A Concise History of Korea
This chapter covers the following topics:
Korea is a small, politically divided country that occupies the strategically important Korean peninsula in East Asia. The peninsula is 600 miles long, 200 miles wide, and it shares land borders with China on the north and Russia on the northeast, while Japan lies just 120 miles to the east, on the other side of Tsushima Strait. Most of the land, like Japan, is full of rugged forest-covered mountains; only about 20% of the whole Korean peninsula is suitable for settlement and cultivation, meaning that most of the population of both republics is concentrated in small, isolated coastal plains and inland valleys that open onto the western coast. The name by which we call the land is derived from Koryo, the dynasty that ruled the peninsula from 935 to 1392, which in turn is an abbreviated form of Koguryo, the name of an older kingdom.(1) Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea; Seoul is the capital of South Korea. Both republics seek eventual reunification of the peninsula through the political overthrow of the other. Following the devastation of the Korean War (1950-53), both nations had to rebuild their economies; South Korea looked outward, developing a successful export-oriented economy. North Korea, one of the world's most highly regimented and isolated societies, focused on economic self-sufficiency.
The estimated population of South Korea (2002) is 48,324,000, while that of North Korea is 22,224,195. For South Korea that works out to a population density of 1,261 per square mile, going up to 43,700 per square mile in Seoul, making it one of the most crowded places in the world. There are also an estimated 7 million ethnic Koreans living just across the Yalu River, in the Manchurian provinces of China. Finally there is a community of slightly more than 600,000 Koreans living in the United States, immigrants who have come over since the late nineteenth century, and an equal number live in Japan as descendants of domestic servants, brought there during the years when Korea was under Japanese rule.
Koreans are an ethnically homogenous Asiatic people who have shared a common history, language, and culture since at least the 7th century A.D., when the peninsula was first united. Despite racial and cultural similarities, the Koreans and Chinese are not very closely related. The Chinese came out of Central Asia before the dawn of history, and are closely related to their neighbors in the south and west (Tibetans, Burmese and various hill tribes), but not to anybody else; the Koreans are descended from the hunting and herding peoples of eastern Siberia and Manchuria, rather than the Mongolian and Turkic-speaking tribes that make up most of Asia's interior. The Korean language is believed to have developed from a Tungusic (Siberian) base thousands of years ago, though many words have been borrowed from the Chinese and Japanese languages. The Korean alphabet, called hangul, was developed during the 15th century and is one of the oldest phonetic alphabets in East Asia.
Traditionally, Koreans have followed Buddhism and Confucianism; the latter was Korea's official religion from the 14th to the early 20th century. Many South Koreans are Christians (11% are Catholics, 38% Protestants), thanks to a highly successful missionary effort in recent years by evangelical groups like the Assembly of God Churches; at the rate membership is growing, it is likely that in the twenty-first century South Korea will become the Far East's second predominantly Christian nation (the Philippines was first). Also important are shamanism, a widely practiced belief in natural spirits, and a strongly nationalistic religion known as Chundo Kyo (Tonghak before 1905), which was founded in the 19th century and combines elements of animism, Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism. In North Korea religious activity is all but nonexistent, having been stamped out ruthlessly(2) and replaced by the ideologies of Marxism and Juche ("self-reliance").
Korea has a long history as a cultural bridge across which Chinese culture was transmitted to Japan and Japanese influences reached the mainland. Korean culture was greatly enriched by this contact, but it also meant that the energetic Korean people have been dominated either by China or Japan for most of their history. Nevertheless, the Koreans have maintained their identity as a separate and distinct people, and have sometimes been active civilizers in their own right. They were, for example, instrumental in the transmission of Buddhist teachings and art forms to Japan. Therefore, in tracing Korea's rise as one of the major satellite civilizations of China, we must be careful not to neglect the initiatives and remarkable creativity of the Korean people themselves.
Excavations at 13 stone age sites have shown a close relationship between Korea's prehistoric culture and that of neighboring peoples. For example, Korean combware pottery has been found as far away as the Shandong peninsula of China, and the discovery of it in Japan suggests that as early as 3000 B.C. there was interaction between the Koreans and the Japanese. Stone spears and arrowheads have also been found, as well as bone hooks and stone weights (used for fishing), and the presence of stone plows and sickles hints that they were already familiar with farming. People lived in round or rectangular dugouts with fireplaces in the center and covered with thatched roofs. The dominant ethnic group in these communities was probably a Tungusic tribe, which spoke a Ural-Altaic language, followed shamanism, worshiped bears, and had a paleolithic culture. They migrated from Manchuria or Siberia in several waves between 3000 and 500 B.C.; once in the peninsula they met another ethnic group who called themselves the Hans.(3) Over time these groups intermingled until were no differences between them, forming the language and racial stock of modern Korea in the process.
Korea, like the countries around it, has a history that stretches into the distant past with legendary beginnings. According to these legends the first Korean state was called Choson, and it was located in the valley of the Taedong River. Near the beginning of time Hwanung, the son of the god who created the world, wished to descend to earth and live among humans. His father, after examining three great mountains, chose the Myohyang mountains in north Korea as the most suitable place to bring happiness to the human race. He sent his son off with three gifts (a drum, a mirror, and a bell, all of which are considered magical tools by Korean shamans) and three thousand loyal subjects.
Hwanung made his landing on earth, built a city, and began to teach the people 360 "useful arts," like agriculture, medicine, moral principles and law. Then he met a she-bear and a tigress who lived in a cave. They prayed that Hwanung would bless them by transforming them into human beings. He responded by giving each of them a bunch of mugwort(4) and twenty pieces of garlic, and told them, "If you eat this holy food and do not see the sunlight for twenty-one days, you will become human beings." Both ate the food and retired into the cave. Three weeks later the she-bear, who had followed the instructions faithfully, became a woman; while the tigress, who could not bear to shun daylight for so long, remained in her original form. Not long after that Hwanung found the bear-woman, who could not find a husband, praying for a son, so he married her. They had a son named Tangun, who is credited with the founding of both Choson and Pyongyang (the future North Korean capital) in the fiftieth year of the ancient Chinese king Yao, or 2333 B.C. Tangun ruled as Korea's first king for the next 1,200 years; when the Chinese noble Kija arrived, Tangun did not oppose his takeover, but withdrew from human society and became a mountain god at the age of 1,908.
If there is any truth to this legend, it would make Pyongyang contemporary with Ebla and older than Thebes or Babylon! So far archaeology has not found any evidence that a Tangun dynasty ever existed. If it did, it is unlikely it ruled that far in the past, for Korean legends list almost nothing happening during the 1,200 years credited to it. One must also remember that it is a part of human nature to make one's country appear very old, to give it an air of superiority over other countries. The mention of important Chinese people at both the beginning and end of Tangun's reign makes this author suspicious, as if the purpose of the legends was to make Korea look at least as old as China. Japan and Vietnam also have legends that put their origins very far back; read my histories of those countries for details.
Tangun's role is causing a certain amount of controversy in South Korea today. For a start, it is not known if Tangun is an aboriginal myth or a later creation; the oldest existing Korean history which mentions Tangun dates to the thirteenth century A.D. Whether or not he existed, Tangun has come to life in the minds of the Korean people, as a symbol of Korean nationalism. When a declaration of independence from Japanese rule failed in 1919, one of the declaration's signers, a historian named Choe Namson, founded a Tangun-worshipping religion, Taejonggyo. Today this cult operates some 80 temples and has between 300,000 and half a million members, commonly called "Hanists." It even has its own political party, the "Unification Korea Party," which sponsors candidates in presidential elections. On the other hand, modern politics makes some South Koreans downplay the importance of Tangun to their heritage; since his kingdom is identified with what is now North Korea, they fear the legends might make the Pyongyang regime look more legitimate than the one in Seoul.
In the fourth century B.C. iron came into use. Iron plows and sickles made farming easier, while wooden houses, built on a floor-heating system called an ondol, replace the huts of earlier years. The appearance of horse equipment and coaches indicates that they used chariots in warfare, just like the Chinese.
Firm evidence of Korean/Chinese interaction begins in the third century B.C., when the Chinese began to settle in Manchuria, putting them right on the Koreans' doorstep. Ancient China found it natural to assume an aggressive attitude toward all "barbarian" peoples, which included the Koreans. A noble named Wiman (Wei Man in Chinese), said to have defected from China, became the ruler of Choson in 194 B.C. It is more likely that he was a native of Choson, and a Chinese ancestry was added later to make the dynasty look more impressive, just as some African kings claimed to be descendants of Arab monarchs. In 108 B.C. the northern half of Korea (including Choson) was conquered and colonized by China's spectacular Han dynasty. The territory was organized into four commanderies (military districts), one of which, Lelang in the Taedong valley, survived and even outlasted its parent dynasty.
Not long after the Puyo confederacy was founded, five of its tribes broke away and migrated south to the headwaters of the Yalu River; the new environment in that location compelled them to make a living by hunting and fishing. They became clients of Xuantu, the nearest Chinese commandery, and formed another confederation named Koguryo. In the second century A.D., Koguryo began competing vigorously with Puyo and tried to grab more territory, both in the peninsula and in Manchuria. In 121 the Puyo king Wigut'ae led a force of 20,000 men to rescue the Chinese garrison at Xuantu, which was under attack from Koguryo. By 159 there was a formal alliance between Puyo and China. At this point Puyo was at the height of its power, extending its control over the less civilized tribes of Manchuria and even along the Pacific coast, in the neighborhood of modern Vladivostok.
When the Han dynasty of China collapsed in 220, Puyo maintained good relations with the dynasty that succeeded the Han, the Wei, by sending a series of "tribute missions" (actually these were merchants behaving like ambassadors) to the Wei court. At the same time the Wei dynasty decided it would no longer tolerate Koguryo raids into the Liaodong peninsula of Manchuria. Hwando, the Koguryo capital, was captured and sacked by the Chinese in 245. The Chinese thought they had destroyed Koguryo, and no mention of it appears in their records for the next seventy years. But the Koguryo king, Wigung, though hunted in the far north, was never captured, and a descendant of his named Ulbul (300-331) was able to rebuild the kingdom.
The third century also saw Puyo grow weak; the tribes to the east threw off Puyo control, and communications between Puyo and China were threatened by the Xianbei, a barbarian tribe of Hun or Turkic ancestry that migrated from Mongolia to Manchuria. In 285 Puyo was sacked by the Xianbei, and the king of Puyo, a child named Uiryo, committed suicide in despair. Several of Uiryo's relatives fled to take refuge in northeastern Korea, where they set up a kingdom named Eastern Puyo. The Chinese attempted to repair the Puyo kingdom, and put a son of Uiryo on its throne, but in 345 the Xianbei destroyed it again, this time for good. In the fifth century Eastern Puyo was conquered by Koguryo, but not before a branch of the Puyo ruling house fled to southern Korea, where it formed another rival to Koguryo, the state of Paekche.
Meanwhile, those Korean tribes who kept their independence in the south also formed loosely organized tribal confederations: Mahan on the southwest coast with more than fifty tribes in it, Chinhan in the southeast with twelve, and Pyonhan in the middle, also with twelve. As noted above, Mahan welcomed refugees from Puyo, and eventually a Puyo prince took over the confederation, though we do not have details on how they did it. At first all three groups had elected kings, but by 300 A.D. it appears that they switched to hereditary monarchs, which would always be the practice until the end of the monarchy in the twentieth century. With this transformation Mahan became the kingdom of Paekche, and Chinhan and Pyonhan merged to form the kingdom of Silla. Accurate historical information from the Koreans begins to appear at this point, and since there are now three organized states in the peninsula (Koguryo, Paekche and Silla), this phase in Korean history is called the era of the Three Kingdoms.(6)
The breakup of northern China into minor barbarian-ruled states after 300 allowed the Korean kingdoms to live without much Chinese interference for nearly three hundred years, but unofficial contacts continued. Paekche conquered one of the Chinese commanderies, Daifang; as a result it absorbed so much Chinese culture that by 350 the Paekche court was keeping all its records in Chinese, and by 400 Paekche scholars were introducing the Chinese classics into Japan. Koguryo also allowed Chinese culture into the kingdom, but its kings continued to worship a primitive star god called the Spirit of the Underground Passage, and claimed it as their direct ancestor. Chinese visitors were scandalized by Koguryo's practice of tracing family inheritances/lineage through the mother, rather than the father (a custom of Interior Asia), as well as the way men and women freely mingled together: "The people love song and dance, and in the towns and villages of their kingdom, men and women gather together every evening and into the night to sing and amuse themselves together."
As was the case in Japan, Buddhism supplied the most effective link between Korean and Chinese culture. Buddhism was introduced from China to Koguryo in 372, but we find little evidence of it from existing tomb art of the fourth century. The new religion had a stronger impact on Paekche and Silla, where the rulers patronized Buddhist artists and financed the building of monasteries and pagodas. Korean scholars traveled to China and a select few went to the source of the Buddhist faith, India.(7)
In addition to Chinese variants of Buddhism, Chinese writing was introduced, even though the spoken Korean language was as ill-suited for adaptation to the Chinese characters as the Japanese language later turned out to be.(8) The Koguryo monarch imposed a unified law code patterned after that of Han China. He established universities, where Korean youths struggled to master the Confucian classics and their teachers wrote histories of China rather than their own land. With the intent of expanding his power and improving revenue collection, the Koguryo ruler also attempted to put together a Chinese-style bureaucracy. But the noble families who supported him cared little for a project that posed such an obvious threat to their own power. Without their support the monarch did not have the resources for such an ambitious undertaking. Thus, the full implementation had to wait for a more powerful dynasty to emerge some centuries later.
Gradually Koguryo expanded southward and absorbed the Chinese colonies, annexing the last one (Lelang) in 313 A.D. It also was able to expand into the Liaodong peninsula of China despite harassment from nomad groups, one of which sacked Hwando for the second time in 343. In 371 King Soe of Koguryo fell defending Pyongyang from a Paekche attack. But Koguryo remained the stronger state, and was able to recover the lost ground rapidly. By the end of the reign of King Kwanggaet'o (413), Koguryo ruled everything between the Sungari and Han Rivers; this gave it control over two thirds of modern Korea and a lot of Manchuria. In addition, the chieftains of Silla submitted to the northern kingdom's authority in 399 to receive protection from Japanese raids. Only Paekche continued to resist Koguryo domination, thereby preventing the unification of the peninsula.
The long reign of the next king after Kwanggaet'o, Changsu (413-491), was the golden age of Koguryo. A large number of upper-class Chinese fled the chaos of northern China by settling in Koguryo, and Changsu employed them as administrators in his court, perhaps to check the power of the old tribal nobility. In 427 he moved the capital south to Pyongyang, and efforts were concentrated on bringing Paekche to heel. In 474 he crossed the Han River and captured the Paekche capital of Hansong, but the Paekche monarch simply moved farther south and continued to resist.
In 538 Paekche was forced to move its capital again, from Ungjin to Sabi (modern Puyo). Because it was the weakest state militarily, Paekche survived by calling in help from outside sources. First it persuaded Silla to throw off Koguryo's yoke and form an anti-Koguryo alliance. This worked until 552, when Silla seized the Hansong area which the two allies had just taken back from Koguryo. When King Song of Paekche (523-554) attempted to recover the stolen territory, he was killed in battle; after this Paekche had to face enemies on two fronts. More successful in the long run were Japanese soldiers, who started helping Paekche in 391. In turn Silla improved its relations with China; this allowed them to take much of the east coast from Koguryo, and expel the Japanese from a foothold they had on the south-central coast (562).(9)
The long period of conflict caused the three kingdoms to share several characteristics. Centralized military systems were organized, and the monarchs of all three states concentrated their power by encouraging aristocrats to move to the capital. The aristocrats were divided into several social classes according to their ancestry, which determined which positions and privileges they could have. For example, Silla had a council of advisors to the king, called the Hwabaek; all of its members came from "true bone" families (meaning royal or formerly royal origin), and they made important state decisions. Each state also compiled a lengthy history, apparently to show its authority was greater than that of its rivals.
Centuries of warfare weakened the three kingdoms without giving paramount power in the peninsula to any. Then the political situation changed dramatically with the reunification of China under the Sui dynasty (589). The new Chinese emperor, Yang Di, viewed the conquest of Manchuria and Korea as a vital part of his campaign to reconstruct the Chinese Empire as it had been under the Han. But Yang Di's campaigns against Koguryo in 612-614 were not only unsuccessful, they were so mishandled and costly that they led to his overthrow and the replacement of the short-lived Sui by the Tang dynasty. The Tang also claimed Korea, but it was decades before it could finally mount a successful invasion.
In the meantime family-tree-conscious Silla underwent a dynastic crisis. Silla's King Chinp'yong (579-632) died without leaving any sons; the throne passed first to his daughter, Queen Sondok (632-647), then to his sister Chindok (647-654), and finally to a member of a second-ranked family. The same period also saw a complete reorganization of the Silla armed forces, marked by the introduction of an order of knights called hwarang ("flower boys"). The hwarang were boys from noble families, each given special training to lead a band of men that could number as many as several hundred. Members of the hwarang were bound together by strict discipline and a code of chivalry, and played an important part both in the wars of the time and in Silla society afterwards.
The stubborn warriors of the Koguryo kingdom bore the brunt of the Tang assaults, just as they had those launched by the Sui rulers. The pretext for the Tang invasions was the assassination of the king of Koguryo in 642 by a noble named Yon'gae Somun, who appointed a puppet king but ran the country as a military dictator until his death in 666. At first the Chinese made little progress; then their strategists hit on the idea of taking advantage of Korea's division to bring the whole peninsula into line. By striking an alliance with the rulers of Silla, they were able to destroy Paekche in 661. A son of the last king of Paekche immediately raised a rebellion against the Chinese, and persuaded Japan to send him a fleet, but in 663 the Chinese defeated the Japanese in a naval battle off the mouth of the Kum river, and the revolt fell apart; this incident is noteworthy because it marks the first known conflict between China and Japan.
In 668 China and Silla teamed up again, and defeated Koguryo, which now collapsed because of bickering between the dead dictator's heirs. Thus ended the long-lived kingdom that had played such a key role in Korea's early development.
The Chinese conquerors now began to quarrel with their Silla allies over how to divide the spoils. Silla proved able to fight the larger Chinese forces to a standstill, and revolts broke out in the former Paekche and Koguryo territories already conquered, so the Tang decided to strike a deal. In return for Silla's submission as a vassal of the Tang emperor and regular tribute payments, the Chinese withdrew their armies in 676. Two thirds of the peninsula was in effect united under the Silla dynasty, and it ruled southern Korea as a highly centralized state for the next 250 years.
Today we know almost nothing about Parhae, called Bo Hai by the Chinese. This is mainly because neither modern China nor the North Korean government has much interest in archeological excavations of the places where Parhae once ruled; communists have an aversion to uncovering parts of the past they are trying to erase. The border between Parhae and Silla ran across the peninsula's narrowest point, from the Taedong River in the west to Wonsan in the east; Silla marked the boundary by building a defensive wall along it in the ninth century. Most of Parhae's territory was actually in Manchuria, and the capital, Sanggyong ("High Capital"), was located near the modern Chinese city of Dongjingcheng, in Heilongjiang province; it was laid out in a grid pattern in imitation of the Chinese capital, Changan. At its peak in the early ninth century, Parhae was a prosperous state whose population exceeded 500,000 people. This is the last time in written history when a Korean state ruled any land outside of the peninsula, and because so little is known of Parhae, Silla gets all the credit during this period; many Asian history books do not even mention the northern kingdom.
The international position of Parhae remained precarious, for King Ko's successors declared independence from Tang authority and enlarged the state. The frontiers were pushed north to the Amur River, and west to the Liao River; in 732 Parhae even launched a naval expedition against China. The result was an alliance between Silla and China against Parhae, which Parhae countered with ties to Japan and northeast Asian nomadic tribes like the Malgal. In the reign of Tae Hum-mu (King Won, 738-794), relations with China were normalized, and Parhae scholars and monks went to study in China. Soon the Parhae government was being run on Confucian principles, and all officials were expected to be educated, as was the case in China.
But Koguryo traditions also influenced Parhae. The ondol system of heating through hot-air flues in the floor has been found at Parhae sites. Tombs, Buddhist statues, and temple roof tiles are all faithful copies of Koguryo architecture. Furthermore, the royal family adopted the Koguryo royal surname (Ko) as its own, adding weight to their claim that Parhae was run by the heirs of Koguryo.
To most of the peoples involved, this seemed a small price to pay for the benefits they received from the Middle Kingdom. Not only did submission and tribute guarantee peace with the Chinese, it brought far richer gifts in return for those offered to the Chinese ruler, and privileged access to Chinese learning, art, and manufactured goods. Tribute missions normally included merchants, whose ability to buy up Chinese manufactures and sell their own goods in the lucrative Chinese market depended on their country's participation in the tribute system. The missions also included contingents of scholars, who studied at Chinese academies(10) or Buddhist monasteries and busily purchased Chinese scrolls and works of art to fill the libraries and embellish the palaces back home. Thus, the tribute system became a major channel of trade and cultural exchange between China and its neighbors. Until forcibly dismantled by the European powers in the 19th century, the system was virtually the only means by which the Middle Kingdom maintained ongoing relations with the pro-Chinese (and thus civilized) states and the "barbarian" peoples who surrounded it on all sides.
Unified Silla saw the flowering of absolute monarchy, and the influence of the Hwabaek was reduced to almost nothing. A central administrative body called the Chipsabu was established in its place to carry out royal decrees. Aristocrats were given salaries and land, but the land was expected to revert to the state when they left their jobs, thereby limiting their power.(11) Like the monarchs of other countries, the Silla kings built extravagant palaces and tombs as a symbol of their strength.
The Silla rulers rebuilt their capital at Kumsong (near modern Kyongju) to look like its Chinese counterpart, Changan. The streets were laid out in a rectangular grid; there were central markets, parks and lakes, and a separate district to house the imperial family. Like their Japanese counterparts during the same period, the Korean aristocrats fled the tedium of the backward rural areas and provincial capitals, and crowded their mansions into the areas around the imperial palace. With their large extended families and hundreds of slaves and hangers-on, they made up a sizeable portion of the capital's population, which peaked at more than 700,000 in the eighth century. A Confucian academy was established to study the Chinese classics, and a few of its aristocratic students even submitted to the rigors of the Confucian examination system introduced under the Silla rulers. Most of the nobility, though, opted for the artistic pursuits and entertainments available in the capital. They could do so because most positions in the government continued to be occupied by members of the aristocratic families, by virtue of their birth and family connections rather than education or ability. In this and other respects, the attempt to duplicate the Chinese bureaucratic apparatus was a failure under Silla. Though the Koryo monarchs were somewhat more successful in this regard, the aristocratic clans continued to dominate Korean politics and society as a whole.
Partly out of self-interest, the Korean elite continued to favor Buddhism over Confucianism. They and the Korean royal family lavishly endowed monasteries and patronized works of art, which became major forms of Korean cultural creativity. The capital soon became crowded with Buddhist temples, which were usually built of wood; Buddhist monks were constantly in attendance on the ruler as well as members of the royal family and the more powerful aristocratic households. To mass-produce Buddhist scriptures, block-printing was invented in the mid-eighth century; this predated by a century similar printing in China. But the schools of Buddhism that caught on were Chinese; Korean art and monastic design reproduced, sometimes splendidly, Chinese prototypes. Even the location of monasteries and pagodas in high places followed Chinese ideas about the need to placate local spirits and balance supernatural forces.(12)
Sometimes the Koreans borrowed from the Chinese and then outdid their teachers. Most notable in this regard was the pottery produced in both the Silla and Koryo eras. The Koreans first learned the techniques of porcelain manufacture from the Chinese. But in the pale green-glazed celadon bowls and vases of this period, they created masterpieces that even Chinese connoisseurs admired and collected. They also pioneered in making oxide glazes that were used in the manufacture of the black and rust-colored stoneware of this era, which is still recognized as some of the finest pottery ever crafted.
Frequent conflicts and rebellions unraveled the kingdom after 780. In that year the young king Hyegong was murdered, and afterwards different branches of the royal family competed for the throne, resulting in more assassinations and civil wars. In the final century and a half of Silla's existence there were no less than twenty rulers, plus rebel leaders like a certain Kim Hon-ch'ang, who established himself briefly in Ungjin, the old Paekche capital, in 822. Meanwhile aristocrats managed to gradually wear down the king's absolute power and restore the authority of the Hwabaek. And lower-ranking aristocrats demanded a removal of the restrictions imposed upon them by the strict class structure.
Outside the capital new families rose to prominence and by withholding taxes, they became stronger and central control grew weaker. Taxed by both the central government and the new castle lords, many farmers chose to become drifters or robbers, often staging more rebellions.
The most active provincial leader was Chang Po-go, who, with King Hungdok's approval, built the huge Ch'onghae fortress in 828 to defend the southwest coast from pirates. By putting down piracy he became a powerful warlord in his own right; he took over most of the trade with China and Japan, had a private army of 10,000, and could even afford to endow Korean-built temples in the Chinese province of Shandong. Often Silla's official diplomats to China had to travel on Chang's ships. When a bitter civil war broke out on the death of King Hungdok in 837, Chang Po-go stepped in and installed his own candidate on the throne, but then he alienated the aristocrats in the capital by attempting to force the new king to marry Chang's daughter. In 841 or 842 Chang was murdered by a hired bravo whom the Silla court rewarded with a promotion to the rank of general.
Eventually two provincial leaders, Kyonhwon and Kungye, declared independence from Silla and established the Later Paekche (892) and Later Koguryo (901) kingdoms; together with Silla, these are sometimes called the Later Three Kingdoms. From this time onward, Silla monarchs continued to sit on the throne in Kumsong, but their authority could no longer be enforced outside of the capital district. In 918 another rival, Wang Kon, founded a state named Koryo at the central city of Kaesong.
Koryo's relations with China continued to be very good, but Japanese pirates caused some trouble along the south and east coasts. The real threat, however, came from the Khitans. The first Koryo monarchs proudly proclaimed themselves heirs to Koguryo, and launched many campaigns to recover northern territory, eventually establishing the kingdom's frontier on the Yalu River. But this was a trivial loss to the Khitans, who by now were also humbling the Chinese, and they swept out of Manchuria and burned Kaesong in 1011. The Koreans built better defenses afterwards, but not until the Khitan empire crumbled in the twelfth century could they breathe easily again.
With the exception of Buddhist sects like the "Pure Land" that had strong appeal to the ordinary people, imports from China continued to be monopolized by the tiny elite. The aristocratic families were divided into several ranks that neither intermarried nor socialized with each other, much less the rest of the population. They not only filled most of the posts in the Korean bureaucracy, but also dominated the social and economic life of the entire kingdom. Much of Korea's trade with the Chinese and Japanese was oriented to providing the aristocrats with the fancy clothing, special teas, scrolls, and art that occupied such an important place in their idle lives. In return, Korea exported mainly raw materials, such as forest products and metals like copper, which was mined by virtual slaves who lived in horrendous conditions. Some manufactured goods, like pottery, ink, paper, and painted fans, also found their way into Korea's trade with China and Japan. Often members of the royal family and the aristocratic households financed artisan production for export or the supply of the court; some backed mercantile expeditions and even engaged extensively in moneylending. All of this, of course, constricted the activities of artisans and traders. Artisans were usually considered low in status and were poorly paid for their talents and labor; the traders were so weak that they did not really form a distinct class.
The aristocrats were the only people who really counted for anything in Korean society. The classes beneath them were oriented to their service. These included government functionaries, who were recognized as a separate social category; commoners, who were mainly peasants; and virtual slaves, who were known as the "low born" and ranged from miners and artisans to servants and entertainers. Persons from these social groups benefitted little from contacts with China, and most lived lives of drudgery and poverty that were scarcely, if at all, enlivened by extensive cultural borrowing from China.
A real Chinese civil service never developed in Korea to provide the services to the masses that the Confucians had envisioned as essential responsibilities of the privileged elite. For example, sons of a family above the fifth of nine official ranks received official jobs without taking the civil service exams prescribed by the Confucians, and the land granted to aristocrats in the top four ranks belonged to them permanently. Buddhist festivals periodically relieved the monotony of the lives of the common people, and Buddhist teachings on salvation gave them hope for bliss in the afterlife. But much of what the peasants, artisans, and miners produced went to support the outsized court and aristocracy in the capital, where the wealth and cultural creativity of an otherwise impoverished and backward land was concentrated.
Eventually, the common people and the "low born" found their lot too much to bear and rose up against a ruling class that was obviously much more devoted to pursuing its own pleasures than to their well-being. Most of these uprisings were local affairs that were ruthlessly repressed by armies of the ruling class. Each time one happened, the aristocratic families managed to survive the crisis and elevate one of their number above the others, until the military switched sides.
The reason for this was that the soldiers, like the peasants, had been discriminated against, to the extent that the supreme commander of the armed forces was always a civilian. Military officials were excluded from the top two grades of the official hierarchy and the king's supreme council. Even those officers who were allowed into the civil service received less land than their civilian counterparts. When they had enough of this, they staged a coup d'etat in 1170. They gained complete control of the government, reduced the king to a powerless figurehead, set up their own private army, massacred a large number of civilian officials, and suppressed Buddhism. Then the generals fought among themselves, and only after twenty years of strife was order restored, under a general named Ch'oe Ch'ung-hon. By allying themselves with civilian bureaucrats, the Ch'oe family was able to rule as military dictators, like the shoguns of Japan, for the next 60 years.
Buddhism, especially the Son (Zen) sect, retreated to remote mountain areas, stirred up opposition to the dictatorship among the underprivileged farmers, and caused a series of upheavals for a period of 30 years. These rebellions were brought under control through a combination of appeasement and naked force, but some went on right until the Mongols began their invasions.
Genghis Khan was mainly interested in conquering northern China, but once his sons finished the job, Korea was next, and they overran the peninsula in 1236. The Ch'oe carried out a long resistance, even moving the court offshore to Kanghwa Island, but the Mongols were ultimately successful, and the fourth Ch'oe ruler was assassinated in 1261.
The Mongols allowed the Koryo king to keep his throne, but enormous annual tribute payments and heavy manpower levies went to serve the heirs of Genghis Khan. Furthermore, a Mongol overlord stayed in residence at the Koryo capital, and Korea was forced to provide ships and men for the two unsuccessful Mongol invasions of Japan. Later kings were required to marry Mongol princesses, and the Koryo crown prince was kept as a hostage in the Mongol capital (Beijing after 1260); this caused Korean court life to imitate the Mongol pattern.
Meanwhile Korean culture continued to grow; Buddhist-inspired art and poetry reached a high level during this time. Koryo craftsmen were inspired to promote Buddhist missionary work; they accomplished the herculean task of carving thousands of wooden blocks, one for printing each page of the enormous Buddhist canon.(13) Then in 1234 the printing of Buddhist texts was made easier by the invention of a moveable metal type printing press, a full two hundred years before Johann Gutenberg did the same thing in Europe.
Outside the capital a feudal-style system developed where some aristocrats expanded their landholdings into huge farms, but stayed in the capital and sent agents periodically to collect taxes from the tenants who actually worked the land. Tenants also had to do labor and military service if the state called for it. Many farmers elected to become personal servants of the aristocrats, who in turn treated them like the serfs of Medieval Europe, protecting them from war and the state duties. Some aristocrats also caught drifters and illegally made them into servants. The result was a shortage in revenue and manpower by the mid-fourteenth century. Because of the financial strains of the government, it could no longer give much land to new bureaucrats; they called for both land reform and a government that followed Confucianism properly. A revolt against Mongol rule in 1356 began another period of disorder. Finally in 1364, a young Korean general, Yi Songgye, was able to defeat the Mongols after they had been weakened by their long war against the rising Ming dynasty in China.
The new monarchs made Hanyang (modern Seoul) their capital, rejected Buddhism and established Ju Xi (Chu Hsi) Confucianism as the state religion. They also brought about many positive economic and social reforms, like a new land register and the abolition of feudal relations in the armed forces. In foreign affairs, the Joseon rulers expanded into Manchuria and conducted successful operations against Japanese coastal pirates. Improved agricultural techniques, better communications, and innovations in the crafts increased economic productivity. The manufacture of cotton cloth, learned from China, also stimulated trade. Such economic growth increased the number of craftsmen and merchants, although most were employed in government monopolies.
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 next two hundred years were among the best in Korean history. To start with, there was considerable progress in medicine, astronomy, history and agriculture. In 1420 a royal academy called Chiphyonjon was established, and many promising young scholars went there for study and research. In 1443 Hangul, a phonetic alphabet, was made the official Korean script by King Sejong (1418-50), as a simple alternative to using Chinese characters. Soon government printing presses were publishing many works of literature. Some of these were prose compositions on serious subjects, such as moral responsibility. Poetry, stressing love of nature, personal grief, and romantic love, also became quite popular; many of the lyric poets were women. The other arts, however, were less promising. Painting, sculpture, and architecture generally followed Chinese models, producing many creditable works but generally lacking originality.
In the reign of the seventh monarch, Sejo (1455-68), the government was overhauled to make it more centralized and civilian-oriented. Laws were codified, and the Supreme State Council was set up as the highest governmental body under the king. Three censorial offices were set up to watch the king (a Neo-Confucian practice borrowed from China), which kept the kings from becoming corrupt and served as the government's system of checks & balances. The country was divided into eight provinces, and all governors were appointed by the central government.
But the Joseon dynasty promised more than it delivered. In less than a century, Confucianism and the new centralized administration had spawned another class of privileged bureaucrats who were as corrupt, inefficient, and overbearing as those in Ming China. With their growing power came higher taxes and service requirements for common people, most of whom were peasant tenants or slaves. As in China, the Confucian revival brought more difficulties for women. Until the tenth century, women had enjoyed near legal equality with men in property, inheritance, and marriage rights. Many Silla rulers were women, either as queens, exercising royal authority directly, or as powers "behind the screen," acting through royal consorts or sons. This all changed drastically with the Koryo dynasty. New laws restricted women's legal rights, and women were prohibited from participating in games, attending feasts, appearing in public unveiled, or even walking alone outside the home.
From the early 16th century, 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 combined to bring about political instability, economic decline and social upheavals. A number of idealistic scholars and officials arose, who criticized the bureaucracy and called for drastic measures to achieve Confucian ideals. But relentless counterattacks and pressure forced most of the reformist scholars to quit their posts, and they set up private academies to teach their view of Confucianism. In the seventeenth century this would be the beginning of what was known as the Silhak, or "Practical Learning" schools. Silhak scholars split into four groups, each emphasizing a different subject: government reform; the development of commerce, industry and technology; critical analysis of the Confucian classics; or the study of Korean history, geography, and language.
In 1592 Korea suffered a major Japanese invasion, led by the new shogun of Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Seven years of occupation and plundering of the land took place before the Koreans, with Chinese help, "persuaded" the Japanese to withdraw. During this conflict the Koreans never lost control of the sea, and an admiral named Yi Sun Sin won a noteworthy victory over the Japanese in a battle at Chinhae bay, using the oldest known ironclad ships.(14) The activities of the Japanese and Ming armies left Korea in ruins, and caused widespread famine because crops could not be grown during that time. Many Korean scholars and artisans were taken to Japan, where they were required to teach Korea's latest technology. It took a full half century for the country to recover, and the invasions left an indelible scar on the minds of the Koreans.(15)
The determined efforts of King Kwang-Haegun (1608-23) to rebuild the country came too late. Because Korea aided China in its war against the Manchus, another invasion came from the north in 1627. Ten years later Seoul was captured, and the government submitted, switching its annual tribute from the Ming to the Manchus. Thousands of Koreans, held hostage by the Manchus, suffered great cruelty and privation before they could be ransomed. Many Korean women were never accepted again by their families, because they had been sexually violated and therefore dishonored.
Meanwhile the Manchus went on to overthrow the Ming and found China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing. From this time on the Korean kings regarded themselves as "younger brothers" and the Manchu emperors of China as "elder brothers," in the Confucian tradition. The Manchus handled Korea's defense and foreign affairs, but left domestic manners to be handled as the Joseon monarchs saw fit. Vassalage to the Manchus may have been all right for the kings, but it fostered antiforeign sentiments among the Korean people, leading to rebellions and peasant uprisings when the dynasty came under more outside pressure than it could stand.
As time went on, submission to China gave Korea an isolationist outlook, until Chinese citizens were the only foreigners allowed in the country at all. For this reason the period of Korean history from 1637 to 1910 is called "the Hermit Kingdom." As long as foreigners were more interested in China or Japan, this policy worked, but eventually Westerners got into the country anyway. Roman Catholicism was brought to Korea from China by Silhak scholars in the 17th century(16), and a school teaching Christianity and Western science (called Sohak, meaning Western Learning) developed. In 1656 a Dutch ship was wrecked on Cheju island and the 36 survivors were brought to Seoul. They were forbidden to leave the country, but eight sailors escaped after 13 years; one of them, Hendrik Hamel, wrote a narrative that provided the West with an eyewitness account of a land most Europeans knew nothing about.
Catholicism spread from Seoul to the provinces slowly, because its disagreements with Confucianism were critical. The two creeds could not reach a compromise on the subject of ancestor worship, which Confucianism considers supremely important but Catholicism rejects as a form of idolatry. Gradually the government came to see Christianity as a subversive movement and launched periodic persecutions against it. In 1801, 1839 and 1866, Christian converts were either executed or forced to turn renegade, and foreign missionaries (who started coming into Korea at the end of the eighteenth century) were ferreted out and beheaded. But rank-and-file Christians remained faithful, and continued to grow in numbers to the point that the Vatican set up a Korean diocese in 1831.
Three French priests smuggled themselves into Korea in the 1830s, but they were soon killed. Then a new native religion called Tonghak (Eastern Learning) was founded in 1860. Founded by Ch'oe Che-u, a fallen aristocrat-scholar, it combined traditional animism with sweeping social reform and won the support of the underprivileged and mistreated peasantry. As one might expect from its name, Tonghak's followers viewed all aspects of Western learning, including Christianity, as the enemy.
King Kojong, the last Korean monarch, was too young to rule when he came to the throne in 1864, so his father, Taewon-gun, was appointed regent. Taewon-gun passed a number of bold reform measures, such as relaxing the rules for getting into the civil service and the abolition of many private Confucian academies, but he also vigorously enforced the policy of national isolation, without realizing that modernization and xenophobia tend to work against one another. When Western and Japanese ships came to offer trade and friendship, he refused them. Persecution of Christians and the 1866 destruction of a US merchant ship, the General Sherman, provoked a naval bombardment and a brief invasion of Kanghwa Island, the fortified island guarding the Han River and Seoul, by the French in 1866; the United States did likewise in 1871.(17)
Though Taewon-gun was successful in what he did, he drained the treasury so badly that he came under a barrage of criticism and was forced to step down in 1873. Relatives of Queen Min took over the helm of state and reversed most of Taewon-gun's policies; then King Kojong assumed power in the following year. Meanwhile, the Japanese military called for an invasion of Korea; in 1876 they sent a fleet which pressured Korea into signing a commercial treaty. When conservative soldiers tried to restore Taewon-gun, China intervened, forcing a new treaty which heavily favored Chinese merchants, and allowed the stationing of Chinese soldiers on Korean soil (a move meant to check the growing Japanese influence in Korea). In 1882 the "Hermit Kingdom" opened its doors to the Western nations, beginning with the United States.(18)
To pay for their added tax burden, farmers borrowed money at usurious rates from Japanese rice dealers, until they were reduced to poverty. Then, seeing no hope of any redress from the king or from the Chinese (the conservative instincts of the Chinese would put them on the side of the government in any case), angry peasants turned to the Tonghak Party. But Tonghak-inspired demonstrations brought government persecution, so Tonghak's leaders decided, in the spring of 1894, that the time had come to take arms and force the king to remove the oppressive laws that had made life intolerable for the working classes. Thirty thousand men were soon in arms; they quickly defeated the royal troops, and captured the city of Ch'unch'on. Next they prepared to march on Seoul, the capital, to demand the necessary reforms. In this extremity the king called on China to help him in the struggle with his rebellious subjects, and fifteen hundred men were dispatched to a district on the west coast of Korea, about a hundred miles south of Inchon.
The rebels laid down their arms voluntarily to defuse what had become an international crisis, and the Chinese troops returned to their own country, except for five hundred that marched to Seoul to guard the king in case any further disturbance occurred. The consequences of this action evidently had not been well considered. Japan saw this as a violation of the 1885 treaty, which stated that neither China nor Japan could send troops to Korea without giving the other party due notice of its intentions. The Chinese did notify Japan on June 4, but the Japanese declared that the communication was not made as promptly as it might have been, and that therefore the spirit of the treaty had not been observed by China. Consequently Tokyo declared that, as Chinese troops were now encamped in Seoul, it was necessary that Japanese soldiers also should be allowed there to protect Japanese citizens in Seoul. China could not come back with a suitable rebuttal of this argument, so Japan dispatched five thousand men under the command of General Oshima, fifteen hundred of whom marched into the capital, while the rest encamped at Inchon. That this force meant war was evident from the fact that it brought two hundred and fifty horses, a considerable number of cannon, and everything it needed for a three-month campaign. When the Japanese were asked why they sent such a large force, they declared that it was simply to protect their people--an answer that deceived no one, for any danger that might have threatened them had passed with the collapse of the rebellion.
The reasons that Japan decided at this time to press the matter with the Chinese were four:
(1) The sense of injustice that had rankled in the minds of the whole nation since the coup of 1884. After that revolt was suppressed, the Chinese, with their haughty contempt of foreigners, treated Japanese citizens in Seoul most barbarously, looting their legation and plundering their property. When the people of Japan heard this, they cried loudly for war. The Japanese government, however, decided for peace, a policy that led to the "Satsuma Rebellion" at home. Japan had never forgotten the matter, and vengeance for the wrongs that had been inflicted became the desire of every loyal man in the country.
(2) The assassination of Kim Ok-kuin, a Korean statesman, who had been involved in the disturbance of 1884, and afterwards fled the country. This gentleman had resided, during the ten years of his exile, in Japan, and therefore was well-known there. In 1894 he was decoyed to Shanghai and murdered by Korean emissaries; because the Chinese authorities took no steps to punish the killers, Japan believed that this crime was committed with their sanction. The popular feeling in Japan was intensely excited when the news reached there, and vows were made to speedily avenge the murder.
(3) The Japanese felt that they had been the ones who had opened Korea, and therefore had some right in the control of national matters. To stand aside and let China run everything would undo the work Tokyo had accomplished and hand over the Koreans to despotism and misrule.
(4) The political condition of Japan itself. The rapid transition of Japan from military to constitutional rule had excited the minds of the army against the government, and these soldiers were waiting for a fitting opportunity to rise in rebellion against it. The Crown defused a very serious crisis by transferring all this restless military energy to Korea, where it could expend itself upon China.
The result was that Japan started the next round of hostilities. In July 1894, the Japanese attacked the palace in Seoul, seized the royal family, and installed a new government, which promptly voided all Korean treaties with China and asked the Japanese to remove Chinese troops from the country. Troops from both countries rushed into Korea, and though war was not formally declared, as far as the Japanese were concerned, a state of war already existed. Their conduct in the case of the English steamer Kow-shing showed this plainly. This vessel had been chartered by the Chinese to convey eleven hundred troops to Korea. On July 25th, as she was nearing her destination, she was met by the Japanese man-of-war Naniwa and ordered to stop. A Japanese officer went on board and told the captain that he must consider himself and all on board as prisoners of war. The Chinese general and soldiers threatened the captain and officers with instant death if they attempted to obey the Japanese, and their loaded guns and menacing words showed their determination to carry out their murderous threat. After a time the Naniwa signaled the English to leave the ship, an order that could not be obeyed, and after a short delay a torpedo was fired at her and a broadside of five guns, which sent her to the bottom; only two hundred of the soldiers and two or three of the English crew could be saved. Four days after this the Chinese and Japanese troops met in hostile array near Yashan, and after three days of severe skirmishing the Chinese were compelled to retreat.
Wars never start unless at least one side is fully confident of winning, and since both sides expected an easy victory, anything like a peaceful resolution was now out of the question. Accordingly, on August 1 war was formally declared between China and Japan; the former power exasperated the latter by calling its people "the dwarfs" in the royal proclamation, and that aroused the determination of the Japanese to continue the war until they had humbled their haughty and contemptuous enemy.
The first great battle of the war was fought at Pyongyang on September 15; here the Chinese lost more than six thousand men, large quantities of arms, and a great supply of provisions. The remnant of the Chinese army was so demoralized that it fled in isolated bands to the north, spreading terror and desolation wherever it went. Chinese soldiers, when on the march and under the control of their officers, were enough of a curse whenever they passed through any territory, but much more so when under no leader or military discipline.
Two days after this decisive victory a naval battle was fought off the mouth of the Yalu River. The Chinese fleet consisted of eleven men-of-war and six torpedo boats, while the Japanese had the same number of ships, but no torpedoes. The battle began about 10:00 A.M. and lasted six hours. The Japanese, who had the faster ships and better guns, displayed more science and better seamanship than the Chinese, though the latter showed considerable pluck in allowing themselves to be knocked about for so long a time. Four of the Chinese vessels were sunk, while another was destroyed by fire. The Japanese ships suffered severely from the fire of their enemy, but subsequently they were all repaired and able to rejoin their squadrons. Again victory went to the Japanese.
The result of these two engagements was to give the Japanese a decided advantage in their plans for the invasion of China; the arrival of a second army corps of thirty thousand men, under the command of Count Oyama, at Jinzhou on the north end of the Bo Hai gulf (October 24), gave them a force strong enough to advance confidently against the Chinese. Aware of the value of time, the victorious troops hastened from Pyongyang to the Yalu, crossed the Yalu without any serious opposition, and took possession (October 25) of Chin-lien-cheng.
A dread of Japanese arms seemed to seize the hearts of the Chinese troops, and although reinforcements were brought up again and again, they never were able to stand their ground, fleeing before they needed to do so. One can give no other valid excuse for the cowardly way in which they allowed the Japanese to enter Manchuria, the ancestral home of China's ruling emperors, with almost no resistance. No sooner did the Japanese make preparations to cross the Yalu than the Chinese panicked on the other side, and when they fled they left the roads to Mukden and Beijing open; if the Japanese had advanced on either city they would have captured it without difficulty.
In all their movements the Japanese showed not only military skill, but also common sense. Wherever they advanced, they gained the goodwill of the local peasants, who brought a plentiful supply of fresh provisions into their camp. Everything was paid for with the utmost care, and the provost-marshals took care to prevent any violence or injustice from the troops. How different was the conduct of the Chinese soldiers! Murder, rapine, theft, and cruel treatment were the order of the day wherever they went, until the people longed for the appearance of the invaders to save them from the barbarity of their own defenders.
The Japanese reached their main objective, Port Arthur, on the morning of November 21, and by two o'clock in the afternoon, with the loss of only about four hundred men, they captured this famous fortress, the forts on the coast being stormed the next day. This news was received everywhere with astonishment. Nature and art had done their very best to make Port Arthur impregnable. It had at least a dozen forts in high places, with large, up-to-date guns, and every approaching path was heavily mined; that, plus thirteen thousand well-equipped men, should have rendered its capture impossible by assault. A thousand men could have held this fortress against the world for a long time, and yet in the course of a few hours the Japanese, who had obtained a plan of the mines, had marched over the road (removing the mines as they advanced), straight toward the forts, up the steep banks, until they stood before the muzzles of the cannon; then they went over the ramparts, to find that every man had fled, leaving some of the guns loaded but unfired, in their mad haste to get away.
After that the war was a walkover for the Japanese. Just rumors of Port Arthur's fall were enough to make the Chinese abandon their attempt to retake Jinzhou on the very same day. This was followed up with a total Japanese victory in the naval and land battle of Weihaiwei, on the Shandong Peninsula of China (February 12, 1895). Defeated at every turn, the Chinese sued for peace in March. The terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki were harsh--China had to cede Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands to Japan, recognize the independence of Korea, open four more ports to Japanese merchants, and pay a huge indemnity--but it would have been worse had Western diplomats not intervened (they made sure that no territory on the Chinese mainland went to Japan, and Port Arthur was given to the Russians instead of to the Japanese).
1904-05 saw the Japanese knock Russia out of the game (the Russo-Japanese War) and make Korea a Japanese protectorate, with Japanese advisors in every level of the government. Patriotic guerrilla bands formed and launched armed resistance; in response, Japan formally took over the country in 1910, turning it into a Japanese province named Chosen. Large numbers of Koreans emigrated to Manchuria, Shanghai, and Hawaii to escape their new rulers.
The Japanese colonial period (1905-45) saw political suppression, economic exploitation, and social and educational discrimination. Koreans were deprived of freedom of assembly, association, the press, and speech. Many private schools were closed, and the new schools set up in their place tried to Japanize the natives, placing heavy emphasis on teaching the Japanese language and excluding subjects like Korean history. The Japanese also actively invested in Korean businesses and built a nationwide transportation and communications network, while barring Koreans from similar activities. Landowners were required to report the size and area of their land, and if they failed to do so, the Japanese confiscated it; they also appropriated fields and forests owned jointly by a village or clan because no single individual could claim them as his own. That land was sold cheaply to 700,000 Japanese settlers, who moved to take advantage of Korean resources and cheap labor.
After World War I a Korean delegation went to Versailles and failed to persuade the Allied leaders that they were an oppressed people with a right to self-determination. Then came the death of former Emperor Kojong, the supreme symbol of national independence. A few days later (March 1, 1919), while mourners from all over the country were gathering in Seoul, 33 Korean cultural and religious leaders signed a "Proclamation of Independence," which they read at a huge rally. This movement, now known as the Samil Independence or the March 1 movement, spread like wildfire; two million people are estimated to have taken part in 1,500 demonstrations throughout the country. The Japanese reacted brutally, killing or wounding nearly 23,000 in clashes and arresting 47,000 more, but afterward they tried to prevent future demonstrations by giving the Koreans freedom of the press and a small measure of self-government.(19) Other independence movements broke out from time to time, but Japan remained in full control until the end of World War II.
The beginning of Japan's long war with China in 1931 brought Korea under military rule again. Japan now made a determined effort to obliterate Korean civilization, by forcing Koreans to worship at Shinto temples, banning newspapers and magazines published in Korean, and even ordering Koreans to adopt Japanese names. The peninsula became an important economic and military base for Japan's continental expansion. Hundreds of thousands of able-bodied Koreans were drafted to fight for Japan and work in mines, factories, and military bases. Because Japan's industrial development caused a decline in agricultural output at home, Korean crops were diverted to make up for the food shortage. Most Koreans ended up living on low-quality grains imported from Manchuria because their own rice was no longer available.
The above picture comes from D-Day by Stephen Ambrose, and it tells the strange story of three or four Koreans wearing German uniforms who were captured by American soldiers on D-Day. The man on the left is Kyoungjong Yang (1920-92). He was conscripted into Japanís Kwantung army in 1938, captured by the Soviets at Khalkhin Gol (in Mongolia) a year later, drafted into the Red Army, captured by the Germans in Ukraine in 1943 (the battle of Kharkov?), drafted into the Wehrmacht, and sent to Normandy where the Americans captured him. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Britain, and after the war ended he moved to Illinois, became a US citizen, and spent the rest of his life there. In the United States he had two sons and a daughter, but did not tell his incredible war story even to them.
The leaders of the Allied nations had agreed in principle to restore Korea as an independent state. But US eagerness to obtain Soviet help against Japan, and the long-standing Russian interest in northeastern Asia, determined that occupation of the peninsula would be shared following the defeat of the Japanese Empire. A line was drawn on the 38th parallel, with everything south of it occupied by the United States, while everything north of it was administered by the Soviet Union.
The decision to divide Korea has aroused considerable speculation ever since. Some believe it was done merely to get the Japanese out; it took less time for them to surrender to two Allied nations than it would have taken to surrender to one. Others think the decision was already politically motivated at that early date; since Soviet forces were going to be somewhere in Korea after the war, American policy makers may have concluded that splitting Korea was better than letting Joseph Stalin have the whole thing.
The two allies established a joint commission to form a provisional Korean government, one that would include all Korean nationalists returning from exile, whether they were conservatives, moderates, socialists or communists. The plan was to create a united, independent Korea once the ravages of war had been repaired, but US-Soviet relations cooled first. The Soviets and the Americans soon disagreed on the legitimacy of the competing political groups that sought to govern Korea, and mutual suspicions mounted. The onset of the Cold War meant that neither superpower would allow unification except on its own terms.
In 1947 the United States asked the United Nations to attempt to unite the northern and southern halves of the country. The 38th parallel hardened ominously, however, into an international boundary during the following year with the establishment of the Republic of Korea in the South and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the North. North Korea's regime drew on an earlier Korean Communist party, founded in exile in the 1920s, quickly becoming a Communist state with Stalinist-type emphasis on the power of its leader, Kim Il-Sung. South Korea, bolstered by ongoing American military presence, was headed by the nationalist Syngman Rhee, another politician who had earlier worked in exile against Japanese occupation. Rhee's South Korea developed parliamentary institutions, but maintained a strongly authoritarian tone. Elections were held in the south in May 1948, in fulfillment of the UN resolution, but no voting took place in the north, so in December the UN General Assembly declared that Rhee's government was the only lawful one in Korea.
The arbitrarily set border split the peninsula both politically and economically into an industrial North and a primarily agricultural South, which was dependent on U.S. aid. By 1949 both the USSR and the United States had withdrawn most of their troops, leaving behind small advisory groups; the North Korean troops were much better trained and equipped than those in the South, however. Increasing hostility led to sporadic border clashes between North and South Koreans throughout 1949 and into 1950. In September 1949 a UN commission, after trying unsuccessfully to unify the country, warned of the possibility of civil war.
The withdrawal of US forces, and a speech (January 12, 1950) by Secretary of State Dean Acheson (which excluded South Korea from the US defensive perimeter in the Pacific), encouraged North Korea to take a bold military action. At approximately 4:00 A.M. on June 25, 1950, artillery of the North Korean Army opened fire on South Korean units standing watch along the 38th parallel. About 30 minutes later the first of about 80,000 North Korean troops crossed the border. At 5:30 A.M. the main attack, consisting of North Korean infantry and tanks, advanced along the shortest route between the 38th parallel and Seoul, the capital of South Korea. North Korean divisions also struck in the mountains of central Korea and along the east coast. Thus, the Cold War suddenly turned into a hot one.
In the meantime, US President Harry S. Truman conferred with Acheson and concluded that the USSR had directed the invasion. On June 27, Truman, without a congressional declaration of war, committed US military supplies to South Korea and moved the US Seventh Fleet into the Formosa Strait, a show of force meant to intimidate China. The Chinese, however, preoccupied since World War II with internal affairs and Taiwan, stayed out of Korean affairs, as they had done since 1895. Proceeding unilaterally, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) directed (June 30) General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, the American commander in East Asia, to commit his ground, air, and naval forces against the North Koreans. On July 7 the UN Security Council passed a resolution requesting that all member states wishing to aid South Korea make their armed forces available to the United States. By this resolution, President Truman became the executive agent for the UN on all matters involving the war in Korea, and MacArthur became the UN's commander in chief. Although the United States ultimately contributed most of the air and sea power and about half of the ground forces (with South Korea supplying the bulk of the remainder), MacArthur controlled the allied war effort of a total of 17 combatant nations (the largest contributors, after the United States and South Korea, being Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and Turkey). Five additional nations provided medical units.
MacArthur's sole hope of saving the South Koreans from the superior Soviet and Chinese-trained North Korean forces was to hold the port of Pusan, at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, until help arrived. He rushed reinforcements north to bolster the hard-pressed South Korean Army; on July 5, American units made contact with North Korean tanks and infantry just north of Osan. The Eighth Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker, delayed the North Koreans north and west of the Naktong River, the last natural barrier protecting Pusan. As the North Koreans pushed south toward the Naktong, however, Walker moved the Eighth Army into what came to be known as the Pusan Perimeter, a 150 mile-long front around the cities of Taegu and Pusan, which survived only because of the timely arrival of reinforcements and American air superiority over the battlefield.
Beginning on August 5 the North Koreans launched a series of violent attacks against the perimeter in an effort to capture Pusan. By September 12, however, reinforcements had greatly increased the combat power of the allies, and the North Korean offensive had spent itself.
Click on this map and the next one to see them full size (will open in separate windows)
Inchon, with its appalling array of tides and currents, was the worst sort of amphibious objective. The harbor was dominated by Wolmi-do, a small island which, if defended, could impede the landing and prevent tactical surprise.(22) Disregarding strong objections to his plan, MacArthur remained convinced that the advantages of seizing the Inchon-Seoul area were worth the risks of landing in Inchon Harbor. He made a daring amphibious landing at Inchon on September 15, successfully cutting the North Korean supply lines. In the days that followed, the marines seized Kimpo Airport and Seoul while the infantry turned south to meet the Eighth Army, which was pursuing a fleeing enemy north from the Pusan Perimeter. By October 1, 1950, the North Koreans had been pushed out of South Korea, and the UN forces were poised south of the 38th parallel.
In the meantime, President Truman's National Security Council advised against crossing the 38th, arguing that the ejection of the North Koreans from South Korea was a sufficient victory. The Joint Chiefs of Staff objected; contemporary military doctrine demanded the destruction of the North Korean Army to prevent a renewal of the aggression. MacArthur, they argued, would have to pursue it into North Korea. On September 11--four days before the Inchon landing--the president adopted the arguments of his military advisors while retaining restraints recommended by the National Security Council to avoid provoking the Chinese and the Soviets: no UN troops should enter Manchuria or the USSR; only South Koreans should operate along international borders; and if the Soviets or Chinese intervened before the scheduled crossing, it should be canceled.
On October 7 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the unification of the peninsula and authorized MacArthur to send his forces into North Korea. In a conference with Truman at Wake Island on October 15, MacArthur was optimistic about an early victory. The North Korean capital of Pyongyang fell on October 19, and the allied UN troops streamed north virtually unopposed. They pushed the North Korean forces to the Yalu River, on the border of China. By the end of the month, the fall of North Korea seemed imminent.
In retrospect, the decision to cross the 38th parallel changed the course of the war. Beginning in late September, Communist China had warned of possible Chinese intervention if UN forces crossed the border, and between October 14 and November 1 about 180,000 Communist "volunteers" had secretly crossed the Yalu. Not knowing the full extent of the Chinese commitment, MacArthur did not believe that a furious counterattack on October 25 was a serious intervention. By November 2, however, intelligence officers had accumulated undeniable evidence that Chinese Communist forces had intervened. The UN Security Council was soon notified of their presence.
After his troops replenished their depleted supplies, MacArthur launched a "home-by-Christmas" offensive on November 24. Although some UN and South Korean forces reached the Yalu, the Chinese army struck quickly and with full force. The United States 1st Marine Division, surrounded at Chosin Reservoir, fought to the sea in a historic march. Stunned, American and South Korean units began a second retreat that ended in January 1951, only after both sides had recrossed the 38th parallel and Seoul had once again fallen.
Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgeway, who took over the Eighth Army after General Walker died (December 23, 1950) in a jeep accident near the front line, brought the UN withdrawal to a halt south of Seoul. Beginning on January 7, 1951, allied units began to probe north, opening an offensive that frontline troops came to call the "meatgrinder." Throughout January, February, and March, Ridgeway's men pushed on relentlessly until they once again crossed the 38th parallel. In early April the UN advance slowed temporarily as units consolidated strong defensive ground and braced themselves for an expected enemy counteroffensive.
In the meantime the defeat in North Korea had forced the UN to reexamine its war aims in light of Chinese involvement. MacArthur quickly charged that he was facing "an entirely new war" and that the strategy for war against North Korea did not apply in a war against China. MacArthur wanted more forces and a broader charter to retaliate against the Chinese, especially to conduct air operations against the "privileged sanctuary" of Manchuria. In this strategy, he was completely at odds with President Truman and other UN leaders who wanted a lesser commitment and a cease-fire. The UN General Assembly branded Communist China an aggressor in February 1951 and voted to subject it to economic sanctions. Its new war aim was to contain the Communist forces along the 38th parallel while negotiating an end to the conflict. Even in the darkest days before the Inchon landing, American leaders believed that restraint was necessary to avoid widening the war. Now that China was involved, the administration feared that it might invoke the Sino-Soviet treaty and cause the Soviets to unleash their nuclear capability against the United States or mount a conventional strike in Europe. Consequently, the US administration opposed MacArthur's desire to expand his force and to retaliate against the Chinese. In return, MacArthur disagreed with Acheson and Truman's policy of giving priority to Europe at the expense of the shooting war in Korea; he openly appealed to the public and Congress in an attempt to reverse the new war policy. During this period of cold-war tensions many Americans--most notably Wisconsin's Senator Joseph R. McCarthy--agreed with MacArthur's stand.
MacArthur had been a difficult subordinate. He had clashed with Truman over US policy toward Taiwan early in the war and complained about the restrictions placed on his forces and his freedom to wage the war. He publicly suggested that the policies of the Truman administration had been responsible for military setbacks. On March 25, 1951, just as President Truman put the finishing touches on a new initiative seeking a cease-fire, MacArthur broadcast a bellicose ultimatum to the enemy commander that undermined the president's plan. Truman was furious; MacArthur had preempted presidential prerogative, confused friends and enemies alike about who was directing the war, and directly challenged the president's authority as commander in chief. On April 5, while Truman considered ways to handle the problem, Joseph W. Martin, minority (Republican) leader of the House of Representatives, released the contents of a letter from MacArthur in which the general repeated his criticism of the administration. The next day Truman began the process that was to end with MacArthur's relief from command on April 11. On his return to the United States, MacArthur received a hero's welcome. After MacArthur's dismissal Ridgeway moved to Tokyo to replace him, and Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet took command of the Eighth Army. On April 22, while Van Fleet's army edged north, the more than 450,000 Chinese opened a general offensive. Followed closely by this formidable force, Van Fleet withdrew below the 38th parallel, finally halting only 8 km (5 mi) north of Seoul.
On May 10, the Chinese launched a second offensive, concentrating their main effort on the eastern sector of the UN line. Van Fleet attacked in the west, north of Seoul. The surprised Communist units pulled back, suffering their heaviest casualties of the war, and by the end of May they were retreating into North Korea. By late June, a military stalemate had developed as the battle lines stabilized in the vicinity of the 38th parallel. Both sides dug into the hills and for the next two years waged a strange and frequently violent war over outposts between their lines.
Negotiations were initially hampered by haggling over matters of protocol and the selection of a truly neutral site. On July 10, 1951, the full armistice delegations met at Kaesong, with Vice Adm. C. Turner Joy representing the UN command and Gen. Nam Il of North Korea representing the Communists.
On July 26 the two sides finally reached agreement on an agenda containing four major points: fixing a demarcation line and demilitarized zone, supervision of the truce, arrangements for prisoners of war, and recommendations to the governments involved in the war. Numerous problems arose, however, causing frequent suspensions of the talks, which in October resumed at a new site, Panmunjom.
One by one the issues were resolved until the only remaining obstacle was the handling of prisoners of war (POWS). The UN wanted prisoners to decide for themselves whether they would return home; the Communists insisted on forced repatriation. A lengthy stalemate developed, reflecting the battlefield stalemate along the 38th parallel. A series of Communist POW riots that erupted in May 1952 on Koje and Cheju islands only complicated the issue. Thousands of captured Red troops asked to stay in South Korea, and the United States would not repatriate any prisoner against his wishes. In order to force the Communists to negotiate in good faith, Gen. Mark Clark, who succeeded Ridgeway, increased air attacks over North Korea. On June 23, 1952, UN air attacks destroyed major hydroelectric installations on the Yalu.
By April 1953 the POW deadlock was finally broken, and the first prisoners were exchanged at Panmunjom under a compromise that permitted prisoners to choose sides under supervision of a neutral commission. During this dramatic episode, the US was troubled to learn that hundreds of American soldiers--after communist brainwashing--had collaborated in various degrees with their captors; 21 Americans chose to remain behind in China. Not satisfied with a truce that did not result in the unification of Korea and totally voluntary repatriation, Syngman Rhee disrupted the proceedings on June 18 by releasing about 25,000 North Korean prisoners who wanted to live in the South. To gain Rhee's cooperation, the U.S. government promised him a mutual security pact, long-term economic aid, expansion of the South Korean Army, and coordination of goals and actions in future international conferences.
On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed, without the participation of South Korea, and the shooting phase of the Korean War came to an end. Although the precise number of Chinese and North Korean casualties is unknown, estimates of total losses range between 1.5 and 2 million, plus perhaps a million civilians in the north.(23) The UN command suffered a total of 88,000 killed, of whom 23,300 were American. Total casualties for the UN (killed, wounded, or missing) were 459,360, including 300,000 South Koreans. Another million civilian casualties were incurred in South Korea. In addition more than 40 percent of the industry and a third of the homes in that country were ruined.
Politically and militarily the war was inconclusive. The two armies continue to watch each other over the demilitarized zone, a 2.5-mile band stretching 155 miles across the Korean peninsula, waiting for the day when the fighting might begin again. South Korea and the United States concluded a mutual defense treaty in 1954; American troops levels were reduced, but the South Korean army gained more sophisticated military equipment and the United States poured considerable economic aid into the country, initially to prevent starvation in a war-ravaged land.
Korea was no closer to unification; the war only served to intensify bitterness between North and South. The truce has been an uneasy one, marked by frequent border skirmishes which made it necessary for the United States to keep 40,000 troops stationed along the DMZ on a permanent basis. Since 1953 Korea has continued its dual pattern of development; South Korea went from democracy to military dictatorship and back to democracy again, while North Korea produced an unusually isolated version of one-man rule, as Kim Il Sung concentrated his power over the only legal political party, the military, and the government. Reunification talks have been held periodically since 1972 without results.
The Korean War had other important results in the arena of international diplomacy. It contributed to the strained relations between Washington and Beijing. In addition it added a new military dimension to the U.S. foreign policy of containment, which had heretofore been implemented by political and economic measures, including military aid. Originally formulated by George F. Kennan, developed by Dean Acheson, and advanced by John Foster Dulles, the containment policy led to US military involvement in Vietnam during the 1960s.
As in postwar Japan, the South Korean government has placed its primary emphasis on economic growth, which in this case started from a much lower base because of the Korean War and Japanese exploitation. Huge industrial firms were created by a combination of government aid and active entrepreneurship. Exports were actively encouraged and by the 1970s, when Korean growth rates began to match those of Japan, Korea was competing successfully, in the area of cheap consumer goods, steel and automobiles, in a variety of international markets. In steel, Korea's surge--based on the most up-to-date technology, a skilled engineering sector, and low wages--indeed pushed past Japan. The same held true in textiles, where Korean growth (along with that of Taiwan) erased almost one-third of the jobs held by the industry in Japan.
Huge industrial groups like Daewoo and Hyundai resemble the great Japanese holding companies and wield great political influence. Hyundai, for example, is the creation of the entrepreneur Chung Ju Yung, a modern folk hero who walked 150 miles from his native village to Seoul to take his first job as a day laborer at the age of 16. By the 1980s, when Chung was in his sixties, his firm had 135,000 employees and embraced 42 overseas offices throughout the world. Hyundai virtually governs Korea's southeastern coast. It builds ships, including petroleum supertankers; thousands of housing units were constructed and given to relatively low-paid workers at below-market rates; it built schools, a technical college, and an arena to practice the traditional Korean martial art, Tae Kwon Do. With their lives carefully provided for, Hyundai workers respond in kind, putting in six-day weeks with three vacation days per year and participating in almost-worshipful ceremonies when a fleet of cars is shipped abroad or a new tanker launched.
South Korea's rapid entry into the ranks of newly industrialized countries produced a host of more general changes. Population growth soared, until more than 40 million people were living in a nation about the size of the state of Indiana, producing the highest population density on earth, about 1,000 people per square mile. Here is one reason why, even amid growing prosperity, some Koreans have emigrated, while the government now encourages birth control. Seoul expanded to embrace nine million people, with intense air pollution and a hothouse atmosphere of deals and business maneuvers. Per capita income advanced dramatically, rising almost ten times from the early 1950s to the early 1980s, but today it is still only one-fifth as high as Japan's. Huge fortunes coexist with massive poverty in this setting, though the poverty itself has risen well above levels characteristic of less-developed nations.
In the years after the war South Korea's first president, Syngman Rhee, came to see his opponents as communist agents, and the government changed from a democracy to a dictatorship. In 1960 Rhee won his fourth presidential election; the opposition parties cried foul, and anti-government demonstrations/riots got so bad that Rhee resigned and went into exile at Honolulu, Hawaii, for the rest of his life. The new president, Chang Myun, was overthrown in 1961 in a military coup that brought General Park Chung Hee to power. Park, elected president in 1963, did much to restore economic prosperity, but rising protests against his authoritarian rule led to the imposition of martial law in 1972. In 1975 all political opposition was banned. The Park regime ended with his assassination by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency in 1979. Premier Choi Kyu Hah was then elected president.
In May 1980 protests against the reimposition of martial law led to an uprising in Kwangju that was harshly suppressed by the army. Soon after, a military committee led by Chun Doo Hwan assumed power. A new constitution was approved in October, and Chun became president in 1981. His army-backed Democratic Justice party (DJP) lost seats in the 1985 legislative elections, and in June 1987 the worst political protests since 1980 erupted. The crisis was defused by the writing of another constitution, the sixth since 1948. According to it, legislative power is vested in the mostly popularly elected National Assembly and executive power in the president. The latter is elected to a single 5-year term. The president appoints the cabinet, headed by a prime minister. The 1987 constitution also curtailed presidential powers, strengthened the legislature, and pledged military neutrality in politics.
Roh Tae Woo, Chun's successor as head of the DJP, reached an agreement with opposition leaders Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam in September, for a new constitution that provided direct presidential elections. Roh won the elections on Dec. 20, 1987, but with only 37% of the vote over a divided opposition. He assumed office on Feb. 25, 1988. In the April 1988 legislative elections, three opposition parties won 164 of the 299 seats. In November former president Chun apologized to the nation for abuses of power by his regime. In 1990 the DJP and two leading opposition parties merged to form the new Democratic Liberal Party (DLP). In 1991 the DLP won a majority of seats in the first local elections since the 1961 coup; it captured 149 of 299 seats in the March 1992 legislative elections.
Former dissident Kim Young Sam, the DLP candidate, won the December 1992 presidential election and assumed office two months later, becoming the first nonmilitary president of South Korea in more than three decades. When it came to restoring democracy, Kim showed he meant business; in 1995 he jailed both of his predecessors. Chun Doo Hwan was charged with the slaughter of more than 200 protesters in the Kwangju uprising, Roh Tae Woo with taking $369 million in bribes from 35 businessmen.
The 1997 economic crisis of Thailand spread to South Korea late in that year, when investors lost confidence in the debt-laden economy, causing the South Korean currency to rapidly lose its value. This devaluation made Seoul's foreign currency reserves disappear, threatening the capacity of the government, banks, and industries to repay foreign debts; meanwhile the unemployment rate soared as unstable businesses declared bankruptcy. The government accepted one of the largest aid packages ever arranged with the United Nations' International Monetary Fund (IMF), bringing in an $18 billion shot in the arm. The agreement, however, required South Korea to sharply reduce public spending, and increase taxes and interest rates. The economic crisis occurred in the middle of a presidential election, so voters turned out Kim Young Sam and elected Kim Dae Jung instead. Kim Dae Jung is Korea's most famous opposition leader and pro-democracy advocate; in fact, he was under a death sentence in 1980. If anybody had any doubts about democracy finally coming to South Korea, they were dispelled by Kim's election.
The summer Olympic Games of 1988 were held in Seoul, a sign of South Korea's progress and a source of great national satisfaction. During the games, Korean nationalism flared against American athletes and television commentators, based on real or imagined tendencies to seek out faults in Korean society. South Korea, like Japan, continues to look heavily toward Western markets and United States military assistance, but there is clearly a desire to put the relationship on a more equal footing, which could affect policy in the future.
Both South Korea and North Korea became members of the United Nations in 1991. In December, the two signed a landmark treaty of reconciliation and non-aggression. Despite tensions caused by fears that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons, talks continued after the signing of a 1992 accord laying the framework for post-cold-war trade between the two countries. The inter-Korean talks were broken off by North Korea in 1993, because of tensions over the North's refusal to allow foreign monitoring of its nuclear power plants, but they resumed in 1996. In June 2000 the two Koreas held the first face-to-face meeting between their presidents; Kim Dae Jung went to Pyongyang, where he got along better than expected with Kim Jong Il. For this Kim Dae Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. This has produced hope that the Korean peninsula's future does not have to be a violent one.
Nearly every building in modern-day Pyongyang dates from the 1960s and 70s. Older buildings were destroyed by the battles fought for the city in 1950, and more recently the country hasn't been able to afford new ones. The main architectural features are symbols of "Kim Il Sung Thought," like a mile-long museum displaying the personal belongings of "Great Leader," (even the butts of cigarettes he smoked!), giant statues, and the twenty-two story tower of Kim Il Sung University. By using this and a series of plays/concerts that called for adoration of the dictator, Kim Il Sung built up a cult of personality that put those of Stalin and Mao to shame; he went so far as to have every road in North Korea built with an extra lane, just for his private use. Today Kim Il Sung's signature routinely appears on government documents, as if he was still alive and running the state.
Chinese troops aided North Korea during the Korean War, but North Korea dissociated itself from the dispute between China and the USSR during the 1960s and 70s; in 1966, North Korea declared its political independence from both. In 1968 tensions increased when the U.S. spy ship Pueblo was captured and held for several months, but neither Moscow nor Beijing intervened. Other war-threatening incidents included the 1976 murder by 30 ax-wielding North Koreans of two American army officers, who were trimming a poplar tree in the DMZ(24); a 1983 bombing in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Burma) that killed 14 South Koreans; and the blowing up of a Korean Air Lines jet off the coast of Myanmar in 1987, which left 115 passengers and crew members dead. Meanwhile President Kim Il Sung, raised to demigod status, chose his eldest son, Kim Jong Il, as his successor, even though hereditary succession directly contradicts the Marxist ideology both Kims vowed to uphold.
North Korea boycotted the 1988 Seoul Olympics when its bid to co-host the games failed. Talks between the two Koreas on trade links and cross-border visits have been held on and off since 1972, and in September 1990 their prime ministers met for the first time since the Korean War. North Korea announced in 1990 that it would seek full normalization of its relations with Japan. The following year, in a further effort to end its growing diplomatic isolation, North Korea was granted UN membership and said that it would permit international inspection of its nuclear facilities. In December 1991 the two Koreas signed a landmark treaty of reconciliation and non-aggression. Despite tensions caused by fears that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons, talks continued after the signing of a 1992 accord laying the framework for post-cold-war trade between the two countries.
In February 1993, the North Korean government stated that it would not allow inspectors from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to enter key nuclear power facilities to monitor compliance with the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korea, facing United Nations condemnation and threats of international economic sanctions, announced it would withdraw from the NPT. As the crisis intensified through 1993 and into 1994, North Korea declared that the matter could be resolved only through direct bilateral talks with the United States. Evidence appeared that North Korea had diverted enough plutonium from its power plants to create at least two nuclear warheads, and was testing medium-range missile systems to deliver them with. The United States continued efforts to seek global sanctions against North Korea if it failed to cooperate with the IAEA, but faced ambivalence on the issue from South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. In late June 1994, however, following a visit to Pyongyang by former President Jimmy Carter as an unofficial emissary, the Kim Il Sung regime announced that it would temporarily freeze its nuclear program. President Clinton announced on June 22 that high-level talks would be held in July in Geneva, Switzerland, between the United States and North Korea. Arrangements for a summit meeting in Pyongyang late in July between Kim Il Sung and South Korean President Kim Young Sam were canceled because of the death of the North Korean president.(25)
North Korea has been hermetically sealed from the outside world since the end of the Korean War. No other country in modern times has been isolated so effectively for so long. Kim Jong Il is commonly referred to as "Dear Leader," and has commanded the armed forces since 1991, but because of his country's economic problems, he delayed taking his father's other titles--president and head of the Communist Party--until July 1997. North Korea is the last outpost of Stalinist-style communism and the only "extreme command driven" economy left in the world, meaning that it is in serious financial trouble. In the 1950s and 60s North Korea's economy actually outperformed that of both China and South Korea, but more recently the GDP has shrunken by an estimated 4-5% a year. The downward spiral began in 1989, when the USSR and China, hampered by economic difficulties of their own, stopped supplying goods at "friendship prices." Then came six years of bad harvests, and a ravaging 1995 flood, followed by a long, cold, dry winter. In 1996 the country ran out of food; grain rations were cut back to a starvation level of 200 grams a day, and refugees starting defecting to South Korea and China to escape a massive human tragedy. By the end of 1993 North Korea also had a trade deficit of more than $1.7 billion. As Pyongyang's credit rating plummeted, the commerce between North Korea and China, which peaked at $226 million in 1994, shrank to just $9 million in 1996. It was explained this way by a Chinese official: "What they want--grain--we can't give them. What they want to sell, we don't want."
The most obvious solution would be to open up North Korea to more foreign trade. But Kim Jong Il would be hard pressed to justify such an action; it would overturn his father's policy of Juche (self-reliance), which is the linchpin of North Korean ideology. The choices left to him are to launch reform and watch his base of political power erode, the way it did for Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR, or let the country stagnate and hope the people do not react to the increasing hunger and deprivation. Neither is a prescription for the stability that every other country in the region is seeking. It is possible that Kim Il Sung built up a nuclear weapons program and supported terrorism abroad just to blackmail the world into giving him aid.
Normally Southerners would cheer at the news of North Korea's end. But joy over such a prospect is hidden by concern that the North is both hungry and well-armed--a dangerous situation under any circumstances. It is quite possible that the North could use its army of 1.2 million men to start a war to get the food it needs, figuring that if it has to go, it might as well take the South with it. Ironically, the United States and South Korea are responding to this threat by trying to prop up Pyongyang long enough to get aid to the civilian population, hoping that the result will be a "soft landing" rather than a sudden meltdown. China and Japan have also donated food, since any crisis is likely to affect them as well. In 1996 North Korea announced that it no longer would honor the 1953 armistice, and sent heavily armed troops into the demilitarized zone; they were removed three days later, but the incident prompted the United States and South Korea to offer peace talks between the two Koreas, jointly mediated by China and the United States. These talks continued into the late 1990s. North Korea played the brinkmanship game again in 1998, by launching a test missile that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific; this showed the world that North Korea has the technology to hit any target in South Korea or Japan.
The downfall of communism through popular uprisings in Eastern Europe has caused many observers to predict a similar collapse of the Pyongyang regime. So far it hasn't happened, thanks to the South's unexpected economic downturn in 1997, and the North's ability to live on food aid from governments that used to detest isolationist Stalinism. Eastern Europe has also shown us a painful lesson in how much reunification of a country can cost. Reunification has cost Germany's government $65.5 billion a year, most of it spent on repairing/replacing the infrastructure in the former communist portion, and the breakdown of East Germany has caused widespread unemployment. Furthermore, East Germany had fewer people and a more developed economy than North Korea, and West Germany is wealthier than South Korea. Marcus Noland of the Institute for International Economics estimated in 1997 that reunification would cost $1 trillion, nearly twice the South's GDP. Combine that with the prospect of millions of refugees going south in search of food and jobs, and the current hostile standoff looks almost desireable.
The South would prefer to see reunification take place in three stages. First, full diplomatic relations and mutual trust would be established. Then would come an economic "common market," where the South invests in northern industries to create jobs, but the borders remain closed to prevent a flood of refugees to the South, as happened in Germany. The third and last phase would be full political unification. Pyongyang and Seoul held a series of ministerial meetings from 1990 to 1992, as the first step of this plan, until the North's nuclear program wrecked it.
Hong Kong and Taiwan have already set an example, by meshing so much of their economy with the Chinese mainland that a war with Beijing is no longer considered likely. Before Hong Kong rejoined China, its firms employed three million factory workers in 25,000 mainland factories. Korea could follow the same model, and indeed the big South Korean corporations are eager to repeat the "miracle" they wrought on the South in the 1950s and 60s, this time with cheap Northern labor.
One difference between North Korea and the former East Germany is that before the Berlin Wall came down, East Germans knew what life in the West was like, from Western television and radio. This is not the case in North Korea, where people cannot watch television from the South and few dare listen to radio. There are only 24 telephone lines between Pyongyang and Seoul, and these are little used. It is probably because North Koreans do not realize how much poorer they are than their southern relatives that they have never risen up against their oppressive government.
Even from space the differences between North and South Korea are visible. This night-time scene, taken from a weather satellite in 2005, shows every city in South Korea lit up brightly, and you can even see the highways as lines between the cities. By contrast, except for a barely visible grey smudge marking Pyongyang, there are no lights in North Korea at all.
A Concise History of Korea and Japan
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