Introduction to History of South Korea

According to legend, Korea was founded in 2333 B.C. At that time all the Korean tribes were united by Tangun, son of the god-spirit Hwanung. Recorded history begins in the second century B.C., when the Han dynasty from China conquered parts of Korea and established colonies. These colonies helped to transmit Chinese culture to the Koreans. Some Korean tribes managed to remain independent and from them emerged in the first century B.C. three kingdoms—Koguryo in the northwest, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast. Gradually, the Chinese were driven out, the last colony being destroyed in 313 A.D. During the fourth century, Confucianism and Buddhism were introduced from China. In the late 600's Silla conquered the rival kingdoms and united the entire peninsula under its rule. During the Silla period, art, literature, and architecture, strongly influenced by Chinese Buddhist culture, flourished. Buddhism was made the official religion. The Silla kings, however, began losing authority over the aristocracy. By the late ninth century the country was in turmoil from constant warfare among rival clans.

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Koryo Period

In 932 Wang Kon, a powerful clan leader, succeeded in overthrowing the Silla government and establishing the Koryo kingdom, giving the country its name. Under Wang and his successors, the power of the king was strengthened and the government bureaucracy was built up. Stability allowed Korea to grow prosperous and the arts to develop. By the 12th century, however, political disunity among the ruling classes led to revolts against the Koryo kings. For more than a century the country was ruled by warlords, and there was incessant civil war among rival warlord armies. In 1231 the Mongols invaded Korea and made the Koryo king a vassal.

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Yi Dynasty

In 1388, Yi Song-gye, a Korean general, seized power and formally ended Mongol domination. In 1392 he made himself king, starting the Yi dynasty. Confucianism was made the state doctrine and Buddhists were persecuted. By the 14th century, the Koreans were using movable metal type for printing, years before the Europeans.

In 1592 and 1597 the Japanese launched huge invasions against Korea as part of a plan to conquer China. Both invasions were repulsed by Korean and Chinese armies, but Korea was left devastated by the fighting. In the sea battles the Koreans used the world's first iron-clad ships. Beginning in the 1700's, Korea shut itself off from all countries except China and became known as the “Hermit Kingdom.” China dominated the country's internal affairs.

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Japanese Control

Japan forced Korea to open its ports to Japanese ships in 1876. Korea then made commercial agreements with the United States and other nations. China was forced by Japan to acknowledge Korea's independence in 1895. (See Sino-Japanese War, 1894–95.) After fighting Imperial Russia, which had been extending its influence into Korea, Japan made Korea its protectorate and annexed it in 1910, ending the Yi dynasty. (See Russo-Japanese War.)

Although Japanese rule brought economic development to Korea, it also led to political and cultural repression. The Japanese imposed their national religion, Shintoism, on the Koreans, and required the use of Japanese in schools and publications. Protests against the Japanese broke out in 1919 and were brutally suppressed.

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After World War II

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Japan lost Korea by its defeat in World War II. Soviet troops occupied the northern part of Korea, while United States troops occupied the southern part. The 38th parallel of latitude was the dividing line. The occupying powers could not agree on how a government for all Korea should be established. When the United Nations tried to arrange for supervised elections in 1948, the Soviet Union refused to permit elections in its zone. In the south, the Republic of Korea came into being through the UN-supervised elections, in which Syngman Rhee was elected president. In the north the Communists, under party leader Kim II Sung, established the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

In 1950, North Korean troops attacked across the 38th parallel. When UN demands for a withdrawal were ignored, troops of member nations, in particular the United States, entered the conflict on the side of South Korea. The Communist Chinese then joined North Korea, and the war became stalemated. An armistice in 1953 fixed the boundaries between the two sections substantially as they had been before.

United States funds aided the postwar recovery of South Korea. Although President Syngman Rhee was reelected three times, his administration caused increasing discontent because of its alleged police-state tactics. In 1960 student uprisings forced Rhee to resign. Executive power was given to a cabinet and premier, but in 1961 a military junta led by Park Chung Hee took control.

Park established a political party and was elected president. He was repeatedly reelected. In 1972 he assumed dictatorial powers and pushed through new amendments to the constitution, ending democratic presidential elections in South Korea. Although authoritarian, Park's government did not completely curtail basic freedoms. Under him substantial economic development occurred and South Korea became industrialized.

In October, 1979, Park was assassinated by a government official who hoped to seize power. Park's supporters, however, won control of the government. In December, Major General Chun Doo Hwan seized the government and suppressed all opposition. In 1980 he imposed a new constitution, under which he was elected president the following year.

Under Chun, South Korea prospered. In 1987, with growing opposition to his rule, Chun consented to the adoption of a new, democratic constitution and the holding of elections. The presidential election of 1987 was won by Roh Tae Woo, the former leader of Chun's party. In 1988 the country was host to the summer Olympic Games.

In 1992 Kim Young Sam was elected president. In 1995, after years of public pressure to address the corruption of previous governments and major business leaders, former presidents Chun and Roh were arrested on charges of corruption and for ordering a 1980 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that resulted in at least 200 deaths. In 1996 Chun was sentenced to death; and Roh was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

In 1997 the South Korean economy was hit by a severe financial crisis. In December of that year a $58-billion aid package, the largest international loan to date, was arranged by several countries and international lending agencies to help South Korea's government, banks, and industrial corporations make payments on their debt. The economic difficulties were the most severe South Korea had suffered since its industrialization following the Korean War.

In 1998 former political prisoner and dissident Kim Dae-jung was elected president of South Korea. One of his first acts was an amnesty of hundreds of prisoners. He also pardoned former presidents Chun and Roh.

In 1994 Kim II Sung, North Korea's ruler since 1948, died. His son, Kim Jong II, took control of the country. In 1997 he was named general secretary of the Communist Party and head of the army. In 1998 he was named “Great Leader,” the same title his father held. North Korea suffered a serious famine in the mid- and late 1990's.

In June, 2000 South Korea's President Kim Dae-jung and North Korea's President Kim Jong II met at a summit and pledged to work toward the eventual reunification of their countries. As a first step, 100 people from each country were temporarily reunited with relatives they had not seen since the start of the Korean War in 1950. These were the first such reunions permitted since 1985.

In 2002 North Korea revealed that it was conducting a nuclear weapons program, and therefore in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States, South Korea, and Japan not to engage in such a program. In January 2003 North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of which it had been a party, and later that year announced that it had reprocessed spent nuclear fuel rods, a method of obtaining weapons-grade nuclear material. Mistrustful of North Korea's intentions, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States began in 2003 to hold a series of multiparty negotiations with North Korea in an effort to persuade it to discontinue using nuclear technology.