The History of Korea

The History of Korea

The History of Korea

The beginning of Korea dates back to 2333 B.C., when Dangun, the legendary son of the Heavenly God and a woman from a bear-totem tribe, established the first kingdom. Historians refer to this earliest era of Korean history as the Gojoseon (Ancient Joseon) period.

Ancient Korea was characterized by clan communities that combined to form small town-states. The town-states gradually united into tribal leagues with complex political structures, which eventually grew into kingdoms. Among various tribal leagues, Goguryeo (37 B.C.- A.D. 668), situated along the middle course of the Amnokgang River (Yalu), was the first to mature into a kingdom.

Goguryeo's aggressive troops conquered neighboring tribes one after another, and in 313, they even occupied China's Lolang outposts.
Baekje (18 B.C.-A.D.660), which grew out of a town-state located south of the Hangang River in the vicinity of present-day Seoul, was another confederated kingdom similar to Goguryeo. During the reign of King Geunchogo (r. 346-375), Baekje developed into a centralized and aristocratic state.

The Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) was located the furthest south on the peninsula, and was initially the weakest and most underdeveloped of the Three Kingdoms. However, because it was geographically removed from Chinese influence, it was more open to non-Chinese practices and ideas. Its society was markedly class-oriented and later developed the unique Hwarang Corps(elite youth group) as well as an advanced Buddhist practice.
Unified Silla and Balhae

By the mid-sixth century, the Silla Kingdom had brought under its control all of the neighboring Gaya Kingdoms, a group of fortified town-states that had developed in the southeastern region of the peninsula from the mid-first century to the mid-sixth century. Silla also effected a military alliance with Tang China to subjugate the Goguryeo and Baekje Kingdoms. Subsequently, Silla fought against Tang China when the latter exposed its ambition to incorporate the territories of Goguryeo and Baekje.

Silla repelled the Chinese in 676. Then in 698, the former people of Goguryeo who resided in south-central Manchuria established the Kingdom of Balhae. Balhae included not only people of Goguryeo, but also a large Malgal population.

Silla repelled the Chinese in 676. Then in 698, the former people of Goguryeo who resided in south-central Manchuria established the Kingdom of Balhae. Balhae included not only people of Goguryeo, but also a large Malgal population.

Balhae established a government system centered around five regional capitals, which was modeled after the Goguryeo Kingdom's administrative structure. Balhae possessed an advanced culture which was rooted in that of Goguryeo.

Balhae prosperity reached its height in the first half of the ninth century with the occupation of a vast territory reaching to the Amur river in the north and Kaiyuan in south-central Manchuria to the west. It also established diplomatic ties with Turkey and Japan. Balhae existed until 926, when it was overthrown by the Khitan. Then many of the ruling class, who were mostly Koreans, moved south and joined the newly founded Goryeo Dynasty.

Silla unified the Korean Peninsula in 668 and saw the zenith of their power and prosperity in the mid-eighth century. It attempted to establish an ideal Buddhist country. The Bulguksa temple was constructed during the Unified Silla period. However, the state cult of Buddhism began to deteriorate as the nobility indulged in luxury. Also there was conflict among regional leaders who claimed authority over the occupied kingdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje. In 935, the king of Silla formally surrendered to the court of the newly founded Goryeo Dynasty.

Goryeo Despite frequent foreign invasions, the Korean Peninsula has been ruled by a single government since the Silla unification in 668 while maintaining its political independence and cultural and ethnic heritage. Both the Goryeo (918-1392) and the Joseon (1392-1910) Dynasties consolidated their authority and flourished culturally, while repelling such intruders as the Khitans, Mongols and Japanese.

The Goryeo Dynasty was founded by Wang Geon, a general who had served under Gungye, a rebel prince of the Silla Kingdom. Choosing his native town of Songak (the present-day Gaeseong in North Korea) as the capital, Wang Geon proclaimed the goal of recovering the lost territory of the Goguryeo Kingdom in northeast China.

He named his dynasty Goryeo, from which the modern name Korea is derived. Although the Goryeo Dynasty could not reclaim lost lands, it achieved a sophisticated culture represented by cheongja or blue-green celadon and flourishing Buddhist tradition. No less significant was the invention of the world's first movable metal type in 1234, which preceded Gutenberg of Germany by two centuries. About that time, Korean skilled artisans also completed the herculean task of carving the entire Buddhist canon on large woodblocks.

These woodblocks, numbering more than 80,000, were intended to invoke the influence of Buddha for the repulsion of the Mongol invaders. Called the Tripitaka Koreana, they are now stored at the historic Haeinsa temple.

In its later years, the Goryeo Dynasty was weakened by internal struggles among scholar officials and warriors, and between Confucianists and Buddhists. The Mongol incursions that began in 1231, left Goryeo as a Mongol vassal state for nearly a century despite the courageous resistance from Goryeo's people.

In 1392, General Yi Seong-gye established a new dynasty called Joseon. The early rulers of Joseon, in order to counter the dominant Buddhist influence during the Goryeo period, supported Confucianism as the guiding philosophy of the kingdom.

The Joseon rulers governed the dynasty with a well-balanced political system. A civil service examination system was the main channel for recruiting government officials. The examinations served as the backbone for social mobility and intellectual activity during the period. The Confucian-oriented society, however, highly valued academic learning while disdaining commerce and manufacturing.

During the reign of King Sejong the Great (1418-1450), Joseon's fourth monarch, Korea enjoyed an unprecedented flowering of culture and art. Under King Sejong's patronage, scholars at the royal academy created the Korean alphabet, called Hangeul. It was then called Hunminjeong-eum, or "proper phonetic system to educate the people."

King Sejong's interest in astronomical science was comprehensive. Sundials, water clocks, celestial globes and astronomical maps were produced at his request. He abdicated the throne to his son, King Munjong (1450-1452), but his death in 1452 brought an 11-year-old crown prince, Danjong, to the throne.

In 1592, Japan invaded the Joseon Dynasty to pave the way for its incursion into China. At sea, Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598), one of the most respected figures in Korean history, led a series of brilliant naval maneuvers against the Japanese, deploying the Geobukseon (turtle ships), which are believed to be the world's first iron-clad battleships.


On land, volunteer peasant fighters and contingents of Buddhist monks gallantly engaged the enemy.
The Japanese began to withdraw from Korea following the death of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The war finally ended in 1598, but had a disastrous impact upon both Korea's Joseon Dynasty and Ming China.
During the war, numerous Korean artisans and technicians, including potters, were forcibly taken to Japan.

From the early 17th Century, a movement advocating Silhak, or practical learning, gained considerable momentum among liberal-minded scholar-officials as a means of building a modern nation.

They strongly recommended agricultural and industrial improvement along with sweeping reforms in land distribution. The conservative government aristocrats, however, were not ready to accommodate such a drastic change.

In the latter half of the Joseon era, government administration and the upper classes came to be marked by recurring factionalism. To rectify the undesirable political situation, King Yeongjo (1724-1776) eventually adopted a policy of impartiality. He was thus able to strengthen the royal authority and achieve political stability.

King Jeongjo (1776-1800) maintained the policy of impartiality and set up a royal library to preserve royal documents and records. He also initiated other political and cultural reforms. This period witnessed the blossoming of Silhak. A number of outstanding scholars wrote progressive works recommending agricultural and industrial reforms, but few of their ideas were adopted by the government.

In the 19th century, Korea remained a "Hermit Kingdom," adamantly opposed to Western demands for diplomatic and trade relations. Over time, a few Asian and European countries with imperialistic ambitions competed with each other for influence over the Korean Peninsula. Japan, after winning wars against China and Russia, forcibly annexed Korea and instituted colonial rule in 1910.

Colonial rule stimulated the patriotism of Koreans. Korean intellectuals were infuriated by Japan's official assimilation policy, which even banned Korean-language education in Korean schools. On March 1, 1919, Koreans staged nationwide protests during which thousands of lives were lost.

Although it failed, the March 1 Independence Movement created strong bonds of national identity and patriotism among Koreans. The movement led to the establishment of a Provisional Government in Shanghai, China, as well as an organized armed struggle against the Japanese colonialists in Manchuria. The Independence Movement is still commemorated among Koreans every March 1, which is designated a national holiday.

The lives of Koreans deteriorated under colonial rule until Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945. During the colonial period, Japan's economic exploitation of Korea continued.

The Founding of the Republic of Korea

The Founding of the Republic of Korea

Koreans rejoiced at Japan's World War II defeat. However, their joy was short-lived. Liberation did not instantly bring about the independence for which the Koreans had fought so fiercely.

Rather, it resulted in a country divided by ideological differences caused by the emerging Cold War. Korean efforts to establish an independent government were frustrated as U.S. forces occupied the southern half of the peninsula and the Soviet troops took control of the north.

In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that called for general elections in Korea under the supervision of a U.N. Commission.

However, the Soviet Union refused to comply with the resolution and denied the U.N. Commission access to the northern half of Korea. The U.N. General Assembly then adopted another resolution calling for elections in areas accessible to the U.N. ommission. The first elections in Korea were carried out on May 10, 1948, in the areas south of the 38th parallel. This parallel came to divide the Korean Peninsula into north and south.

Syngman Rhee was elected the first President of the Republic of Korea in 1948. Meanwhile, north of the 38th parallel, a Communist regime was set up under the leadership of Kim Il-sung.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion of the South, triggering a three-year war which was joined by U.S., Chinese and other foreign forces. The entire peninsula was devastated by the conflict. A cease-fire was signed in July 1953.

The war left almost three million Koreans dead or wounded and millions of others homeless and separated from their families. Serious social disorder continued under the government of President Syngman Rhee

Korea's democracy was not mature at the time, and the country experienced tremendous political and economic difficulties.
President Rhee stepped down in April 1960 as a result of a student-led uprising. The Second Republic was established as Chang Myon of the Democratic Party formed a government in August 1960.

However, the new government was brought down by a coup d'etat led by Major General Park Chung-hee on May 16, 1961.
The Supreme Council for National Reconstruction headed by General Park took over the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of the government.

Park became President in an election in 1963. Park's government pursued rapid industrialization and achieved high economic growth during the 1960s and 70s, often dubbed "the Miracle on the Hangang River," but his rule was accompanied by severe restriction of people's political rights and civil liberties.

The assassination of President Park in October 1979 brought a transition period under martial law. Choi Kyu-hah, who was installed as a caretaker President, resigned in August 1980, and Chun Doo-hwan, leader of a powerful officers' group, was elected President by the National Conference for Unification, an electoral college.

Pro-democracy movements intensified throughout the 1980s and presidential election by direct popular vote was restored in a constitutional revision in 1987.

Roh Tae-woo, also a former general, was elected President under the new Constitution but the democratic advances achieved during his administration set the stage for the election of the first civilian president in 32 years.

Kim Young-sam, a long-time pro-democracy activist, was elected president in 1992 on the ruling party ticket.

In the 1997 presidential election, Kim Dae-jung, leader of the major opposition National Congress for New Politics (NCNP), was elected. His administration, called the "Government of the People," was created through the first-ever peaceful transfer of power from the ruling to an opposition party in Korean constitutional history.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration, or the "Participatory Government," was launched on February 25 2003. he Roh administration, the 16th in the republic's history, set forth three goals: "Democracy with the People," "Society of Balanced Development," and "Era of Peace and Prosperity in Northeast Asia."

The Roh Moo-hyun government was born by the strength of the people's power. The voluntary fund-raising and election campaigns by those citizens who cherish principles and commonsense led to Roh's victory in the presidential election. First and foremost, the Roh government was created on the basis of the power of popular participation. As such, popular participation will play a pivotal role in the future operation of the government, as it did during its birth.