Korean History (South/North)

Brief history of Korea (North and South) summarized

A brief review of the history of both Koreas, both North and South, in an entertaining and summarized way.

Ancient Korea

In 4000 BC there were stone age farmers living in Korea. Around the year 1000 BC they had already learned to use bronze. By 300 BC they had learned to use iron to make tools and weapons. At first, Korea was divided into tribes, but over time organized kingdoms emerged.

There were three of them, Goguryeo in the north and Silla and Baekje in the south. According to legend, Silla was founded in 57 BC by Bak Hyeokgeose, Jumong founded Goguryeo in 37 BC, and Onjo founded Baekje in 18 BC In reality, the three kingdoms emerged later, between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD These 3 kingdoms were heavily influenced by the Chinese civilization. In the fourth century they were very civilized.

The three kingdoms of Korea fought for supremacy. China tried to defeat the northern kingdom of Goguryeo twice. Both times they were defeated by General Eulji Mundeok. However, the Chinese made an alliance with the Silla kingdom against the other two. The Baekje kingdom was defeated in AD 660 and became part of Silla. Goguryeo followed in 668. Korea was then united under Silla.

The Silla in Korea (668-935)

Although Korea was united under a monarch, it was still very much a tribal society. This was underlined by the existence of the hwabaek. They were originally a council of tribal leaders. Later they were a council of nobles and had the power to decide who would occupy the throne.

Korean society was strictly hierarchical. The majority of the population were serfs and even the nobility was divided into ranks. Following the Chinese example, a university was formed where the Confucian classics were taught. (You had to be of noble birth to study there.) There were also civil service exams following the Chinese model. (Again, only those of noble birth could take them.)

Buddhism was introduced to Korea in the 4th century AD and many Buddhist temples were soon built.

At the end of the 8th century AD the kingdom of Silla began to fall apart. There were fights over the succession to the throne. Additionally, local warlords began to break away from the government of the capital, Gyeongju, and formed their own states. A warlord named Wang Geon formed a state called Goryeo in 918. He defeated his rivals and in 935 became ruler of Silla.

The Goryeo in Korea (918-1392)

The Goryeo kingdom faced aggressive neighbors. A people called the Jurchens conquered northern China and frequently fought against the Koreans. Then China fell to the Mongols. They soon turned their attention to Korea and invaded in 1231. The Korean royal family fled to Ganghwa Island. The Mongols were unable to take the island, but were able to lay waste to all of mainland Korea.

However, the Koreans fought back and the Mongols were never able to fully subdue Korea. Finally, in 1258, the Korean royal family surrendered. They were allowed to remain as puppet rulers.

In the 13th century, a Chinese philosophy called Neo-Confucianism arrived in Korea. This was also a time when exquisite celadon pottery was made. A man named Kim Bu-sik wrote a history of Korea called Samguk Sagi, The Story of the Three Kingdoms.

However, the Goryeo dynasty was in decline. In 1392 a general named Yi Seong-gye was ordered to lead an army against the Ming rulers of China. Instead, he turned against his own ruler. The general became the new king of Korea.

The Joseons in Korea (1392-1910)

The king moved the capital to Hanseong (Seoul) in 1394. Under the Yi rulers, Confucianism became the official religion of Korea. Buddhism lost its influence. In 1443 King Sejong created a native Korean alphabet.

In Korea there was a class of official scholars called the yangban. To enter the civil service or to be an army officer, you had to pass certain exams in Confucian thought. To take the exams you had to be the son of a yangban. So the official academic class was hereditary.

Below the yangban was a class of clerks and specialists such as doctors and accountants. They were called the jungle (intermediaries). Below them was the great mass of Korean society called the yangmin. They were peasants, artisans and merchants. Certain trades such as butchers, tanners and artists were marginalized. At the bottom of the pile were slaves.

Japan invaded Korea in 1592. They prevailed on land, but were defeated at sea by Admiral Yi Sun-sin. The Japanese were forced to withdraw. They invaded again in 1597, but withdrew in 1598.

In the 17th century, Korea suffered from factionalism among its ruling class. Silhak (practical learning). Scholars discussed practical ways to solve Korea’s problems rather than purely abstract ideas.

In the eighteenth century, the kings repressed factionalism. In Korea trade and commerce flourished. Merchants had a low status in Korean society. Confucianism regarded them with suspicion since they did not actually produce anything, unlike peasants and artisans.

The first contact with Europeans occurred in 1656, when a Dutch ship was shipwrecked off the coast of Korea. Then in the 18th century Jesuit priests traveled to China. Koreans visiting China met them and by the end of the 18th century some Koreans had converted to Catholicism. The new religion slowly spread in Korea despite waves of persecution in 1801, 1839, and 1866.

In the 1850s a new religion spread among the peasants. It was called Donghak (Eastern Learning) and was led by Choe Je-u. The peasants were unhappy in the 19th century and in 1864 there was a rebellion. The rebellion was crushed and Choe Je-u was executed.

Europeans arrive in Korea

During the 19th century, Korea adopted an isolationist policy. The Koreans refused to trade with the Westerners. At first, this policy was successful. Some French priests were killed in Korea in 1866.

The French sent a gunboat to avenge them, but were driven off by the Korean coast defences. In 1871, the Koreans burned an American ship called the General Sherman that came to plunder the coast. The US sent ships to Korea, but they too were fought.

However, Korea’s isolation policy meant that it lagged behind other countries in technology and industry. After 1880 King Gojong attempted reform.

In 1882 he introduced the slogan “eastern ethics, western technology”, but his measures were unpopular and were resisted by conservative officials and ordinary people. Confucianism was a very conservative religion or philosophy and made radical change difficult.

Until 1876, Japanese merchants could only trade in Busan. In that year they forced the Koreans to sign a trade and friendship treaty. (King Gojong realized that Korea was too weak to fight them.) Other ports were opened to the Japanese.

There would be no tariffs on Japanese products. The treaty established that Japan and Korea were independent nations. However, Japan had more and more power and influence over the Koreans.

Korea signed a similar trade treaty with the United States in 1882. This was followed by treaties with Great Britain and Germany in the same year. In 1884 she signed a commercial treaty with Russia and in 1886 with France.

In 1882 some soldiers from Imo rebelled. They burned the Japanese legation and killed the Japanese military adviser. Korea was forced to pay compensation to the Japanese and signed a new treaty, the Treaty of Jemulpo, which increased Japanese influence. Furthermore, the Chinese used the uprising as an excuse to station their troops on Korean territory.

In 1894, members of the Donghak religion and disaffected peasants revolted. They insisted that they were loyal to the king, but demanded certain reforms.

The king asked the Chinese for help and they sent troops. Japan also sent troops. The king then called a truce with the rebels, but the Japanese refused to leave. China and Japan then fought a war, which Japan easily won. For centuries, Korea was a “tributary” state of China. Chinese influence had ended and Japan began to dominate Korea.

The Japanese installed a regent to rule, and under Japanese pressure a Deliberative Council was formed to introduce reforms. From July 1894 to December 1895, the Council eliminated much of the Korean tradition. There were many Koreans who wanted reform, but the Japanese forced them to introduce it anyway. The regent resigned in October 1894, but the king made no attempt to stop the reforms.

The old and rigid division of Korean society into classes was abolished. In the past, the Yangban, the official academic class, were not allowed to engage in trade. Now they were free to do business. The old civil service exams based on Confucian thought were abolished.

New exams based on modern subjects were introduced. A new curriculum was introduced for schools with modern subjects. Slavery was abolished. Widows are now allowed to remarry and child marriage is abolished.

While all this was going on, the Donghak started a second rebellion. They were crushed by the Japanese and the movement was destroyed. Its leader was captured and executed in 1895. In the years 1895-1910 other reforms were carried out.

Korea’s first modern textile factory was built in 1897 and the first railway, from Seoul to Incheon, in 1901. However, Korea remained an overwhelmingly agricultural nation.

In 1900 there were many Protestant missionaries in Korea. By 1910 there was a small but rapidly growing number of converts.

More and more Korea fell under Japanese domination. A Japanese “protectorate” was made in Korea, which meant that Japan now controlled Korean foreign policy and its relations with other countries.

In 1907, Korea was forced to accept limited Japanese control of its internal affairs, and the Korean Army was disbanded. A Japanese officer was sent to run things. He was assassinated in 1909. That gave the Japanese an excuse to annex Korea, which they did in 1910.

The colonial period in Korea (1910-1945)

The Japanese made Korea a colony to supply Japan with food. However, they also built bridges, railways, and roads. The Japanese also built many factories in Korea. The urban population grew rapidly, although Korea remained predominantly agricultural.

However, the Japanese government was repressive. In 1919 many Koreans participated in peaceful demonstrations for independence. The Japanese responded by arresting and executing thousands of people.

Afterwards they did some minor renovations. Koreans were allowed to print newspapers and hold meetings. They were also granted religious freedom and more respect was shown for Korean customs.

However, all of these reforms were superficial, and in the 1930s the Japanese tried to assimilate Koreans by persuading them to adopt Japanese names. Beginning in 1938, education was provided only in Japanese. Schoolchildren were forbidden to speak Korean.

The Japanese also tried to persuade Koreans to adopt Shintoism (the Japanese national religion) without much success. During World War II, many Koreans volunteered or were forced to work in Japan. However, Japanese attempts to make Korea part of Japan ended in 1945 when they surrendered to the Allies.

The Korean war

Even before the war ended, Russia and the US had agreed that after the war Korea would be divided into two zones, the Russian and the American. In August 1945, Russian troops entered the north. In September, after the Japanese surrender, American troops landed in the south.

Korea was divided in two along an imaginary line, the 38th parallel. The two zones were originally intended to be merged into one. Of course that didn’t happen. With the onset of the cold war, the division between them hardened.

The Russians installed a communist government in the north, and a government in the south that was elected in 1948. Korea became two countries, one communist and one democratic.

The North Korean army invaded the south on June 25, 1950. They quickly headed south and captured Seoul. The UN Security Council invited its members to help the south. US troops arrived on June 30, but were forced to withdraw to the Busan area.

The first British troops arrived in Korea on August 29, 1950. On September 15, additional US troops landed in Incheon, 150 miles north of Busan. Soldiers from the Busan area broke out and headed north, joining troops in Incheon on September 26. On the same day, Allied troops liberated Seoul.

United Nations troops pushed the communists back over the 38th parallel and by November 24 they controlled about two-thirds of North Korea.

However, the Chinese intervened. Fortified by 180,000 Chinese troops, the Communists counterattacked and drove the Allies south. By the end of 1950 the Allies were back at the 38th parallel. The Communists attacked again on January 1, 1951. The Allies counterattacked on January 25 and on March 14 liberated Seoul again.

Several communist offensives followed, but all of them were repulsed. The war ended in a stalemate, and a ceasefire was signed on July 27, 1953. The 38th parallel was once again the border between the two countries.

South Korea in the late 20th century

Democracy did not thrive in South Korea in the 1950s. President Syngman Rhee used a 1949 national security law to shut down newspapers and jail critics. However, his administration was corrupt and by 1960 he was facing mounting financial problems.

In 1960, student riots forced Rhee to resign. Facing inflation, unemployment, and continuing unrest, the military staged a coup in 1961. General Park Chung-hee became ruler.

South Korea’s economic miracle

At first the general declared martial law, but in 1963 he held presidential elections and won. However, his government was repressive. He won a second election in 1967. The General won a third election in 1971 by a slim margin. He later drafted a new constitution that gave him more power. He was assassinated in October 1979.

Despite the repressive regime, South Korea’s economy began to grow rapidly beginning in the mid-1960s, and by the 1990s the country had experienced an economic miracle. It was transformed from a poor and relatively underdeveloped country to a prosperous and wealthy economy.

The state played an important role in the transformation. In the 1960s, Parque General built roads and bridges and expanded education. A series of five-year plans were drawn up and the government took a central role in managing the economy. The industry became dominated by large corporations called Chaebol.

After General Park’s assassination in 1979, the military stepped in again to restore order. General Chun Doo-hwan seized power in May 1980. He declared martial law and arrested his opponents. Demonstrations against him took place in the city of Gwangju. They were run by students. The army crushed the protests by force, killing hundreds of people.

In the 1980s, the Korean economy continued to grow and the country emerged from poverty. South Korea became a prosperous society. In 1988 the Olympic Games were held in Seoul, bringing South Korea to international fame. However, from the mid-1980s there was growing unrest in South Korea, led by students disaffected with the regime.

In 1987, Christian leaders spoke out against the regime and many people demonstrated en masse. General Chun agreed to resign and democratic elections were held. In 1988 General Roh Tae-woo was elected president.

By the 1990s, South Korea had become quite a wealthy nation and its population had a fairly high standard of living. It was also a democratic country. In the 1990s, the government began to deregulate the industry.

North Korea in the late 20th century

In stark contrast, North Korea. After Russian troops occupied the north, a communist government was installed. Kim Il Sung was appointed ruler. Like many dictators, he created a “personality cult” by erecting statues of himself everywhere. Schoolchildren were taught to see him as the source of all wisdom.

In fact, he created a very repressive regime. Religious beliefs were prohibited and the people were strictly controlled. Today North Korea is the last Stalinist regime in the world. With much Russian aid, North Korea went from being a poor agricultural country to an industrial country.

However, in the mid-1970s the economy began to stagnate and North Korea was overtaken by the South. Additionally, North Korea was hurt by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kim Il Sung died in 1994, but was succeeded by his son. In effect, the communists have created a new dynasty. Kim Jong Il. He died in 2011 and was followed by his son Kim Jong Un.

In the late 1990s, a severe famine occurred in North Korea. Extraordinary heavy rains and floods occurred in 1995-96, followed by drought in 1997 and typhoon damage in 1997. Malnutrition became common especially among children. It is not known how many people died in the famine.

Korea in the 21st century

In 2008, a woman named Yi So Yeon became the first Korean to travel through space. Then in 2013, Park Geun Hye became the first female president of South Korea.

In 2018 there was a thaw in relations between North and South Korea. Today, North Korea’s population is 25 million, while South Korea’s is 51 million.

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