Settled, literate societies on the Korean peninsula appear in Chinese records as early as the fourth century BCE. Gradually, competing groups and kingdoms on the peninsula merged into a common national identity. After a period of conflict among the “Three Kingdoms”—Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast—Silla defeated its rivals and unified most of the Korean peninsula in 668 CE. Korea reached close to its present boundaries during the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), from which its Western name “Korea” is derived. The succeeding Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) further consolidated Korea’s national boundaries and distinctive cultural practices.
Within Korea there are some regional differences expressed in dialect and customs, but on the whole regional differences are far outweighed by an overall cultural homogeneity. Unlike China, for example, regional dialects in Korea are mutually intelligible to all Korean speakers. The Korean language is quite distinct from Chinese and in fact structurally similar to Japanese, although there is still debate among linguists about how the Korean and Japanese languages may be related. Many customs, popular art forms, and religious practices in traditional Korea are also quite distinct from either Chinese or Japanese practices, even though the Korean forms sometimes resemble those of Korea’s neighbors in East Asia and have common roots.
Traditional Korea borrowed much of its high culture from China, including the use of Chinese characters in the written language and the adoption of Neo-Confucianism as the philosophy of the ruling elite. Buddhism, originally from India, also came to Korea from China, and from Korea spread to Japan. For many centuries Korea was a member of the Chinese “tribute system,” giving regular gifts to the Chinese court and acknowledging the titular superiority of the Chinese emperor over the Korean king. But while symbolically dependent on China for military protection and political legitimization, in practice Korea was quite independent in its internal behavior.
After devastating invasions by the Japanese at the end of the sixteenth century and by the Manchus of Northeast Asia in the early seventeenth, Korea enforced a policy of strictly limited contact with all other countries. The main foreign contacts officially sanctioned by the Choson Dynasty were diplomatic missions to China three or four times a year and a small outpost of Japanese merchants in the southeastern part of Korea near the present-day city of Pusan. Few Koreans left the peninsula during the late Choson Dynasty, and even fewer foreigners entered. For some 250 years Korea was at peace and internally stable (despite growing peasant unrest from about 1800), but from the perspective of the Europeans and Americans who encountered Korea in the nineteenth century, Korea was an abnormally isolated country, a “hermit kingdom” as it came to be known to Westerners at the time.
Japanese Colonial Period During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Korea became the object of competing imperial interests as the Chinese empire declined and Western powers began to vie for ascendancy in East Asia. Britain, France, and the United States each attempted to “open up” Korea to trade and diplomatic relations in the 1860s, but the Korean kingdom steadfastly resisted. It took Japan, itself only recently opened to Western-style international relations by the United States, to impose a diplomatic treaty on Korea for the first time in 1876.
Japan, China, and Russia were the main rivals for influence on Korea in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and after defeating China and Russia in war between 1895 and 1905, Japan became the predominant power on the Korean peninsula. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea outright as a colony, and for the next 35 years Japan ruled Korea in a manner that was strict and often brutal. Toward the end of the colonial period, the Japanese authorities tried to wipe out Korea’s language and cultural identity and make Koreans culturally Japanese, going so far in 1939 as to compel Koreans to change their names to Japanese ones. However, Japan also brought the beginnings of industrial development to Korea. Modern industries such as steel, cement, and chemical plants were set up in Korea during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the northern part of the peninsula where coal and hydroelectric power resources were abundant. By the time Japanese colonial rule ended in August 1945, Korea was the second most industrialized country in Asia after Japan itself.
Divided Korea and the Korean War Edit
The surrender of Japan to the allies at the end of World War II resulted in a new and unexpected development on the Korean peninsula: the division of Korea into two separate states, one in the North (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, D.P.R.K.) and one in the South (the Republic of Korea, R.O.K.). In the final days of the war, the United States and the Soviet Union had agreed to jointly accept the Japanese surrender in Korea, with the U.S.S.R. occupying Korea north of the 38th parallel and the U.S. occupying south until an independent and unified Korean government could be established. However, by 1947, the emerging Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, combined with political differences between Koreans of the two occupation zones and the policies of the occupation forces on the ground, led to a breakdown in negotiations over a unified government of Korea.
On August 15, 1948, a pro-U.S. government was established in Seoul, and three weeks later a pro-Soviet government in Pyongyang. Both governments claimed to legitimately represent the entire Korean people, creating a situation of extreme tension across the 38th parallel. On June 25, 1950, North Korea, backed by the U.S.S.R., invaded the South and attempted to unify the peninsula by force. Under the flag of the United Nations, a U.S.-led coalition of countries came to the assistance of South Korea. The Soviet Union backed North Korea with weapons and air support, while the People’s Republic of China intervened on the side of North Korea with hundreds of thousands of combat troops. In July 1953, after millions of deaths and enormous physical destruction, the war ended approximately were it began, with North and South Korea divided into roughly equal territories by the cease-fire line, a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that still forms the boundary between North and South Korea today.