Central Themes for a Unit on Korea

by Charles K. Armstrong, Professor of Korean Studies (retired), Columbia University

Originally designed in the 1980s to support the New York State 9th-10th grade Global History requirement, the themes are designed to provide an infrastructure for the myriad facts and dates encountered in studying the long histories of the East Asian countries. The themes are reprinted here for educators seeking new perspectives to bring to bear on the individual histories of each of the East Asian countries — China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam — and of South and Southeast Asia also.

I. Korea in its Physical and Cultural Environment

Physical Setting

  • Korea's position as a peninsula on the eastern edge of Northeast Asia has determined much of its social, political, and cultural history.

Cultural Influences

  • From the political unification of the Korean peninsula in the seventh century C.E. until the twentieth century, Korea was a centralized monarchy, ruled by a king, and until at least the fourteenth century Korea also had a powerful hereditary aristocracy. Unlike the warrior class in Japan, the military in Korea lost its elevated social status after the fourteenth century.
  • There are few ethnic minorities in Korea.
  • The Korean language is part of the Uralic family of languages, along with Japanese and Mongolian. It is quite different from the Chinese language, which is a member of the Sinitic family of languages. There are relatively minor differences in dialect found in Korea, and the language today is quite uniform. (See further discussion of the Korean spoken and written language below.)
  • The political, linguistic, and ethnic unity of the Korean peninsula over a long period of time has created a strong sense of national identity and distinctiveness among the Korean people.
  • Korea shares a long land border with China to the north, a much shorter border with Russia to the northeast, and across a narrow strait to the southeast are the islands of Japan.
  • Through much of its history Korea has been greatly influenced by Chinese civilization, borrowing the written language, arts, religions, and models of government administration from China, and, in the process, transforming these borrowed traditions into distinctly Korean forms.
  • Korea has in turn exerted a strong cultural influence on Japan.
  • Although Koreans have adopted Buddhism, T Daoism, and Confucianism from China, native folk religion or shamanism, which involves communicating with the spirits of nature and the dead, has been and remains popular among many ordinary people in Korea. Since the early twentieth century Christianity has also been widely practiced.
  • Korea had very little influence from the West until the latter half of the nineteenth century. Unlike many other countries in Asia, Korea was colonized not by Western imperialist powers in the late 1800s and early 1900s but by Japan, an Asian imperialist power, in the first half of the twentieth century. Japan fought China for dominance in Korea in 1894-95 and annexed Korea in 1910.
  • Since World War II the United States has been a major political and cultural influence in South Korea.

Strategic Position and National Division

  • In modern times Korea has been the object of strategic rivalry among competing regional powers, including China, Russia, and Japan.
  • After a thirty-five year period of Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, Korea was separated into American and Soviet zones of occupation at the end of World War II. Attempts to create a unified government over the whole Korean peninsula failed, and in 1948 these occupation zones became, respectively, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea).
  • The two Korean states fought a brutal war with each other between 1950 and 1953, with the People’s Republic of China supporting the North and the US and its allies supporting the South. The war ended without a decisive victory for either side and with the country still divided. Despite the end of the cold war and tentative moves toward North-South reconciliation, Korea remains divided into two mutually hostile states, existing in a tense condition of armed truce.

II. Traditional Korea

Independence and Identity

  • Prior to Japanese annexation in 1910, Korea experienced over 1,000 years of almost uninterrupted political independence and unity, with the exception of indirect rule by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and a period of civil war in the early tenth century.
  • Like Japan, Vietnam, and a number of other states in Asia, successive Korean dynasties acknowledged China as the center of civilization and paid symbolic tribute to the Chinese emperor on a regular basis. But in practice Korea was independent of China and developed its own distinct culture and political systems, based in part on Chinese models.
  • A number of important characteristics of traditional Korea remained well into the twentieth century, and to some extent can still be seen today. These include:
    • a sense of cultural closeness to China;
    • the transformation of borrowed traditions;
    • limiting of outside influences and tendency toward seclusion;
    • social stability and hierarchy

Origins of the Korean People

  • In prehistoric times the Korean peninsula was populated by nomadic peoples migrating from the Northeast Asian mainland, who developed settled agricultural communities around 4,000-5,0000 years ago.
  • Chinese historical records show the existence of tribal states in northern Korea and Manchuria (northeast China) before 1,000 BCE and parts of the Korean peninsula were occupied by Chinese military forces during the Han dynasty around the time of Christ.
  • According to Korean legend, a semi-divine figure named Tangun established the first Korean kingdom in 2,333 BCE and named his kingdom Choson, which was also the name of the last Korean dynasty (1392-1910) and the name for Korea currently used in North Korea (in South Korea, the name for Korea is Hanguk).

Three Kingdoms (c. 50 BCE–668 CE)

  • In the first century BCE numerous tribal states on the Korean peninsula consolidated into three kingdoms: Koguryo (37 BCE-668 CE) in the north (extending into Manchuria), Paekche (18 BCE-663 CE) in the southwest, and Silla (57 BCE-668 CE) in the southeast. All were strongly influenced by Chinese culture and government administration, including the use of the Confucian examination system to train government officials. Buddhism, originally from India, was also adopted from China and became an important part of Korea’s religious culture and remains so to the present day.
  • Development of a writing system: Like the Japanese and Vietnamese, Koreans adopted the Chinese writing system. However, like Japanese, the Korean language is structurally very different from Chinese, and Chinese characters were modified and new characters invented to correspond to Korean grammatical patterns. A modified Chinese writing system called idu was used along with "pure" classical Chinese to write the Korean language, until an indigenous Korean writing system was developed. This system was called hungmin chongum (meaning "correct sounds for instructing the people") when it was invented in the mid-fifteenth century but became known as Hangul after 1913. Hangul is a phonetic system, one of the simplest and most efficient writing systems in the world, and was promulgated by King Sejong in 1446 during the Choson dynasty.

Unified Silla (668–935 CE)

  • The Tang dynasty of China (7th-10th centuries) was a "golden age" of Chinese civilization, and Chinese culture strongly influenced China’s neighbors at this time, especially Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Of the three, Korea was probably the most faithful to the Chinese "model," although it maintained its cultural distinctiveness and, unlike Vietnam, was never incorporated into the Chinese empire itself.
  • In the seventh century, the Korean kingdom of Silla allied with Tang China to defeat its rivals Paekche and Koguryo, and by 668 Silla had conquered most of the Korean peninsula. Historians often refer to the period from the Silla conquest until the end of the Silla dynasty as "Unified Silla," although the extreme north of the peninsula and a large part of Manchuria were under the control of the Parhae kingdom, which had incorporated part of the Koguryo aristocracy into its ruling elite.
  • The state religion of Silla was Buddhism, and some of the most impressive Buddhist monuments in Asia were built during the Silla period near the Silla capital of Kyongju in southeastern Korea. Silla was also very active in maritime trade in East Asia, and the kingdom was even known by Arab traders, who were the first to transmit knowledge of Korea, or "al-Sila" as the Arabs called it, to the West.

Koryo (918–1392)

  • In the late ninth century the Silla kingdom declined, and the Korean peninsula fragmented again into three rival states, calling themselves the "latter three kingdoms." The northern-based "latter Koguryo" triumphed, and in 918 latter Koguryo established its rule over the whole Korean peninsula, shortening its name to "Koryo." The capital of Koryo was Kaesong, in present-day North Korea. It was the name of this dynasty, adopted by Portuguese explorers from the Japanese pronunciation of Koryo (Korei), that became the Western name for "Korea."
  • Mongol Domination (1231-1336). In the thirteenth century the Mongols, a nomadic people from northern Asia who conquered China and much of Asia and eastern Europe, invaded Korea. Koryo became a vassal state of Yuan dynasty (Mongol) China. The Mongol ruler Kubilai Khan attempted to use Korea as a bridge to conquer Japan, but the Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 both ended in failure. Finally, the Mongols were driven out of Korea in the middle of the fourteenth century.
  • Koryo, like its predecessor Silla, upheld Buddhism as the state religion. During the Mongol invasions devout Koryo monks transcribed Buddhist scriptures called the Tripitaka onto more than 80,000 wooden blocks. The Tripitaka Koreana, which is currently housed in South Korea, is the oldest extant wood block text of Buddhist scripture in the world.

Choson (1392–1910)

In 1392 a Koryo general named Yi Song-gye deposed the Koryo king and established a new dynasty, which he called Choson, after the legendary early Korean kingdom.

  • One of the Choson founders’ goals was to eliminate the power of the Buddhist church; consequently, Buddhism was no longer supported by the state, temple lands were confiscated, and Choson established Confucianism as the state "religion."
  • Korean state rituals, philosophy, ethics, and social norms were strongly influenced by Chinese Confucianism.
  • As in China, government-sponsored examinations were required for men to enter the state bureaucracy, and a position in the government was considered a mark of high status for an individual and his family. But unlike China, the pool of eligible examination takers in Korea was officially limited to members of the upper social class, called yangban.
  • Choson dynasty Korea was characterized by strict social divisions according to status and occupation, close observance of Confucian rituals such as ancestor veneration, separation of male and female with pronounced male domination, and, after the end of the sixteenth century, self-imposed isolation from most of the outside world.

Invasion and Seclusion (16th century)

  • In 1592 and 1597, the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having recently united the feuding domains of Japan under his leadership, invaded Korea as the first step in his attempt to conquer China. China, then under the Ming dynasty, came to Korea’s aid and defeated Hideyoshi’s forces, but in the process Korea was devastated by the war. Korea was again invaded in 1627 and 1636 by the Manchus, a nomadic people from continental Asia, who forced Korea to pay tribute to the Manchu king. The Manchus went on to conquer China in 1644, establishing the Qing dynasty in China.
  • After this, the Choson government followed a policy of seclusion, restricting its interaction with Japan largely to ceremonial contacts through the island of Tsushima, and limiting its contact with China to a few tributary missions a year.
  • By the middle of the nineteenth century, when European powers were encroaching on East and Southeast Asia in pursuit of trade, diplomatic relations, and colonial conquest, Korea’s continued seclusion earned it the nickname "Hermit Kingdom."

Two Centuries of Peace (1600s-1850s)

  • Koreans today sometimes refer their country as a "shrimp among whales," the recurrent victim of conflict among larger outside powers. In fact, Korea traditionally neither thought of itself as a "small" country nor did it experience many wars or invasions, especially compared to Europe at the same time.
  • The Choson dynasty, one of the longest-lived actively ruling dynasties in East Asia, experienced more than 250 years of internal peace and stable borders.
  • Like China and unlike Japan, there was no entrenched military class in Choson. Rather, Koreans put great emphasis on scholarly learning, in the Confucian tradition, and looked down upon military pursuits.
  • The early Choson period was also a time of artistic and scientific advances in Korea. The Choson king Sejong promulgated a phonetic writing system for Korean in 1446. Now called Hangul, the Korean alphabet is, as noted above, one of the simplest and most efficient writing systems in the world. But the scholarly yangban class made limited use of Hangul and continued to write most of its literature, philosophy, and official documents in classical Chinese until the twentieth century.

Imperialism: Western and Japanese

  • By the mid-nineteenth century Korea was one of the last Asian holdouts against Western imperialism, which had conquered much of southern Asia and was making inroads on China. Vietnam, which like Korea was a close tributary state to China, had been conquered by the French in the 1860s.
  • Following the successful opening of Japan to trade and diplomacy with the West in 1854 through the "gunboat diplomacy" of Commodore Perry of the US Navy, the British, the French, and the Americans all attempted to open Korea in a similar fashion. Korea, however, refused to comply to Western demands, and engaged in naval skirmishes with the French and the Americans in the 1860s and early 1870s.
  • In the end, the country was forced to open up not by the West, but by Japan itself. The 1876 Treaty of Kanghwa between Japan and Korea, named after the island off the west coast of Korea where it was signed, was a classic "unequal treaty" of the kind Western powers were imposing on Asian countries, including China and Japan, in the nineteenth century. The treaty gave Japan special trading rights and other privileges in Korea that were not reciprocated for Koreans in Japan. The United States and major European countries soon followed with their own treaties of trade and diplomacy with Korea.
  • By the end of the nineteenth century, rivalry over Korea led to war between Japan and China (1894-95) and, ten years later, between Japan and Russia (1904-5). Japan won both wars, and in 1910 Japan annexed Korea as a colony, ending the Choson dynasty after more than 500 years of independent rule.

III. Colonialism, Liberation, and Civil War

Japanese Colonial Rule (1910–1945)

  • Korea was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910-1945. For the first ten years Japan ruled directly through the military, and any Korean dissent was ruthlessly crushed. After a nationwide protest against Japanese colonialism that began on March 1, 1919, Japanese rule relaxed somewhat, allowing a limited degree of freedom of expression for Koreans.
  • Despite the often oppressive and heavy-handed rule of the Japanese authorities, many recognizably modern aspects of Korean society emerged or grew considerably during the 35-year period of colonial rule. These included rapid urban growth, the expansion of commerce, and forms of mass culture such as radio and cinema, which became widespread for the first time. Industrial development also took place, partly encouraged by the Japanese colonial state, although primarily for the purposes of enriching Japan and fighting the wars in China and the Pacific rather than to benefit the Koreans themselves. Such uneven and distorted development left a mixed legacy for the peninsula after the colonial period ended.
  • By the time of the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Korea was the second-most industrialized nation in Asia after Japan itself.
  • But the wartime mobilization of 1937-45 had re-introduced harsh measures to Japanese colonial rule, as Koreans were forced to work in Japanese factories and were sent as soldiers to the front. Tens of thousands of young Korean women were drafted as "Comfort Women" - in effect, sexual slaves - for Japanese soldiers.
  • In 1939, Koreans were even pressured by the colonial authorities to change their names to Japanese names, and more than 80 percent of the Koreans complied with the name-change ordinance.

Liberation, Division, and War (1945–1953)

  • The Japanese surrender to the Allies on August 15, 1945, which ended World War II, led to a time of great confusion and turmoil in Korea.
  • The country was divided into zones of occupation by the victorious Americans and Soviets, and various individuals and organizations across the political spectrum from Communists to the far Right claimed to speak for an independent Korean government. The Soviets and Americans failed to reach an agreement on a unified Korean government, and in 1948 two separate governments were established, each claiming to be the legitimate government of all Korea: the Republic of Korea in Seoul, in the American zone, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Pyongyang, in the Soviet zone.
  • On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded the South. The Korean War drew in the Americans in support of South Korea and the Chinese in support of the North.
  • In July 1953, after three years of bloody fighting in which some three million Koreans, one million Chinese, and 54,000 Americans were killed, the Korean War ended in a truce with Korea still divided into two mutually antagonistic states, separated by a heavily fortified "De-Militarized Zone" (DMZ). Korea has remained divided ever since.

IV. Contemporary Korea

The Two Koreas

  • The Republic of Korea (South Korea) today is a prosperous nation with a per capita gross national income of around $US 30,000, putting it in the high-income group of countries – less affluent than the United States, Germany, or Canada but close to the level of Italy, Japan, Britain and France. It is also an established democracy, having thrown off military rule in the early 1990s and maintaining a representative civilian democratic government ever since.
  • The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), although ahead of the South economically until the 1960s or even the early 1970s, has suffered great economic hardship in recent decades, and went through a period of severe famine in the late 1990s. North Korea’s government is a single-party state established along Leninist principles borrowed from the Soviet Union and was under the leadership of Kim Il Sung from its founding in 1945 until Kim’s death in 1994. After Kim Il Sung’s death, leadership passed to his son Kim Jong Il, and after the latter’s death in 2011 power passed in turn to his son Kim Jong Un.
  • At the end of the Korean War in 1953, both Koreas lay utterly devastated. In addition to the loss of millions of lives, the two Koreas were beset with a ruined economic infrastructure, millions of displaced persons, and hundreds of thousands of war orphans. South Korea in 1953 was one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite a huge amount of economic assistance from the United States, the United Nations, and other Western countries for post-war reconstruction, the South Korean economy did not really begin to pick up again until the early 1960s. In 1961 the civilian government was removed in a coup led by Major General Park Chung Hee, who ruled South Korea until his assassination in 1979.

Economic and Political Development in the Two Koreas Today

South Korea

  • The Park Chung Hee era saw both extraordinary economic growth and deepening political dictatorship. In the 1970s and 1980s Korea was known as one of the four "Little Dragons" of newly industrialized East Asian countries, which also included Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
  • After Park’s death and a brief period of civilian rule, South Korea was again brought under the control of the military, this time under General Chun Doo Hwan.
  • Despite the continued economic growth and rising international stature of South Korea, culminating in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, protests against Chun’s dictatorship grew throughout the 1980s. Chun stepped down in 1987 and was replaced by his close comrade-in-arms, Roh Tae Woo, who was elected president in a closely fought race against two long-time political dissidents, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung.
  • In 1992, Kim Young Sam, who had by then joined Roh Tae Woo’s ruling coalition, was elected South Korea’s first civilian president since the 1961 military coup.
  • Another presidential election was held in December 1997, amidst a devastating financial crisis that deeply shook the economies of South Korea and several other Asian countries. This time Kim Dae Jung was elected president, his fourth attempt at the presidency since 1971, and the first time a representative of an opposition party had won the presidency.
  • Under Kim Dae Jung’s presidency the South Korean economy made a substantial recovery from the 1997-98 financial crisis, democratic institutions were further developed, and South Korea pursued a policy of engagement and dialogue with the North.
  • South Korean presidents serve single five-year terms. Since the late 1990s administrations have tended to alternate between center-left and center-right presidencies in 10-year cycles, with the unicameral national assembly, elected every four years, in rough correspondence. The current president is Moon Jae-in, a progressive, elected in 2017.

North Korea

  • North Korea also recovered from the destruction of war with a great deal of outside assistance, in the North’s case from the Soviet Union, China, and several Eastern European states. The North’s economy recovered more quickly than the South’s, and in the late 1950s North Korea may have had the fastest economic growth rate in the world.
  • In the l960s North Korean leader Kim Il Sung began advocating a policy of juche, or "self-reliance," partly to avoid becoming entangled in the growing conflict between China and the USSR. Although North Korea was not completely isolated and continued to receive some outside aid, it generally pursued a policy of economic self-sufficiency.
  • Much like traditional Korea, North Korea tightly restricted travel in and out of Korea and North Koreans’ contacts with foreigners. Also like traditional Korea, North Korea’s closest ally has been, and remains, China.
  • After the East European communist states collapsed and the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989-90, many observers predicted that North Korea would follow suit. The absorption of East Germany into the German Federal Republic (West Germany) suggested that a similar kind of unification could occur in Korea, with the collapse of North Korea and it absorption into the far more affluent South.
  • But such a scenario did not occur, and despite grave economic hardship and the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Il Sung, the North Korea regime remained in place well into the twenty-first century. In 1994 Kim Il Sung was replaced as leader by his eldest son Kim Jong Il, a succession that North Korea had been planning for decades, and after Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011 power was passed on to his own son Kim Jong Un.
  • Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has pursued a degree of market-oriented economic reform, but the power of the Korean Workers’ Party and the state remain extremely strong. At the same time North Korea has been developing a nuclear arsenal, despite widespread international criticism. By 2020 North Korea was thought to have 20 to 60 nuclear weapons. North Korea has also been strongly criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Council and many foreign governments for violating the human rights of its citizens.
  • Kim Jong Un has engaged in summit diplomacy with South Korean president Moon Jae In, whom he met three times in 2018, as well as with US President Donald Trump. Trump became the first sitting US president to meet with a North Korean top leader when he met with Kim in Singapore in June 2018. In June 2019, Trump and Kim Jong Un met in the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea.

North-South Relations

  • After the end of the Korean War in 1953, the two Koreas had no official contact with each other for almost twenty years. In 1972, secret negotiations between officials of both governments led to a joint communiqué on peaceful unification.
  • Since that time the two Koreas have gone through periods of interaction and estrangement. Government officials, business leaders, and separated family members have met on numerous occasions, and notable cooperation agreements were signed between Seoul in Pyongyang in 1991, 1992, 2007 and 2018.
  • Nevertheless, the two sides remain in a state of unresolved conflict and mistrust between the two sides remains high.
  • International cooperation around the two Koreas has also ebbed and flowed. China and Russia have official diplomatic relations with both Seoul and Pyongyang, whereas the US and Japan have yet to normalize relations with North Korea. From 2003 – 2008 North and South Korea, China, the US, Russia and Japan held Six-Party Talks to address the North Korean nuclear program and other issues, but the talks ended inconclusively.

Korea and the World Today

Korea, long an important source of cultural and religious creativity and commercial trade in East Asia, has become an important player on the world stage today in areas ranging from business and economics to international security and popular culture.

  • South Korea is a major trading nation, a member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of advanced industrial countries, and a leader in digital technology, cell phones and automobile production.
  • South Korea has hosted numerous international conferences on security, human rights, and other global issues. From 2007 – 2016 a South Korean, Ban Ki-moon, was Secretary General of the United Nations.
  • South Korean popular culture – including film, music, and TV dramas – has gained large audiences around the world. In particular, Korean popular music or “K-Pop” became a global phenomenon in the 21st century, attracting a huge fan base in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
  • Nor is Korea a small country: South Korea alone is larger than an average European nation. In land area North and South Korea together are about the size of Britain. The combined population of North and South Korea is nearly 70 million, larger than Britain or France. over 75 million, as of 2020, larger than Britain or France and slightly smaller than Germany. (See CIA World Factbook for current figures). Furthermore, millions people of Korean descent live in other countries. The largest overseas Korean communities are in China, the United States, Japan and the states of the former Soviet Union.
  • Furthermore, more than five million people of Korean descent live in other countries. The largest overseas Korean communities are in China and United States (roughly two million each), Japan (700,000) and the states of the former Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia (500,000).
  • In modern times Korea has been at the center of rivalry between regional great powers and between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Korea’s current division is a result of that rivalry, but has outlasted the cold war as a problem unique to Korea.
  • The hostility and potential for military conflict between the two heavily armed Korean states is a cause of great concern for the rest of East Asia, as well as for the United States and other countries in the world.
  • Despite their many differences, the two Koreas have both built modern industrial societies on the basis of a common history and cultural heritage.
  • The high value placed on family, social propriety, and education are part of that heritage, closely associated with Korea’s Confucian traditions.
  • Whether and in what form the two Koreas may one day be unified remains to be seen, but however the current division is resolved, Korea has long been an important and integral part of East Asian affairs, and is becoming increasingly visible in world affairs as well.