Nation Overview Strategic Overview CtW Information History

The Korean Peninsula was first populated by peoples of a Tungusic branch of the Ural-Altaic language family, who migrated from the northwestern regions of Asia. Some of these peoples also populated parts of northeast China (Manchuria); Koreans and Manchurians still show physical similarities. Throughout its history, Korea has been invaded, influenced, and fought over by its larger neighbors. Most notable of these were the Chinese who perenially exerted influence on Korea in some way or the other, and then later the Mongols in the Middle Ages and finally the Japanese in the Industrial Era. As such, it is unsurprising that Korea as a nation has experienced alternating cycles of unity and cohesion, followed by chaos and discord, even to our day

By the first century CE, the Korean Peninsula was divided into the kingdoms of Shilla, Koguryo, and Paekche. In 668CE, the Scilla kingdom unified the peninsula. The Koryo dynasty--from which Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century derived the Western name "Korea"--succeeded the Shilla kingdom in 935. The Choson dynasty, ruled by members of the Yi clan, supplanted Koryo in 1392 and lasted until Japan annexed Korea in 1910. Following this, the Korean peninsula was then partitioned into two separate polities: the northern half being a highly militarised and autarkic totalitarian regime, the other a liberal democracy which fully participates in global affairs and is a major economic and cultural power in its own right.


The myth of Korea's foundation by the god-king Tangun in BC 2333 embodies the homogeneity and self-sufficiency valued by the Korean people. Korea experienced many invasions by its larger neighbors in its 2,000 years of recorded history.

Korea's traditional religions are Buddhism and Shamanism. Christian missionaries arrived as early as the 16th century, but it was not until the 19th century that major missionary activity began. Pyongyang was a center of missionary activity, and there was a relatively large Christian population in the north before 1945. Although religious groups exist in North Korea today, the government severely restricts religious activity. 

Korea was under Mongolian occupation from 1231 until the early 14th century. The unifier of Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, launched major invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597.

Birth of an EmpireEdit

Prior to the 10th century AD, the Korean peninsula was home to a triumvirate of petty kingdoms which feuded with one another. The Goryeo dynasty managed to unite the kingdoms under one single ruler, and would last well until the rise of the Mongol khans. Although Korea managed to re-assert its independence from the Mongols by the 14th century, the nation was now tottering on the brink of anarchy. A palace coup led by a Goryeo general, Yi-Seonggye, exiled the king and eliminated his retainers. General Yi would assume the throne himself as Taejo of Joseon.

Taejo's reign, however, did not usher in peace to Korea instantly. Soon after the founding of Seoul as the capital in 1394, doubts related to succession to the throne even while Taejo was still alive would result in a series of court intrigues and rivalries would result in what was known as the First Strife of Princes. The first kings of Jeoson therefore had their work cut out for them and it was not until the reign of Sejong in the early 15th century AD that Great Jeoson could then be considered as stable.

The Golden AgeEdit

The Joseon (or also Choson) Dynasty was formed at the end of the 14th century. Confucianism became the state ideology and exerted a massive influence over the whole of society. The Joseon Dynasty produced Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, which was invented in 1443, during the reign of King Sejong. The dynasty's power declined later because of foreign invasions, beginning with the Japanese invasion of 1592. In 1876, the Joseon Dynasty was forced to adopt an open-door policy regarding Japan. The Japanese annexation of Korea concluded in 1910, and Korean people had to suffer under Japanese colonial rule until the dismantling of the same after the Pacific War after 1945. Sejong the Great was one of the grandchildren of King Taejo, and it was under his rule that Korea would experience a golden age. His reign (1418–1450) saw many improvements in science, technology and culture. Among the many achievements of Sejong was successful expeditions against the wako raiders who were causing trouble on the coast, the modernisation of the military with all-new firearms, and the creation of a school of literati. Yet, Sejong's greatest contribution to Korean society would be the writing system that would be known today as Hangul used to transliterate the Korean language.

Despite these impressive achievements, Sejong was doomed. His son, Munjong, was sickly and passed away merely 2 years after having succeeded his father. The death of Munjong would once again plague Korea with court intrigue and instability, until the reign of king Seongjong. Under Seongjong, the contributions of Sejong and his successors would eventually unleash a new period of cultural development in the spheres of literature and law, along with the ascendancy of Confucianism as the state ideology.

Barbarians at the GatesEdit

The 17th and 19th centuries AD were extremely unlucky periods for the Korean people. Beginning with the Imjin War, Great Joseon was successively battered by the Japanese, Chinese, the French and the Americans.

In 1592 AD, the Japanese shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to invade Korea as a stepping stone towards the eventual conquest of Asia. Although the Koreans would eventually be victorious, it took 6 bloody years of conflict which generally saw the breakdown of order and untold devastation and suffering in Korea. Next in line to make a pass at the Koreans were the Manchu Qing. As the Ming fell in the mid-17th century, both Ming and Manchu alike called upon the Koreans for help. The Jeoson court would vacillate between both parties (in no small part due to factional disputes at home) and by the time they decided to rally behind the Ming, it was too late. The Manchus, now in control of China, sent two punitive expeditions between 1624 AD and 1636 AD that would batter Joseon into submission. Miraculously, the Koreans managed to survive relatively unscathed, albeit under the much-resented domination of another foreign power for the first time in four centuries.

With declining Chinese power and a weakened domestic posture at the end of the 19th century, Korea was open to Western and Japanese encroachment. As a result of this, Korean foreign policy subsequently became more isolationist and like the Tokugawa in Japan, the Jeoson court adopted a closed-door policy whereby foreigners were not allowed into the country. When Western powers focused "gunboat" diplomacy on Korea in the mid-19th century, Korea's rulers adopted a closed-door policy, earning Korea the title of "Hermit Kingdom." Isolationism could not save the nation, and even exacerbated problems. Awash with social problems and threats of foreign invasion, the Jeoson court spearheaded several reform initiatives in order to resolve conflicts and modernise the country's technological strengths, such as the admission of lower-born subjects into court as officials - hitherto the privillege of the aristocracy. These, however, could not save Korea. Clashes with French and American expeditionary forces in the late 19th century revealed just how weak and ineffectual the Korean state was.

Despite this, Korea's biggest threat would not come from Europe or America, but from an Asian neighbour: Japan. Forced by Western powers into the modern era, Japan quickly modernised and even developed imperialistic ambitions of its own.

Min versus MeijiEdit

...Slightly pale and quite thin, with somewhat sharp features and brilliant piercing eyes, she did not strike me at first sight as being beautiful, but no one could help reading force, intellect and strength of character in that face...

— American observer, on Queen Min of Korea

In 1867 the Tokugawa government fell and Imperial power was restored under Emperor Meiji. This period ushered in the Meiji restoration and the modernisation of Japan. The caste system was abolished, and a democratic government was established but served under the Emperor. Having pursued economic, military and educational reforms to close the gap between Japan and western nations, Japan's appetite for conquest was whetted and so Japan again turned its attention on to the mainland.

The Korean king, Gojong, was ineffectual, but wedded to an extraordinary lady, Myeongseong, styled Queen Min. Queen Min was a gifted and courageous consort who realised that Korea's fate rested on two lynchpins: modernisation of the nation, and keeping the three great powers Russia, Japan and China at bay. Culture was imported wholesale, and the army was reformed along American and Russian models. Like the Pahlavids of Iran half a century later, however, Queen Min's reforms would backfire - they resulted in mutinies and civil unrest incited by the more xenophobic factions of Korean society, and would also exacerbate tensions between Korea and an increasingly suspicious Japan. Queen Min was subsequently assassinated, and the royal family forced to sign a treaty of annexation in 1910, rendering Korea effectively as an outpost of the Empire of Japan.

Japanese colonial administration was characterised by tight control from Tokyo and ruthless efforts to supplant Korean language and culture. Organised Korean resistance during the colonial era was generally unsuccessful, and Japan remained firmly in control of the Peninsula until the end of World War II in 1945. 

As a result of Japan's efforts to supplant the Korean language and aspects of Korean culture, memories of Japanese annexation still recall fierce animosity and resentment, especially among older Koreans. Nevertheless, import restrictions on Japanese movies, popular music, fashion, and the like have been lifted, and many Koreans, especially the younger generations, eagerly follow Japanese pop culture. Aspects of Korean culture, including television shows and movies, have also become popular in Japan.

The Sundered NationEdit

Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers in 1945, signaling the end of World War II, only further embroiled Korea in foreign rivalries. A five-year trusteeship was discussed in Moscow, and a joint Soviet-American commission was established. The commission met intermittently in Seoul but deadlocked over the issue of establishing a national government. With the United States administering the southern half of the peninsula and the Soviets taking over the area to the north of the 38th parallel, domestic opposition to the trusteeship plan resulted in the 1948 establishment of two separate nations with diametrically opposed political, economic, and social systems.

Division at the 38th parallel marked the beginning of Soviet and U.S. trusteeship over the North and South, respectively. Elections were held in the South under UN observation, and on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (R.O.K.) was established in the South. Syngman Rhee, a nationalist leader, became the Republic's first president.  On September 9, 1948 the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) was established under Kim Il Sung. Although outwardly independent, both of these nations were very much subservient to the wishes of their so-called trustees, with the Soviets very much in control with the North and its strategic resources, and the USA overseeing the Republic of Korea based in the south, which seemed poorer and weaker than its communist neighbour. Almost immediately after establishment of the D.P.R.K., guerrilla warfare, border clashes, and naval battles erupted between the two Koreas, resulting in the Korean War. North Korean forces launched a massive surprise attack and invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. The United Nations, in accordance with the terms of its Charter, engaged in its first collective action and established the UN Command (UNC), to which 16 member nations sent troops and assistance. Next to South Korea, the United States contributed the largest contingent of forces to this international effort.

Kim's forces were pushed back and the battle line fluctuated north and south, and after large numbers of Chinese "People's Volunteers" intervened to assist the North, the battle line stabilized north of Seoul near the 38th parallel and resulting in a stalemate between the belligerent factions ensued for the final two years of the conflict. Armistice negotiations, initiated in July 1951, were ultimately concluded on July 27, 1953 at Panmunjom, in what is now the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The Armistice Agreement was signed by representatives of the Korean People's Army, the Chinese People's Volunteers, and the U.S.-led United Nations Command (UNC). Though the R.O.K. supported the UNC, it refused to sign the Armistice Agreement, leaving both nations technically at war with one another. The war left almost three million Koreans dead or wounded and millions of others homeless and separated from their families. 

False Dawn

Since the Armistice at Panmunjom, the paths of both Korea have since diverged, and their fates couldn't have had been more divergent than they are now.

In the following decades, South Korea experienced political turmoil under autocratic leadership. President Syngman Rhee was forced to resign in April 1960 following a student-led uprising. The Second Republic under the leadership of Chang Myon ended after only one year, when Major General Park Chung-hee led a military coup. Park's rule, which resulted in tremendous economic growth and development but increasingly restricted political freedoms, ended with his assassination in 1979. Subsequently, a powerful group of military officers, led by Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan, declared martial law and took power. 

Throughout the Park and Chun eras, South Korea developed a vocal civil society that led to strong protests against authoritarian rule. Composed primarily of students and labor union activists, protest movements reached a climax after Chun's 1979 coup and declaration of martial law. A confrontation in Gwangju in 1980 left at least 200 civilians dead. Thereafter, pro-democracy activities intensified even more, ultimately forcing political concessions by the government in 1987, including the restoration of direct presidential elections. 

In 1987, Roh Tae-woo, a former general, was elected president, but additional democratic advances during his tenure resulted in the 1992 election of a long-time pro-democracy activist, Kim Young-sam. Kim became Korea's first civilian elected president in 32 years. The 1997 presidential election and peaceful transition of power marked another step forward in Korea's democratization when Kim Dae-jung, a life-long democracy and human rights activist, was elected from a major opposition party. The transition to an open, democratic system was further consolidated in 2002, when self-educated human rights lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun, won the presidential election on a "participatory government" platform. Most recently, South Koreans voted for a new president in December 2007. Former business executive and Mayor of Seoul Lee Myung-bak's 5-year term began with his inauguration on February 25, 2008.

In contrast, things couldn't have been more different north of the 38th Parallel.

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