A small country, approximately the size of Britain, Korea is located on a peninsula that protrudes southward from the northeastern corner of the Asian continent. It is an old country, whose people evolved as one nation from the seventh century until 1945, when the country was divided by the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. The ensuing Cold War created two Korean governments, one in the north known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and another in the south known as the Republic of Korea (ROK). The two Koreas engaged in a bitter war between 1950 and 1953 and remained divided as of 1990, even though the two governments began talk to each other in 1971. [Source: Library of Congress]

South Korea and North Korea took distinctly different paths of development after they were divided. By 1990 North Korea had emerged as a staunch communist society, while South Korea was evolving into a liberal democracy after many years of military dictatorship. The two societies, however, shared a common tradition and culture.

Korea's location on a peninsula has been an important factor in defense, isolating and protecting it from all but the most determined invaders. Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “”Countries and Their Cultures””: “Geopolitically, the peninsula is surrounded on three sides by the sea and by Russia, China, and Japan. Korea has suffered from the attempts of these neighboring countries to dominate it, particularly in the twentieth century. Each of them considers Korea to be of major importance to its own security, and since 1945 the United States has had a major security interest in the nation. The peninsula was divided at the 38th Parallel in an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the World War II. Subsequently, the Military Demarcation Line established by the Armistice Agreement of 1953 to bring a cease-fire to the Korean War (1950–1953) replaced the boundary. A 2.5-mile (four-kilometer) wide strip of land that runs along the cease-fire line for about 150 miles (241 kilometers) is fixed at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as the no man's land between North Korea and South Korea. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001] A small country, approximately the size of Britain, Korea is located on a peninsula that protrudes southward from the northeastern corner of the Asian continent. It is an old country, whose people evolved as one nation from the seventh century until 1945, when the country was divided by the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. The ensuing Cold War created two Korean governments, one in the north known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and another in the south known as the Republic of Korea (ROK). The two Koreas engaged in a bitter war between 1950 and 1953 and remained divided as of 1990, even though the two governments began talk to each other in 1971. [Source: Library of Congress]

South Korea and North Korea took distinctly different paths of development after they were divided. By 1990 North Korea had emerged as a staunch communist society, while South Korea was evolving into a liberal democracy after many years of military dictatorship. The two societies, however, shared a common tradition and culture.

Korea's location on a peninsula has been an important factor in defense, isolating and protecting it from all but the most determined invaders. Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “”Countries and Their Cultures””: “Geopolitically, the peninsula is surrounded on three sides by the sea and by Russia, China, and Japan. Korea has suffered from the attempts of these neighboring countries to dominate it, particularly in the twentieth century. Each of them considers Korea to be of major importance to its own security, and since 1945 the United States has had a major security interest in the nation. The peninsula was divided at the 38th Parallel in an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the World War II. Subsequently, the Military Demarcation Line established by the Armistice Agreement of 1953 to bring a cease-fire to the Korean War (1950–1953) replaced the boundary. A 2.5-mile (four-kilometer) wide strip of land that runs along the cease-fire line for about 150 miles (241 kilometers) is fixed at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as the no man's land between North Korea and South Korea. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Korea is mountainous, and only about 20 percent of the land in the south is flat enough for farming. Seoul, the capital, is in the northwestern part of the country on the Han River, which flows toward the Yellow Sea. Seoul was first established as the walled capital of the Chosun Dynasty in 1394. Before Japan colonized Korea in 1910, Seoul was the first city in east Asia to have electricity, trolley cars, a water system, telephones, and telegraphs. Seoul has grown into a metropolis of more than ten million residents. The palaces, shrines, and other vestiges of the Chosun Dynasty are still prominent features of the city north of the Han River, serving as major tourist attractions. In the last few decades, the area south of the Han River has built trendy commercial centers and high-rise condominium complexes for the middle and upper-middle classes.

Korean Identity

In terms of ethnicity, the population of the Korean Peninsula is one of the world's most homogeneous. Descended from migratory groups who entered the Korean Peninsula from Siberia, Manchuria, and Inner Asia several thousands of years ago, the Korean people are distinguished from the neighboring populations of mainland Asia and Japan in terms of ethnicity, culture, and language, even though they share many cultural elements with these peoples. The phrase han p'it-chul ("one bloodline") often is used by Koreans at home and abroad to symbolize their shared identity as the members of a homogeneous nation. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “”Countries and Their Cultures””: “Before the 1945 national division of the peninsula and the subsequent establishment of the two political regimes of North and South Korea in 1948, Koreans identified themselves as the people of Chosun. Tan'gun as the founding ancestor has had a symbolic meaning for Koreans throughout the nation's history. A temple erected in Tan'gun's honor in 1429 stood in P'yongyang until its destruction during the Korean War. In 1993, North Korea announced the discovery of Tan'gun's tomb and a few remains of his skeleton at a site close to P'yongyang. Some Korean calendars still print the Year of Tan'gun (Tan'gi ) along with the Gregorian calendar year, which the South Korean government officially adopted in 1962.

“Koryo (918–1392) and Chosun (1392–1910) were the last two Korean dynasties. Korean immigrants and their descendants in Russia, China, and Japan use the names of those dynasties as a reference for their ethnicity. Despite the continued use of Chosun as a self-name in North Korea, the Japanese convention of referring to the Korean nation by that name (pronounced Chosen in Japanese) can be offensive to South Koreans because of its evocation of Japanese colonization of the nation (1910–1945).

“Koreans share a common culture, but a sense of regionalism exists between northerners and southerners and between southeasterners and southwesterners in terms of customs and perceived personality characteristics. Some suggest that this regionalism dates back to Three Kingdoms of Koguryo (37 B.C.–668 A.D.), Silla (57 B.C.–935 A.D.), and Paekche (18 B.C.–660 A.D.). In South Korea politicized regionalism has emerged between the southeastern (Kyongsang Province) and southwestern regions (Cholla Province) since the late 1960s as a result of an uneven pattern of development that benefits people in the southeast.”

Names for Korea

The official name of South Korea is the Republic of Korea (ROK) The local long form is Taehan-min'gukl; the local short form is Han'guk. The official name of North Korea is Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The local long form is Choson-minjujuui-inmin-konghwaguk; the local short form is Choson. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Korea describes both South Korea and North Korea and the peninsula on which they are located. Korean is the name of the people and the language and an adjective used to describe things from Korea. The plural of Korean is Koreans. Sometimes its spelled Corean.

The word “Korea” is derived from the Chinese name for Goryeo, which was the Korean dynasty that united the peninsula in the 10th century A.D.; the South Korean name "Han'guk" derives from the long form, "Taehan-min'guk," which is itself a derivation from "Daehan-je'guk," which means "the Great Empire of the Han"; "Han" refers to the "Sam'han" or the "Three Han Kingdoms" (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla from the Three Kingdoms Era, 1st-7th centuries A.D.) The North Korean name "Choson" means "[Land of the] Morning Calm"

King Taejo, the first Koryo dynasty ruler, who came to power in A.D. 935, christened his empire Koryo, the source of the name Korea. The country was renamed Chosen ("Land of Morning Calm") after the Chosen rulers came to power in 1392. A new phonetic system, proclaimed by the South Korean government in 2000, resulting in spelling changes of a number of places. Cheju became Jeju and Pusan became Busan. At the World Cup in 2002, it suddenly became fashionable to spell Kore with a “C” (Corea). [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

Brief History of Korea

According to the Koreans, the first of their kin was born in 2333 B.C. There is evidence that Korea was inhabited at least around 30,000 B.C., when tribes from central and northern Asia are believed to have migrated to the peninsula. These tribes banded together and formed early kingdoms around the A.D. 1st century. Founded around A.D. 700, the Silla Kingdom of Korea established an enduring culture and built outstanding palaces, Buddhist temples and gardens. In the early 13th century, the Mongols invaded Korea and made it part of the Beijing-based Yuan Dynasty. This period was marked by decline of Buddhism and a rise of Confucianism. When the Mongol Empire collapsed, the Korean Chosun Dynasty took root and unique Korean alphabet and writing system was developed. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

In 1592 Japan invaded Korea but was ultimately repelled. It was also invaded by China and the Chinese Manchu Dynasty had great influence and helped Confucianism become entrenched on the peninsula. After the Chinese were ousted Korea closed itself off to the outside world and was regarded as the “Hermit Kingdom” until the late 19th century.

Korea was occupied by Japan beginning in 1905 following the Russo-Japanese War. In 1910, Tokyo formally annexed the entire Peninsula. Korea regained its independence following Japan's surrender to the U.S. in 1945. After World War II, a democratic government (Republic of Korea, ROK) was set up in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula while a communist-style government was installed in the north (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK).

During the Korean War (1950-53), US troops and U.N. forces fought alongside ROK soldiers to defend South Korea from a DPRK invasion supported by communist China and the Soviet Union. A 1953 armistice split the Peninsula along a demilitarized zone at about the 38th parallel. PARK Chung-hee took over leadership of the country in a 1961 coup. During his regime, from 1961 to 1979, South Korea achieved rapid economic growth, with per capita income rising to roughly 17 times the level of North Korea in 1979. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

South Korea held its first free presidential election under a revised democratic constitution in 1987, with former ROK Army general Roh Tae Woo winning a close race. In 1993, Kim Young Sam (1993-98) became the first civilian president of South Korea's new democratic era. President Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his contributions to South Korean democracy and his "Sunshine" policy of engagement with North Korea. President PARK Geun-hye, daughter of former ROK President PARK Chung-hee, took office in February 2013 as South Korea's first female leader. In December 2016, the National Assembly passed an impeachment motion against President PARK over her alleged involvement in a corruption and influence-peddling scandal, immediately suspending her presidential authorities. The impeachment was upheld in March 2017, triggering an early presidential election in May 2017 won by MOON Jae-in. South Korea hosted the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in February 2018, in which North Korea also participated. Discord with North Korea has permeated inter-Korean relations for much of the past decade, highlighted by the North's attacks on a South Korean ship and island in 2010, the exchange of artillery fire across the DMZ in 2015, and multiple nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and 2017. North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics, dispatch of a senior delegation to Seoul, and three inter-Korean summits in 2018 appear to have ushered in a temporary period of respite, buoyed by the historic US-DPRK summits in 2018 and 2019.

Timeline of Korean History

2333 B.C. — Traditional founding date for the earliest kingdom of Korea, founded by the legendary Tan'gun. [Source — Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, The Gale Group Inc., 2002; “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000].

1122 B.C. — Traditional date for the migration from China to Korea of the Chinese nobleman Kija and his 5,000 followers, establishing the city of P'yongyang.

108 B.C. — The Chinese Han dynasty establishes commanderies in Korea. The longest-lived one, Lolang, continues in existence as a virtual Chinese colony until A.D. 313.

57 B.C. — Traditional founding date for the Korean kingdom of Silla, in southeastern Korea. Two other Korean states are included in the Korean Three Kingdoms — Koguryo (37 B.C.) and Paekche (18 B.C.).

c. 100 A.D. — Emergence of the Kingdom of Koguryo, the first truly Korean state.

A.D. 372 — Traditional date for the entry of Buddhism into Korea. In Koguryo, a Confucian school is founded around the same time.

A.D. 668 — The kingdom of Silla completes the unification of the Korean peninsula with Chinese help, overcoming first Paekche, in the southwest (A.D. 663), and then Koguryo, in the north (A.D. 668).

668-892 — Silla Unification Period marked by cultural borrowings from China.

918 — Founding date for the kingdom of Koryo. Koryo completes the reunification of Korea by accepting the surrender of the last Silla king in 935.

918-1392 — Koryo Dynasty marked by Mongol invasion and decline of Buddhism in favor of Confucianism.

1392 — Chosun (Yi) Dynasty moves capital to Seoul.

1392-1910 — Chosun Dynasty — Korea is ruled by a succession of twenty-seven kings from the Yi clan of Chonju. They call the kingdom Chosun, usually translated as "Land of the Morning Calm.".

1446 — King Sejong (r. 1418-50) announces the invention of the Korean phonetic alphabet known as ban gul.

1590s — Japan invades Korea under Hideyoshi and occupies Seoul. The invasion is halted by a combined Sino-Korean force and a long stalemate follows. The Korean admiral Yi Sunsin develops a metal-clad warship known as the Turtle Ship, to harry Japanese supply lines. Eventually, after Hideyoshi's death, the Japanese withdraw from Korea, leaving the peninsula in disarray.

1884 — U.S. Presbyterian missionaries arrive in Korea.

1894-1895 — Sino-Japanese War — Korea loses its status as a tributary state of China and Japan exerts gretaer control over it. .

1904-05 — Russo-Japanese War — Japan forces Korea to sign a protectorate treaty, turning over Korea's foreign affairs and defense to Imperial Japan.

1910-45 — Japan colonizes the Korean Peninsula.

1919 — Samil (1 March) Independence Movement suppressed by the Japanese.

1945 — Japan surrenders in World War II and ends its colonization of Korea. The Korean Peninsula is "temporarily" divided between Soviet and U.S. spheres of influence.

1948 — The Republic of Korea is established in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. Syngman Rhee, a civilian, becomes the first president of South Korea.

1950-53 — The Korean War is fought between United Nations (mostly U.S.) and Communist forces.

1950s — South Korea mechanizes and expands its agricultural sector.

1961 — Park Chung-hee, a military person, becomes the second president of South Korea.

1960s — South Korea begins its export-driven strategy of industrial growth by producing and exporting light consumer and labor-intensive products as well as some electronics (radios and black-and-white televisions).

1970s — Production and export of more sophisticated electronics, such as color televisions and calculators.

1974 — Assassination attempt on President Park; his wife is killed.

1976 — Opposition leaders are purged by President Park's increasingly authoritarian regime.

1979 — President Park is assassinated a year after his reelection; martial law follows for 15 months.

1979 — Major General Chun Doo-hwan becomes South Korea's third president and tightens military rule.

1980s — South Korea begins its production and export of more advanced electronics, such as VCRs, microwave ovens, and cameras. Heavy industry (steel, automobiles, and shipbuilding) emerges as an important sector.

1988 — South Korea hosts the Summer Olympics, which also help expand its tourism industry.

1989 — Roh Tae Woo, a former military person, becomes South Korea's fourth president.

1990s — South Korea's high-tech industry emerges, which turns South Korea into a major supplier of telecommunication and computer devices and parts.

1990 — South Korea normalizes relations with the Soviet Union.

1992 — South Korea normalizes relations with China.

1993 — Kim Young Sam, a civilian, becomes the fifth president of South Korea.

1996 — South Korea joins the OECD, for which it begins liberalizing its economy.

1997 — After labor unrest in the early part of the year, a financial crisis emerges, resulting in a series of bankruptcies and collapse of major enterprises. The government negotiates a bail-out package with the IMF for about US$60 billion. Kim Dae Jung, an opposition leader, is elected as the sixth president of South Korea.

1998 — Kim Dae Jung takes office as president and announces his "sunshine policy" of seeking better ties with North Korea. Financial crisis eases with private and public initiatives to reduce long-term debt.

1999 — The South Korean government establishes the Financial Supervisory Service, and announces a fiscal plan to balance the budget by 2006. Curbs on foreign investments are eased.

2000 — Foreign automakers take control of some troubled South Korean firms. President Kim Dae Jung pays an official visit to P'yongyang, the first such visit since the creation of the 2 Koreas.

Koguryo, Silla, and Koryo Kingdoms

Historical records suggest that the Koguryo Kingdom was the first Korean state to emphasize the military arts. From the first through the fourth centuries A.D., the Koguryo tribes frequently fought with Chinese and other groups for control of the region from the Liao River south to the Yalu River, the latter forming today's international boundary between North Korea and China. Modern South Korean textbooks emphasize an unbroken history of foreign incursions. Like the early warrior kings of Paekche and Silla, however, King Kwanggaet'o, who ruled Koguryo from 391 to 412, significantly added to his state's territory by military conquest, absorbing neighboring tribes and fortified towns throughout present-day northeastern China and down into the Korean Peninsula (see Silla; Koryo , ch. 1). The Koguryo established military units in each of their five tribes. Each tribal army had about 10,000 men. An elected leader in charge of all military forces in the kingdom headed the chain of command. It was considered an honor for a man to be selected to be a soldier by the council of elders.[Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

In the seventh century, the Silla Kingdom united Korea south of the Taedong River and successfully resisted repeated campaigns by the rulers of Sui (581-617) and Tang (618-907) China to conquer all of Korea. Under Silla rule, the king placed military commanders in charge of civil and military affairs in all of the country's local districts. A military academy was established in the capital city of Kyongju and was open to young men of aristocratic birth. Upon completion of their training, these young men were given the title hwarang, meaning Flower Knight. Most of the great military leaders of Silla trained at this academy and dedicated their lives to military service.*

During the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), Korea remained independent until the kingdom was invaded by the Mongols in 1231. King Taejo (918-39) was a merchant and military leader who reunified the peninsula after the political fragmentation that followed the decline of the Silla Dynasty in the late ninth century. During the reign of King Munjong (1046-83), Korea's northern boundaries once again reached the Yalu and Tumen rivers. King Munjong established two military districts along the northern border and based army units there to defend the kingdom. Following a military coup led by socially and economically disgruntled generals in 1170, Koryo kings (most notably those of the Ch'oe family) became virtual puppets of military leaders from 1196 to 1258. In 1259, at the end of several years of warfare with the Mongols, Koryo capitulated, becoming a vassal of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1364) based in Dadu, which is modern Beijing (see The Evolution of Korean Society , ch. 1). King Kongmin (1351-74), however, increasingly resisted Yuan-imposed institutions and sided with the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) against the Mongols. Yi Song-gye, one of Kongmin's commanders, rebelled against the effort of Kongmin's son to reverse Korea's pro-Ming orientation and in 1392 established the Chosun Dynasty.*

Themes in Korean History

Korea has long been the most racially homogenous nation in Asia and has long been ruled by dynasties that observed a strictly paternalistic Confucian code. Korea has traditionally been a very rural society. It didn’t really begin industrializing until the Japanese arrived in 1910. Before that time the urban population was never more than three percent.

Korea endured countless invasions and occupations by the Japanese, Chinese, Mongols, Manchus and tribes from the north during its long history, yet it managed to hold on to its culture. Most of the invasions came north from China. Also, whenever there was turmoil in China, thousands of refugees spilled into Korea.

Patricia Marx wrote in The New Yorker: “This is not a country that gives up. Surely one of the most bullied nations on earth, Korea, some historians believe, has been invaded more than four hundred times through the years, without once being the aggressor, if you don’t count the Vietnam War. After the Korean War, the country’s G.D.P. per capita (US$64) was less than that of Somalia, and its citizens lived under an oppressive regime. Today, South Korea has the fourteenth-highest G.D.P. in the world. Is it really surprising, then, that a country that had the resilience to make itself over so thoroughly is also the capital of cosmetic about-faces? [Source: Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, March 23, 2015]

After the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668), Korea witnessed the rise and fall of three dynasties — unified Silla (668-935), Koryo (918-1392), and Chosun (1392-1910). Each of these dynasties was marked by initial periods of consolidation, the flourishing of civilization, and eventual decline. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

The Koreans put up a helluva fight whenever their homeland was invaded. In A.D. 612, a million Chinese soldiers reportedly crossed into Korea, but were unable to defeat the Koreans. After one battle at P'yongyang it is said only 2,700 of 300,000 Chinese invaders emerged alive. [Source: Pico Iyer, Smithsonian magazine]

Through nearly all of its history, through all the invasion and internal squabble Korea was united in the 7th century, with rare temporary exceptions. The division of after th Korean War was the first time the country was really divided.

Korea Inventions and Cultural Achievements

Some scholars say the first paper was invented in Korea and was introduced to Europe by way of China, which is usually given credit for inventing the first paper. Early Koreans made handmade rice paper and traditional "hanji" from mulberry trees. See Below

Koreans developed the world's first rain gauge n 1442 and the worlds first ironclad ships, known as turtle ships, in the 1500s. Known as turtle boats, because the were shaped like turtles and turtle means long life, they were not really iron clad ships as we know them. They were propelled by oars and covered with metal spikes mainly to repel boarders. On the bow was a dragon’s head, which emitted a vile-smelling smoke, produced by burning sulphur and acid and was intended to spook the enemy not poison hem. The oars went through the bottom, instead if the sides, an innovation that kept the vessels from braking up during collisions. Sailors pumped up and down on the oars to maneuver the boat. A drummer pounded out a rhythm for the oarsmen to follow. On August 15, 1597, 12 turtle ships confronted a fleet of 133 Japanese vessels and destroyed 31 of the Japanese warships.

The Emille Bell (at the National Museum in Gyeongju) is one the largest, oldest and most resonant bells in Asia. Cast in one piece in A.D. 771, it is 11 feet long and weighs 23 tons. After earlier casting failed, legend has it, a small child was tossed into the molten metal to ensure success. The sound of the bell is reminiscent of a child's cry and word “Emille” comes from the Korean word for Mama. When the bell is wrung by a particularly strong monk, it is said, the sound can be heard 40 miles away.

The oldest existing work completely printed with woodblocks is the “Mugujonggwang Taerdaranigyong” (Pure Light Dharani Sutra), Buddhist scriptures (sutras) printed sometime before the Silla monarch King Kyongdok was enthroned in A.D. 751. The oldest woodblocks have been dated to A.D. 704. They were found in Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju in October 1966.

The oldest printing with movable type was done in Korea in 1160, nearly 300 years before Gutenberg printed his first Bible. The world's oldest existing book made with movable metal type, the “Pulch'o Chikchi Shimch'e Yojol,” was printed in 1377. It is now in a collection of the Paris National Library.


Korea and Major World Powers

According to “Cities of the World”: “Throughout most of its history, Korea has been invaded, influenced, and fought over by its larger neighbors. Korea was under Mongolian occupation from 1231 until the early 14th century and was devastated by a large number of Chinese rebel armies in 1359 and 1361; Hideyoshi launched major Japanese invasions in 1592 and 1597. To protect themselves from such frequent buffeting, the Yi kings finally adopted a closed-door policy, earning Korea the title of "Hermit Kingdom." Although the Yi dynasty paid nominal fealty to the Chinese throne, Korea was, in fact, independent until the late 19th century. At that time, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian competition in Northeast Asia led to armed conflict. Having defeated its two competitors, Japan established dominance in Korea. The Japanese colonial era was characterized by tight control by Tokyo and by ruthless efforts to replace the Korean language and culture with those of the colonial power. Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910. [Source: Cities of the World , The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

“Japan occupied the entire Korean peninsula until the end of World War II. After the surrender and withdrawal of Japanese forces in 1945, the Allies divided Korea into two occupation zones. Soviet troops occupied areas north of the 38th parallel. Territory south of this line was controlled by American forces. The Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a series of conferences in an attempt to agree on a new government for the entire Korean peninsula. These efforts were fruitless. In September 1947, the United States submitted the question of Korea's future to the United Nations General Assembly. The General Assembly ruled that U.N.-supervised elections should be held in both occupation zones. Elections were carried out under U.N. observation in the south, and on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established. The Soviets refused to hold elections and decided to create a Communist state in the northern zone. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) was declared on September 9, 1948. The governing body for this new state was the Korean Workers' Party, under the leadership of Kim Il-sung.

“On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. The United States and sixteen U.N. member nations sent troops to defend South Korea. North Korean forces were initially successful, driving the U.N. forces back and nearly conquering all of South Korea. However, after a surprise landing at Inchon, South Korea, U.N. forces gained the upper hand and drove North Korean troops back to the North Korea-China border. The Chinese sent thousands of troops across the border, forcing U.N. troops back down the Korean peninsula. A bloody conflict was waged for control of Korea. On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed at Panmunjom by China, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. No formal peace agreement officially ending the war has ever been signed between the two warring factions. Therefore, the border between North Korea and South Korea remains one of the most volatile regions in the world.”

Hermit Kingdom to Major Global Players

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Korea is a nation that was little known to the outside world until it burst into the news in the middle of the twentieth century as a major trouble spot in the Cold War. The Korean Conflict, which lasted for three years from 1950 to 1953, established Korea as a battleground in the worldwide confrontation between democratic capitalism and Communism, and it remains a place where the tensions persist even after the fall of Communism in Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Despite the war and continuing division of the country into northern and southern republics, and despite the long years of poverty and struggle that followed the cease-fire in 1953, the two parts of Korea are poised to play a significant role in world affairs in the twenty-first century. South Korea is already one of the world's most energetic trading economies. North Korea has attracted attention as a country determined to assert its independent course, demanding respect and recognition as well. Both sides share many centuries of cultural heritage... North and South Korea together have a surprisingly large population for such a small landmass....There are more Koreans than there are people of any European nationality except Germans, and Koreans outnumber the people in every South American country except Brazil.

However, until modern times, the Koreans kept to themselves, did not export their culture or religion, and never sought trade or colonies in faraway places. Until the late 1800s, in fact, Korea's seclusion was so tight that the outsiders who knew of it often called it the "Hermit Kingdom." Koreans traditionally have made their living by farming, and until 1950 most Koreans lived in farming villages. When the economy started shifting toward manufacturing, Koreans began migrating in large numbers to the cities where there were factory jobs.” Now South Korea is a major technology leader and North Korea has nuclear weapons.

China and Korea

Koreans inhabit a mountainous peninsula protruding southward from the northeastern corner of the Asian continent and surrounded on three sides by water. Although Japan exercised decisive influence by the late sixteenth century, in ancient times the peoples and civilizations on the contiguous Asian continent were far more important. The peninsula is surrounded on three sides by other peoples: Chinese to the west; Japanese to the east; and an assortment of peoples to the north, including "barbarian" tribes, aggressive invaders, and, in the twentieth century, an expanding and deepening Russian presence. Koreans have emerged as a people influenced by the peninsula's internal and surrounding geography. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

At one time the Chinese believed the Koreans were cannibals and the Koreans thought the same of the Chinese. But, in A.D. 735, China and Korea made an agreement that shaped their relationship for the next 1,300 years. In exchange for allowing Korea to become a tributary state of China, the Korean kings were allowed to have sovereignty over the Korean peninsula south of the Taedong River near modern day Pyongyang.

Korea has been strongly influenced by China and Confucianism and today Confucian social values are arguably stronger in South Korea than in China: the Korean flag contains the yin and yang symbols, temples are laid out according to Chinese geomacy principals, Confucianism strongly influences family life and the social order, and there are as many Lees and Changs in Korea as there are in many parts of China. The Chinese have claimed that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, founded in northern Korea, was Chinese.

The northern border between Korea and China formed by the Yalu and Tumen rivers has been recognized for centuries. But these rivers did not always constitute Korea's northern limits; Koreans ranged far beyond this border well into northeastern China and Siberia, and neither Koreans nor the ancient tribes that occupied the plains of Manchuria (northeastern China) considered these riverine borders to be sacrosanct. The harsh winter climate also turned the rivers into frozen pathways for many months, facilitating the back-and-forth migration out of which the Korean people were formed.

Why did China have numerous bitter wars with Vietnam but not Korea, even though both of them shared borders with China? The main reasons were that Vietnam had rich fertile land and was located on trade routes to Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and Europe. Korea was not. Koreans have traditionally regarded the Chinese as a respected, well-liked big brothers that frequently visited but sometimes overstayed their welcome. During the Chosun dynasty Chinese diplomats were allowed to enter Seoul through Namdaemun, the Great Southern Gate of Seoul, while all other foreigners, including the Japanese, were forced to come through other gates.

Japan and Korea

Japan, on the other hand, traditionally has been regarded a bitter enemy. The Japanese invaded Korea three times, including twice with full scale invasions in the 16th century that devastated Korea. During the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945, they enslaved Korean men, forced Korean women into prostitution and tried to wipe out Korean culture.

The Korean peninsula is only about 100 miles away from the main islands of Japan. As much as the Japanese are loath to admit it, many of them descended from Koreans and the earliest Japanese civilizations were greatly influenced by early Korean dynasties. Murals inside A.D. 7th century tombs found near Nara, the first capital of Japan, look almost exactly like those found in tombs in Korea around the same time and earlier.

As much as the Koreans are loath to admit it, Korea over they years has helped Korea in many ways. Japan introduced Korea to Western culture in the early 20th century and built schools and hospitals and provided Korea with machinery and expertise to set in motion its economic miracle in the 1970s.

Korean Creation Myth

According to legend, Korean civilization began on Mt. Paektu (a volcano with a crater lake on the present-day China-North Korea border) on the third day of the 10th moon in 2333 B.C. with a meeting between Hwanung (the son of the creator God), a bear and a tiger at a magic aldewood tree. The animals said that they wanted to be human so Hwanung told them that their wish would be granted if they passed a test: stay in a cave for 100 days and eat nothing but mugwort and garlic. The impatient tiger failed the test but the bear passed and was transformed into a woman named Ungnyo ("bear woman"), who mated with Hwanung and produced Tan'gun, the progenitor and first king of the Korean people.

The first Koreans purportedly lived in the legendary first Korean city of Asadal. It was originally thought that if Asadal indeed existed in some form it was in Manchuria somewhere, but recently North Korean scholars said that found "evidence" that it was located on a site of present-day Pyongyang.

When Tan'gun returned to heaven at the end of his life, his descendants were ruled by a new king named Han. A state known as Han Chosun was purportedly established and prospered in the Taedong valley of northern Korea by 1000 B.C. A recent interpretation of the bear woman is that she came from a bear totem tribe. Tan'gun established the kingdom of Chosun ("Morning Freshness," often translated as the "Land of Morning Calm") around today's P'yongyang. To distinguish it from the later Chosun Dynasty, it is now referred to as Ko ("Old") Chosun.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Tangun legend tells of the birth of Korea’s first king and the foundation of the first Korean state, (Old) Chosun, in a date often calculated as 2333 B.C. The Korean calendar enumerates the years from this date. Though based upon earlier sources, this oldest surviving account of Tangun was recorded by the Koryoperiod Buddhist monk Iryon (1206-1289) in his Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk yusa).”

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The story of Tan'gun, who was in effect the grandson of God, was first written down by the Buddhist monk Ilyon in the thirteenth century. However, it was not taken seriously or given much importance until the early twentieth century, when an anti-Japanese activist named Hong'an Nach'ol had a shattering vision in which he felt himself appointed by the spirit of Tan'gun to found a religion honoring the Great Founder.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Korean Creation Myth Story

The Wei shu tells us that two thousand years ago, at the time of Emperor Yao, Tangun Wanggom chose Asadal as his capital and founded the state of Chosun. The Old Record notes that in olden times Hwanin’s son, Hwanung, wished to descend from heaven and live in the world of human beings. Knowing his son’s desire, Hwanin surveyed the three highest mountains and found Mount T’aebaek the most suitable place for his son to settle and help human beings. Therefore he gave Hwanung three heavenly seals and dispatched him to rule over the people. Hwanung descended with three thousand followers to a spot under a tree by the Holy Altar atop Mount T’aebaek, and he called this place the City of God. He was the heavenly King Hwanung. Leading the Earl of Wind, the Master of Rain, and the Master of clouds, he took charge of some three hundred and sixty areas of responsibility, including agriculture, allotted life spans, illness, punishment, and good and evil, and brought culture to his people. [Source: Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 6-7,:Asia for Educators Columbia University, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

At that time a bear and a tiger living in the same cave prayed to Holy Hwanung to transform them into human beings. The king gave them a bundle of sacred mugworts and twenty cloves of garlic and said, “If you eat these and shun the sunlight for one hundred days, you will assume human form.” Both animals ate the spices and avoided the sun. After twentyone days the bear became a woman but the tiger, unable to observe the taboo, remained a tiger.

Unable to find a husband, the bear.woman prayed under the altar tree for a child. Hwanung metamorphosed himself, lay with her, and begot a son called Tangun Wanggom....In the fiftieth year of the reign of Emperor Yao, Tangun made the walled city of Pyongyang the capital and called his country Chosun. He then moved his capital to Asadal on Mount Paegak, also names Mount Kunghol, or Kŭmmidal, whence he ruled for fifteen hundred years. When, in the year kimyo [1122 B.C.], King Wu of Chou enfeoffed Chi Tzu (Kija) to Chosun, Tangun moved to Changdanggyong, but later he returned and hid in Asadal as a mountain god at the age of one thousand nine hundred and eight.

Language, Literature and Historical Sources in Ancient Korea

The Three Kingdoms (57 B.C. - A.D. 668) utilized Chinese as their official literary language. According to Britannica.com: “This state-sanctioned use of Chinese, along with the adoption of Confucianism and Buddhism, meant a significant transition in the history of Korean literature. Such books as the Yugi (“Extant Records”), Shinjip (“New Compilation”), Sogi (“Documentary Records”), and Kuksa (“National History”), all collections of historical records, were compiled in Chinese. They represented an attempt to consolidate the political structures of these kingdoms. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,Britannica.com]

“The carving of monumental inscriptions, such as those at the grave of King Kwanggaet’o (who reigned in Koguryo in 391–412) and those that record the travels of King Chinhung (who reigned in Silla in 540–576), served a similar purpose. Together they helped to usher Korean literature, which had previously relied on oral transmission, into an age of both oral and written literature. Confucianism and Buddhism contributed to the thematic depth of Korean literature. A cavalier quatrain sent by the Koguryo military commander Ulchi Mundok to an enemy and a panegyric by Queen Chindok of Silla are among representative works of poetry from this period.

“Most important, hyangch’al, a writing system that used Chinese characters to represent spoken Korean, originated in Silla, where hyangga (“native songs”) also first appeared. Such developments reflect the fact that Silla led the other two kingdoms both artistically and politically (the latter demonstrated by Silla’s spearheading the subsequent unification of Korea). In Koguryo and Paekche there may have been songs and a system of transcription corresponding to the hyangga and hyangch’al of Silla, but they have proved difficult to trace.”

Korean Cultural Expression

An important part of the Korean identity has been the Korean language, which linguists generally agree belongs to the Altaic language family of Inner Asia. There is no doubt that the indigenous language was deeply affected by the country's long contact with China. Not only did its written form rely on Chinese characters until the fifteenth century, but about half of its vocabulary was of Chinese origin. Nevertheless, the language is very different from Chinese in its lexicon, phonology, and grammar. Although at one time the ruling classes were set apart from the rest of the population by their knowledge of Chinese characters and their ability to use Chinese in its written form, since the unification of the peninsula by the Silla Dynasty all Koreans have shared the same spoken language. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Koreans, like the other East Asian peoples, have a highly developed aesthetic sense and over the centuries have created a great number of paintings, sculptures, and handicrafts of extraordinary beauty. The development of a Korean alphabet (today known as han'gul), in the fifteenth century gave rise to a vernacular, or popular, literature.

Despite the fact that Korea would undergo numerous reforms, palace coups, and two dynastic changes after the Silla period, many of the political and social systems and practices instituted during the Silla Dynasty persisted until the nineteenth century. Their Chinese inspiration, of course, had much to do with the durability of these systems. One lasting principle was that of centralized rule. From the time of the Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla states of the Three Kingdoms period, royal houses always governed their domains directly, without granting autonomous powers to local administrators. The effectiveness of the central government varied from dynasty to dynasty and from period to period, but the principle of centralization — involving a system of provinces, districts, towns, and villages — was never modified.

Chinese Influence on Korean Culture

That the Korean kingdoms were strongly affected by Chinese civilization and its institutions was not surprising. Not only were the Chinese far more numerous and often more powerful militarily than the Koreans, but they also had a more advanced technology and culture. Chinese supremacy in these realms was acknowledged not only by the Koreans, who were militarily inferior, but by those who were powerful enough to conquer China, such as the Kitan Liao, who ruled parts of northern China, Manchuria, and Mongolia between 907 and 1127; the Mongols who ruled China from 1279 to 1368; the Jurchen tribes, who later seized northern Manchuria; and the Manchus, who ruled China between 1644 and 1911. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

The adoption of Chinese culture was more than simply an expression of submission to China, it also was the indispensable condition of being civilized in the East Asian context. This situation continued until the inroads of Western civilization substantially altered the political and cultural map of Asia in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The adoption of Chinese culture and institutions by the Korean kingdoms, however, did not obliterate the identity of the Korean people. Koguryo had risen against the Chinese conquerors, and Silla had stubbornly resisted Chinese attempts to turn it into a colony. While Silla and subsequent dynasties were obliged to pay tribute to the various Chinese, Mongol, and Jurchen dynasties, and although Korea was subjected to direct overlordship by the Mongols for a century, the Korean kingdoms were able to survive as independent entities, enabling their citizens to maintain an identity as a separate people.

Traditional Korean Social System

Another feature that endured for centuries was the existence of a stratified social system characterized by a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Under the Silla Dynasty, society was rigidly organized into a hereditary caste system. The Koryo Dynasty, which succeeded Silla, instituted a system of social classes according to which the rest of the population was subordinate to an elite composed of scholar-officials. By passing the higher civil service examination and becoming a government official a commoner could become a member of the elite, but since examinations presupposed both the time and wealth for education, upward mobility was not the rule. This system continued during the Chosun Dynasty. The strength of the aristocratic tradition may have been one factor contributing to the relative weakness of the Korean monarchy, in which the king usually presided over a council of senior officials as primus inter pares, rather than governing as absolute ruler. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

During the Chosun Dynasty, family and lineage groups came to occupy tremendous importance. Because one's social and political status in society was largely determined by birth and lineage, it was only natural that a great deal of emphasis was placed on family. Each family maintained a genealogical table with meticulous care. Only male offspring could prolong the family and clan lines and theirs were the only names registered in the genealogical tables; therefore, the birth of a son was regarded as an occasion of great joy. The Confucian stress on the family reinforced the importance Koreans attached to the family.

The Confucian principle of Five Relationships governing social behavior became the norm of Korean society. Righteousness toward the sovereign, filial piety, deference to older and superior persons, and benevolence to the younger and inferior became inviolable rules of conduct. Transgressors of these rules were regarded as uncultured beings unfit to be members of society. Whether in the family or society at large, people in positions of authority or occupying superior status commanded respect.

Still another enduring feature of traditional society under the Chosun Dynasty was the dominance of the yangban class. The yangban not only held power but also controlled the national wealth in the form of land. The court permitted the yangban to collect revenues on the land as remuneration for their services. Because much commercial activity was related to tributary missions to China or to government procurements, the wealth of the merchants often was dependent upon the discretion of the yangban.

Finally, because under the Chosun Dynasty one could enter into the scholar-official elite by passing examinations based on Confucian writings and penmanship, the entire society stressed classical education. The arts of war were accorded a lesser status, even though the founders of both the Koryo and Chosun dynasties were generals and despite the fact that the country had suffered from numerous foreign invasions

Differences Between North and South Korea

North Korea is where most of Korea’s resources, namely coal, are located. South Korea has traditionally been more agricultural and was where most of the peninsula’s food was produced. Both North and South Korea experience cold winters but the winters in North Korea are more bitterly cold. After World War II, the industrialized north with nine million people was occupied by the Soviets . The agricultural south with 19 million people was occupied by the United States.
Doyeun Kim wrote in The Atlantic: “Today, after” several decades “of an ongoing armistice in which the two Koreas are still technically at war, the South has grown to be the 13th largest economy in the world, a dramatic departure from the war-ravaged, poverty-stricken country it once was. Meanwhile, the North, the last Stalinist state in the world, has remained disconnected from the international community, and most of its population is chronically hungry. The stark difference between the two estranged countries can be seen from satellite images of the Korean peninsula at night: The northern half is plunged in darkness, while a sudden burst of light beneath the 38th parallel clearly outlines the piece of land that belongs to South Korea. [Source: Doyeun Kim, The Atlantic, December 14, 2012]

On linguistic affiliation, “”Countries and Their Cultures”” says: Technically, North Korea uses the same Korean language as the one spoken in South Korea. The cultural and sociopolitical division of more than half a century, however, pushed the languages in the peninsula far apart, if not in syntax, at least in semantics. When North Korea faced the task of building a new national culture, it faced a serious problem of illiteracy. For example, over 90 percent of women in northern Korea in 1945 were illiterate; they in turn made up 65 percent of the total illiterate population. In order to overcome illiteracy, North Korea adopted the all-Korean script, eliminating the use of Chinese characters...By 1979, the United States government estimated that North Korea had a 90 percent literacy rate. At the end of the twentieth century, it was estimated that 99 percent of North Korea's population could read and write Korean sufficiently.” The literacy rate in South Korea is near 100 percent and English is much more widely spoken than it is in Japan and South Korean parents put a lot of emphasis on their children learning it. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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