Korean History

The Korean peninsula is located at the eastern end of Asia, between China, Siberia (now part of the Russian Federation), and the islands of Japan. Besides the obvious split between North and South Korea, cultural differences (including dialect, food, and local identity) exist between the various regions of the peninsula. Nevertheless, Korean culture is highly homogenous in comparison with China, and even Japan.
Over the last 2,000 years the Korean peninsula has been wracked by eight major invasions and countless smaller wars and incursions. Among the many invaders have been ancient Chinese kingdoms, Qidans (Khitans), Mongols, Japanese, and Manchus. In the 20th century, Korea was colonized by Japan and in the Post-WWII era was caught in the middle of conflicts between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. Despite these challenging circumstances, Koreans have managed to maintain a unique cultural identity that marks them as hardy survivors.

The Three Kingdoms:
By 400 BC Chinese records tell of formidable cultures on the peninsula. Among these early peoples were the Yemak and Puyo. By 108 BC, the Han Empire had set up several posts on the peninsula after battles with the Wiman Chosun kingdom. With the decline and fall of the Han dynasty in China, the Chinese command posts were gradually abandoned and three major kingdoms emerged on the peninsula. These three rival kingdoms were:
Koguryo (37 BC-668 AD), located on the northern half of the peninsula, and part of what is now northeast China.
Paekche (18 BC- 660 AD), located in the southwest of the peninsula.
Shilla (Silla) (57 BC-935 AD), located on the southeast of the peninsula near present-day Kyongju.
All were agricultural economies based on rice cultivation (though other grains such as wheat and millet were also raised). Trade was mostly through barter, with a limited use of shell money or Chinese coins. Transport was by horse, oxcart, and ship.
Buddhism was adopted by the northern state of Koguryo in 372 AD and in Paekche in 384 AD. Shilla, on the more remote eastern end of the peninsula did not adopt Buddhism as a state religion until 528 AD.

Unified Shilla Period (668 - 935 AD):
Shilla was able to defeat both Paekche and Koguryo in a series of wars and take control of much of the peninsula – setting up a unified state comprised of large portions of the former Three Kingdoms. The Unified Shilla era became a time of relative peace, prosperity, and cultural growth. Today, a great number of archaeological sites and artifacts from the period can be found in the former Shilla capital of Kyongju in the east of the peninsula.

Koryo Dynasty (918 - 1392 AD):
The Koryo dynasty, founded by Wong Kon, extended the borders of the defeated Unified Shilla northwards into parts of old Koguryo – Koryo is a shortened form of that name. The name “Korea” is derived from Koryo.
In the Koryo period, the government became even more complex and centralized than in Unified Shilla. The new classes that emerged in Koryo fell into six ranks in the following order of importance: 1) the royal caste group, comprised of relations to the royal clan; 2) a class of civil and military officials known as the yangban ("two classes"); 3) palace functionaries of lower official rank; 4) regional clerks and other lower government officials; 5) tax-paying free citizens, mostly peasant farmers, fishermen, artisans, etc.; 6) inferior, stigmatized people such as butchers and market hunters (who were defiled under Buddhism by taking life), itinerant peddlers, the female entertainers known as kisaeng, and slaves. Landholdings were held mostly by the upper and middle ranks.

Choson (Yi) Dynasty (1392-1910 AD)
The Choson, or Yi, dynasty lasted from 1392 until 1910. In the course of the dynasty, relations were established with Ming China; the peninsula was invaded by the Japanese in the late 16th century; their neighbors, the mighty Manchus, invaded a few decades later; Western powers threatened Korea by the mid-19th century, while Japan positioned to take control of Korea by the end of that century, which finally prompted the fall of Choson in 1910.
As the power of the Buddhist organizations was weakened, Confucianism was promoted and elaborated under the tenets of Neo-Confucianism.
The vibrant new dynasty produced outstanding rulers and scholars. Among them was the almost incomparable King Sejong, the fourth Choson monarch who reigned from 1418-1450. Known as a model king, Sejong surrounded himself with the finest scholars of the day and commissioned important research projects, including astronomy, geography, firearms and metals technology, and irrigation. Probably the most enduring project was the creation of the Hangul syllabary. Often regarded as the most scientific syllabary ever invented, the shapes of the symbols are based on abstract representations of the mouth and tongue when pronouncing the various basic sounds.
By 1910 Japan had taken Korea as a colony, with quiet acquiescence from the British and the United States who formed a secret pact with Japan to protect their own holdings in Asia.

The period between 1910 and 1945 are considered the darkest days in modern Korean history. Under the control of the imperialist empire of Japan, Korea was stripped of its natural resources (though many forests have recovered in recent years), language, media, and customs were suppressed—at one time the attempt was made to force the populace to take Japanese surnames.
Soon after the end of the Japanese empire in the summer of 1945, Korea’s fate was decided at a meeting in the eastern United States at which no Koreans attended. In a short meeting a line dividing North and South Korea was marked along the 38th parallel. The line divided the spheres of influence of the American led Allied forces and the forces of the Soviet Union, which had been posed in Siberia in hopes of taking the Japanese surrender in East Asia.

Korean War:
In 1950, the North launched a surprise attack deep into South Korean territory, pushing to the tip of the peninsula. The United Nations, led by United States forces stationed in Japan launched a counterattack with the South Korean military. After heavy fighting in freezing weather, UN forces were pushed south again, below the 38th parallel. By 1953, a cease-fire truce was called – that remains in effect today.
As time passed, the economy of North Korea improved fairly rapidly under Kim Il-sung’s “self-reliance” or ju-che policy. South Korea, under the US backed Syngman Rhee, gave way to a series of military dictators. The economy lagged behind that of North Korea until the late 1960s, when the economy began to improve under the iron fist of Park Chung-hee, who believed that economic growth comes first, then democracy. Growth was linked with strong government support for a handful of super-companies (like Samsung, Daewoo, LG, and Hyundai) known as chaebol.
By the late 1980s, the military government was replaced by democratically elected leaders. Concerns over nuclear capability in North Korea continue to strain relationships in northern East Asia. South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States are all involved in varying degrees in the power-equation of the region.


Source: By Sateesh Kumar TVS

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