You are on page 1of 9

A BRIEF HISTORY OF

KOREA
By Tim Lambert
Ancient Korea
By 4000 BC there were stone age farmers living in Korea. By 1000 BC they
had learned to use bronze. By about 300 BC they had learned to use iron to
make tools and weapons. At first Korea was divided into tribes but eventually
organised kingdoms emerged. There were 3 of them, Goguryeo in the north
and Silla and Baekje in the south. According to legend Silla was founded in 57
BC by Bak Hyeokgeose, Jumong founded Goguryeo in 37 BC and Onjo
founded Baekje in 18 BC. In reality the 3 kingdoms emerged later between the
2nd and 4th centuries AD. These 3 kingdoms were heavily influenced by
Chinese civilization. By the 4th century they were highly civilized.
The three kingdoms of Korea fought for supremacy. China tried to defeat the
northern kingdom of Goguryeo twice. Both times they were defeated by
General Eulji Mundeok. However the Chinese then made an alliance with the
Silla kingdom against the other two. The Baekje kingdom was defeated by
660 AD and became part of Silla. Goguryeo followed in 668. Korea was then
united under the Silla.
The Silla in Korea (668-935)
Although Korea was united under one monarch it was still largely a tribal
society. This was underlined by the existence of the hwabaek. Originally they
were a council of tribal leaders. Later they were a council of nobles and they
had the power to decide who succeeded to the throne.
Korean society was strictly hierarchical. Most of the population were serfs and
even the nobility were divided into ranks. Following the Chinese example a
university was formed where Confucian classics were taught. (You had to be
of noble birth to study there). There were also civil service exams following the
Chinese model. (Again only those of noble birth could take them).

Buddhism was introduced into Korea in the 4th century AD and soon many
Buddhist temples were built.
In the late 8th century AD the Silla kingdom began to break down. There were
fights over the succession to the throne. Moreover local warlords began to
break away from the government in the capital, Gyeongju, and formed their
own states. One warlord called Wang Geon formed a state called Goryeo in
918. He defeated his rivals and in 935 became ruler of Silla.
The Goryeo in Korea (918-1392)
The Goryeo kingdom was faced with aggressive neighbors. A people called
the Jurchens conquered north China and frequently fought the Koreans. Then
China fell to the Mongols. They soon turned their attention to Korea and they
invaded in 1231. The Korean royal family fled to the island of Ganghwado.
The Mongols were unable to take the island but they were able to rampage
throughout mainland Korea.
However the Koreans fought back and the Mongols were never able to
completely subdue Korea. Finally in 1258 the Korean royal family
surrendered. They were allowed to remain as puppet rulers.
In the 13th century the Chinese philosophy called Neo-Confucianism arrived
in Korea. This was also an age when exquisite celadon pottery was made. A
man named Kim Bu-sik wrote a history of Korea called Samguksagi, The
History of the Three Kingdoms. However the Goryeo dynasty was in decline.
In 1392 a General named Yi Seong-gye was ordered to lead an army against
the Ming rulers of China. Instead he turned against his own ruler. The general
became the new king of Korea.
The Joseon in Korea (1392-1910)
The king moved the capital to Hanseong (Seoul) in 1394. Under the Yi rulers
Confucianism was made the official religion of Korea. Buddhism lost its
influence. In 1443 king Sejong created a native Korean alphabet.
In Korea there was a class of scholars-officials called the yangban. In order to
join the civil service or to become an army officer you had to pass certain
exams in Confucian thought. In order to take the exams you had to be the son
of a yangban. So the scholar-official class were hereditary. Below the yangban
were a class of clerks and specialists like doctors and accountants. They were
called the jungin (middle-men). Below them Was the great mass of Korean

society called the yangmin. They were peasants, craftsmen and merchants.
Certain trades such as butchers, tanners and entertainers were outcasts. At
the bottom of the pile were slaves.
Japan invaded Korea in 1592. They prevailed on land but at sea they were
defeated by Admiral Yi Sun-sin. The Japanese were forced to withdraw. They
invaded again in 1597 but they withdrew in 1598.
In the 17th century Korea suffered from factionalism among its ruling class.
Silhak (practical learning). Scholars discussed the practical ways of solving
Korea's problems rather than purely abstract ideas.
In the 18th century the kings clamped down on factionalism. In Korea trade
and commerce flourished. Merchants had low status in Korean society.
Confucianism regarded them with suspicion since they did not actually
produce anything, unlike peasants and craftsmen.
The first contact with Europeans came in 1656 when a Dutch ship was
shipwrecked off the coast of Korea. Then in the 18th century Jesuit priests
traveled to China. Koreans visiting China met them and by the end of the 18th
century some Koreans had been converted to Catholicism. The new religion
slowly spread in Korea despite waves of persecution in 1801, 1839 and 1866.
In the 1850s a new religion spread among the peasants. It was called
Donghak (Eastern learning) and it was led by Choe Je-u. The peasants were
discontented in the 19th century and in 1864 there was a rebellion. The
rebellion was crushed and Choe Je-u was executed.
Europeans Arrive In Korea
During the 19th century Korea adopted an isolationist policy. The Koreans
refused to trade with Westerners. At first this policy was successful. Some
French priests were killed in Korea in 1866. The French sent a gunboat to
avenge them but they were driven off by Korean shore defenses. In 1871
Koreans burned a US ship called the General Sherman which came to
plunder the coast. The USA sent ships to Korea but they too were fought off.
However Korea's policy of isolation meant she fell behind other countries in
technology and industry. After 1880 king Gojong attempted reform. In 1882 he
introduced the slogan 'eastern ethics, western technology' but his measures
were unpopular and were resisted by conservative officials and by the

ordinary people. Confucianism was a very conservative religion or philosophy


and made radical change difficult.
Until 1876 Japanese merchants were only allowed to trade in Busan. In that
year they forced the Koreans to sign a treaty of trade and friendship. (King
Gojong realized that Korea was too weak to fight them). Other ports were
opened to the Japanese. There were to be no tariffs on Japanese goods. The
treaty stated that Japan and Korea were independent nations. However Japan
had increasing power and influence over the Koreans.
Korea signed a similar trade treaty with the USA 1882. This was followed by
treaties with Britain and Germany the same year. In 1884 she signed a trade
treaty with Russia and in 1886 with France.
In 1882 some soldiers in Imo rebelled. They burned the Japanese legation
and killed the Japanese military adviser. Korea was forced to pay
compensation to the Japanese and signed a new treaty, the Treaty of
Jemulpo, which increased Japanese influence. Furthermore the Chinese used
the uprising as an excuse to station their troops on Korean territory.
In 1894 members of the Donghak religion and discontented peasants rose in
rebellion. They insisted they were loyal to the king but they demanded certain
reforms. The king appealed to the Chinese for help and they sent troops.
Japan also sent troops. The king then made a truce with the rebels but the
Japanese refused to leave. China and Japan then fought a war, which Japan
won easily. For centuries Korea was a 'tributary' state of China. Chinese
influence was now ended and Japan began to dominate Korea.
The Japanese installed a regent to rule and under Japanese pressure a
Deliberative Council was formed to introduce reforms. From July 1894 to
December 1895 the Council swept away much of Korean tradition. There were
many Koreans who wanted some reform but the Japanese forced them to
introduce these reforms anyway. The regent resigned in October 1894 but the
king made no attempt to stop the reforms.
The old rigid division of Korean society into classes was abolished. In the past
the Yangban, the scholar-official class, were not allowed to be involved in
trade. Now they were free to engage in business. The old civil service exams
based on Confucian thought was abolished. New exams were introduced
based on modern subjects. A new curriculum was introduced for schools with
modern subjects. Slavery was abolished. Widows were now allowed to
remarry and child marriage was abolished.

While all this was being done the Donghak started a second rebellion. They
were crushed by the Japanese and the movement was destroyed. Their
leader was captured and executed in 1895. Some further reforms were
undertaken in the years 1895-1910. The first modern textile mill in Korea was
built in 1897 and the first railway, from Seoul to Incheon, was built in 1901.
However Korea remained an overwhelmingly agricultural nation.
By 1900 there were many Protestant missionaries in Korea. By 1910 there
was a small but rapidly growing number of converts.
Increasingly Korea fell under Japanese domination. In Korea was made a
Japanese 'protectorate' which meant that Japan now controlled Korean
foreign policy and its relations with other countries. Then in 1907 Korea was
forced to accept limited Japanese control of its internal affairs and the Korean
army were disbanded. A Japanese official was sent to run things. He was
assassinated in 1909. That gave the Japanese an excuse to annex Korea
which they did in 1910.
The Colonial Period in Korea (1910-1945)
The Japanese turned Korea into a colony to supply Japan with food. However
they also built bridges, railways and roads. The Japanese also built many
factories in Korea. The urban population grew rapidly although Korea
remained predominantly agricultural. Nevertheless Japanese rule was
repressive. In 1919 many Koreans took part in peaceful demonstrations for
independence. The Japanese responded by arresting and executing
thousands of people.
Afterwards they made some small reforms. The Koreans were allowed to print
newspapers and hold meetings. They were also granted religious freedom
and more respect was shown to Korean customs.
However all these reforms were superficial and in the 1930s the Japanese
tried to assimilate the Koreans by persuading them to adopt Japanese names.
From 1938 education was only in Japanese. Schoolchildren were forbidden to
speak Korean. The Japanese also tried to persuade the Koreans to adopt
Shinto (the Japanese national religion) without much success. During World
War II many Koreans either volunteered or were forced to work in Japan.
However Japanese attempts to turn Korea into part of Japan were ended in
1945 when they surrendered to the allies.
The Korean War

Even before the war ended Russia and the USA had agreed that after the war
Korea would be divided into two zones, Russian and American. In August
1945 Russian troops entered the north. In September, after the Japanese
surrender, American troops landed in the south. Korea was divided in two
along an imaginary line, the 38th parallel. It was originally intended that the
two zones would eventually be united into one. Of course that did not happen.
With the onset of the cold war the divide between them hardened. The
Russians installed a communist government in the north and in the south a
government was elected in 1948. Korea became two countries, one
Communist, and one Democratic.
The North Korean army invaded the south on 25 June 1950. They quickly
drove south and captured Seoul. The UN Security Council invited members to
help the south. US troops arrived on 30 June but they were forced to withdraw
into the area around Busan. The first British troops arrived in Korea on 14
September to reinforce them. On 15 September other US troops landed at
Incheon 150 miles north of Busan. The soldiers in the Busan area broke out
and pushed north and linked up with the troops in Incheon on 26 September.
On the same day allied troops liberated Seoul. United Nations troops then
pushed the communists back over the 38th parallel and by 24 November they
controlled about 2/3 of North Korea.
However the Chinese then intervened. Strengthened by Chinese 180,000
troops the communists then counter-attacked and drove the allies south. By
the end of 1950 the allies were back at the 38th parallel. The communists
attacked again on 1 January 1951. The allies counter-attacked on 25 January
and on 14 March they again liberated Seoul. Several communist offensives
followed but all of them were repulsed. The war ended in a stalemate and on
27 July 1953 a cease-fire was signed. The 38th parallel was once again the
border between the two countries.
South Korea Since 1945
Democracy did not flourish in South Korea in the 1950s. The president,
Syngman Rhee used a national security law of 1949 to close newspapers and
imprison critics. However his administration was corrupt and by 1960 it was
facing growing economic problems. In 1960 riots by students forced Rhee to
resign. Faced with inflation, unemployment and continuing riots the army
staged a coup in 1961. General Park Chung-hee became ruler.
The South Korean Economic Miracle

At first the general declared martial law but in 1963 he held presidential
elections and won. Nevertheless his rule was repressive. He won a second
election in 1967. The General won a third election in 1971 by only by a small
margin. Afterwards he drew up a new constitution which gave him more
power. He was assassinated in October 1979.
Despite repressive rule South Korea's economy began to grow rapidly from
the mid 1960s and by the 1990s the country had undergone an economic
miracle. It was transformed from a poor, relatively undeveloped country into a
thriving and rich economy. The state played a large part in the transformation.
In the 1960s General Park built roads and bridges and expanded education. A
series of 5 year plans were drawn up and the government took a central role
in running the economy. Industry became dominated by large corporations
called Chaebol.
After the assassination of General Park in 1979 the army again stepped in to
restore order. General Chun Doo-hwan took power in May 1980. He declared
martial law and arrested his opponents. Demonstrations against him were
held in the city of Gwangju. They were led by students. The army crushed the
protests by force, killing hundreds of people.
In the 1980s the Korean economy continued to grow and the country climbed
out of poverty. South Korea became an affluent society. In 1988 the Olympics
were held in Seoul which brought South Korea into the international limelight.
However from the mid 1980s there was increasing unrest in South Korea led
by students unhappy with the regime. In 1987 Christian leaders spoke out
against the regime and many people held mass demonstrations. General
Chun agreed to step down and democratic elections were held. In 1988
General Roh Tae-woo was elected president.
By the 1990s South Korea had become a fairly rich nation and its people had
quite a high standard of living. It was also a democratic country. In the 1990s
the government began to deregulate industry.
At the beginning of the 21st century Korea is a prosperous and thriving nation.
In 2008 a woman named Yi So Yeon became the first Korean to travel in
space, which was another milestone in the countries development. Then in
2013 Park Geun Hye became the first woman president of South Korea.
North Korea Since 1945

In stark contrast is North Korea. After Russian troops occupied the north a
communist government was installed. Kim Il Sung was made ruler. Like many
dictators he created a 'cult of personality' by erecting statues of himself
everywhere. Schoolchildren were taught to see him as the fount of all wisdom.
In fact he created a very repressive regime. Religious belief was outlawed and
the people strictly controlled. Today North Korea is the last Stalinist regime in
the world. With a great deal of Russian aid North Korea was transformed from
a poor agricultural country into an industrial one.
However in the mid 1970s the economy began to stagnate and North Korea
was overtaken by the south. Furthermore North Korea was harmed by the
collapse of the Soviet Union. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 but was succeeded by
his son. In effect the Communists have created a new dynasty. Kim Jong-Il.
He died in 2011 and he was followed by his son Kim Jong Un.
In the late 1990s a severe famine occurred in North Korea. There were
unusually heavy rain and floods in 1995-96, followed by a drought in 1997 and
typhoon damage in 1997. Malnutrition became common especially among
children. How many people died in the famine is not known as information is
very hard to come by but some estimates put it at one million. The food
shortages dragged on through the 1990s.
However North Korea remains a very repressive and very isolated regime. In
the 1990s South Korea made some attempt to normalize relations with the
north but Korea remains a deeply divided nation.
Today the people of North Korea still face terrible hardship as well as brutal
political oppression.
Today the population of North Korea is 25 million while the population of South
Korea is 49 million.
A brief history of Japan
A brief history of China
A brief history of Vietnam
A brief history of Cambodia
A brief history of Laos

A brief history of Indonesia


Home
Last revised 2016
Search