South Korea History

Early History

As is true of all countries, Korea’s geography was a major factor in shaping its history; geography also influenced the manner in which the inhabitants of the peninsula emerged as a people sharing the common feeling of being Koreans. The Korean Peninsula protrudes southward from the northeastern corner of the Asian continent and is surrounded on three sides by large expanses of water. Although Japan is not far from the southern tip of this landmass, in ancient times events on the peninsula were affected far more by the civilisations and political developments on the contiguous Asian continent than by those in Japan

Because the Yalu and Tumen rivers have long been recognised as the border between Korea and China, it is easy to assume that these rivers have always constituted Korea’s northern limits. But such was not the case in the ancient period. Neither of the rivers was considered to be sacrosanct by the ancient tribes that dotted the plains of Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. Because the rivers freeze in the winter, large armies were able to traverse them with ease. Even when the rivers were not frozen, armies equipped with iron tools could easily build ships to cross them.

The Korean people trace their origins to the founding of the state of Choson. Choson rose on the banks of the Taedong River in the northwestern corner of the peninsula and prospered as a civilisation possessing a code of law and a bronze culture. The Choson people gradually extended their influence not only over other tribes in the vicinity, but also to the north, conquering most of the Liaodong Basin. However, the rising power of the feudal state of Yen in northern China (1122-225 B.C.) not only checked Choson’s growth, but eventually pushed it back to the territory south of the Ch’ongch’on River, located midway between the Yalu and Taedong rivers. The Chinese had discovered iron by this time and used it extensively in farming and warfare; the Choson people were not able to match them. Yen became established in the territory vacated by Choson.

Meanwhile, much of what subsequently came to constitute China proper had been unified for the first time under Qin Shi Huangdi. Subsequently, Yen fell to the Qin state; the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.) was in turn replaced by a new dynasty, the Han (206 B.C.- A.D. 220). In 195 B.C. a former officer of Yen took over the throne of Choson by trickery, after which he and his descendants ruled the kingdom for eighty years; but in 109-108 B.C. China attacked Choson and destroyed it as a political entity. The Han Chinese then ruled the territory north of the Han River as the Four Eastern Districts; the original territory of Choson became Lolang (or Nangnang in Korean). (North Korean historians have argued that the Lolang District was located more to the northwest of the Korean Peninsula, perhaps near Beijing. This theory, however, has not been universally accepted.) Until the Han period the Korean Peninsula had been a veritable Chinese colony. During some 400 years, Lolang, the core of the colony, had become a great center of Chinese art, philosophy, industry, and commerce. Many Chinese immigrated into the area; the influence of China extended beyond the territory it administered. The tribal states south of the Han River paid tribute to the Chinese and patterned much of their civilisation and government after Chinese models.

The Three Kingdoms

The territory south of the Han River is relatively distant from the Asian continent; hence, the people living there were initially able to develop independently, without much involvement with events on the continent. The early settlers of this region gradually organised themselves into some seventy clan states that were in turn grouped into three tribal confederations known as Chinhan, Mahan, and Pyonhan. Chinhan was situated in the middle part of the peninsula, Mahan in the southwest, and Pyonhan in the southeast. Their economies were predominantly agricultural, and their level of development was such that they built reservoirs and irrigation facilities. These tribal states began to be affected by what was happening in the region north of the Han River around the first century B.C.

About the middle of the third century A.D., the Chinese threat began to serve as a unifying political force among the loose confederations of tribes in the southern part of the peninsula. Adopting the Chinese political system as a model, the tribes eventually merged into two kingdoms, thereby increasing their chances of survival against Chinese expansionism. The two kingdoms eventually came to play an important role in Korean history.

Geographic features of the southern parts of the land, in particular the configuration of mountain ranges, caused two kingdoms to emerge rather than one. In the central part of Korea, the main mountain range, the T’aebaek Range, runs north to south along the edge of the Sea of Japan, which lies off the east coast of the peninsula. Approximately three-fourths of the way down the peninsula, however, at roughly the thirty-seventh parallel, the mountain range veers southwest, dividing the peninsula almost in the middle. This extension, the Sobaek Range, proved politically significant; the tribes west of it were not shielded by any natural barriers against the Chinese-occupied portion of the peninsula, whereas those to the southeast were protected. Moreover, the presence of the mountains prevented the tribes in the two regions from establishing close contacts.

The tribal states in the southwest were the first to unite, calling their centralised kingdom Paekche. This process occurred in the mid-third century A.D., after the Chinese army of the Wei Dynasty (A.D. 220-65), which controlled Lolang, threatened the tribes in A.D. 245. The Silla Kingdom evolved in the southeast. Silla historians traced the kingdom’s origin to 57 B.C., but contemporary historians regard King Naemul (A.D. 356-402) as having been the earliest ruler. Some of the tribal states in the area of the lower Naktong River, along the south central coast of the peninsula, did not join either of these kingdoms. Under the name Kaya, they formed a league of walled city-states that conducted extensive coastal trade and also maintained close ties with the tribal states in western Japan. Sandwiched between the more powerful Silla and Paekche, Kaya eventually was absorbed by its neighbours during the sixth century.

The northern kingdom of Koguryo emerged from among the indigenous people along the banks of the Yalu River. The Han Chinese seized the area in 108 B.C., but from the beginning Chinese rulers confronted many uprisings against their rule. Starting from a point along the Hun River (a tributary of the Yalu), the rebels expanded their activities to the north, south, and southeast, increasingly menacing Chinese authority. By A.D. 53 Koguryo had coalesced into an independent centralized kingdom; the subsequent fall of the Han Dynasty and ensuing political divisions in China enabled Koguryo to consolidate and extend its power.

Despite repeated attacks by Chinese and other opposition forces, by 391 the kingdom’s rulers had achieved undisputed control of all of Manchuria east of the Liao River as well as of the northern and central regions of the Korean Peninsula. Koguryo’s best-known ruler, King Kwanggaet’o–whose name literally means “broad expander of territory”–lived to be only thirty-nine years of age, but reigned twenty-one years, from 391 to 412. During that period, Kwanggaet’o conquered 65 walled cities and 1,400 villages, in addition to aiding Silla when it was attacked by the Japanese. His accomplishments are recorded on a monument erected in 414 in southern Manchuria. Koguryo moved its capital to P’yongyang in 427 and ruled the territory north of the Han River. But Koguryo’s expansion caused it to come into conflict with the Sui Dynasty of China (581-617) in the west and Silla, which was beginning to expand northward, in the south.

Although Koguryo had been strong enough to repulse the forces of the Sui Dynasty, combined attacks by Silla and the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907) proved too formidable. Koguryo’s ally in the southwest, Paekche, fell before Tang and Silla in 660; the victorious allies continued their assault on Koguryo for the next eight years and eventually vanquished the weary kingdom, which had been suffering from a series of famines and internal strife.

Silla thus unified Korea in 668, but the kingdom’s reliance on China’s Tang Dynasty had its price. Eventually, Silla had to forcibly resist the imposition of Chinese rule over the entire peninsula, which Silla’s rulers did, but their strength did not extend beyond the Taedong River. Much of the former Koguryo territory was given up to the Chinese and to other tribal states. It remained for later dynasties to push the border northward to the Yalu and Tumen rivers.

Silla Dynasty

The first 215 years of the Silla Dynasty were marked by the establishment of new political, legal, and education institutions of considerable vigor. Domestic and foreign trade (with Tang China and Japan) prospered. Scholarship in Confucian learning, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine also flourished. Buddhism, introduced to the peninsula in A.D. 372, reached its zenith. Silla began to decline, however, in the latter part of the eighth century when rebellions began to shake its foundations. By the latter half of the ninth century, two rivals had emerged. The chaotic situation eventually led to the emergence of a new Koryo Dynasty in 918 under a former officer, Wang Kon.

Koryo Dynasty

The founder of Koryo and his heirs consolidated control over the peninsula and strengthened its political and economic foundations by more closely following the bureaucratic and landgrant systems of Tang China. The rise of the Kitan Liao tribe in the north, however, threatened the new dynasty. The Liao invaded in 1010; Koryo was engulfed in devastating wars for a decade. After peace was restored, Koryo’s inhabitants witnessed nearly a century of thriving commercial, intellectual, and artistic activities parallel to those taking place under the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in China. The Koryo leaders actively sought to imitate the Song’s advanced culture and technology. In turn, the Song looked upon Koryo as a potential ally against the tribal invaders to whom it had been forced to abandon northern China in 1127. Stimulated by the rise of printing in Song China, Koryo also made great headway in printing and publication, leading to the invention of movable metal type in 1234, two centuries before the introduction of movable type in Europe.

By the twelfth century, Koryo was plagued by internal and external problems. Power struggles and avariciousness among the ruling classes led to revolts by their subjects. The situation was aggravated by the rise in the north of the Mongols, who launched a massive invasion in 1231. The Koryo armies put up fierce resistance but were no match for the highly organised mounted troops from the north, whose forces swept most of the Eurasian continent during this period.

The Mongol Empire under Khublai Khan enlisted Koryo in its expeditions against Japan, mustering thousands of Korean men and ships for ill-fated invasions in 1274 and 1281. In each instance, seasonal typhoons shattered the Mongol-Koryo fleets, giving rise to the myth of kamikaze, or the “divine wind.” Korea, in the meantime, was completely under Mongol domination. Koryo kings married Mongol princesses. Only in the early fourteenth century, when the Mongol Empire began to disintegrate and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)–founded by a former Chinese peasant–pushed the Mongols back to the north, did Koryo regain its independence. In 1359 and 1361, however, Koryo suffered invasions by a large number of Chinese rebel armies, known as the Red Banner Bandits, who sacked and burned the capital at Kaesong, just north of the mouth of the Han River. The country was left in ruins.

As the Mongols retreated to the north and the Ming established a garrison in the northeastern part of the Korean Peninsula, the Koryo court was torn between pro-Ming and pro-Mongol factions. General Yi Song-gye, who had been sent to attack the Ming forces in the Liaodong region of Manchuria, revolted at the Yalu and turned his army against his own capital, seizing it with ease. Yi took the throne in 1392, founding Korea’s most enduring dynasty. The new state was named Choson, the same name used by the first Korean kingdom fifteen centuries earlier, although the later entity usually has been called simply the Choson Dynasty or the Yi Dynasty. The capital of Choson was at Seoul.

The Choson Dynasty

The Koryo Dynasty had suffered from a number of internal problems; Yi and his followers implemented drastic reforms to place the new dynasty on firmer ground. One of these problems revolved around the deterioration of land administration, a basic issue in a predominantly agrarian society. Contrary to the law specifying public (governmental) ownership of land, powerful clans and Buddhist temples had acquired a sizable proportion of farmland. By exacting a disproportionate share of crops in the form of rents, the “landlords” were causing economic destitution and social discontent among the peasants. By illicitly removing the farms from tax rolls, these clans and temples reduced the government’s income, thus straining the treasury. Yi had sided with reformists even before he took power, hence it was natural for him to rectify past inequities after ascending to the throne.

The reform of the land system, however, had direct repercussions on the practice of Buddhism, because Buddhist temples and monks had been among those exacerbating the land problem. The economic influence of the temples was eliminated when they lost vast lands. The rectification went beyond economic reform, however, because the dominant forces in the new dynasty were devout Confucianists who regarded Buddhism as a false creed. The fact that Buddhist monks had wielded a strong influence in politics, the economy, and society during the latter part of the Koryo Dynasty–and that many of them had been corrupted by power and money–strengthened the opposition to Buddhism. Accordingly, the new dynasty launched a sweeping attack on Buddhism and its institutions, an attack that had profound and enduring effects on the character of civilisation on the peninsula.

Many of the outstanding temples were permitted to remain intact; indeed, a few Choson monarchs were devout Buddhists. Nevertheless, Buddhism exerted little influence over the religious life of Korea under the Choson Dynasty; nor did any organised religion replace it. Although many people adhered to shamanism, geomancy, fortunetelling, and superstitions, Korea effectively became a secular society.

The Choson Dynasty had an auspicious beginning. During the reign of the fourth monarch, King Sejong (1418-50), a Buddhist, enormous strides were made in the arts, science, and technology. The Korean script, known as han’gul, which eventually came into common usage in the twentieth century, was developed by scholars at that time.

After Sejong, however, the dynasty fell into the hands of lesser men, and in the late fifteenth century the country began a long decline. Succession to the throne often caused long and bitter struggles, particularly when a ruler did not leave behind an heir who had reached the age of majority. Members of the Confucian-educated, scholar-official elite yangban class quarreled over minor points of Confucian ritual and etiquette, especially the proper period of mourning upon the death of a royal personage. Factional groups began vying for power, frequently going to the extreme of exterminating the members of defeated factions. The civil service examination became a sham, and corruption ran rampant. Royal relatives and members of powerful factions increased their landholdings, which became exempt from taxes and thereby reduced the dynasty’s sources of revenue. The farmers suffered more and more from tax burdens and other extractions imposed by greedy officials and landlords. In short, the country was not being effectively governed. To make matters worse, Japanese attacks in 1592 and 1597 and Manchu assaults in 1627 and 1636 ravaged the country’s economy and turned much of the farmland to waste for a long period thereafter.

The resulting social and economic depression of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fostered the rise of a new intellectual movement advocating the practical use of human knowledge. Pioneered by a Confucian scholar named Yi Su-kwang, the new thought–soon to be called Sirhak (practical learning)–was partly inspired by the firsthand knowledge of occidental sciences that Yi Su-kwang had acquired while on official visits to Beijing. As historian Ki-baik Lee has noted, Sirhak thought encompassed a variety of intellectual activities and several diverse viewpoints. These included proposals for refinement of the traditional administrative and land systems, advocacy of commercial and manufacturing activity, and a renewed interest in Korean history and language. Brought to maturity in the late eighteenth century by Chong Yag-yong, the Sirhak Movement was supported by a group of discontented scholars, petty officials, former bureaucrats and commoners.

The Sirhak Movement found itself in direct confrontation with the dominant trend in neo-Confucian thought, which stressed the metaphysical and abstract teachings of the renowned Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi. Neither the efforts of such wise and able kings as Yongjo (1725-75) and Chongjo (1776-1800), nor those of the Sirhak scholars, were able to reverse the trend against empirical studies and good government

Western ideas, including Christianity, reached Korea through China in the seventeenth century. By 1785, however, the government had become incensed over the rejection of ancestor worship by Roman Catholic missionaries, and it banned all forms of Western learning. Western ships began to approach Korean shores after 1801, seeking trade and other contacts, but the government rejected all overtures from abroad. When news of the Opium War in China (1839-42) reached Korea, the dynasty had all the more reason to shut the doors tightly against Western “barbarians.” In the meantime, the Choson Dynasty suffered from a series of natural calamities including floods, famines and epidemics, as well as large-scale revolts of the masses in the northwest (1811-12) and southwest (1862 and 1894-95).

The expansion of Western powers in East Asia in the nineteenth century significantly altered the established order, in which Korea had been dominated by China. China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was in decline; its power waned rapidly under the concerted attacks of such Western nations as France, Britain and Russia. Stimulated by these events, Japan proceeded to modernise after having been forced to open its ports by Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy in 1853-54. Korea, however, remained dormant, having closed itself to all outside contacts in the early eighteenth century.

The Japanese were the first foreign power in recent history to succeed in penetrating Korea’s isolation. After a warlike Japanese provocation against Korea in 1875 (when China failed to come to Korea’s aid), the Japanese forced an unequal treaty on Korea in February 1876. The treaty gave Japanese nationals extraterritorial rights and opened up three Korean ports to Japanese trade. In retaliation, China sought to counter Japan by extending Korea’s external relations and playing off one Western power against another. Accordingly, Korea signed treaties with the United States, Britain, Italy, Russia and other countries were signed within the decade after the one with Japan.

Internally, the Korean court split into rival pro-Chinese, pro-Japanese and pro-Russian factions, the latter two having more reformist and modernising orientations. In 1895 the Japanese minister to Korea masterminded the assassination of the Korean queen, who with her clan had opposed reform-oriented, Japanese-supported leaders. The Korean king, however, rejected not only Japan but also the various reform measures and turned for support to one of Japan’s adversaries–Russia. The king fled to the Russian legation in Seoul to avoid possible Japanese plots against him and conducted the nation’s business from there. The Japanese blunder had served the Russians well.

In the meantime, under the leadership of So Chae-p’il, who had exiled himself to the United States after participating in an unsuccessful palace coup in 1884, a massive campaign was launched to advocate Korean independence from foreign influence and controls. As well as supporting Korean independence, So also advocated reform in Korea’s politics and customs in line with Western practices. Upon his return to Korea in 1896, So published Tongnip simmun (The Independent), the first newspaper to use the han’gul writing system and the vernacular language, which attracted an ever-growing audience. He also organised the Independence Club to introduce Korea’s elite to Western ideas and practices. Under his impetus and the influence of education provided by Protestant mission schools, hundreds of young men held mass meetings on the streets and plazas demanding democratic reforms and an end to Russian and Japanese domination. But the conservative forces proved to be too deeply entrenched for the progressive reformers who trashed the paper’s offices. The reformers, including Syngman Rhee, then a student leader, were jailed. So was compelled to return to the United States in 1898, and under one pretext or another the government suppressed both the reform movement and its newspaper.

The revolt of 1894-95, known as the Tonghak Rebellion, had international repercussions. Like the Taiping rebels in China thirty years earlier, the Tonghak participants were fired by religious fervour as well as by indignation about the corrupt and oppressive government. The rebellion spread from the southwest to the central region of the peninsula, menacing Seoul. The Korean court apparently felt unable to cope with the rebels and invited China to send troops to quell the rebellion. This move gave Japan a pretext to dispatch troops to Korea. The two countries soon engaged in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), which accelerated the demise of the Qing Dynasty in China.

The victorious Japanese established their hegemony over Korea via the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) and dictated to the Korean government a wide-ranging series of measures to prevent further domestic disturbances. In response, the government promulgated various reforms, including the abolition of class distinctions, the liberation of slaves, the abolition of the ritualistic civil service examination system and the adoption of a new tax system.

Russian influence had been on the rise in East Asia, in direct conflict with the Japanese desire for expansion. In alliance with France and Germany, Russia had just forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula to China (which Japan had seized during the First Sino-Japanese War) and then promptly leased the territory from China. The secret Sino-Russian treaty signed in 1896 also gave the Russians the right to build and operate the Chinese Eastern Railway across northern Manchuria, which served as a link in the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. Russia proceeded to acquire numerous concessions over Korea’s forests and mines.

The strategic rivalry between Russia and Japan exploded in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, won by Japan. Under the peace treaty signed in September 1905, Russia acknowledged Japan’s “paramount political, military, and economic interest” in Korea. A separate agreement signed in secret between the United States and Japan at this time subsequently aroused anti-American sentiment among Koreans. The Taft-Katsura Agreement was cynical by modern standards, exchanging what amounted to a lack of interest and military capability in Korea on the part of the United States (Japan was given a free hand in Korea) for a lack of interest or capability in the Philippines on the part of Japan (Japanese imperialism was diverted from the Philippines). Given the diplomatic conventions of the times, however, the agreement was a much weaker endorsement of the Japanese presence in Korea than either the Russo-Japanese peace treaty or a separate Anglo- Japanese accord. Two months later, Korea was obliged to become a Japanese protectorate. Thereafter, a large number of Koreans organised themselves in education and reform movements, but by then Japanese dominance in Korea was a reality. Japan annexed Korea as a colony on August 22, 1910.

Japanese-ruled Korea

Korea underwent drastic changes under Japanese rule. Even before the country was formally annexed by Japan in 1910, the Japanese caused the last ruling monarch, King Kojong, to abdicate the throne in 1907 in favour of his feeble son, who was soon married off to a Japanese woman and given a Japanese peerage. Japan then governed Korea under a residency general and subsequently under a governor general directly subordinate to Japanese prime ministers. All of the governor generals were high-ranking Japanese military officers.

In theory the Koreans, as subjects of the Japanese emperor, enjoyed the same status as the Japanese; but in fact the Japanese government treated the Koreans as a conquered people. Until 1921 they were not allowed to publish their own newspapers or to organise political or intellectual groups.

Nationalist sentiments gave rise to a Korean student demonstration in Japan, and on March 1, 1919, to a Proclamation of Independence by a small group of leaders in Seoul. With the consolidation of what became known as the March First Movement, street demonstrations led by Christian and Ch’ondogyo (a movement that evolved from Tonghak) groups erupted throughout the country to protest Japanese rule.

In the wake of the protest, Japan granted considerable latitude to Korea. As historians have noted, the ensuing intellectual and social ferment of the 1920s marked a seminal period in modern Korean history. Many developments of the period, including the organisation of labour unions and other social and economic movements, had continuing influence into the postliberation period. In the 1930s, however, the ascendancy of the military in Japanese politics reversed the change. Particularly after 1937, when Japan launched the Second SinoJapanese War (1937-45) against China, the colonial government decided on a policy of mobilising the entire country for the cause of the war. Not only was the economy reorganised onto a war footing, but the Koreans were to be totally assimilated as Japanese. The government also began to enlist Korean youths in the Japanese army as volunteers in 1938, and as conscripts in 1943. Worship at Shinto shrines became mandatory, and every attempt at preserving Korean identity was discouraged.

The Korean economy also underwent significant change. Japan’s initial colonial policy was to increase agricultural production in Korea to meet Japan’s growing need for rice. Japan had also begun to build large-scale industries in Korea in the 1930s as part of the empire-wide program of economic self-sufficiency and war preparation. Between 1939 and 1941, the manufacturing sector represented 29 percent of Korea’s total economic production. The primary industries–agriculture, fishing, and forestry–occupied only 49.6 percent of total economic production during that period, in contrast to having provided 84.6 percent of total production between 1910 and 1912.

The economic development taking place under Japanese rule, however, brought little benefit to the Koreans. Virtually all industries were owned either by Japan-based corporations or by Japanese corporations in Korea. As of 1942, Korean capital constituted only 1.5 percent of the total capital invested in Korean industries. Korean entrepreneurs were charged interest rates 25 percent higher than their Japanese counterparts, so it was difficult for Korean enterprises to emerge. More and more farmland was taken over by the Japanese, and an increasing proportion of Korean farmers either became sharecroppers or migrated to Japan or Manchuria. As greater quantities of Korean rice were exported to Japan, per capita consumption of rice among the Koreans declined; between 1932 and 1936, per capita consumption of rice declined to half the level consumed between 1912 and 1916. Although the government imported coarse grains from Manchuria to augment the Korean food supply, per capita consumption of food grains in 1944 was 35 percent below that of 1912 to 1916.

Under Japanese rule, intellectual influences different from traditional Buddhist, Confucianist and shamanistic beliefs flooded the country. Western-style painting was introduced, and literary trends, even among writers who emphasized themes of social protest and national independence, tended to follow Japanese and European models, particularly those developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The works of Russian, German, French, British, American, and Japanese authors were read by the more educated Koreans, and Korean writers increasingly adopted Western ideas and literary forms. Social and political themes were prominent. Tears of Blood, the first of the “new novels,” published by Yi In-jik in serial form in a magazine in 1906, stressed the need for social reform and cultural enlightenment, following Western and Japanese models. Yi Kwang-su’s The Heartless, published in 1917, stressed the need for mass education, Western science, and the repudiation of the old family and social system. Ch’ae Man-sik’s Ready Made Life, published in 1934, protested the injustices of colonial society.

In the 1920s and 1930s, socialist ideas began to influence the development of literature. In 1925 left-wing artists, rejecting the romanticism of many contemporary writers, established the Korean Proletarian Artists’ Federation, which continued until it was suppressed by Japanese authorities in 1935. One of the best representatives of this group was Yi Ki-yong, whose 1936 novel Home tells of the misery of villagers under Japanese rule and the efforts of the protagonist, a student, to organise them. Poets during the colonial period included Yi Sang-hwa, Kim So-wol, and Han Yong-un. But the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War marked a period of unprecedented repression in the cultural sphere by Japanese authorities, which continued until Korea’s liberation in 1945.

From the late 1930s until 1945, the colonial government pursued a policy of assimilation whose primary goal was to force the Koreans to speak Japanese and to consider themselves Japanese subjects. In 1937 the Japanese governor general ordered that all instruction in Korean schools be in Japanese and that students not be allowed to speak Korean either inside or outside of school. In 1939 another decree “encouraged” Koreans to adopt Japanese names, and by the following year it was reported that 84 percent of all Korean families had done so. During the war years Korean-language newspapers and magazines were shut down. Belief in the divinity of the Japanese emperor was encouraged, and Shinto shrines were built throughout the country. Had Japanese rule not ended in 1945, the fate of indigenous Korean language, culture and religious practices would have been extremely uncertain.

Japanese rule was harsh, particularly after the Japanese militarists began their expansionist drive in the 1930s. Internal Korean resistance, however, virtually ceased in the 1930s as the police and the military gendarmes imposed strict surveillance over all people suspected of subversive inclinations and meted out severe punishment against recalcitrants. Most Koreans opted to pay lip service to the colonial government. Others actively collaborated with the Japanese. The treatment of collaborators became a sensitive and sometimes violent issue during the years immediately following liberation.

Post World War II

At the end of World War II, American and Soviet troops occupied the southern and northern halves of Korea, respectively, dividing the peninsula at the 38th parallel. Despite promises of an independent and unified Korea in the 1943 Cairo Declaration, this eventually led to the establishment of two separate governments: the communist North and the capitalist South. The Soviet Union promptly installed Kim Il-sung as the North Korean premier. While many Koreans wanted a national election to choose a leader for the whole country, the Communists refused to participate in elections by blocking entry into North Korea. Democratic elections were held in South Korea only, and Syngman Rhee was elected president. The Republic of Korea was the sole legitimate government of Korea recognised by the United Nations at that time.

The prospect of perpetuating the division of Korea catapulted some of the southern political leaders to action, significantly altering the political configuration there. The choice they faced was between immediate independence at the price of indefinite division, or postponement of independence until the deadlock between the United States and the Soviet Union was resolved. Rhee had campaigned actively within Korea and the United States for the first alternative since June 1946. Other major figures in the right-wing camp, including Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik, decided to oppose the “separate elections” in the south, hoping to resolve the international impasse by holding talks with their northern counterparts. The group led by the two Kims made their way to P’yongyang, the future capital of North Korea, in April 1948, boycotted the May 1948 elections, and were discredited when P’yongyang cut off electricity, leaving Rhee a clear field though he lacked grass roots support apart from the Korean Democratic Party. By this time, the communists in the south had lost much of their political following, particularly after a serious riot in October 1946; most of their leaders congregated in the north. The moderate left-wing camp was in disarray after their leader, Yo Un-hyong, was assassinated in July 1947. Kim Kyu-sik had been the clear choice of the United States military government, but he could not be dissuaded from his fruitless trip to P’yongyang.

The National Assembly elected in May 1948 adopted a constitution setting forth a presidential form of government and specifying a four-year term for the presidency. Syngman Rhee, whose supporters had won the elections, became head of the new assembly. On this basis, when on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was proclaimed, Rhee assumed the presidency. Four days after the proclamation, communist authorities completed the severing of north-south ties by shutting off power transmission to the south. Within less than a month, a communist regime, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), was proclaimed under Premier Kim Il Sung, who claimed authority over the entire country by virtue of elections conducted in the north and the underground elections allegedly held in the south. Rhee scarcely had time to put his political house in order before North Korea launched its attack on South Korea in June 1950.

The South Korean army had come into being in September, 1948. A communist-led revolt of army regiments in the southern part of the peninsula in October of the same year, known as the YosuSunch ‘on rebellion, had consumed much of the army’s attention and resources, however, and a massive purge in the aftermath of that revolt weakened the entire military establishment. Given South Korea’s precarious future and the communist victory in China, the United States was not eager to provide support. By June 29, 1949, United States occupation forces had been withdrawn, save for a handful of military advisers, and Korea had been placed outside of the United States defense perimeter.

The Korean War

In the meantime, the communists had built a formidable political and military structure in North Korea under the aegis of the Soviet command. They had created a regional Five-Province Administrative Bureau in October 1945, which was reorganised into the North Korean Provisional People’s Committee in February 1946 and shed the “Provisional” component of its name twelve months later. The communists also expanded and consolidated their party’s strength by merging all of the left-wing groups into the North Korean Workers’ Party in August 1946. Beginning in 1946, the armed forces also were organised and reinforced. Between 1946 and 1949, large numbers of North Korean youths–at least 10,000–were taken to the Soviet Union for military training. A draft was instituted, and in 1949 two divisions–40,000 troops–of the former Korean Volunteer Army in China, who had trained under the Chinese communists, and had participated in the Chinese civil war (1945-49), returned to North Korea.

On June 25, 1950, the North invaded the South at the instigation of Stalin, tacitly approved by Mao Zedong. Thus began a bloody war that caused the deaths of more than 4 million civilians and soldiers alike, now referred to as the Korean War. The United Nations intervened on behalf of South Korea when it became apparent that the superior Communist forces would easily take over the entire country. The Soviet Union and China backed North Korea, with China sending millions of troops across the border. On 27 June, US president Harry S. Truman ordered US air and naval units into combat, and three days later, US ground forces were sent into battle. The United Kingdom took similar action, and a multinational UN Command was created to join with and lead South Korea in its struggle against the invasion. Meanwhile, North Korean troops had pushed into the southeast corner of the peninsula. At that juncture, however, UN lines held firm, and an amphibious landing at Inch’on (15 September 1950) in South Korea under General Douglas MacArthur brought about the complete disintegration of the North Korean army. MacArthur, commanding the UN forces, made a fateful decision to drive northward. As the UN forces approached the Yalu River, however, China warned that it would not tolerate a unification of the peninsula under US/UN auspices. After several weeks of threats and feints, “volunteers” from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army entered the fighting en masse, forcing MacArthur into a costly, pell-mell retreat back down the peninsula. Seoul was lost again (4 January 1951) and then regained before the battle line became stabilised very nearly along the 38th parallel. There it remained for two weary years, with bitter fighting but little change, while a cease-fire agreement was negotiated.

The war eventually reached a stalemate. The 1953 armistice split the peninsula along the demilitarised zone at about the original demarcation line. No peace treaty was ever signed, however, and therefore the two countries are technically still at war.

The war left indelible marks on the Korean Peninsula and the world surrounding it. The entire peninsula was reduced to rubble; casualties on both sides were enormous. The chances for peaceful unification had been remote even before 1950, but the war dashed all such hopes. Sizable numbers of South Koreans who either had been sympathetic or indifferent to communism before the war became avowed anti-communists afterwards. The war also intensified hostilities between the communist and non-communist camps in the accelerating East-West arms race. Moreover, a large number of Chinese volunteer troops remained in North Korea until October 1958, and China began to play an increasingly important role in Korean affairs. Because tension on the Korean Peninsula remained high, the United States continued to station troops in South Korea, over the strenuous objections of North Korean leaders. The war also spurred Japan’s industrial recovery and the United States’ decision to rearm Japan.

Post Korean War

In 1960, a student uprising led to the resignation of president Syngman Rhee, whose government had become autocratic and corrupt. Then followed a period of profound civil unrest and general political instability. General Park Chung-hee led a military coup (the “5.16 Revolution”) against the weak and ineffectual government the following year. Park took over as president from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, overseeing rapid export-led economic growth as well as severe political repression.

The junta under Park Chung Hee quickly consolidated its power, removed those it considered corrupt and unqualified from government and army positions, and laid plans for the future. The thirty-two-member Supreme Council for National Reconstruction (SCNR) became all-powerful.

The Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) was created in June 1961 to prevent a countercoup and to suppress all potential enemies. It was to have not only investigative power, but also the power to arrest and detain anyone suspected of wrongdoing or harbouring anti-junta sentiments. The KCIA extended its power to economic and foreign affairs under its first director, Colonel (retired) Kim Chong-p’il, a relative of Park and one of the original planners of the coup against Chang.

In May 1961, the junta pledged to make an all-out effort to build a self-reliant economy and to carry out a “great human revolution” by wiping out all corruption and evil practices in the government and by introducing a “fresh and clean morality.” The National Assembly was dissolved and high-level civilian officials were replaced by military officers. By 1963 the junta’s economic policies had not produced any favourable results. The KCIA under Kim Chong-p’il was involved in a number of scandals that considerably tarnished the junta’s image. The military leaders had worked actively to establish a political party, later known as the Democratic Republican Party (DRP), which existed from 1963 to 1980, preparation for the return of politics to the civilians–but former politicians were prohibited from engaging in organisational activities. Park announced in February 1963 that he would not participate in civilian politics. The following month, however, he announced a popular referendum to decide whether the junta should extend its rule for another four years. Facing stiff opposition from both the South Korean public and the United States, the plan for a referendum was cancelled.

The year following Park’s assassination was marked by considerable political turmoil as the previously repressed opposition leaders all clamored to run for the presidential office. In 1980, General Chun Doo-hwan launched a coup d’etat against the transitional government of Choi Gyu Hwa, the former prime minister under Park and interim president, to assume the presidency. Chun’s seizure of power triggered particularly violent protests in Gwangju, South Cholla province, where protesters raided police stations and military compounds to seize weapons. Chun sent in the special forces to suppress the uprising, which is now termed the Gwangju Massacre. Chun stated his intent to serve only a single term from the outset and eventually allowed direct presidential elections in 1988 under pressure from widespread popular demonstrations. That year, Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. South Korea’s economic development was also largely due to the many large, family owned businesses within the country, which came to be known as Chaebols. Some of the most famous and richest Chaebols include Samsung, LG and Hyundai.

In 1996, South Korea became a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. By 1997 (Asian financial crisis), many of the large Chaebols reported serious problems with debt. A portion of Kia Group, a major manufacturer of automobiles, was nationalised to prevent bankruptcy. Increased domestic economic instability coupled with economic crisis sweeping through Asia, led to a severe decline in the value of the currency. The ensuing financial panic coincided with presidential elections on 18 December 1997, the month that negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began. In the election Kim Dae Jung narrowly defeated the ruling party’s candidate Lee Hoe Chang by 40.3% to 38.7%. A third candidate Yi In Che garnered 19.2% of the votes, effectively splitting the pro-government vote. Kim Dae Jung pledged to adhere to IMF conditionality and reform government-business relations in South Korea by increasing transparency. In 1998 and 1999, the government reduced the role of government intervention in the domestic economy despite numerous strikes by workers protesting layoffs.

In June 2000, as a part of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy of engagement, a North-South summit took place in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang. That year, Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work for democracy and human rights and efforts at reconciliation between the two Koreas. Since then, trade and investment between the two Koreas have increased dramatically as a result of regular contacts in relations and economic ties. South Korea is now one of the four Four Asian Tigers, along with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

Roh Moo Hyun was elected president in the December 2002 election, taking 49% of the vote; he was inaugurated in February 2003. While campaigning, Roh had stated he would continue with Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” toward the North, but prior to his election, it was revealed that North Korea was secretly developing a program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons. Relations between North Korea and the US were tense in 2002 and 2003, as the US maintained North Korea should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and the North asserted it had the right to do so to provide for its defense and security. Roh took the position that North Korea’s moves to develop nuclear weapons and export missiles could only be countered by dialogue. This put him at odds with some in the Bush Administration who held that the United States would not be “blackmailed” into negotiating with the North. In June 2003, the United States announced it would redeploy some of its 37,000 troops in South Korea to positions south of the DMZ, in an effort to create more agile and mobile forces.

South Korea’s economy in 2003 was growing at 6.3%, a rate that was among the highest in the developed world. In 2004, South Korea joined the “trillion dollar club” of world economies and, today, its standard of living approximates some of the less affluent countries in Western Europe such as Portugal and Spain.


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