Please note that some changes have been made to this history at the request of the Official Korean Information Service.
Ancient Korean History
Korean history is thought to have begun with the settlement of the peninsula by Tungusic tribes, who spoke a Ural-Altaic language, followed shamanic religion, and had a paleolithic culture, about 3000 ©. Tangun, a legendary figure, is said to have established the first Korean "kingdom" of Choson in 2333 ©. The introduction of bronze tools from China and the establishment of Chinese military colonies in Korea in 108 © led to the sinicization of Korea and the rapid development of agriculture.
Meanwhile, three loosely organized Korean tribal federations, which emerged in the 3d century ©, were transformed into kingdoms. The founding of the kingdoms of Silla in 57 ©, of Koguryo in 37 ©, and of Paekche in 18 © (traditional dates) marked the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period in Korean history. Koguryo, initially based in southern Manchuria, expanded southward and in • 313 overthrew Lolang (Lo-lang), the last Chinese stronghold in Korea.
During this period, the influence of Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and other forms of Chinese culture increased in Korea. Buddhism also grew, particularly in Paekche and Silla. Silla expelled (562) the Japanese—who had established a foothold on the coast in the 4th century—and between 660 and 668 destroyed both Paekche and Koguryo with Chinese help. Having unified Korea, Silla became a highly centralized state in which Buddhism and the arts flourished.
In the 9th century, however, serious provincial rebellions broke out, and in 936 the kingdom was finally overthrown by rebels who had established the Koryo dynasty, with its capital at Kaesong, in 918.
Under the Koryo dynasty power was initially wielded by civilian administrators, and the political, social, economic, and educational systems of Korea became increasingly sinicized. In 1170 the military seized control and suppressed Buddhism. By the end of the 12th century a military family, the Ch'oe, ruled the country, but opposition to it mounted, especially after the Mongols began their invasions in 1231. In 1258 the Ch'oe were deposed, and their civilian successor submitted to the Mongols.
A relatively peaceful period of Koryo rule under Mongol suzerainty followed. The invention (1234) of a new printing system with movable type allowed the ready dissemination of Buddhist and Confucian writings, and Korean potters manufactured high-quality green Koryo ware (see Korean art). A revolt against Mongol rule in 1356 brought another period of disorder. Finally, in 1392, the Koryo king was overthrown by the Joseon Dynasty, aided by the new Ming dynasty in China, to whom the Yi swore allegiance.
The Joseon Dynasty, which established a new capital at Hanyang (now Seoul), rejected Buddhism and established Ju Xi (Chu Hsi) Confucianism as a national orthodoxy. It also improved relations with its Chinese overlords and brought about economic and social reforms. A well-functioning Confucian bureaucracy, an orderly social structure, rapid development of the educational system accompanied by the publication of many books, and the growth of science and technology seemed to promise a bright future. The adoption of the Korean writing system, called hangul, by King Sejong (r. 1418-50) in 1443 marked the high point in cultural development.
From the early 16th century, however, growing factionalism among scholars, mismanagement of state affairs by officials, court intrigues and power struggles, usurpation of power and privileges by the landed gentry, decline of foreign trade, and increasing tax burdens brought about political instability as well as economic decline and social upheavals. A reform school known as Silhak arose among scholars and officials, but Confucian conservatism prevented change.
The devastating but unsuccessful invasions (1592-98) by the Japanese under Hideyoshi and the wars of conquest (1627-37) by the Manchu worsened the internal situation. Vassalage to the Manchu, who went on to overthrow the Ming and establish the Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty in China, fostered Korean antiforeign sentiments. The state of the nation continued to deteriorate as rebellions and peasant uprisings erupted.
Contact with the West and Japan
Roman Catholicism was brought to Korea from China in the 17th century, and what was called Western Learning developed. A new native religion called Tonghak (Eastern Learning) arose in 1860 and won the support of the underprivileged and mistreated peasantry. Persecution of the Christians and the destruction of a U.S. merchant ship in 1866 helped provoke Western assaults by the French in 1866 and the United States in 1871.
The Koreans resisted these attacks, but in 1876 the Japanese took advantage of the governmental disruption within Korea to force a commercial treaty on the Yi. Six years later Korea, the "hermit kingdom," also opened its doors to the Western nations, beginning with a treaty with the United States.
After the opening of Korea rivalries developed—particularly among China, Japan, and Russia—for predominance of influence over the weak Korean state. In 1894 followers of Tonghak revolted against the government, and China sent troops to suppress the rebellion. Japan also sent troops to Korea. The First Sino-Japanese War ensued (1894-95), and victorious Japan established hegemony over the nominally independent Korea. After defeating the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Japan was strong enough to force Korea to become a protectorate. After some Korean resistance Japan formally annexed the country in 1910.
During the Japanese colonial period (1905-45) the Koreans endured political suppression, economic exploitation, and social and educational discrimination, in addition to attempts to Japanize their culture. The so-called March movement of 1919 mounted massive demonstrations against colonial rule and was brutally suppressed. Subsequent independence movements were similarly treated. In the meantime Korea became an important economic and military base for Japan's continental expansion.
The Japanese surrender to the Allies in 1945 liberated Korea from Japan, but the country was divided along the 38th parallel of latitude between the U.S. and Soviet occupation forces. In November 1947 the United Nations adopted a resolution to set up a unified independent Korean government, but the UN commission responsible was able to hold elections only in the southern (U.S.) zone. On Aug. 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea was inaugurated, ending U.S. military rule in the South. In North Korea the Communists established their own regime and inaugurated the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in September 1948. Thus the temporary military demarcation line became the boundary between two Korean states. Since the devastating Korean War (1950-53), which resulted from a North Korean invasion of the South, there has been only an uneasy truce along the line.
For the history since 1948, see History 1945 on.
Andrew C. Nahm
Bibliography: Choy, B., Korea: A History (1971); Eckert, C. J., and Lee, K., Korea Old and New (1990); Han, W., The History of Korea, trans. by Grafton Mintz and Kyung-Shik Lee (1971); Henthorn, W. E., A History of Korea (1971); Kim, C. I. E. and H., Korea and the Politics of Imperialism, 1876-1910 (1967); Kim, J., The Prehistory of Korea, trans. by Richard and Kazue Pearson (1978); Lee, K., A New History of Korea, trans. by E. W. Wagner and E. J. Schultz (1984); Lone, S., and McCormack, G., Korea Since 1850 (1993); Nahm, A. C., Introduction to Korean History and Culture (1993) and Korea (1988); Nelson, S., The Archaeology of Korea (1993); Willis, J. L., A Concise History of Korea to 1905 (1990).
Copyright (c) 1999 Grolier Interactive Inc.