Although much of Korea’s early history is a mix of myth and legend, Koreans are extremely proud of their 5000 years of heritage. Following is a thumbnail sketch of the country’s history.
* Korea’s Birth: The legendary founder of Korea, Tangun, was the offspring of the King of Heaven’s son and a bear-turned-woman. In 2333 B.C., he established the Kingdom of Chosun, which means “the Land of the Morning Calm”. Mythical or real, Tangun remains an important symbol of the Korean people and their culture.
The Three Kingdoms: More complete and definitive records exist from the period of the Three Kingdoms, which began in the first century B.C. Koguryo was located in the north while Shilla and Paekje were in the south. The three kingdoms maintained close ties to China, yet developed distinctly different cultures of their own. With the assistance of T’ang China, Shilla was able to unify the peninsula in a single kingdom in 676 AD. Unified Shilla adopted Buddhism as its official religion, built a capital in Gyeongju, and reigned over a ‘golden age’ of art and culture. Some of the temples built during this period can still be seen today in modern Gyeongju. Confucianism was first introduced to Korea during this era. Eventually, Shilla’s power waned and a new dynasty, named Koryo, was founded in 918 A.D. The dynasty lasted for four hundred years and gave its name to modern Korea.
The Chosun Dynasty: When the Ming mounted the Dragon Throne in China, they deposed the Koryo king, who had sided against them with the Mongols. This action paved the way for General Yi Tae-jo to assume the Korean throne in 1392 and proclaim himself the first king of Korea’s last dynasty. He chose Hanyang as his capital. The city was later called Seoul, which simply means ‘capital’. The rural gentry or ‘yangban’ came to dominance during the Chosun period. During this dynasty, Korea developed many of its cultural trademarks: its phonetic alphabet (Hangeul), the heavy stress on Confucian social more and the use of spice in the national cuisine. Two of Korea’s most popular national figures, the scholar-King, Sejong the Great and the naval hero, Admiral Yi Sun-shin, lived in this period. This dynasty also suffered a traumatic invasion by the Japanese. It was during the latter war that the first Westerners, Portuguese missionaries, arrived in Korea. For some 250 years subsequent to this invasion, Korea kept is doors closed to the outside world, earning it the reputation of being “The Hermit Kingdom” – an epithet still used for North Korea. The first Western diplomats, traders and missionaries did not establish themselves in Korea until the late nineteenth century.
The Japanese Occupation and National Division: The Yi dynasty lasted until the Japanese declared Korea its protectorate in 1905. Japan’s thirty-six year occupation of the Korean Peninsula left emotional scars that are still healing today. Although the Japanese Colonial Administration accelerated the hesitant modernization that had begun under the late Yi Dynasty, Koreans were forced to take Japanese names, the Korean language was outlawed and even the singing of Korean songs was forbidden. Not surprisingly, anti-Japanese sentiments are so prevalent in Korea that, despite being its closest neighbor, Korea has allowed the screening of Japanese movies only since the end of 1998. When the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel under what was considered to be an administrative agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to facilitate the Japanese surrender. The Americans received the surrender in the South and the Soviet in the North. The line soon became the political boundary between the two countries, and North Korea became a Communist state. Ex-guerrilla fighter Kim-Il Sung took power in the North. General elections were held in the South, resulting in the election of Syngman Rhee (pronounced ‘Yi’ or ‘EE’ in Korean) as the first President of the Republic of Korea.
The Korean War: In 1950, following border clashes, the Communist regime in the North launched a massive invasion into the Republic. War raged for three years and involved the participation of sixteen nations under the UN flag. Seoul was destroyed, as was the weak industrial and agricultural base of the Korean economy. The human cost was over two million casualties. Eventually, an armistice (cease-fire) was negotiated at the 38th parallel in 1943. The peninsula remains divided today, although various rapprochement initiatives have been implemented in recent years.
The Military Governments: In 1960, Syngman Rhee, President of the Republic since 1948, resigned in the face of massive public demonstrations. In 1961, a military government was established, headed by General Park Chung-hee. Park resigned from his military position and was officially elected president in 1963. Although Park is seen today as an autocrat and near-dictator, during his administration, Korea’s economy blossomed. Modernization and economic development – based on the Japanese-style military-led, heavy industrial model Park had witnessed in Manchuria in the 1940s – were the key goals of Park’s regime.
The chaebols, the giant family-run conglomerates such as Hyundai and Samsung, came to prominence in this era. Park’s determination to keep the country’s industrial base as far from North Korea as possible led him to establish most of the country’s industrial projects in southeastern Korea. The uneven development between the southeast and southwest continues to affect politics today. On October 26, 1979, the nation was stunned by the news that President Park had been assassinated by the head of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency (Note: a previous attempt at assassinating President Park some years earlier had resulted in the death of his wife).
Months of political and economic uncertainty followed before General Chun Doo-hwan emerged as the de facto chief of state. On March 10, 1981, he formally took over the presidency. Chun’s regime was even more oppressive then Park’s and is particularly infamous for the brutal crackdown on demonstrations in the southwestern city of Gwanju in 1980 in which hundreds, maybe thousands, were killed. Despite his successful bid to host the 1988 Olympic, Chun was never as popular as Park, and during the last year of his term, Koreans and the rest of the world watched closely to see if this would be the first peaceful transfer of power since the formation of the Republic.
Opposition parties, while securing among themselves a majority of the vote, were so unwilling to merge that President’ Chun’s hand-picked successor, Roh Tae-woo (also an ex-general) won the election. Despite the peaceful transfer of power, ex-President Chun did not enjoy a peaceful retirement. Discoveries of further abuses of power by people in the administration caused nation-wide shock and demonstrations and sent many of Chun’s relatives to jail. Both he and his wife went into a temporary, self-imposed exile to a small Buddhist temple near Sorak Mountain.
Korea in the 90’s: In 1992, Kim Young-sam was elected President in a three-candidate election and initiated what has been popularly called the first ‘civilian government’ in the nation’s modern history. President Kim began sweeping reforms of some of Korea’s deep-seated practices. His extensive purging of purportedly corrupt government officials and others throughout society earned him widespread media and public support. Towards the end of his five-year term, however, his popularity slumped due to a series of political corruption scandals involving family members and officials close to the President. In 1996, following a high—profile trial for treason, bribery and embezzlement, ex-Presidents Chun and Roh were sentenced to death, sentences that were later commuted to terms of imprisonment. The Chun and Roh trials, however, did little to revive the fortunes of Kim Young-sam’s government. In a hard-fought election in 1997, Kim Dae-jung (‘DJ’) a long-time political dissident from Gwangju, became the first opposition leader ever to be elected to the presidency.
The Economic Crisis, Kim Dae-jung and Inter-Korean Rapprochement: Kim Dae-jung’s campaign took place against the backdrop of the Asian economic crisis in late 1997. Deep flaws were revealed in the economy and, by the end of 1997, the country teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. A number of high-profile companies failed, and in December, the government was forced to appeal to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for assistance to avoid a debt moratorium. Ironically, the 1997-98 crisis is referred to as the ‘IMF Crisis’ by most Koreans. Photos of ‘redundant’ workers carrying placards that read “IMF – I Am Fired” were frequently featured in the media.
Kim Dae-jung formally assumed power in February 1998, though he had been working in tandem with the outgoing administration since his election victory. Upon his assumption of power, a broad ranging series of reforms were initiated to repair and liberalize the crippled economy. These measures involved reforming the financial and industrial systems and attracting foreign investment. In 1999, Korea made a stunning comeback, becoming the IMF’s Asian poster child. The high-tech sector took off, giving Korea a world class IT and telecommunications infrastructure to rival its heavy manufacturing base. However, critics both inside and outside Korea argued that reforms had not gone deep enough. By late 2000, due to the continuing weakness of the financial system and the lack of reform in managerial practices, the economy was looking shaky once again. In 2000 and early 2001, North Korea launched a major diplomatic initiative, securing ties with a number of Western countries.
President Kim won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his success in ushering in a new era of reduced tension in inter-Korea relations. Unfortunately, the later discovery of the ‘cash-for-summit’ North Korean bribery scandal involving the Kim Administration and Hyundai merchant marine has overshadowed much of the success of the first inter-Korean summit held in Pyongyang in 2000. Subsequent corruption revelations regarding President Kim’s staff and family members have also succeeded in tarnishing the reputation of his presidency.
President Roh Moo-hyun, a move to the left: Elected in December 2002, Roh (pronounced Noh) Moo-hyun was a controversial figure from the beginning. His party, Kim Dae-jung’s Millennium Democratic Party tried to replace him before the election and after his election he aligned himself with the new Uri Party. (Note: it is has been quite common in Korea for political parties to change names before or sometimes after an election). Roh did not meet the unofficial requirement for the presidency: not being a graduate from a high status university, preferably Seoul National (he is self-educated and passed the bar without a university degree – a not uncommon practice) and having no connections with the establishment (Roh is from a poor family and had not established strong links with the establishment, including owners of the major new outlets.) A former human rights lawyer, Roh spent his early career battling the policies of previous presidents.
Contrary to his predecessors, this president is seen has having come to office thanks to the younger generation, voters in their 20’s and early 30’s. He is perceived as being too much of a socialist in a society that tends to label socialism as akin to communism. Some of his opponents describe him as anti-US and pro-North Korea. During his mandate, he has negotiated a transfer of war-time powers from the US to Korean military and has also overseen the successful conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and has initiated negotiations for a FTA with the European Union. The National Assembly, where the opposition Grand National Party led by the late President Park’s daughter holds a majority of seats, attempted to impeach President Roh in 2004. Although, this effort to get rid of him failed, the media along with his other opponents have maintained a relentless campaign against this increasingly unpopular leader. Roh has attempted to implemented changes discussed by a number of his predecessors including a constitutional amendment of the one-term five-year mandate of presidents to a maximum two-term, four-year mandate that would apply to his successor. The opposition-controlled National Assembly has succeeded in preventing the process from going forward but has indicated that if it wins the next election it will re-visit the issue.
President Lee Myong Bak, a move back to conservatism. Elected in December 2008, Lee Myong Bak, had served as mayor of Seoul prior to the current mayor. He was elected president on a platform promising a more prosperous future for the country and brough the opposition Grand National Party back into power with a significant majority of seats in the Assembly.
Historical Legacies Today: Even though Korea has achieved astonishing economic success in the last forty years, it has not shed many of the precious legacies of its past. There is a sentimental attachment among all Koreans to their traditional culture of folk and court. Now members of an urban, industrialized society (only 6% of the population is engaged in agriculture) they still maintain strong ties with their rural hometowns, and the national political scene is regionally influenced. The young generation is very much in favor of Japanese trends in fashion and popular culture, but most Koreans still harbor a strong suspicion towards their neighbor; it is difficult to find a national monument that does not showcase signs of Japanese destruction and the trials and suffering of the colonial period remain embedded in the national psyche.
The most obvious historical legacy is the division of the peninsula. (South) Korea is now firmly a democracy, but political uncertainty hangs over the nation due to the North. While expats may look at the outward trappings of Seoul, noting the modernity of the city and the relative scarcity of ancient architecture and conclude that this is a city aiming solely at the future, it is important to understand that the old men smoking in the parks have endured the hardships of peasant life, colonialism, war and dictatorial regimes as have the old women with their backs bent from years malnutrition and sacrifice for family and country. Korea is a country where both modern life and ancient history continue to exert a powerful influence.