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Author: Mary E. Connor
Editor: Mary E. Connor
Date: 2009
The Koreas
From: The Koreas
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Series: Asia in Focus
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 46
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Various tools from the Paleolithic age uncovered in all parts of Korea indicate that human beings have inhabited the area for half a million years. It is not clear when the ancestors of modern Koreans began to inhabit the peninsula, but most scholars agree that they are not the ethnic descendants of those Paleolithic people. They descended from Neolithic groups who entered the peninsula from areas north of Manchuria, probably in several successive migrations between 5500 and 2000 BCE.

The Koreans are Tungusic peoples, cousins of the Mongols, and their ethnic origins may be traced from those who lived in and around the Altai Mountains in Central Asia. Some of the strongest evidence for this origin is the fact that modern Korean is part of the language family of northeast Asia called “Altaic.”

The early tribal peoples had a fishing, hunting, and gathering culture. They produced comb-patterned pottery similar to that found in northern Europe and Siberia, and later, after the emergence of agriculture, built large aboveground tomb chambers of stone blocks, often mounded over with earth. Evidence of rectangular huts and burial sites in the form of dolmen and stone cysts is widespread. The early Koreans believed in animism and thought all natural objects had spirits. Artifacts were closely connected to their religious practices.

Their Bronze Age began about the ninth or eighth century and lasted until the fourth century BCE. People lived in shallow pits on high ground above the flatlands where they grew their food. Agriculture during this age included rice cultivation. Clans came into contact, and advances in smelting bronze furnished powerful Page 14  |  Top of Articleweapons for the conquest of different clans and contributed to the rise of larger units of tribal society and even walled towns. Early artwork in the form of wall paintings reflects strong influences of Siberian and Manchurian traditions. Korean bronze daggers spread to Kyushu in Japan and greatly influenced the formation of the Japanese bronze culture.

Korea is one of the oldest countries in the world. The standard account of the origins of Ancient Choson is contained in the legend of the first great ruler, Tan'gun, who was born of a union between the son of the divine creator and a female bear that had achieved human form. According to ancient Chinese historians, Tan'gun made the walled city of P'yongyang the capital in 2333 BCE, called his country Choson (“Land of the Morning Calm”), and ruled for 1,000 years. No evidence supports this story, but over the centuries the legend has contributed to the Korean sense of identity as a distinct and proud race.

The walled-town state of Old Choson in time combined with others to form a single large confederation, the head of which came to be designated as its king. The use of iron hoes, plowshares, and sickles brought significant social changes. Food production increased, particularly benefiting the ruling elite. Artifacts from this period also include bronze and iron daggers and spears. Families still lived in pit dwellings, but the use of ondol devices (heating of flues under the floor) appeared.

Records indicate that the Han dynasty of China conquered Choson by 108 BCE. While the Chinese rulers allowed some political independence, the native population was forced to do whatever labor was demanded of them. Archaeological remains from this period reveal absorption of cultural influences from the Han and a remarkable degree of refinement and luxury; most likely, the people eagerly cultivated the technological advancements and artistry that came with Han occupation. With the fall of that dynasty in 220 CE, the military retreated, and the country was on its own.

The Three Kingdoms

With the end of Han dominance, three kingdoms gradually arose: Koguryo (pronounced ko-goo-rio), in the north (37 BCE–668 CE); Paekche (pronounced peckchay), in the southwest (18 BCE–660 CE); and Silla (pronounced shil-la), in the southeast (57 BCE–935 CE). Each of the three kingdoms left records of the influence of Confucianism on government and society.

Throughout the Three Kingdoms period and afterward, Korea maintained a close relationship with China. The relationship was maintained through what was called “tributary diplomacy,” the formal recognition that China's power was superior. Tribute was a gesture of friendship and involved commercial trade and cultural exchanges. It did not mean that the three kingdoms were colonies of China.

The Koguryo tribes lived in the mountainous region north of the Yalu River and maintained an aristocratic society of mounted warriors who demanded tribute from surrounding agricultural peoples. During the fourth century CE, Koguryo grew in strength and spread over the northern two-thirds of the peninsula. Meanwhile another centrally organized state, Paekche, appeared in the valley of the Han River. At the end of the fourth century, an independent kingdom named Silla appeared. Page 15  |  Top of ArticleFrom the fourth to the second half of the seventh century CE, most of the peninsula was divided among these three states. Each kingdom eagerly sought cultural innovations from China yet retained distinct cultural elements unique to each kingdom. The three kingdoms also engaged in continuous warfare with each other.

A hunting scene of Koguryo warriors that appears on the eastern wall of the Muyong Tomb located in Tung-gu, Manchuria A hunting scene of Koguryo warriors that appears on the eastern wall of the Muyong Tomb located in T'ung-gu, Manchuria. The murals show that the Koguryo people hunted tigers, boars, deer, and pheasants on foot with spears, on horseback with bows, and with hawks. (Courtesy of the Institute of Culture, Art and Tourism, Sookmyung Women's University with the assistance of Jiseon Lee)

Koguryo's proximity to China promoted continuous new influences. In 372 CE, a monk introduced Buddhism. Ultimately, this religion became the spiritual foundation of the nation. About the same time, a university was organized to teach the Confucian classics. Additional Chinese influences included a law code and a complex style of bureaucratic government. The artistic skills of Koguryo can be seen in royal tombs that contain some of the finest wall paintings of the fourth and fifth centuries. When Koguryo was defeated by Silla in the seventh century, part of it was incorporated into a state called Parhae in eastern Manchuria and northern Korea, which rose to its zenith of power and cultural achievement in the early ninth century. While Parhae is not considered one of the three early kingdoms, Koreans consider this state to be an integral part of their history.

Paekche, the second of the kingdoms, is not as well known in terms of its government and culture. Shortly after Buddhism was introduced to Koguryo, it arrived in Paekche through connections across the Yellow Sea. Beautiful tiles and other artifacts suggest that Chinese-style arts and crafts were becoming highly developed, but many objects, such as funerary urns, reveal characteristics that are unique to Korea. Several tombs of the kings of Paekche have been discovered, and artifacts Page 16  |  Top of Articledemonstrate the impressive artistic ability and architectural skills of Paekche workers. At this time, Korea became a conduit for transmitting culture to Japan. The people of Paekche sailed to Japan and introduced Chinese characters, Buddhism, music, and art. In the fourth century, Paekche and Koguryo began nearly three centuries of war with one another.

Kwaenung Tomb, the tomb of King Wonsong of Unified Silla, is in the area of Kyongju. Kwaenung Tomb, the tomb of King Wonsong of Unified Silla, is in the area of Kyongju. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

Silla, the third native kingdom to emerge, was initially not as developed as Koguryo or Paekche, it was less influenced by Chinese culture, and the arts retained nomadic traditions. Silla ultimately became the longest dynasty in Korean history, lasting from 57 BCE to 935 CE. Silla is also noteworthy for the position that women held in government and society. Although Confucianism had started making inroads into Silla, its teaching of inequality between men and women does not seem to have had an impact. Two women occupied the throne of Silla, and one occupied the throne of Unified Silla in the ninth century. However, they were the exceptions.

By the sixth century, the Chinese title of wang (“king”) had been adopted, and Buddhism was accepted as the state religion. Identifying the king with the new religion worked to consolidate authority, but the aristocrats retained power in the government on the basis of hereditary bone ranks, meaning bloodline. The top bone ranks monopolized the bureaucracy. Bone ranks also conferred various privileges in everyday life, including the size of the home, the color of dress, and even the ornamental decorations of horses. The aristocracy also dominated the military. The hwarang were the young sons of aristocrats who followed a very strict code of conduct based on Confucian doctrines and Buddhist teaching of compassion.

Distinctive elements of Silla culture may be found in magnificent decorations, such as the gold crowns, bracelets, and ear pendants that have been found in the tombs of the Page 17  |  Top of Articleroyalty and nobility. All of these reveal a high level of artistry and testify to the wealth of the aristocracy. Earthenware technology was transmitted to Japan and became the basis for stoneware of the Japanese Kofun period. Ch'omsongdae (constructed between 632 and 647), one of the oldest astronomical observatories in the world, can be seen today in Kyongju and attests to the ingenuity of these early Koreans.

The stone pagoda of the Punhwang Temple was built during the reign of Queen Sondak (r. 632647) and is the only one surviving from the preunified Silla period. Originally the pagoda had nine stories, but only three remain. The stone pagoda of the Punhwang Temple was built during the reign of Queen Sondak (r. 632–647) and is the only one surviving from the preunified Silla period. Originally the pagoda had nine stories, but only three remain. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

The rise of the Tang dynasty during the seventh century gave Silla an opportunity to extend its kingdom. An alliance between Silla and the Tang dynasty was arranged, and their combined forces defeated both Paekche and Koguryo; however, Paekche and Koguryo then allied with Silla against the Tang forces. Silla emerged as the unifying force on the peninsula. In Kyongju are burial mounds of those who accomplished this great feat.

Silla's unification in 668 CE did not include the entire peninsula, but this did not diminish the importance of its independence. Because Silla became independent from Tang political domination, the territory and people of Unified Silla were able to lay the groundwork for a long-lasting national culture. The historical significance of the unification of Silla cannot be overemphasized. Unified Silla laid the foundation for the historical development of the Korean people.

Unified Silla (668–935 CE)

Unified Silla survived for nearly three centuries and for a time, along with Tang China, was more advanced than probably any area of Europe except for the Page 18  |  Top of ArticleByzantine Empire. Freed from concerns of internal conflicts and foreign invasions, it achieved rapid development in the arts, religion, commerce, education, printing techniques, and other fields. Trade flourished with Tang China and Japan, and Silla ships came to dominate the maritime lanes in East Asia. The government was a powerful and strong state system under a single monarch. Educational institutions were well established and technology highly advanced. Present-day Kyongju, the capital of Silla, became the center of learning and creativity and grew into a large city with approximately 1 million people.

Monks traveled to China and India to study Mahayana Buddhism, which at this time had more appeal than Confucianism. Chinese political institutions did influence the development of government; however, hereditary bone rank continued to determine government positions. Slavery was prevalent and contributed significantly to the growing affluence of the hereditary aristocracy.

Travelers today still witness the achievements of the golden age of Silla. The craftsmanship and aesthetics of that period are thought to be among the finest in the world during that time. The objective of the artisans was to create a beauty of idealized harmony combined with refined artistic craftsmanship. Massive stone pagodas may be found throughout the South. Unlike Chinese and Japanese pagodas, which were built with bricks or wood, Silla's stone pagodas reveal incomparable technical superiority and harmonious beauty. Silla statues are considered as fine as those produced in Tang China. The famed Pulguksa Temple near Kyongju stands as a monument to Silla's ability to create a sense of harmony through superior artistry. The great Buddhist images of the Pulguksa and the large stone Buddha and bas-reliefs of the Sokkuram grotto convey a sense of spirituality even for the non-Buddhist and are among the finest works of Buddhist art in the Tang style. The Emille Bell, beautifully resonant and exquisitely wrought, is the largest surviving bronze bell from this period and is exhibited at the National Museum in Kyongju.

As religion and scholarship advanced, printing techniques were improved to print Buddhist and Confucian texts. When the Sakyamuni Pagoda (completed in 751 CE) from Pulguksa was dismantled in 1966 for repairs, the Pure Light Dharani Sutra and 70 cultural relics were found in the pagoda. The Dharani Sutra is the oldest example of printing with wooden blocks in the world.

One limitation on cultural development in Silla, as in early Japan, was the lack of a writing system suitable for transcribing the native language. Because Chinese characters were the only writing the early Koreans and Japanese knew, they adopted the script of an alien language. A method and set of rules were developed to represent a word either with a Chinese character having its sound or with one sharing its meaning. What developed was a full-fledged writing system called idu; later a more sophisticated system was developed called hyangch'al.

Silla began to decline by the late eighth century. Wealthy families challenged one other, the bone ranks system brought little unity, and the youthful hwarang warriors degenerated. The borrowed Chinese political institutions had not evolved into a government based on merit and so became increasingly costly and inefficient. After a king was assassinated in 780, political turmoil became constant, and succession by violent means was the norm for the next 150 years. By the end of the ninth Page 19  |  Top of Articlecentury, peasant uprisings swept the country. In 918, General Wang Kon seized control, moved the capital to Kaesong, and reunified Korea. Kyongju faded into obscurity. Not until the 20th century were the magnificent achievements of Unified Silla rediscovered. If the treasures of Kyongju had been known over the centuries, they most likely would have been stolen, destroyed, and lost forever.


Early Koryo

In 918, General Wang Kon founded a new unified dynasty that was to last almost five centuries. He named it Koryo, an abbreviation of Koguryo and the origin of the name Korea. Wang Kon implemented a policy of northern expansion, abolished the bone-rank system, and put in place a Chinese form of centralized government. Kaesong (located north of the mouth of the Han River) became the national capital. Wang Kon showed his diplomatic skills by treating his conquered subjects with compassion; he gave the former Silla king an important government position and large landholdings. He also married a woman from the Silla royal family and gave other grants of land to Silla and Paekche officials who pledged loyalty to him. The nobility became part of the Koryo bureaucracy; consequently, a tradition of aristocratic continuity was established that would continue to be part of the Korean political tradition into the 20th century.

The Koryo state incorporated elements of Confucianism. In 958, a civil service exam was set up on the Chinese model, schools were opened to teach the Confucian texts, and the central army was made powerful and permanent. Regional capitals were established in P'yongyang, Kyongju, and Seoul. By the 11th century, in spite of threats from Khitan armies to the north, Koryo had established a unified government over the entire peninsula to the Yalu River on the northwest, but it did not yet extend to the Tumen River to the northeast.

In spite of the adoption of Confucian political ideals, Koryo deference to aristocrats created a significant departure from Confucianism. Few commoners had opportunities in the government because of class prejudices and official restrictions. The sons of high aristocrats could hold important posts without taking the qualifying examinations. Military officers advanced by reason of family ancestry. Nobles received their own tax-free lands from the government in accordance with their rank; consequently, the tax base to support the government was reduced. The nobility chose not to live on their estates, left them in the hands of local aristocrats, and congregated in Kaesong. Most people were commoners or lower-class people: slaves, government workers, specialized artisans (such as those in porcelain factories), and peasants. The merchant class virtually disappeared. Most of the national wealth was located in the capital in the hands of the royal court and the aristocracy.

Buddhism, at its height in the 10th and 11th century in Koryo, played a major role in the social life and acted as a principal force in cultural achievements. Since it was believed that personal and national well-being could be assured through faith and pious acts, hundreds of temples throughout Korea, including more than 50 in the Page 20  |  Top of Articlecapital alone, were constructed. Many royal princes and aristocrats entered the clergy. Monasteries were exempted from taxes, grew affluent by sizable contributions from the wealthy, held large estates, and even conducted banking practices. Sons of the elite entered the clergy. Buddhist teachers served as advisers to government officials. One of the greatest achievements was the publication of the entire Buddhist Tripitaka (canonical scriptures) on woodblocks in 1087. These were later destroyed in the 1231–1232 Mongol invasions; however, more than 81,000 new blocks were completed in 1251, and these can be seen at Haeinsa, one of Korea's most beautiful temples. These wood-block carvings are the finest examples of some 20 Tripitaka carvings created in East Asia. By 1234, if not earlier, Koryo had also invented movable metal type, two centuries before Gutenberg. Koryo's use of this printing method is the earliest in the history of the world.

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WANG KON (877–943)

Wang Kon unified the three kingdoms after a period of intense warfare on the peninsula and established the Koryo dynasty (918–1392) with Kaesong as its capital. He named the dynasty Koryo, a shortened form of the name Koguryo, meaning “high mountains and sparkling waters.” Once he had defeated his enemies, he was particularly adept in placating them through land grants, placement in government positions, and diplomatic marriages. Before his death, he drafted 10 injunctions for his successors to observe.

The Buddhist art of Koryo matched the artistic excellence of Silla, and landscape painting and porcelain became increasingly important. Celadon articles with delicate colors, graceful curves, elegant shapes, and exquisite inlaid designs of flowers or animals rank among the finest accomplishments in earthenware in the world and are considered the crowning glory of Koryo's artistic achievements.

There were also notable literary accomplishments during this period. A private Confucian school was founded in 1055, and Kim Pu-sik, a great scholar-statesman, compiled in 1145 the History of the Three Kingdoms, the oldest surviving history of Korea. A great concern was the establishment of libraries, the acquisition of books, and their duplication by a wood-block technique. Chinese as well as traditional Korean music (hyang-ak) flourished. The former was employed in Confucian ceremonies; the latter continued to be the music of the people. Many new instruments were either imported or invented. The hourglass-shaped drum, the changgo, became the most popular instrument in Korea.

Later Koryo

Centralized rule that had been patterned after China began to show signs of decay in the second half of the 11th century. Weak kings, aristocratic access to government taxes, incessant conflicts among noble families, military coups, peasant rebellions, and slave uprisings contributed to instability. Aristocrats held to the principle that Page 21  |  Top of Articlecivilian rulers were superior to the military, so officers experienced political and economic hardships. In 1196, an officer, Ch'oe Ch'unghon, rose to power, killed those who challenged his authority, established dictatorial rule, and brought stability for more than half a century. This military rule brought a new landed elite to the top and an end to the hereditary status system. Most likely, the presence of Mongolian and Manchurian armies to the north meant that a centralized force was needed for protection.

In the early 13th century, Genghis Khan, whose genius for leadership and power had united the normally independent Mongol tribes, was about to conquer half the known world. In 1215, he captured Beijing, and the rulers of northern China were defeated. In 1231, the Mongols with vastly superior forces invaded the peninsula, seized the capital of Kaesong, and demanded a huge tribute. Peasants and the lowborn resisted and were mercilessly slaughtered. More than 200,000 people were taken captive, countless people were left dead, and an entire region was buried in ashes. Kings were forced to marry Mongolian princesses, the governmental structure was changed to signify subservience, and military garrisons and officials were stationed all over the peninsula. By 1271, the military leadership surrendered and was forced to accept Yuan (Mongol) suzerainty. The peasants were burdened with the responsibility of tribute obligations, and many were forced to build ships and furnish supplies for Mongolian expeditions against Japan. Tribute included gold, silver, horses, ginseng, hawks, artisans, women, and eunuchs. Intolerable suffering left deep scars. Koryo kings continued to rule but had to remain loyal to the Yuan.

Because of the vastness of the Mongolian Empire, Korea was now more open to cultural and technological influences. The cotton plant was introduced and largely replaced hemp, which led to a marked improvement in clothing and textile production. Other advances included a calendar, gunpowder, and astronomical and mathematical knowledge.

The firm hand of the Mongols served to sustain the Koryo dynasty for about a century, but beneath the surface the foundations of government were crumbling. Farmland continued to flow from public domain to the estates of the nobility. Invasions, repeated attacks by Japanese pirates, and reduced financial support led to increased reliance on Mongol power. As internal dissension and paralysis among Mongol leaders spread in the 14th century, Koryo attempted to reassert control, but rival factions supporting the Mongols and the successor Ming dynasty emerged. General Yi Songgye, ordered to support a mobilization against a Ming invasion, thought this unwise and resisted because he did not believe the smaller kingdom could hold out against the much larger force. Yi and his army attacked the Koryo capital instead. Seizing the throne in 1392, he brought the 474-year dynasty to an end.


The Early Period: 1392 to the 17th Century

Yi Songgye (more commonly called T'aejo) founded Korea's longest dynasty, lasting until the 20th century. The new kingdom was renamed Choson. The capital was moved from Kaesong to Seoul, which became the political, economic, and cultural Page 22  |  Top of Articlecenter of Korea and has remained so ever since. To protect the new capital, T'aejo ordered the construction of a great 10-mile wall with massive gates, parts of which remained into the 21st century. The Namdaemun Gate, once Seoul's principal city gate, survived until a great fire destroyed it in 2008.

T'aejo continued the traditional relationship with China. At least four missions per year visited the Chinese capital. The purpose of each mission was political but also allowed for cultural borrowing and economic exchange. Articles exported included horses, ginseng, furs, and hemp. In return, Korea received silk, medicines, books, and porcelain. During the next five centuries, Korea gave virtually unquestioned loyalty to Chinese political institutions and readily accepted cultural influences.

In spite of the fact that T'aejo was a devout Buddhist, he directed the dynasty to adopt Neo-Confucianism. While Confucianism had influenced Korea for centuries, the new approach was to create an ideal society in harmony with the particular attitudes and concerns of the Choson dynasty. The establishment of Confucian schools became a high priority. For the first 200 years, Choson experienced peace and prosperity under the guidance of enlightened kings. T'aejo and his successors built a strong foundation for the dynasty: they restructured society through the bureaucracy, strengthened national defense, and promoted the economy and culture of the kingdom. National boundaries were established along the Yalu and Tumen rivers.

T'aejo's son, T'aejong (1400–1418), dedicated himself to the completion of reforms that had begun under his father's rule. T'aejong's successor, Sejong (1418–1450), became Korea's greatest monarch by bringing stability and prosperity to his nation. In addition to mastering Confucian learning, he was able to successfully negotiate with the yangban (office-holding aristocrats). His rule was known for progressive government, the creation of a phonetic script, economic development, scientific discovery, and technological innovation. He showed great concern for the peasants, providing relief in times of drought and flood as well as tax reform. Scholars were instructed to draw on the knowledge of elderly peasants to publish a book on agriculture; this book became the classic book on Korean agriculture.

During the Choson dynasty, Korea became a model Confucian society and emphasized the importance of education, social stability, filial piety, and good government based on a hierarchical social order of the elite selected through competitive civil service examinations. Another dimension of Neo-Confucian principles related to male and female relationships. Women were raised to understand that they were inferior and should be submissive to men at all times; they should be obedient to their fathers, then later to their husbands and in-laws, and when widowed, to their sons. These ideas extended to the practice of ancestor worship, and the eldest male was the spiritual head of the family.

Neo-Confucianism had a strong impact. Prior to this time, Buddhist and Confucian beliefs basically coexisted, but now there were restrictions against the practice of Buddhism and limitations on the number of Buddhist monasteries. Neo-Confucianism condemned the reclusive life of Buddhist monks and rejected the Daoist search for immortality. The civil service examinations were essentially limited to the yangban. Consequently, the hereditary elite continued to serve as the majority of the high officials in government. A scholar during the time of King Sejong Page 23  |  Top of Articleformulated the idea that rulers had a mandate from heaven, as in China. Ethical conduct was essential for preserving their rule. Bad conduct destroyed the right to rule, and the overthrow of a government was justified. This notion predated John Locke's theory of the right of revolution by 300 years.

Courtyard and pond at the Changdokkung (Changdok Palace) in Seoul. In 1405 King Taejong, Courtyard and pond at the Ch'angdokkung (Changdok Palace) in Seoul. In 1405 King T'aejong, the third ruler of the Choson dynasty built the palace to serve as a royal villa. After 1615 the seat of the government was moved to this location and kings ruled Korea from this palace for about 300 years. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

The influence of Confucianism contributed to the stability of society and perpetuated for centuries the continuation of a very rigid class structure. Ten percent of the population was of the yangban class, whose goal was education in the Confucian classics and government or military service. They married within their class and lived apart from the rest of society. More than 50 percent of the population was known as yangmin (“good people”). They were the farmers, merchants, fisherman, and craftsmen. The next class was the ch'onmin (“the lowborn”). These people belonged to certain disdained hereditary professions, such as butchery, or were shamans, entertainers, or slaves. It is estimated that more than one-third of the population was enslaved in this system, which existed into the 20th century.

Confucianism also influenced the growth of the Chinese examination system that had been used during the Koryo dynasty; in the Choson dynasty, however, it was the principal means of attaining high government office. This system selected officials based on academic achievement as opposed to social status, military success, or wealth, and made professional service the most certain route to acquisition of wealth. The exam Page 24  |  Top of Articlesystem initially produced an effective bureaucracy, but in time it deteriorated and finally ended with the overthrow of the Choson dynasty by the Japanese in 1910.

Confucianism also had an impact on economic development. Its beliefs helped to perpetuate a static agrarian society and promoted contempt for the development of commerce, an activity seen as self-serving and socially divisive. A road system was maintained, but trade within the country and with the outside world (except for China and Japan) remained limited. In spite of the continuous flow of goods and ideas from China, Korea remained culturally distinct. In social structure, economic development, character traits, language, homes, dress, and food, it was in no danger of being culturally absorbed. Items exported to Japan included rice, cotton, hemp, and porcelain ware. The Buddhist Tripitaka, Confucian writings, histories, temple bells, and Buddhist images were among the cultural exports to Japan. In exchange, the Japanese exported minerals not available in Korea and luxury items for the yangban class.

Despite the conservative tendencies of Confucianism, there were significant technological advances in early Choson. A rain gauge was invented in 1442, and accurate records were maintained some 200 years before Europe began such practices. Movable type was more prevalent in Korea in the 15th century than any other place in the world. King Sejong and the Academy of Scholars made one of the greatest cultural innovations: a writing system. Known today as han'gul, it allowed people to write in characters appropriate to their spoken language. The educated classes preferred Chinese characters and continued using them in important documents. Women and the lower class used han'gul. It was not until the end of Japanese occupation that han'gul was in wide use. Today it is considered to be the most scientific system of writing in the world.

The influence of Confucianism may also be seen in the arts. Chinese-style landscapes, shrines, and music were characteristic of Choson. Enormous palaces, such as the Ch'angdokkung in Seoul, were constructed and reflected the ambition of kings. In Seoul today, one can see a few buildings that were part of the palace built by the first Choson king. During this dynasty, green celadon gave way to white porcelain, and brownware appeared in the 16th century.

In spite of the early enlightened monarchs, there were signs of difficulties that ultimately weakened the Choson dynasty. The kings had limited power and for the most part were not highly respected by the yangban. To garner their support, the monarchs doled out generous grants of nontaxable land. For the peasants, this meant increasingly burdensome taxes. Since yangban were forbidden to participate in trade, their principal objective was to serve in the bureaucracy. Extreme competition for government posts led to the growth of hereditary groupings that could no longer marry or associate with rival families. Geographic rivalries between yangban resulted in systematic purges of hundreds of officials, even executions. Feuds among the nobility had existed in China, but it was a much greater problem in Korea because the kings did not have the power of a Chinese emperor.

As these intense factions grew, Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi was crushing his rivals and reunifying Japan. In 1592 he launched an invasion against Korea in what was to be a step toward challenging the Ming dynasty in China. Since the Choson dynasty had been relatively free from foreign threats and the yangban aristocrats were accustomed to peace, they were ill prepared for a major invasion. Within a Page 25  |  Top of Articlemonth the Japanese captured Seoul and nearly the entire peninsula. However, Admiral Yi Sun-sin rescued the nation. For a year, he had strengthened his naval forces, building warships and training the crews. He constructed “turtle boats” with a protective covering (probably the first use of iron plate) to ward off enemy arrows and shells. Spikes and cannons were placed around each ship. With the assistance of these formidable warships, Admiral Yi stopped Japanese advances and severed connections to their supply routes. Meanwhile, yangban, peasant farmers, and slaves united into guerrilla armies, and Ming forces arrived to support their tributary state. Peace negotiations were then attempted, but they failed. The Japanese launched another attack in

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After Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan, he planned to launch an invasion of Korea as a step toward conquering the Ming empire. In 1592, the Japanese invaded Korea and quickly proceeded to take control of most of the country. Admiral Yi Sun-sin and his famed turtle ships came to the rescue and began to destroy Hideyoshi's fleet. Meanwhile, armies of yangban, peasants, Buddhist monks, and slaves united and dealt severe blows to the Japanese. Ming armies arrived and helped to defeat the Japanese in 1593. After attempts were made to end the war, the Japanese launched a second campaign in 1597. This time, Admiral Yi trapped the Japanese fleet in a narrow channel and destroyed more than 300 ships. Hideyoshi died shortly thereafter, and the Japanese forces withdrew.

The Tongsipchagak (East Cross Tower) is a watchtower in Seoul built at the place where the outer wall of Kyongbokkung The Tongsipchagak (East Cross Tower) is a watchtower in Seoul built at the place where the outer wall of Kyongbokkung (Kyongbok Palace) bends northward to the East Palace Gate. Kyongbokkung, built in 1394–1395, was burned down during the Hideyoshi invasions (1592–1598). It is not known exactly how much was actually destroyed, but it was rebuilt in 1868 by Taewon'gun, King Kojong's father. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

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SAMYONGDANG (1544–1610)

At 13, Samyongdang decided to study Buddhism and become a monk. In his thirties, he was widely admired within the Son sect (Zen). When Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592, Samyongdang organized a Buddhist army and successfully repulsed the invaders; however, the Japanese managed to take many prisoners of war. The warrior monk sent a special envoy to Japan to negotiate their release. His efforts were very successful, and within a year more than 3,000 prisoners were released. Later, he moved to the Haeinsa Buddhist temple to restore his health but died within the year. There is a monument in his memory at this spot, one of the most famous and beautiful temples in all of Korea.

1597, but Admiral Yi and his fleet won a resounding victory. Hideyoshi soon died, and the Japanese completely withdrew.

This invasion has been emphasized in Korean literature and still contributes to bitterness against the Japanese. The fighting was disastrous. Nearly all the provinces suffered pillage and slaughter. The population decreased, and famine and disease became widespread. Buildings, works of art, and historical records were destroyed by fire. The government weakened, agricultural production decreased, and the tax yield declined enormously.

Korea had barely recovered from the invasions when the Manchus invaded from the north, seized land, and overthrew the Ming dynasty. Generally, this invasion was less destructive than those of the Japanese except in the northwest, where the Manchu forces inflicted almost total devastation. In 1637, Choson was forced to accept the suzerainty of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty and the leadership of the newly crowned emperor of China. The Koreans considered the Manchus to be barbarians, and for China to be ruled by them seemed like the end of civilization. Hostility toward the Qing lasted for a long time.

A Nation in Transition: The 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries

The invasions of the Japanese and the Manchus were a turning point in Korean history. Devastated by what the outside world had wrought, monarchs adopted a policy of isolation. They remained weak, and the government lacked sufficient funding. To alleviate some of its financial difficulties, the government minted more coins. Tax reforms were also implemented. Upward social mobility, almost unknown before the war, began to take place. To raise revenue, rich peasants and merchants acquired yangban status by buying it; meanwhile, many of the latter lost their lands, status, and political power.

While the economy remained essentially agricultural, a mercantile economy was beginning to develop and significantly influenced the class structure. In the past, the government had restricted trade; now merchants were freer from government Page 27  |  Top of Articlerestrictions and began to be more active within and outside the country. This growth of wealth brought status to a class of people that had been previously treated with disdain and at the same time contributed to the decline of the yangban. Over time, some merchants in urban areas amassed fortunes through the control of trade and handcraft production, while many small merchants became bankrupt. In rural areas, some peasants became rich; many poor peasants had to give up their farms and became part of a growing population of landless vagrants. Social distinctions also began to fade between commoners and slaves. Many slaves received freedom in exchange for military service or simply bought their own freedom.

Monument to Hendrick Hamel, Cheju Island, South Korea. In 1653 a Dutch ship was wrecked near Cheju Island on the southwestern coast. Monument to Hendrick Hamel, Cheju Island, South Korea. In 1653 a Dutch ship was wrecked near Cheju Island on the southwestern coast. Hamel and his crew were rescued but held as spies for thirteen years. He escaped, returned to Holland, and published the first book on Korea in 1668, thereby introducing the country to Europe. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

In spite of a policy of isolation, outside forces continued to have a significant impact. Koreans on tribute missions made contact with Jesuit scholars and brought back books on new scientific discoveries, maps, telescopes, and alarm clocks. Around the same time, a Dutch ship was wrecked near Cheju Island. While the sailors were rescued, the Dutchmen were held as spies for an extended period of time. One of them, Hendrick Hamel, escaped and returned to Holland to write a book on Korea. Because of these contacts with foreigners, Koreans began to have greater curiosity about the West, and Europeans acquired some knowledge about Korea.

Prior to the 17th century, a group of Confucian scholars suggested reforms and started the Sirhak (“Practical Learning”) movement. They rejected Neo-Confucianism and recommended practical solutions to the problems of their time. Because of the dramatic influences of Western science and Chinese scholarship, these scholars continued to explore ways to resolve the problems of the common people through Page 28  |  Top of Articleland reform and promotion of social equality. The Japanese invasions and antagonism against the Qing dynasty ultimately fueled revolutionary ideas of cultural and political independence from China. The Sirhak movement, which also promoted revolutionary ideas of the rights of man and social equality, continued to grow during the 18th and early 19th centuries and contributed to the publication of books on politics, economics, health, and educational reform. The movement also influenced the growth of historical writing, fiction, poetry, and painting. The greatest change in the field of literature came with the large number of works written in han'gul (Korean script). Ultimately, the spirit of the Sirhak movement was to play a significant role in the reform movements of the late 19th century.

Traditional thatch cottages at Hahoe Folk Village. The Korean people lived in thatched cottages for centuries. Traditional thatch cottages at Hahoe Folk Village. The Korean people lived in thatched cottages for centuries. Hahoe is a genuine folk village with roots that can be traced back over 600 years. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

With the weakened position of the yangban, a popular folk culture grew rapidly. Greater realism and individualism were evident in the arts. Genre painting of ordinary events of everyday life became very popular. Folk music, including songs, dance, and mask plays, was performed. Shamanist beliefs were also evident in the musical and dramatic performances. A new form of dramatic narrative music (p'ansori) developed, enriching the lives of the Korean people.

Catholicism ultimately became a major force for change. When contacts were initially made with Jesuit missionaries in the early 17th century, Catholicism (known as “Western Learning”) had little impact. When a Sirhak scholar was baptized by a Catholic priest in Beijing, the number of converts began to increase. What attracted many to Catholicism was the belief in the equality of the children of Page 29  |  Top of ArticleGod. For women in particular, Catholicism had great appeal. When the government learned that Christianity disagreed with Confucian tenets, such as ancestor worship, persecutions and executions followed; however, missionaries continued to spread their religion. The anti-Catholic policy was relaxed in 1849 but resumed in the 1860s with a vengeance and made Christian martyrs out of approximately 8,000 people, including several French missionaries.

In the 1860s, a new religion was established in reaction to Catholicism, government corruption, social injustice, and peasant poverty. It was called Tonghak (“Eastern Learning”) and drew its support essentially from impoverished peasants. Frequent natural calamities were contributing factors to this movement: floods, famine, and epidemics occurred repeatedly and engendered major peasant uprisings. Ch'oe Ch'ue, the founder of Tonghak, combined concepts from Daoism, Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism, Catholicism, and Shamanism. Ch'oe also advocated political, social, and economic reforms to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Alarmed by Tonghak's growing popularity, the government decapitated its founder in 1864 on charges of subversion. Nevertheless, the movement continued to grow under the leadership of his successor.

In spite of these intellectual, social, and economic developments, the government resisted desperately needed reforms because powerful yangban officials feared change. National policy served their interests, not the welfare of the people. Yet the dynasty managed to remain in power until even greater challenges, the threat of Japan and Western nations, emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Opening of Korea, Attempts at Reform, and National Peril

The Korean people encountered additional problems in the 19th century as a result of the industrialization, nationalism, and imperialism of major world powers. Western nations, such as the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the United States, and a modernized Japan actively pursued policies to secure wealth in Asian markets. These powers were able to take particular advantage of China. During the Qing dynasty, China suffered from a rapid increase in population, natural calamities, and ineffectual government.

The West referred to Korea as the “Hermit Kingdom” because it had for centuries essentially rejected all outside contact. Rejection of the West had been based on a general disdain for foreigners combined with the belief that Confucianism was the only valid belief; thus, any civilization that thought differently should be kept out. Until the 19th century, foreign relations consisted of annual tribute missions to Beijing and limited contact with Japan. In the 19th century, the West and Japan forced Korea to end its long-entrenched policies of isolation. Once opened to the world, it encountered a variety of challenges: exploitation, war, and the potential loss of national sovereignty.

During the late 19th century, Western nations exhibited an ever-growing interest in establishing contact with the Hermit Kingdom for commercial and other purposes. The French, in retaliation for the executions of French priests, attempted in 1866 to punish Korea for its actions by attacking Kanghwa Island, but Korean troops forced them to withdraw after a brief skirmish. In the same year, an American ship, the General Sherman, sailed up the Taedong River to P'yongyang to force Page 30  |  Top of Articlethe government to accept commercial relations with the United States. After it refused an order to leave, it was burned, and all aboard perished. As a result of this incident, U.S. secretary of state William Seward decided to punish the Koreans and to open Korean ports by force. When five U.S. warships entered Korean waters, they were met by cannons and newly strengthened fortifications. The U.S. Marines were forced to retreat. In 1871, in response to the threats from foreign powers, the staunchly isolationist Taewon'gun, regent to the future King Kojong, declared that the official policy was one of isolation. Five years later, Japanese warships invaded and demanded diplomatic and commercial relations. The Japanese said that if Korea refused, there would be war. Forced by what is now known as “gunboat diplomacy,” the government signed the Kanghwa Treaty (1876), the first unequal treaty with an imperialist power. Within it was a clause that said Korea was a sovereign nation, paving the way for Japanese aggression without interference from China. Additional provisions opened ports with the condition that Japanese residents would be subject to Japanese laws in Japanese courts, business and trade would be conducted without interference, and business in the ports would take place under extraterritorial privileges. Korea gained no such privileges in Japan.

In 1873, King Kojong decided to deal more effectively with the outside world by promoting reforms in foreign trade, arms production, and foreign language education. He pursued a more open and flexible foreign policy than his regent Taewon'gun had followed. His hope was to establish diplomatic ties with the United States, a potential ally in helping to fend off growing threats from Japan and Russia. Officials in China, now believing that Korea needed to end its policies of seclusion to survive, offered to mediate a treaty between the United States and Korea. Consequently, in 1882 Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt of the United States signed the Korean-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce in In'chon. The treaty gave extraterritorial rights to U.S. citizens, fixed tariffs, and established port concessions and consular representation. When the terms of the treaty were explained to King Kojong, he was led to believe that the United States would guarantee the country's sovereign independence. This treaty was followed by similar agreements with the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Russia, France, and Austria-Hungary. All treaties were unequal in that they favored Western interests over national ones.

After the conclusion of these treaties, the government sent missions to Japan and the United States to learn more about these countries and to promote friendly relations. When the members returned, they brought back progressive ideas: modernization of the government, economic development, educational reform, social equality, and independence from China. Despite these would-be reformers, conservatives in government allowed only a few revisions, such as improved military training, the opening of a palace school staffed with American teachers, and the establishment of modern farming and a modern postal system.

With the influx of Protestant missionaries, Christianity spread and modern schools were established. In 1885 Presbyterians established a school for boys, and a year later Methodists established the first modern school, Ewha Womans University for girls. Protestant missionaries also established hospitals and gave lectures on agriculture, commerce, and industry. Their teachings fostered concepts of freedom Page 31  |  Top of Articleand equality. In the late 19th century, nationalists also established schools, one of which is now Korea University.

While King Kojong and his officials promoted reforms to strengthen the nation, he was weak willed and easily manipulated by his wife, Queen Min. The queen, together with conservative Confucian officials, saw potential political threats in reform; consequently, serious conflicts developed. In 1882, the Chinese sent troops to Korea and crushed an antiqueen movement planned by the former regent, Taewon'gun, and progressives. The Chinese put Queen Min in charge, and thousands of Chinese troops were stationed in Seoul. Two years later, the queen was overthrown in a successful, but short-lived, coup supported by the Japanese. Shortly after this, King Kojong began again to implement reforms to make Korea a modern and progressive nation. The Chinese again sent troops to Korea, and with the support of the reactionaries the advisers to the king were replaced, but the government remained intact. Queen Min was again in charge with her conservative, pro-Chinese supporters. Hopes for a modernized, independent Korea vanished.

In addition to severe domestic problems, Korea became increasingly important to the rivalry among the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and Japan. The monarchy began to lean toward an anti-Qing, pro-Russian policy to curtail Chinese and Japanese involvement in Korea. As Russia advanced toward the Korean peninsula, the United Kingdom took over a strategic Korean island without the consent of the government. As rival powers positioned themselves around Korea, the conniving Queen Min and her supporters took greater control over a government that was notoriously incompetent and corrupt. The Japanese began to take increasing interest in the Korean rice and soybean markets to meet the demands of the rapid growth of Japan's population. At the same time, Japan increased its position in Korea's foreign trade and monopolized business in many port cities and elsewhere. Because of the challenges within and outside Korea, popular uprisings against the Min government began to break out in the 1890s, and banditry was everywhere.

The Tonghak Struggle, War, and the Kabo Reform

While Tonghak, or Eastern Learning, was a religious movement, it did respond to governmental corruption, foreign exploitation, and the desperate conditions of the peasants. Massive demonstrations took place in 1892 and 1893. In 1894, Chon Pong-jun, the leader of Tonghak, galvanized public discontent and ultimately began the largest peasant insurrection in Korean history. When initial protests led nowhere, the peasants resorted to violence. The government responded with mass executions. After another uprising, the Tonghak army defeated government forces. Meanwhile, King Kojong appealed to China to put down the rebellions. These uprisings now allowed Japan an opportunity to further involve itself in the national affairs.

In the summer of 1894, the Japanese attacked Chinese soldiers and warships in the area of Seoul, commencing the Sino-Japanese War. One victory followed another, demonstrating that Japan was now a formidable power. The Tonghaks organized an army to drive out the invaders; however, they suffered thousands of casualties. When Chon Pong-jun was captured and executed in Seoul, the rebellion Page 32  |  Top of Articleended, and China's vulnerability was evident to the world. It was now forced to accept Korea's independence. After many centuries of strong political and cultural ties to China, Korea was now on its own. But with China's defeat, Japan tightened controls over the country.

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At the time of the largest peasant uprising in Korean history, the Tonghak Rebellion, the Korean government asked China for help. After China sent in troops, Japan decided that only a war with China would remove Chinese influence in Korea. The combined forces of China and Japan defeated the Tonghak. China then proposed that both forces leave Korea, but Japan was determined to pursue its expansionist ambitions. The war began with the sudden seizure of the royal residence, Kyongbok Palace. Japanese troops fought the Chinese on land and sea and quickly won in impressive victories. A total victory culminated in the Shimonoseki Treaty, which recognized Korea's full independence from China and ceded Taiwan and the Liaotung Peninsula (part of Manchuria) to Japan.

After the war, Japan hoped to modernize Korea and bring it into the Japanese sphere of influence. Japan demanded that the government carry out internal reforms, expel pro-Chinese officials, and appoint pro-Japanese ones in their place. This led to what are called the Kabo Reforms of the 1894–1896 period. The officials who undertook the Kabo Reforms had all studied or lived in Japan or the United States. With encouragement, these officials began to institute reforms that they felt would help the nation survive the challenges brought by the great powers. A council was created that acted independently of the king and queen and consisted of people who had supported progressive reforms. It abolished the Chinese-style bureaucracy, reformed local government, opened opportunities for talented people to serve in the government, introduced a modern court system, eliminated class distinctions, and freed slaves. An incidental result of the reforms led to Japan's even more dominant role in Korean markets.

As Japan tightened its grip, Queen Min secretly began to make overtures for Russian support to challenge Japan. In 1895, as part of an effort to maintain power, Japanese officials organized and carried out the murder of the queen. She was stabbed, doused with kerosene, and set afire to destroy the evidence. The king and the crown prince dressed themselves as court ladies, rode in sedan chairs, and fled to the Russian legation, where they stayed for a year. The country was run for the time being by the king under Russian supervision, and all reforms came to an end.

During King Kojong's residence at the Russian legation, he was apparently no prisoner but feared returning to his palace. In 1897, after hearing about growing unrest, he returned to his palace and declared himself emperor in the belief that he would have the power and the status of his counterparts in China and Japan. The nation's fate was now between Russia and Japan, which had already formulated some agreements regarding Korea. At one point, Russian and Japanese Page 33  |  Top of Articlerepresentatives contemplated dividing the peninsula between them, but they could not agree on the terms. Later, when Russia and Japan demanded concessions, the king relented. Kojong gave timber rights to Russia and commercial banking rights along with more than 200 business concessions to Japan. Gold mines, railroad, and electric power systems were granted to the United States.

The Independence Movement, Modernization, War, and Annexation

As Korea became a pawn in a world power struggle, many individuals and groups emerged to challenge the state of affairs. Now a more broadly based social movement than the Tonghak began to criticize the government's ineffective policies and fought aggressively for independence from foreign powers, particularly Japan. A group of reform-minded people in Seoul organized a political party called the Independence Club in 1896. The members, many of whom had formerly served in the government, demanded that Emperor Kojong implement the changes prescribed by the Kabo Reforms.

Several members of the Independence Club, including Syngman Rhee, who would later be South Korea's first president, became prominent leaders. The club began to publish The Independent, Korea's first newspaper in han'gul and in English. Their goals included protection of the country's independence from foreign aggression, revocation of all economic concessions, and adoption of a foreign policy that favored none of the rival powers trying to advance their interests on the peninsula. The club also sought to establish modern schools, develop industry, and create a defense system. Another objective was to support the growth of the democratic process.

As a result of the efforts of the Independence Club and the commitment of many dedicated people, modern schools were founded, and many Korean-language magazines and newspapers began to be published. The use of han'gul increased, as did literacy. Literary figures emerged and promoted a new cultural movement based on national independence and equality. Medical care improved, telegraph and telephone systems were established, and streetcar and railroad lines were installed. New banking institutions and Western architecture appeared. Korea appeared to be on its way to modernization.

The Independence Club frequently presented its grievances to the government. The club called for dismissal of corrupt officials and granting concessions to foreign powers. The public became increasingly supportive of change. Growing ever more resentful of the direct challenges to their authority, government officials began to arrest club leaders. In 1898, when Kojong ordered an end to the club, all opportunities for independence and modernization simply collapsed. Subsequently, the emperor destroyed the only group capable of reinvigorating the Choson dynasty.

With the growing power and rivalry of Russia and Japan, Korea was also threatened at its borders. The Russians had obtained rights from China to build the Trans-Siberian Railroad through Manchuria and to lease some Chinese ports. When the Chinese attempted to expel foreigners during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Russia moved troops into Manchuria and waited for an opportunity to invade. In 1902, Page 34  |  Top of Articlean alarmed Japan negotiated a treaty with the United Kingdom, which agreed to Japan's aggressive policies. In return, Japan promised that it would check Russia's southern advances in the Far East.

In 1903, the Russo-Japanese rivalry reached a critical point when Japan gave an ultimatum to Russia to withdraw troops from Manchuria. When it refused, Japan declared war in 1904 and won a quick victory. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated the Portsmouth Treaty, in which Russia acknowledged Japan's rights in Korea. For this, Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize. Since the United States had recently established the Philippines as a U.S. territory following the Spanish-American War (1898), Roosevelt accepted the Taft-Katsura Agreement (1905), which gave Japan a free hand in Korea with the promise that it would not interfere in the Philippines. As long as Japanese imperialism was directed toward Korea and Manchuria and away from American and British possessions, it had the support of the Western powers.

With this support, Japan moved quickly to establish a Korean protectorate. After publicly protesting the Protectorate Treaty, Kojong appealed without success to the United States and other world powers to support independence. The Japanese forced him to abdicate in 1907, and his mentally retarded son, Sunjong, became emperor of Korea and the puppet of Japan. More than 140,000 patriots joined guerrilla armies to resist the Japanese. Thousands of them died in their struggle, but even after annexation Korean emigrants in Manchuria continued to resist. By 1909, the powerful Japanese military had ended most resistance. A powerless emperor, Sunjong signed the Treaty of Annexation in 1910. The Choson dynasty, which had ruled Korea for 500 years, ceased to exist.


The First Phase of Japanese Rule, 1910–1919

Annexation inaugurated a 35-year period of Japanese occupation that has left a bitter legacy. The experience heightened animosities that had existed ever since the Hideyoshi invasion of the late 16th century; however, no previous events could have ever prepared people for the catastrophic economic, political, and social changes that were to come. What happened between 1910 and 1945 is crucial for understanding the post–World War II attitudes toward the Japanese.

The Japanese were convinced that control over Korea was vital to their strategic and economic well-being. To justify the takeover, the Japanese convinced themselves that despite the fact that Koreans were the same race, they were inferior people. During the first years, citizens were controlled by a draconian police system that deprived them of basic freedoms. Japan moved quickly to pacify the country. All newspapers were suspended, political parties were abolished, and public gatherings were disallowed. Japan's close proximity made it easier to dominate all facets of life.

Authority was invested in the governor-general, who was appointed by the Emperor. He controlled the military and civil police force, made all laws, oversaw the judicial system, and had fiscal independence and total control of all appointments. Page 35  |  Top of ArticleAll officials, including teachers, were required to carry a sword as a symbol of authority. The colonial bureaucracy grew rapidly with Japanese officials dominating, especially in the upper and middle levels. Hiring practices eliminated even educated and experienced Koreans from governmental service.

The police had the power to judge, sentence, and execute even for minor offenses. They were the controlling agency in politics, education, religion, morals, health and public welfare, and tax collection. Even the large Korean contingent in the police force supplied the governor-general with information that set Korean against Korean.

The first decade of Japanese rule has been called the “dark period” because of the extensive repression of political and cultural life. The right of assembly was abolished. Police kept watch on intellectual, religious, and political leaders. In 1912 alone, there were more than 50,000 arrests. The occupiers created an educational system to train a labor force to serve the homeland's economic development and to educate in Japanese customs, culture, and language. The goal of education was to make Korean children loyal, useful, and obedient subjects of the Japanese emperor. Japanese was spoken, and Korean was taught as a second language. Because the Japanese limited access to colleges and universities, many bright Korean students traveled to Japan for higher education. There they were exposed to radical political ideas unavailable to students at home and ultimately established close contacts with a generation of political activists from around the world.

Another significant development during the first stage of the colonial period related to land laws. A Land Survey Bureau was created that required all owners to prove their land titles. The policies strengthened and codified the position of wealthy landowners and contributed to the deterioration of rural life. Large landowners had no difficulty reporting their holdings; however, many small landowners were unfamiliar with reporting regulations and lost their land. The widening gap between those who held land and those who did not caused tremendous social tension. In addition to the policies of the Land Survey Bureau, the government-general seized land that had belonged to the royal family and became the largest landowner in Korea.

The Japanese also consolidated their position in communications, public services, and economic activities throughout the peninsula. Railroads were particularly vital to Japan for military and economic reasons. The colonial government took control of mining, forestry, and fisheries. Japan was now free to exploit Korea's gold, silver, iron, tungsten, and coal. A law was passed requiring approval for the formation of public or private corporations. Few Koreans received such approval, making the number of Korean businesses insignificant compared to those of the occupiers. Japanese banks dominated the economy, and Korean businessmen were dependent on them.

The oppressive rule that accompanied the first phase of colonial rule contributed to a growing number of Koreans abroad, such as in Manchuria and Russia, who expressed opposition to colonial rule. Some became contract laborers in Hawaii; others settled in California. Many of the new activists were students who became radicalized by foreign contacts and by their own experience of ethnic discrimination. After 1914, the major powers were consumed by World War I. Although Koreans tried to get the attention of other nations, there was little interest in responding to their appeals.

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The Second Phase of Colonial Rule, 1919–1931

The United States emerged as a world power after World War I. President Woodrow Wilson raised the hopes of colonized peoples around the globe with his commitment to the self-determination of peoples, national autonomy, and world peace. While most radical political leaders were in exile or in jail, Christian and Buddhist leaders in Korea now began to plan a national movement for independence. They wanted a nationwide demonstration on March 1, 1919. It was to be a nonviolent expression of their desire to be free and independent from Japan. Thirty-three nationalists signed the Korean Declaration of Independence as part of this movement. The death of the former emperor, Kojong, in January and subsequent rumors that the Japanese were involved in his death further inflamed anti-Japanese sentiments. Widespread demonstrations broke out in Seoul and elsewhere during the following months. The Japanese were caught by surprise, and the police responded with thousands of arrests, beatings, and the destruction of homes, churches, and even entire villages. A 17-year-old girl named Yu Kwansun was tortured by the police and died in prison.

Independence Monument, Seoul, South Korea. On March 1, 1919, the Korean people began a nationwide demonstration expressing Independence Monument, Seoul, South Korea. On March 1, 1919, the Korean people began a nationwide demonstration expressing their desire to be free and independent of Japan. The words of their Declaration of Independence are inscribed on this memorial. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

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AHN CHANG-HO (1878–1939)

Ahn Chang-Ho (pen name, Tosan) is sometimes called Korea's number one patriot. Born in a village outside P'yongyang, he became one of the most prominent orators and energetic independence fighters. After organizing a chapter of the Independence Club, he lived in the United States from 1902 to 1906 and dedicated himself to improving the lives of Koreans there. Upon his return to Korea, Ahn lifted the spirit of his people through his powerful oratory and raised funds for the independence movement.

The demonstrations failed to bring independence. What the March First movement did accomplish, however, was to unify the Korean people in a dramatic new way. The Japanese became more sensitive to world opinion. As a result, there were some alterations in Japanese policies, but there was no real letup on the domination of Korea.

The Japanese developed “cultural policy reforms” in hopes of improving world opinion of their colonial rule. These new policies included plans for greater efficiency of administration and police controls. The Japanese plotted ways to manipulate Koreans into supporting them. Whipping for minor offenses ended, but repression increased for militant nationalists and revolutionaries. Some minor adjustments were made to bring salaries more in line with those of Japanese civil servants. Promises were made to bring equality of education to the schools. Korean newspapers could be published again; however, they were subject to very strict censorship. The police no longer wore uniforms, but the size of the Japanese force was increased significantly. The objective was to create an army of informers so that no demonstration could catch the leaders by surprise as had the March First movement. Another dimension of their program was to increase rice production, but most of the rice was exported to Japan. Korean per capita rice consumption dropped throughout the period of colonial occupation.

While these reforms now seem somewhat insignificant, the period following the March First movement was a time of hope. Newspapers were published, and groups were formed throughout the colony. Koreans realized that direct confrontations with the Japanese would be met with force, so they developed a gradual approach to independence. Societies developed with the intention of fostering a national consciousness in literature, history, drama, music, and film. These activities were largely limited to the well-educated elite members of society. Their challenge was to find ways to harness the support of the vast majority of the Korean people who were peasants or members of the growing laboring class. The fact that the literacy rate was so low presented a major obstacle.

Many nationalists were forced to flee their homeland and join others in Shanghai and elsewhere. In 1919, nationalists in Shanghai established the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in exile and elected Dr. Syngman Rhee its Page 38  |  Top of Articlefirst president. Other nationalists were attracted to communism because of the Russian Revolution and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a potential champion of oppressed peoples everywhere. Exiles were free to read and discuss radical ideas and join groups supporting Marxist-Leninist ideology and national liberation. Ultimately, the differing ideologies seriously divided the movement. Not only was it divided, but also no group was able to gather mass national support. In the 21st century, both North and South Korea continue to be influenced significantly by the class and ideological conflicts that developed during and after the period of colonial rule.

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HAN YONGUN (1879–1944)

Han Yongun was a recognized poet, Buddhist monk, and independence fighter. In his youth, he became a follower of the Tonghak movement. His father and brother were executed by the government for their involvement in the Tonghak rebellion. At 16, he took refuge in a Buddhist temple, studied, and became a priest. He encouraged other monks to live among the poor to help improve their conditions. When Japan annexed Korea, he became a central figure in the independence movement.

The Third Phase of Japanese Occupation and World War II (1931–1945)

For a variety of reasons, Japan's policies changed in the 1930s. As international trade shrank because of the worldwide depression, the Japanese realized that their new industrial economy was overextended beyond what the small empire could support. Chinese nationalist forces appeared to threaten Japanese interests on the continent. In response to these developments, Japan seized Manchuria in 1931, made it a puppet state, extracted its rich natural resources, and developed its industry. In Japan itself, the military took over the government. Korea was now to serve as the base for Japan's Asian plan. Newly instituted policies emphasized rural self-sufficiency and increased industrial production. As industry expanded, thousands of peasants took factory jobs.

Some resistance to the Japanese continued. Korean communists in the north organized underground peasant brigades that attacked their landlords and the police. Labor strikes were frequent. Some small guerrilla units managed to survive into the 1930s. One of the units was led by Kim Il-Sung.

By 1934, the Japanese began to be bolder, forcing the Koreans into the cultural and political life of the empire with the objective of eliminating the differences between them. Educational policies included a new curriculum that emphasized Japanese language instruction, ethics, and history. Although Japanese and Korean children originally attended separate schools, all children now attended school together. These new policies also included a pledge to the emperor, attendance at Shinto ceremonies, and the elimination of the study and use of the Korean language altogether. Koreans particularly objected to forced attendance at Shinto ceremonies.

Page 39  |  Top of ArticleWhen Japan invaded China in 1937, the colonial government began to shut down all Korean organizations. By 1940, virtually all Korean-language newspapers were closed. The Japanese created mass organizations to bring everybody into the war effort. They also reduced the number of Koreans in government and relegated those who remained to inferior positions. The colonial police recruited lower-class individuals for government service, creating great resentment among the general population and turning Koreans against one another.

In 1939, the oppressors struck at the most cherished source of family identity by forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese names. In a nation where reverence for ancestors and family lineage had been a way of life for thousands of years, this policy could create only a deep and lasting resentment on the part of the people. The Japanese believed that the very survival of the empire depended on their subjects acting and thinking like Japanese citizens. Their assimilation policies were doomed to fail, though, because they combined the belief that the Japanese and the Koreans could become one even though the Koreans were discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity.

There were Koreans who attempted to succeed in the colonial system by collaborating. Ambitious educated men had very few choices unless they did work with the system. Rejection of the system would limit chances for a good job and lead to poverty, jail, or exile. Some of these collaborators profited enormously from the war effort. Many thought that by cooperating with Japan, Korea would become modernized.

After the United States entered the war in the Pacific, there were even greater hardships for the people. They now had to work in mines and factories in Manchuria and Japan, guard prison camps, build military facilities, and serve the troops in various capacities. The Japanese organized the entire colony into Neighborhood Patriotic Organizations, which were responsible for providing labor, collecting money for the war effort, security, and rationing. People were forced to donate gold and silver jewelry, brass, and other metals to the war effort. School hours were reduced so children could work as factory laborers or in the fields. One of the most shameful developments was the so-called Comfort Corps, made up of between 100,000 and 200,000 young Korean women who were forced to serve the sexual needs of Japanese troops. Thousands of Korean men served in the military, and approximately 4 million, some 16 percent of the population, lived outside the country or worked in factories and mines in Manchuria, northern Korea, and Japan.

The independence movement continued to grow through the involvement of exiled leaders, but divisions between nationalists and communists grew stronger throughout the 1930s. During the 1940s in China, the major Korean noncommunist resistance forces came together to form the Korean Restoration Army, which ultimately reached a membership of about 3,000 members. This army worked with Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Peoples Party (Kuomintang, or KMT), developing close contacts with supporters of Chinese Nationalists and with U.S. military advisors. At the same time, the majority of Korean communists were working with their Chinese counterparts and gained invaluable military and organizational skills. Korean communist guerrillas in Manchuria went into hiding in the Soviet Union. Among them was Kim Il-Sung, who survived the Japanese extermination campaigns Page 40  |  Top of Articleof the late 1930s. The Japanese considered him to be one of the most effective and dangerous of guerrillas. Overseas, Syngman Rhee worked tirelessly to become the leader of the government in exile. As the war was coming to a close, nationalists at home and abroad computed for the leadership of an independent Korea.

The Mansudae Grand Monument. The towering 150-foot-tall statue of Kim Il-Sung was built for the leaders 60th birthday. The Mansudae Grand Monument. The towering 150-foot-tall statue of Kim Il-Sung was built for the leader's 60th birthday. Since his death in 1994, it has become a place of mourning and paying respects to the Great Leader. People visit the monument throughout the day and night to lay flowers and observe a moment of silence. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

When the Emperor of Japan surrendered unofficially on August 15, 1945, it was a day of jubilation for Koreans. Flags that had been hidden by the Korean people now were unfurled on the streets, and the people celebrated freedom and national independence. It seemed that for the first time since early in the 20th century Koreans could shape their own destiny. However, Korea was soon to be divided after being unified for nearly 1,300 years.


In 1943, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek issued the Cairo Agreement, which stated that “in due course Korea shall become free and independent.” Joseph Stalin indicated support for this agreement in July 1945 by signing the Potsdam Declaration. In August, the Soviet Union, in accordance with the Yalta Agreement of February 1945, declared war on Japan and poured troops into Korea while U.S. troops were still fighting in Okinawa. Americans could not move quickly enough to stop Soviet occupation of the entire peninsula. Immediately after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Page 41  |  Top of ArticleNagasaki, officials in the United States proposed the division of Korea at the 38th parallel in an attempt to prevent a complete takeover by the Soviets. In their haste, they acted unilaterally. Their proposal involved a temporary division: The Soviet Union would establish a military zone north of the 38th parallel, and the United States would occupy a military zone to the south. Much to the surprise of U.S. military authorities, Stalin immediately accepted the proposal. U.S. forces began to arrive in South Korea the following month.

Although Korea was liberated from Japan, colonial policies continued to have a major impact on Korean politics and society. In 1945, Korea was a combination of old and new classes, political groups, and conflicting ideologies. About 80 percent of the population still lived on the land, but an assortment of businessmen, white-collar workers, factory laborers, and landless peasants who had been uprooted from their villages during the war were returning home. The colonial period had created nationalists with different ideologies and experiences who had remained within Korea or lived abroad. Rival groups had their own political agendas and supported different figures.

Two political factions developed in the liberation period. On the right were those who had collaborated enthusiastically with the Japanese and those who felt they had no choice but to collaborate in order to survive, support their families, and maintain their status in society. Others on the right were Koreans who had comprised 40 percent of the colonial police force and had limited education or no property. On the left was a broad spectrum of society (students, intellectuals, peasants, and laborers) politicized by the colonial experience. They condemned the inequities between classes that had prevailed for centuries and were attracted to the promises of Marxism and Leninism of bringing equality and justice to the poor and oppressed. Those attracted to communism desired a redistribution of wealth with an emphasis on land reform. Intense feelings existed between those who had collaborated and those who had not, between conservatives and the radical left, and between nationalists and communists.

Meanwhile tensions that had existed between the United States and the Soviet Union since the Russian Revolution increased during the war because of opposing strategies and conflicting ideologies. The U.S. War Department had anticipated a prolonged conflict in the Pacific and sought the support of the Soviet Union against Japan. Once the atomic bomb was developed, the United States knew the war would soon be over and wanted to keep the Soviet Union out of Japan. When the atomic bombs were dropped on August 6 and 9, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, fulfilled its obligations from the Yalta Agreement, renewed its interests in Korea, and sent thousands of troops into areas that had been controlled by the Japanese: Manchuria and Korea.

Immediately after the unconditional surrender, a temporary peace-keeping organization, the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI), was formed in August 1945 to assist in the transition, maintain order, and devise plans for a new national government. By September, there were committees in all of the major cities and even the smallest villages throughout all 13 provinces. In September, several hundred delegates met in Seoul and announced the formation of the Page 42  |  Top of ArticleKorean People's Republic (KPR) and established a schedule for future national elections.

Scholars debate the political character of the KPR. The traditional American and South Korean view is that the KPR was a leftist organization with the objective of making Korea a communist state. Revisionist historians stress that the KPR was primarily a leftist organization but desired a coalition government as shown by the inclusion of such right-leaning nationalists as Syngman Rhee. The platform of the KPR was revolutionary; it called for the confiscation of land from the Japanese and all who had collaborated with them. Peasants would be given land, major industries nationalized, an eight-hour workday established, child labor prohibited, and a minimum wage determined. All men and women were to have the right to vote except those who had been collaborators. There was also to be freedom of speech, press, and religion. It seems at the time that the KPR was a reflection of the popular will of the majority of the people.

Japanese authorities in Seoul informed American leaders that local communists and independence supporters were plotting to subvert the peace process and warned of violence. Consequently, when the U.S. forces arrived in September, top officers were suspicious that the KPR was part of a Soviet communist conspiracy. Throughout the fall of 1945, Koreans dismantled the colonial administration at every level and expelled collaborators from positions of power. Communists played a significant part in the process, but they were not necessarily the leaders; there was always active participation by the local population.

General John Hodge, the leader of the U.S. occupation forces, under orders from Washington refused to recognize the KPR or any Korean government. He set up the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) and began to reestablish the colonial administrative government by appointing people who had served as collaborators. American leaders were unaware of the stigma associated with collaboration and felt it necessary to quickly create a government free of leftist influences. Many Koreans appointed to the new government were upper class, propertied, anticommunist, well educated, and English speaking. Hodge began to carry out policies to end all KPR committees south of the 38th parallel.

The Soviet occupation forces treated the KPR very differently. In the North, collaborators were thrown out of office and the colonial bureaucratic government destroyed. Large industries were nationalized. Japanese land was confiscated, and the majority of landlords lost most of their property. The objectives of the KPR were carried out with little violence since many northern landlords had already fled south.

In the final months of 1945, the foreign ministers of the Allies met in Moscow to establish an international solution to the Korean situation. The diplomats agreed to authorize the formation of a joint U.S.–Soviet commission to establish a government in consultation with its leaders to end the Allied occupation. The new administration would be put under a five-year trusteeship of the Allies. Koreans in both the Soviet- and U.S.-occupied zones reacted violently to the plan and carried out nationwide demonstrations. Many factors contributed to the response, but the main reason for protest was the right-left polarization of national politics that came with Page 43  |  Top of ArticleSoviet and American occupation. In early 1946, Soviet pressure on Korean communists led to support of the Moscow Agreement; however, violence between Nationalists and Communists continued to occur throughout the peninsula.

Most of the turmoil was south of the 38th parallel. As a result of the trusteeship decision and subsequent American political and economic policies, people grew increasingly hostile to U.S. military rule. Strikes, mass demonstrations, and bloodshed occurred. From the American point of view, events in Korea seem to mirror fears at home. Labor strikes in both countries were all perceived as communist inspired.

Another important reason for the polarization of politics on the peninsula was the honor bestowed by the Americans and the Soviets on their favorite patriots who returned from years in exile. The Soviets gave their support to General Kim Il-Sung, the charismatic anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter who had established close contacts with communists in China and Russia while in exile. In February 1946, a provisional government, the Interim People's Committee, was inaugurated with Kim in control. He soon moved toward a dictatorship by eliminating nationalist and religious organizations, nationalizing businesses, and organizing an army. During this time, some 2 million Koreans fled to the South.

Almost simultaneously with the growth of autocratic government in the North, USAMGIK supported the development of a rightist, anticommunist government in the South. In October 1945, Syngman Rhee, a 70-year-old patriot who had been active in the independence movement, returned to his homeland. Educated in the United States, he had established close ties with governmental figures in Washington and with Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek. An outspoken anticommunist, Rhee immediately condemned the Soviet Union, Korean communists, and the KPR.

Because of his personal dislike for Rhee and pressure from the U.S. State Department, General Hodge tried to form a coalition government acceptable to the Soviets. The plan was to exclude the extremes of the right (Syngman Rhee) and left (Kim Il-Sung) and form a trusteeship determined by the Moscow Agreement. Unfortunately, Koreans were too polarized to accept a coalition government. Relations had also deteriorated between the United States and the Soviet Union because of the continued Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and the implementation of President Harry Truman's policy of containment.

Considering the international tensions of the time, it is understandable that two separate governments emerged on the peninsula. The final step came in May 1947 when the United States appealed to the newly created United Nations (UN) to resolve the Korea question. In November, despite protests from the Soviets, the UN General Assembly voted to send a commission to Korea to conduct national elections, establish a government, and end Allied occupation.

Most people wanted an immediate end to occupation and supported the UN plan. The Soviet Union disputed the UN's authority to conduct elections and rejected the resolution. Rhee and his supporters advocated elections in the South. Many opposed these elections for the obvious reason that they would lead to the permanent division of the peninsula. Members of the UN commission were determined to carry out elections, and on May 10, 1948, the first democratic elections were held in the South. Two months later a constitution was adopted, and on August 15 the Republic Page 44  |  Top of Articleof Korea (ROK) was established with Syngman Rhee its first president. The ROK claimed that it was the only legitimate government on the peninsula. The United States and many other democratic nations promptly recognized the new government. In August, the North Korean communists had their own elections that were approved by the Soviet Union. A constitution was adopted for a separate state called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and Kim Il-Sung was elected premier. Northern leaders claimed that theirs was the only legitimate government on the peninsula and that P'yongyang was to be the temporary capital. In late 1948, the Soviets withdrew their troops but left behind modern military equipment and advisers to train Kim Il-Sung's forces. The Americans left South Korea the following year, leaving poorly trained and inadequately supplied forces to defend with the South with the assistance of U.S. military advisers.

THE KOREAN WAR (1950–1953)

There has been much debate over the causes of the Korean War. The end of the Cold War era and research in Soviet archives have given further perspectives on the complexities of the war's origins. There is no doubt, however, that the northern troops actually crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950. Yet this event has to be viewed within the context of important international developments and the polarization that existed on the peninsula. U.S. policy makers were strongly influenced by the lessons of the 1930s. They knew that “appeasement” of dictators simply encouraged them to escalate their demands, whereas decisive action to stop aggression would force them to withdraw.

With the end of World War II, the tenuous alliance between the Western powers and the Soviet Union deteriorated, and ideological competition ushered in economic and political instability throughout the world. The Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe and successfully tested an atomic bomb, ending the U.S. nuclear monopoly. To stop Russian expansion and the threat of communism, the United States adopted the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the containment policy. To protect national security and maintain peace, the United States entered its first peacetime military alliance by joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 1949, Mao Zedong's army won the Chinese civil war, brought communism to the most populous country in the world, and proclaimed the People's Republic of China. Critics of the Truman administration claimed that the United States had “lost China.” Senator Joseph McCarthy in February of 1950 further heightened U.S. security concerns by charging that the State Department was thoroughly infested with communists.

Meanwhile, there was continuous leftist guerrilla warfare throughout much of South Korea. Skirmishes between North and South Korean forces at the 38th parallel became frequent. Rhee and his generals spoke often of military operations to take over the North. Between 1945 and 1950, Kim Il-Sung repeatedly asked Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for permission to invade the South. As a result of the turbulence throughout South Korea and the frequent border skirmishes along the 38th Page 45  |  Top of Articleparallel, most historians now believe that the Korean War actually started as early as 1948 if not before.

The East Gate and Seoul residences in the early 1950s. This photograph was taken by Cpl. Alfred (Bud) Hallam of the U.S. Army The East Gate and Seoul residences in the early 1950s. This photograph was taken by Cpl. Alfred (Bud) Hallam of the U.S. Army, who was killed during the Korean War. (Courtesy of Mary Connor/Alfred Hallam)

In 1950, when Kim Il-Sung requested Soviet support to unify the country and promised a quick victory, Stalin reluctantly gave his permission as long as Mao would support the invasion. Mao agreed and released more than 60,000 battled-hardened Koreans from the People's Liberation Army for duty in North Korea.

Early Sunday, on June 25, 1950, North Korean troops opened fire and launched a well-planned attack against South Korea. Equipped with Soviet tanks and fighter planes, the North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel and within three days captured Seoul and overran most of the peninsula within a short period of time. While the war began as a civil war, it became the first major power conflict since World War II. It was feared at the time to represent the beginnings of World War III.

Without a formal declaration of war, President Harry Truman tried to halt the invasion with U.S. air and naval forces, but the combined South Korean and U.S. forces could not stop the advances of the superior forces of the North Korean Army. Within a short time, it had captured all but the area around the port city of Pusan.

Realizing the grave danger to the ROK, Truman requested the assistance of the UN to support it. Stalin was apparently still lukewarm about Kim Il-Sung's war against South Korea. The UN Security Council, urged by the United States, adopted a resolution to condemn North Korea's actions. The Soviet Union delegate, who Page 46  |  Top of Articlecould have blocked the resolution with his veto power, had been boycotting the council to protest China's lack of representation in the UN. Soon afterward, a second resolution was adopted to go to war. Truman named General Douglas MacArthur the Commander of the UN forces, 90 percent of whom were American.

Pyongyang Airport. The main airport is very small for a nation of 22 million people, but it services the nation P'yongyang Airport. The main airport is very small for a nation of 22 million people, but it services the nation adequately because few people travel to and from North Korea. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

The U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines arrived in Korea, and together with troops from the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Australia, a counterattack was launched. MacArthur carried off a daring amphibious landing at Inch'on, several hundred miles behind North Korean lines. Eighteen thousand U.S. Marines landed on September 15, 1950, and quickly moved inland. The UN forces liberated Seoul and pushed the DPRK troops back to the 38th parallel. Even before Inch'on, Truman had redefined the objectives of the United States in fighting the war. He now believed that the whole peninsula should be liberated from communism and reunified by force.

In September, Truman authorized UN forces to cross the 38th parallel. Together with the ROK, they marched north; captured the capital, P'yongyang; and continued to move well into the North in pursuit of fleeing troops. U.S. aircraft also bombed bridges along the Yalu River, the border with China. Mao warned that he would not permit the continued attacks on transportation links with Korea. Although the collapse of their communist ally seemed imminent in mid-October, tens of thousands of Page 47  |  Top of ArticleChinese soldiers poured into Korea from Manchuria and drove the UN forces back again. On January 4, 1951, Seoul fell a second time, but by March UN forces succeeded in recapturing the capital city. The front then stabilized around the 38th parallel.

The Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone. The buildings in the foreground are where armistice negotiations took place at the end The Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone. The buildings in the foreground are where armistice negotiations took place at the end of the Korean War. The building in the background, Panmungak, is located in North Korea. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

The United States and the Soviet Union welcomed negotiations, but MacArthur had other ideas. The general wanted to extend the war into China, liberate it from communism, and restore Chiang Kai-Shek to power. In April, fed up with MacArthur's insubordination and backed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Truman fired him.

Armistice talks began in July 1951, but the fighting and dying continued for two more years. The most controversial issue in the negotiations was the fate of the prisoners of war (POWs). The United States maintained it would return only those North Korean and Chinese prisoners who wished to go home. The DPRK objected. Both sides were involved with brainwashing prisoners to resist repatriation.

As the POW issue continued to prolong negotiations, U.S. officials made vague public statements about the use of atomic weapons. American bombers devastated dams, rice fields, factories, airfields, and bridges. Casualties on both sides mounted. Finally, after two years of negotiations and the ultimate involvement of 21 countries, a truce was signed at P'anmunjom on July 27, 1953, and a 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) was established across the peninsula. China ultimately withdrew its forces in 1958, but more than 25,000 U.S. troops remain in South Korea.

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Korean War Museum, Seoul. The museum, traces the history of war from the Three Kingdoms Period to the Korean War. Korean War Museum, Seoul. The museum, traces the history of war from the Three Kingdoms Period to the Korean War. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

When the fighting finally ended, the two Koreas, for all they had suffered, would control essentially the same territory they held when the war erupted. It devastated both halves of a nation that had only begun to recover from four decades of Japanese occupation and political division. Around 3 million people, approximately one-tenth of the entire population, were killed, wounded, or missing. Another 5 million became refugees. It is estimated that 900,000 Chinese and 520,000 North Koreans were killed or wounded, as were about 400,000 UN Command troops, nearly two-thirds of them South Koreans. U.S. casualties were 54,000 dead and another 103,000 wounded. ROK property losses were put at $2 billion, the equivalent of its gross national product for 1949; DPRK losses were estimated at only slightly less. Fifty-five years after the war, an estimated 10 million people remain separated from their families by the 38th parallel. North and South Korea are technically still at war. Frequent notices appear over the Internet that the remains of those missing in action are still being found on the battlefields of the Korean War.


The First and Second Republics, 1948–1961

For South Korea, the next several decades would bring radical changes in government and tremendous economic growth. The war left the country with massive economic, social, and political problems. Showing a strong desire to hold onto power, President Syngman Rhee became increasingly domineering and Page 49  |  Top of Articleautocratic. With the support of the Liberal Party, he revised the Constitution, gave unlimited tenure to his office, and suppressed the opposition Democratic Party. The spark that brought his administration to an end was the effort to rig the election of 1960.

Aware of his own unpopularity, Rhee and his supporters used every means to ensure victory for the Liberal Party. Massive demonstrations broke out, leading to police violence and the death of a student. As a result, nearly all of the students in the universities and high schools hit the streets. The government declared martial law, but shortly thereafter the National Assembly pressured Rhee to resign. He had no choice but to step down. Students had led the people into the first successful democratic revolution in the country's history.

The Second Republic (1960–1961), a liberal democratic regime with Premier Chang Myon at its helm, lasted only eight months. In May 1961, Major General Park Chung-Hee and young army officers overthrew the administration. For the first time since the 14th century, the military gained control of the government. Park was to be the key figure in a new arrangement of power that would last nearly two decades.

The Third and Fourth Republics, 1963–1979

Park Chung-Hee and army officers quickly put Seoul under military occupation, and stability was restored. The government promised that it would take a strong stand against communist infiltrators, develop stronger relations with the United States, establish a self-supporting economy, unify the nation, and hold elections the following year to establish a new civilian government. The election was held in 1963, and Park, who had resigned from the army, was elected president of the Third Republic, beginning a long era of authoritarian rule. Park was reelected to a second term (1967), and in his election to a third term (1971), he defeated Kim Dae-Jung.

Under President Park's leadership, the human and natural resources of the country were effectively organized for the first time in modern history. The economy began to grow rapidly, per capita income soared, and exports rose by more than 30 percent a year. Park managed to consolidate his power and manipulated the Constitution to remain in office indefinitely.

Park's foreign policy included normalization of relations with Japan in 1965 and the first formal dialogue with North Korea. His agreement to the normalization and to sending troops to aid the United States in Vietnam led to massive demonstrations on the part of opposition parties and students. His administration was destabilized by such changes on the international scene as Nixon's policy of detente with China and the withdrawal of 20,000 U.S. troops from South Korea. A slowdown in the economy together with the international situation led Park and his advisors to silence dissent. In 1972, he declared martial law, suspended the Constitution, and dissolved the National Assembly and all political parties. By the end of the year, he had transformed the presidency into a dictatorship. Park held power for seven more years. Finally, on October 26, 1979, the director of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency assassinated him. The prime minister Choi Kyu Hah, immediately became acting president.

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On December 12, 1979, Maj. Gen. Chun Doo-Hwan took control over the military of the Republic of South Korea. In response to the Yusin Constitution (which removed restrictions on the term of office of a president) and Chun's declaration of martial law, students and citizens took to the streets of Kwangju. With the arrival of the army, hundreds if not thousands of citizens were killed. During the Kwangju demonstrations, citizens appealed in vain to the U.S. embassy to intervene. The United States took no action, and many South Koreans concluded that it supported Chun. The tragic developments led to increased opposition to the Chun regime and anti-American sentiments. Kwangju has become a symbol of the aspirations of the South Korean people for democracy.

The Fifth Republic, 1980–1988

During the next several months, the country was in turmoil. In December 1979, General Chun Doo-Hwan carried out a coup, became president of the Fifth Republic, declared martial law, and ruthlessly suppressed popular demonstrations. In the midst of this political crisis, the bloody Kwangju uprising of students and citizens occurred, resulting in possibly 2,000 casualties and causing antigovernment sentiment that lasted for years.

Although President Chun promised a new era, he continued to rule autocratically. The Fifth Republic did include the first-ever surplus in the international balance of payments. When student demonstrations led to a brutal murder of a Seoul National University student, riots broke out in major cities throughout Korea. Chun was subsequently forced to step down.

The Sixth Republic, 1988–1993

Roh Tae-Woo had served in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars and over the years rose through the ranks to become a general. After Chun became president, Roh resigned from the military and served in several posts in Chun's administration. After Chun chose Roh to be his party's candidate for president, massive protests broke out. In response, Roh proposed a broad program of democratic reforms, which led to the approval of a new constitution in October 1987. One of the main provisions was the direct election of the president by popular vote. Roh won the election in December because both major opposition candidates, Kim Young-Sam and Kim Dae-Jung, split the opposition vote.

As president, he committed himself to democratization. In foreign affairs, Roh cultivated new ties with the former Soviet Union, China, and many Eastern European countries. He obtained South Korea's admission into the UN and signed an Page 51  |  Top of Articleagreement in 1991 calling for nonaggression between the two Koreas. In February 1993, Kim Young-Sam, whose anticorruption reforms targeted Roh and Chun, succeeded him.

In 1995, Roh publicly apologized for having illegally amassed $650,000 in secret political donations. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to prison. He was later pardoned by outgoing President Kim Young-Sam.

On February 25, 1993, Kim Young-Sam, who won the 1992 presidential election, was sworn in as the first civilian president of Korea. He defeated Kim Dae-Jung and another leading candidate. Once in power, Kim established civilian control over the military and tried to make the government more responsive to the electorate. He pursued reforms to eliminate political corruption and abuses of power. The economy continued to grow at a rapid rate, and the standard of living improved.

Kim was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term. His popularity declined rapidly in the last year of his five-year term as a result of corruption within his administration and the severe financial crisis that affected South Korea in 1997. The longtime opposition leader, Kim Dae-Jung, succeeded him as president.

Kim Dae-Jung's election, the first true opposition party victory in a presidential election, came at an extraordinarily difficult time: a new round of corruption scandals and the worst economic crisis in decades hit Korea and other parts of Asia. Kim vigorously pushed economic reform and restructuring recommended by the International Monetary Fund. The government's efforts for a fast economic recovery paid off when the nation completed repayment of bailout loans three years ahead of schedule. His government also carried out far-reaching restructuring of such conglomerates as Hyundai and Samsung.

The Kim administration is primarily remembered for its policy of engagement with North Korea, which is known as the Sunshine Policy. Between June 13 and 15, 2000, Kim Dae-Jung met in P'yongyang with Kim Jong-Il, the leader of the DPRK, the first meeting of the heads of North and South since the peninsula was divided in 1945. They agreed to allow visits of some of the 1.2 million family members separated since the Korean War and to address the gap between the two economies. After the summit, Kim Dae-Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts of reconciliation. Needless to say, he was a hero at home and widely respected throughout the world.

In spite of his remarkable achievements, Kim's problems grew as the global economy weakened, joblessness increased, and his Sunshine Policy grew more unpopular. He came under fierce attack when his two sons were arrested for accepting bribes. His administration was also charged with secretly paying North Korea $100 million to get P'yongyang to agree to the historic summit. Kim defended his actions by saying it was for the sake of peace.

A human rights lawyer by profession, Roh Moo-Hyun entered politics in response to human rights abuses during the Chun administration. His presidency has been described as a roller-coaster ride. His administration was hurt by corruption scandals and hindered by a parliament dominated by opposition parties and fierce opposition to some of his policies, such as sending troops to Iraq and the continuation of a policy of engagement with North Korea. He was suspended in the Page 52  |  Top of Articlefirst year of his presidency after the National Assembly voted to impeach him for violating an election law. The Constitutional Court later overturned this decision. Roh was also criticized for resisting pump-priming measures to stimulate the economy.

Roh and his advisors all shared the serious concerns that the United States might start a war to eliminate North Korea's nuclear programs at South Korea's expense. He was encouraged to strengthen the alliance with the United States to work toward a peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue through diplomacy. At the end of his presidency, he had a fairly successful summit with Kim Jung-Il.

Lee Myung-Bak, former mayor of Seoul, was sworn in on February 25, 2008. His presidency restored conservatives to office after a decade of liberal rule. In his inaugural address, he called for a renewed spirit of self-sacrifice and vowed to apply pragmatic solutions to governing a country where inequality of wealth has created “class conflict and animosity.”

His early months in office were shadowed by an investigation of his business ties to an alleged felon, but a ruling early in his administration said there was no evidence to implicate him. He also assumed office amid a political storm over the appointees to his cabinet; some were forced to resign amid suspicions of corruption, and others had become very wealthy through real estate speculation. It appears that South Korea's bitter partisan politics will continue throughout his administration.


The DPRK is a mystifying nation. It is described as being the most secretive and isolated nation in the world, and its government is characterized as one of the most authoritarian. Although it remains difficult to obtain reliable information about the country, much can be learned from examining the leadership and policies of Kim Il-Sung. The “Great Leader” was chief of state from 1948 until his death in 1994 when his son, Kim Jong-Il, took his place and became the “Dear Leader.”

The Korean War left both sides socially and economically devastated, but the destruction was more extensive in the North as a result of the widespread use of napalm and incessant air campaigns on the part of the United States. During and after the war, Kim eliminated his enemies and rivals, and his supporters nurtured his personality cult, hailing him as a superhuman being. After 1953, Kim Il-Sung created a very strict, austere, militarized, and regimented existence for the people. While officially extolling juche (pronounced joó-chay), or self-reliance, North Korea in reality relied heavily on Soviet and Chinese economic and military support. It did receive substantial economic aid from China and the Soviet Union, but much less aid than the South received from the United States and Japan.

Kim Il-Sung stressed the reconstruction and development of major destroyed industries after the war, sacrificing the needs of consumers. The emphasis on industrialization, combined with unprecedented aid from the Soviet bloc, pushed the growth rate to 25 percent annually for the decade following the war, and for two Page 53  |  Top of Articledecades the North's growth outdistanced the South's. The achievements were so remarkable that some economists spoke of the “North Korean Miracle.”

Triumphal Arch, Pyongyang. This is a photograph of the Kim Jong-Il and Kim Dae-Jung motorcade upon arrival in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, in June 2000. Triumphal Arch, P'yongyang. This is a photograph of the Kim Jong-Il and Kim Dae-Jung motorcade upon arrival in P'yongyang, the capital of North Korea, in June 2000. (Photographed by Cheong Wa Dae, Presidential Residence of the Republic of Korea, Photographer's Press Pool)

When the Soviet Union and China became unreliable allies in the 1960s, Kim Il-Sung promoted national self-reliance; people needed to count on their own national leaders and resources to solve problems. Kim felt no hesitation in proclaiming that under juche “man is the master of everything and decides everything.” To prove that he had greater commitment and ability than anyone else, history was rewritten. It proclaimed Kim to be the originator of the Korean revolutionary movement, the founder of the People's Army, and the liberator of Korea from Japan. In order to perpetuate his legacy and prolong his revolutionary ideology, Kim Il-Sung took steps to establish his dynasty. In the early 1970s, he began to prepare his son, Kim Jong-Il, to succeed him.

North Korea was also affected by the policies of Park Chung-Hee, who proclaimed in 1961 that anticommunism was the most important principle of his administration. Park worked to develop strong ties with the United States and Japan, sent troops to support the United States in Vietnam, and received greater military and economic aid in exchange. Kim's response to these trends was to build up North Korea's military capabilities and to prepare for all-out war. Military spending rose from 4 percent to yearly averages ranging from 20 to 30 percent of the national budget. This represented a major drain on the country's resources and affected the government's ability to meet its economic objectives.

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View outside the International Friendship Exhibition Hall, Myohyang, North Korea. No photographs may be taken within the hall that contains over View outside the International Friendship Exhibition Hall, Myohyang, North Korea. No photographs may be taken within the hall that contains over 71,000 gifts given to either Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il. One may view the gift that Madeleine Albright (former U.S. secretary of state) gave to Kim Jong-Il when she visited North Korea. (Courtesy of Mary Connor)

Aware of the rapid economic development of South Korea, North Korea attempted in the 1970s a large-scale modernization program through the importation of Western technology. In 1973, Kim introduced the Three-Revolution Team movement, a mass movement based on ideological indoctrination, technical innovation, and cultural education grounded in the juche ideal. The program involved teams of individuals traveling around the country to provide political, scientific, and technical training through mass meetings. The objective was to further educate everyone in the juche ideal and to improve productivity, technology, literacy, and cultural identity. Additional campaigns involved mass political movements within the military, such as the Three-Revolution Red Flag movement.

In spite of these efforts, the DPRK defaulted on its loans from free-market economies. In 1979, it was able to renegotiate much of its international debt, but in 1980 it defaulted again on most of its loans. Largely because of these debt problems, but also because of a prolonged drought and economic mismanagement, industrial growth slowed and per capita GNP was one-third of the South's by 1979.

North Korea's problems worsened in the 1980s and 1990s. Various initiatives were established to boost the country's economic situation. Trade was opened somewhat to Page 55  |  Top of Articlethe capitalist world. The government also tried mobilizing workers to work harder, better, and faster. Since the 1970s, the DPRK has been a major arms supplier to such countries as Libya, Iran, and Syria. The collapse of the Soviet Union forced it to aggressively pursue foreign investment, relations with capitalist firms, and new zones of free trade. In spite of the economic problems and the initiatives to deal with them, the country's basic economic structure and institutions have not changed.

In 1993, U.S. intelligence predicted that North Korea might have the capacity within two years to strike South Korea and Japan with nuclear missiles. When P'yongyang refused to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect two facilities in North Korea, the IAEA turned the matter over to the UN Security Council. The United States hoped to get enough support in the Security Council to impose economic sanctions on P'yongyang, which North Korea regarded as a declaration of war. The crisis was eased in June 1994 when former U.S. president Jimmy Carter persuaded Kim to freeze the program in return for an easing of international sanctions and talks about ending North Korea's international isolation. Kim died on the eve of these talks at age 82.

Most experts predicted that the North Korean regime, struggling to reverse the country's economic decline, would not survive Kim's death. After two years of floods were followed by drought, a severe famine developed in the late 1990s that claimed an estimated 2 million people. Despite these disasters, Kim Jong-Il maintained complete control of the country. He built strong links with the army as the only sure foundation for his rule at a time of endemic food shortage and low public morale. Malnutrition and hunger continue to be a problem. Thousands of North Koreans have escaped to China or South Korea. Those who are caught attempting to flee face inhumane conditions in prison camps and execution.

In 1998, Kim Jong-Il seemed to justify the worst Western images of him when he test-fired a missile over Japan and raised suspicions regarding North Korea's nuclear ambitions. In 1999, North Korea agreed to allow the United States to conduct ongoing inspections of a suspected nuclear development site. In exchange, the United States promised to increase food aid and initiate a program to bring potato production to the country.

Tensions between North and South Korea improved dramatically in June 2000 when South Korea's president, Kim Dae-Jung, met with Kim Jong-Il in P'yongyang. The summit was the first meeting between leaders of the two countries since division in 1945. Hopes were high for reconciliation, reunification, and peace on the peninsula. North Korea agreed to freeze its existing nuclear program and to support the IAEA safeguards. The meetings included an agreement for visits between families separated since the Korean War, plans to close the gap between the two economies, and a policy to organize various cultural exchanges.

In January 2002, tensions escalated between the United States and North Korea as a result of President George Bush's “axis of evil” speech. His address marked a significant change from the policy of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who supported a policy of engagement. In October 2002, North Korea admitted that it had violated the 1994 agreement to freeze its nuclear weapons program and was in the process of developing nuclear weapons. Two months later, North Korea forced UN Page 56  |  Top of Articleweapons inspectors to leave the country and in January 2003 announced that it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States refused to negotiate with North Korea until it agreed to dismantle its nuclear program. The Six-Party Talks in 2003, 2004, and 2005 among officials from China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and the United States to resolve the crisis ended in deadlock.

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BAN KI-MOON (1944)

In 2007, Ban Ki-Moon became secretary-general of the UN, the first Asian in more than 30 years to serve in this capacity. He received his bachelor's degree from Seoul National University and his master's degree from Harvard. At the time of his selection as secretary-general, Ban was minister of foreign affairs and trade in South Korea. He has had long-standing ties with the UN and has been very actively involved in inter-Korean relations. In 2005, as foreign minister, he played a leading role in the adoption of the Six-Party Talks on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

In 2006, North Korea launched seven missiles, the first major weapons test in eight years. Later in the year when the nation conducted an underground nuclear explosive test, Bush responded by labeling the test a threat to “international peace and security” and called for sanctions against the country. What was resolved was only a temporary solution to the problem. In early 2007, North Korea came to an understanding with the six-nation negotiators that it would shut down its nuclear program, including the Yongbyon reactor, and in return would receive approximately $400 million in heavy fuel oil and economic aid, among other diplomatic incentives. Since then, North Korea shut down its nuclear weapons reactor, and IAEA inspectors verified this action. North Korea reported that it would disable its nuclear facilities and would provide an accounting of all of its nuclear programs by the end of 2007. In October 2007, in the final months of Roh Moo-Hyun's presidency, he met with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il. In this meeting, the second inter-Korean summit, the leaders agreed to collaborate on several economic projects and to move toward signing a treaty that would formally end the Korean War. However, North Korea did not fulfill its promise to give an accounting of its nuclear programs by the end of the year.

It was clear in early 2008 that the newly elected president of South Korea, Lee Myung-Bak, would use different strategies in dealing with North Korea. Lee vowed that he would not kowtow to North Korea and planned to limit inter-Korean cooperation unless the North abandoned its nuclear weapons. In May, a delayed nuclear declaration arrived in Washington, D.C.

In June 2008, in a gesture to indicate that it would now cooperate, North Korea destroyed the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear facility. There was some reason to hope that this time North Korea might end its nuclear program. Three months later, however, P'yongyang announced that it was reassembling its main Page 57  |  Top of Articlenuclear facility and blamed the United States because it had not yet removed North Korea from its list as a state sponsor of terrorism. In the same month, reports were rampant that the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, might be seriously ill or even dead. Authorities speculated on the possible implications of a regime change and the huge risks and challenges that would come with it, such as the possibility of an out-of-control North Korean military, a flood of refugees into China and South Korea, and the overall humanitarian and economic consequences of the collapse of the DPRK.

North Korea's policy of self-reliance was a reaction to the prolonged sufferings of the 20th century and the desire to maintain a distinct Korean identity. After the extreme hardships of colonialism, poverty, and civil war, juche appeared to be the means by which the nation could protect itself from the agony of the past. When the Cold War ended, this policy appeared to be out of place. It was hoped that the summit meetings between the leaders of North and South Korea in 2000 and 2007 would be positive signs of the promise of a new century—the one that will bring reconciliation, reunification, and peace to the Korean peninsula and its people. After more than half a century, the tensions and the problems related to the Korean War remain. Many Koreans question whether reunification is necessary or even inevitable.

Mary E. Connor


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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2449100012