. Koreans were encouraged to take Japanese names, acknowledge the divinity of the emperor, and otherwise deny their own long and rich heritage. The “36 years” of occupation, as they came to be known, remain an obstacle in Korean-Japanese relations, and the subject of Korean collaboration with the occupying Japanese forces remains extremely sensitive.
Divided Nation and the Korean War: When Allied leaders discussed the fate of Korea during World War II at Cairo (December 1943) and Yalta (February 1945), they reached no conclusion about its postwar status beyond deciding that it should be allowed to gain freedom and independence “in due course,” and that an international trusteeship—vehemently opposed by most Koreans—might be necessary to facilitate such a transition. At the war’s end, the Korean Peninsula, although liberated from Japan, was once again occupied by foreign forces. The day of Japan’s surrender—August 15, 1945—became Korea’s liberation day. However, the United States and the Soviet Union had agreed to the division of the peninsula at the thirty-eighth parallel, with the Soviets assuming authority over the northern half and the United States over the southern half.
Japan’s colonial authority was replaced by the division of the Cold War, a division that would last far longer than the hated Japanese occupation. In the first years after the division, the communists built a formidable political and military structure in North Korea under the aegis of the Soviet command. The Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) was established on August 15, 1948, in the South; on September 9, 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) was established in the North. This uneasy division erupted in conflict on June 25, 1950, when the North Koreans, under the leadership of Kim Il Sung, sent troops across the thirty-eighth parallel in what the South Koreans refer to as the “6–25 War.” The North Korean forces, larger and better equipped than their South Korean counterparts, advanced quickly, overtaking Seoul in three days. By early August, South Korean forces were confined in the southeastern corner of the peninsula to a territory 140 kilometers long and 90 kilometers wide. The rest of the territory was completely in the hands of the North Korean army. The United States, fearing that inaction in Korea would be interpreted as appeasement of communist aggression elsewhere in the world, was determined that South Korea should not be overwhelmed and asked the United Nations (UN) Security Council to intervene.
When General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the UN forces in Korea, launched his amphibious attack and landed at Inch’4n on September 15, 1950, the course of the war changed abruptly. Within weeks, much of North Korea had been taken by U.S. and South Korean forces before China’s military entered the war in October, eventually enabling North Korea to restore its authority over its domain. The fighting lasted until July 27, 1953, when a cease-fire agreement was signed at P’anmunj4m. The war left indelible marks on the Korean Peninsula and the world surrounding it. The entire peninsula was reduced to rubble; casualties on both sides were enormous. The chances for peaceful unification had been remote even before 1950, but the war dashed all such hopes.
Postwar South Korea: In 1952 Syngman Rhee, who had assumed the presidency of South Korea in 1948 after election by the National Assembly, was elected president by popular vote. Rhee’s presidency was characterized by efforts to cling to power, and the 1950s were a time of economic and social hardship in South Korea. Rhee’s increasingly corrupt efforts to remain in office reached their nadir in the 1960 elections. The obvious malfeasance at work in that vote led to widespread protest, known today as the April 19 Student Revolution. Rhee was forced, at last, to step down. In the interim until new elections, political instability and the absence of a clear successor to Rhee, among other factors, laid the foundations for the military coup that followed. In 1961 a group of military officers loyal to Major General Park Chung Hee carried out a coup d’état. The years between 1961 and 1987 were characterized by increasing domestic political repression and power struggles, including the assassination of President Park in 1979 by the chief of the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency. Political leadership during this time was almost exclusively in the hands of the military and former military leaders. At the same time, by the 1970s the South Korean economy was experiencing a period of unprecedented growth. Although democratic growth was constrained, standards of living rose.
Rising prosperity did not quell democratic aspirations, however, and by the 1980s student protests against the prevailing regime had become endemic. These demonstrations gained a widespread following, and, bowing to pressure, the government held elections in 1987. These were the first free elections in 16 years. In the following election, in 1992, South Koreans voted into office Kim Young-sam, the nation’s first nonmilitary chief executive in 30 years. The 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century were a time of political stability, with a peaceful, democratic transition of power taking place. In 1997 Kim Dae-jung was elected president, followed by Roh Moo-hyun in 2002. Paradoxically, the South Korean economy in the late 1990s underwent a period of instability, from which it had still had not recovered entirely in 2004.