A History of Korea: From "Land of the Morning Calm" to States in Conflict

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Contemporary North and South Korea are nations of radical contrasts: one a bellicose totalitarian state with a failing economy; the other a peaceful democracy with a strong economy. Yet their people share a common history that extends back more than 3,000 years. In this comprehensive new history of Korea from the prehistoric era to the present day, Jinwung Kim recounts the rich and fascinating story of the political, social, cultural, economic, and diplomatic developments in Korea's long march to the present. He provides a detailed account of the origins of the Korean people and language and the founding of the first walled-town states, along with the advanced civilization that existed in the ancient land of "Unified Silla." Clarifying the often complex history of the Three Kingdoms Period, Kim chronicles the five-century long history of the Choson dynasty, which left a deep impression on Korean culture. From the beginning, China has loomed large in the history of Korea, from the earliest times when the tribes that would eventually make up the Korean nation roamed the vast plains of Manchuria and against whom Korea would soon define itself. Japan, too, has played an important role in Korean history, particularly in the 20th century; Kim tells this story as well, including the conflicts that led to the current divided state. The first detailed overview of Korean history in nearly a quarter century, this volume will enlighten a new generation of students eager to understand this contested region of Asia.

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1. Dawn of the Korean Nation

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As a nation, Korea has a long history. The archeological finds suggest that, at some point in the misty past, tiny bands of tribesmen inhabiting the lands along the Altai Mountains of Central Asia began making their way eastward in the eternal quest for the “land of life” (the East), moving into Manchuria and the Korean peninsula. The habitation of early men in the Korean peninsula started as early as 700,000 years ago. Some North Koreans claim that the peninsula may have been inhabited for a million years. Until now Paleolithic remains, dating about 700,000 to 8,000 years ago, have been excavated in various parts of the Korean peninsula, from the Tumen River basin to the north to Cheju-do Island to the south. The most important Paleolithic sites, amounting to more than a hundred, are mostly found at the sides of big rivers.

The best-known sites of the Early Paleolithic Age, which ended approximately 100,000 years ago, include those at Sangwŏn county (Kŏmŭnmoru cave and Yonggok-ni) in the Taedong River basin, at Yŏnch’ŏn county (Chŏn’gok-ni) in the Hant’an River basin, at Chech’ŏn city (Chŏmmal cave of P’ojŏn-ni) and Tanyang city (Kŭmgul cave) in the South Han River basin, and at P’aju county (Chuwŏl-ri and Kawŏl-ri) in the Imjin River basin. The sites of the Middle Paleolithic Age, dating about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, include those at Unggi county (Kulp’o-ri) in the Tumen River basin, at Sangwŏn county (Yonggok-ni) and the Yŏkp’o area of Pyongyang in the Taedong River basin, at Tŏkch’ŏn county (Sŭngni-san) in the Ch’ŏngch’ŏn River basin, at Yanggu county (Sangmuryŏng-ni) in the North Han River basin, at Yŏnch’ŏn county (Namgye-ri), Yangp’yŏng county (Pyŏngsan-ni), Chech’ŏn city (Myŏngo-ri), and Tanyang city (Suyanggae cave) in the South Han River basin, and on Chejudo (Pile-mot pond). The sites of the Late Paleolithic Age, dating about 40,000 to 8,000 years ago, include those at Unggi county (Kulp’o-ri [the upper layer] and Pup’o-ri), Pyongyang (Mandal-ri) in the Taedong River basin, Kongju city (Sŏkchang-ni) and Ch’ŏngwŏn county (Turubong cave) in the Kŭm River basin, Hwasun county (Taejŏn-ni), Koksŏng county (Chewŏl-ri), and Sunch’ŏn city (Chungnae-ri) in the Sŏmjin River basin. Given the wide distribution of these sites, it is presumed that Paleolithic men lived in virtually every part of the Korean peninsula.

 

2. The Period of the Three Kingdoms (57 Bc–Ad 676)

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Beginning as a small walled-town state before the second century BC, Koguryŏ grew increasingly into a confederated kingdom after its expulsion of the Chinese commandery of Hyŏndo in 75 BC. At around that time there were five large tribal enclaves: Sono-bu (or Piryu-bu), Chŏllo-bu (or Yŏnna-bu), Sunno-bu (or Hwanna-bu), Kwanno-bu (or Kwanna-bu), and Kyeru-bu. In 37 BC Chumong and his Kyeru-bu people, the so-called horse-riding warriors, took political leadership in the confederated kingdom, heralding the beginning of “New Koguryŏ.”

At first the Koguryŏ people were a hunting tribe that had settled in the mountainous regions of southern Manchuria. Thus Koguryŏ had to break out of these regions and make inroads into the south, with its vast stretches of plains. In AD 3 Koguryŏ transferred its capital from Cholbon (Hwanin) to Kungnae-sŏng on the Yalu. Defended by Hwando-sŏng in the rear and fronted by the Yalu River, the new capital was a natural stronghold.

By the first century AD Koguryŏ was firmly established as a state power. King T’aejo (53–146?) vigorously expanded the Koguryŏ territory through aggressive military activities allowing Koguryŏ to exact tribute from its neighbors. T’aejo subjugated Okchŏ to secure a base in the rear and consolidate the material foundations by acquiring a tributary state. He also actively took the offensive against the Chinese, attacking the Liaodong region east of the Liao River and the Chinese commandery of Nangnang. T’aejo and his successors then absorbed the newly won resources and manpower into Koguryŏ, thus continuing Koguryŏ’s territorial expansion. Domestically T’aejo established the permanent right to the throne by the Ko house (clan) of the Kyeru-bu lineage, and thus he came to be called T’aejo, or the founder-king.

 

3. Parhae, Unified Silla, and the Later Three Kingdoms (676–936)

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After Silla pushed Tang China off the Korean peninsula in 676, it asserted authority over the Korean peninsula south of the Taedong River-Wŏnsan Bay line and thus unified Korea south of the peninsula’s narrow waist. The old domain of Koguryŏ above that line on the Korean peninsula and in Manchuria then came under the rule of Tang, which, to govern that vast territory, established the “Protectorate-General to Pacify the East.” But Tang’s rule met with stiff resistance from those displaced from Koguryŏ. To placate them Tang invested Pojang, the last king of Koguryŏ, with a fiefdom, giving him the title “King of Chaoxian (Chosŏn),” and in 677 it appointed him governor of Liaodong. His descendants succeeded him in that position and gradually secured virtual autonomy for the region they governed. This “state,” which remained in existence until the early ninth century, was often referred to by historians as “Lesser Koguryŏ.” In 698 Tang was forced to abolish the Protectorate-General to Pacify the East.

 

4. The First Half of the Koryo Period (918–1170)

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After unifying the later three kingdoms, King T’aejo (Wang Kŏn’s posthumous, official title, meaning “Great Progenitor”) sought to achieve national integration by forging alliances with members of the local gentry, who were scattered throughout the country, and by recovering the former territories of Koguryŏ and Parhae. He regarded his state as the successor to Koguryŏ and pursued a policy of northern expansion. He extended Koryŏ’s borders to the Ch’ŏngch’ŏn River, some 45 miles north of Pyongyang.1 Meanwhile, in domestic affairs, T’aejo faced difficulties dealing with the recalcitrant local gentry. Despite unification, members of the local gentry, within their regional strongholds, still maintained quasi-independent status. As a result, the central government could not dispatch its officials to administer the local areas. Needing consent and cooperation from local gentry figures to rule effectively, T’aejo forged marriage ties with 29 local gentry families throughout the country, including the Chŏngju Yu clan, the Naju O clan, the Ch’ungju Yu clan, the Hwangju Hwangbo clan, and the Kyŏngju Kim clan. He fathered 25 sons and 9 daughters. In some cases he strengthened the alliance by bestowing the royal surname, Wang, or other family names on powerful local elites and creating fictive family ties with them. To curry favor with the local gentry, to whom he owed his throne, T’aejo adopted men of local gentry lineage as merit subjects, bestowing upon them land and high office ranks.

 

5. The Second Half of the Koryo Period (1170–1392)

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In the twelfth century, some 200 years after Koryŏ’s founding, conditions in the kingdom began rapidly to deteriorate, an apparent outcome of the dynastic cycle. The cycle was an inevitable result of the periodic weakening of royal authority, the corruption of officials, rivalry between court factions, the growth of tax-exempt aristocratic landholdings, and indifference to the problems of the masses. Beginning in the mid-twelfth century several rebellions erupted, and Koryŏ society entered a period of rebellions that spanned more than 150 years.

As a small minority of renowned aristocratic lineages in the capital monopolized wealth and power, Koryŏ’s officialdom began to split and develop internal power struggles, starting with the reign of King Injong (1122–1146). The long period of domestic tranquility was first broken by the treason of Yi Chagyŏm. In the period of Injong, the Inju Yi clan emerged as the most powerful aristocratic family. Meanwhile, the Koryŏ kings frequently married their own close relatives to consolidate the ruling family. At the time they increased the number of intermarriages with the Inju Yi clan, increasing the number of inlaw connections to gain power. Yi Cha-yŏn had already married off his three daughters to King Munjong (1046–1083). Then Yi Cha-gyŏm, a grandson of Yi Cha-yŏn, elevated his Inju Yi family to the pinnacle of its power. He had given a daughter as queen to King Yejong (1105–1122), and the son of that union ascended the throne as King Injong in 1122. He gave two daughters to Injong as his consorts and, through this duplicated in-law connection, monopolized power completely. At 14 years of age Injong acceded to the throne, and thus, as both the king’s father-in-law and grandfather-in-law, Yi Cha-gyŏm held real political power. Supported by the military officer Ch’ŏk Chun-gyŏng, Yi also assumed military power and wielded more authority than the king himself. It is said that he trafficked in government positions, and that meat, amounting to tens of thousands of pounds, which was offered as bribes, grew rotten at his house. Yi and his faction enlarged their personal landholdings and property by seizing real estate from others, thereby also achieving a dominant economic position.

 

6. The First Half of the Choson Period (1392–1650)

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The first century of the ChosŎn dynasty, which ranged from King T’aejo (1392–1398) to King Sŏngjong (1469–1494), saw a new ruling order established and witnessed the dynasty’s greatest strength, prosperity, cultural brilliance, and unprecedented vitality. Inheriting the brilliant Koryŏ civilization, the Chosŏn kingdom created its own developed civilization.

Chosŏn was sinicized far more than any previous Korean kingdom in terms of its institutions and culture. Within the first two centuries of its reign, Chosŏn became recognized as even more sinicized than China itself. It was often called So chunghwa, or “Little China,” meaning that Chosŏn was the perfect embodiment of Chinese (“Middle Kingdom”) civilization.

It was also in this period of the new dynasty when the influence of Buddhism greatly diminished. The Chosŏn kingdom launched a sweeping attack on Buddhism and its institutions, with profound and enduring effects on the character of subsequent civilization in Korea. In place of Buddhism, Confucianism, particularly Neo-Confucianism, was instituted as a state philosophy. The Neo-Confucian literati managed to inculcate Confucianism throughout Chosŏn society, which had a profound effect on the position of women. As time went on, women were increasingly relegated to the category of the so-called naeja, or “inside people,” who devoted themselves to the domestic chores of child rearing and housekeeping.

 

7. The Second Half of the Choson Period (1650–1910

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In the later ChosŎn period fierce factional struggles developed, in which scholar-officials quarreled even over minor points of Confucian ritual and etiquette, especially the proper mourning period following the death of a royal personage. Neo-Confucian doctrine rewarded tedious scholasticism and inflexible orthodoxy, and encouraged the Neo-Confucian literati to avoid “forged factions” and join “authentic factions.” The Neo-Confucian literati also argued that their own faction was orthodox and denounced their rivals as heterodox. This bitter strife deteriorated further as the number of aspiring officials grew while the number of available positions became scarce.

After the two wars with the Japanese and the Manchus, the power struggle among the yangban scholar-officials intensified. Bloody purges took many talented lives every time power changed hands. The winners threatened the losers’ persons, property, and families, even their graves. Each faction sought to desecrate the power and influence of its rivals, always in the name of a higher morality, but every time a faction took power, the group splintered into smaller units. Meanwhile, with officials engaged in a life-and-death struggle, they had no time to attend either to national matters or the needs of the populace.

 

8. The Period of Japanese Colonial Rule (1910–1945)

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The fateful Korean-Japanese annexation treaty not only culminated the process of Japan’s domination of Korea but heralded the demise of the Chosŏn dynasty. Despite the people’s resentment and bitter opposition, Korea had become a colony of the Japanese empire. Following annexation, the Japanese began a 35-year period of colonial rule that profoundly affected the manner in which modern Korea took shape.

Japanese colonial rule in Korea was unusually harsh and destructive, producing virtually no benefit for the Korean people. It was severely systemic and pervasive, an extension of ingrained feudal attitudes that even today influence the behavior of the Japanese toward one another. Having assigned the Koreans an inferior status, Japanese colonial administrators, with unlimited zeal, naturally applied the hierarchical standards of their own society to the Koreans. Japan built huge bureaucracies in Korea, all of them highly centralized and too big by colonial standards. In the mid-1930s, in India, some 12,000 British governed 340 million Indians (a ratio of 1 to 28,000), whereas in Korea approximately 52,000 Japanese ruled 22 million Koreans (1 to 420). The Koreans could not escape the tight control of a police state, where their political suppression by Japan was thorough and far-reaching. Free speech, free press, suffrage, and representative government were totally absent. Korea escaped the harsh Japanese colonial rule only in August 1945, when Japan yielded to the U.S. and Soviet onslaught that brought an end to World War II.

 

9. Liberation, Division, and War (1945–1953)

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The years from 1945 to 1948 was a difficult and uncertain period in Korean history, only to be followed by the country’s division into two Koreas, the North and the South, in August and September of 1948. The three-year U.S. occupation of the area south of the 38th parallel was marked by the absence of a clearly formulated policy for Korea, intense rivalry and confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the polarization of Korean politics between the Left and Right.1 Americans, in particular, were ill-prepared for the task of governing Korea and lacked any definite plan of action. Americans were even slow to draw up detailed guidelines for the nation’s military occupation. Nevertheless, the United States played a decisive role in the independence and formation of South Korea. Indeed, this momentous three-year period shaped the economy, society, and domestic politics of present-day South Korea.

Although the division of the Korean peninsula into two occupied zones was temporary at first, a means of accepting the surrender of the Japanese forces, the deepening of the Cold War and the growing antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union on the Korean peninsula made the division permanent. Moreover, the American and Soviet approaches to administering their respective zones were different entirely. In the northern zone, Soviet authorities used the indigenous people’s committees and enforced a policy of communization. In the southern zone, on the other hand, the 24th U.S. Army Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, established the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK).The lion’s share of responsibility for the division of the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel was borne by the United States. U.S. officials had consulted no Koreans in making this decision, but the Korean people were still blamed for the political chaos that ensued. In particular, Korean political leaders, sharply divided along ideological lines, engaged in bitter confrontations, and were never able to reconcile their different visions of a future Korea. In the absence of mature leadership, the Korean people failed to unite in presenting a strong alternative course to the occupying powers.

 

10. The Period of Postwar Reconstruction (1953–1971)

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South Korean politics during the Rhee regime (1948–1960) revolved around his struggle to remain in power indefinitely against the opposition’s efforts to unseat him. Since the inauguration of the ROK, on 15 August 1948, Rhee disingenuously portrayed himself as a transcendent leader who stood out above the partisan and factional struggles of daily politics, and at first this proved to be an indispensable political asset for his public image, as well as a key source of his popular support. As time went by, however, this strategy grew increasingly ineffectual in the face of the more stubborn opposition, which forced him to increasingly pursue authoritarian measures to retain power.1

The 1948 constitution provided for a popularly elected National Assembly, the members of which elected the president for a four-year term. The president could be elected for a second term. Although he lacked grass-roots support in his homeland, Syngman Rhee was handily elected to the presidency by the National Assembly on 20 July 1948 as a reward for his lifetime struggle against Japanese rule. He garnered 180 votes out of 198, and his rival, Kim Ku, obtained just 13 votes. But Rhee escalated the institutional tension between the president and the legislature by seeking more terms and refusing to share power with the National Assembly.

 

11. Reversal of Fortunes (1972–1992)

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Prior to the early 1970s North Korea’s economic and political institutions were more stable than those of its southern counterpart. Then, perhaps beginning in 1971, a dramatic reversal began in their relative economic and political strengths, and by the early 1990s South Korea was the much stronger of the two. In the new environment accompanying the end of the Cold War, South Korea had a prosperous economy with fully democratic institutions, whereas North Korea was left behind economically and politically.

On 17 October 1972 President Park Chung-hee staged a “palace coup d’état,” establishing a new and more autocratic regime, the Fourth Republic, under the so-called Yushin Constitution. That day Park declared a state of emergency, and imposed martial law on South Korea. He dissolved the National Assembly, closed universities throughout the country, and strictly censored the media. Soon Park set about revising the constitution, after first studying the “generalissimo constitution” of Taiwan. In a national referendum, held on 21 November 1972, the South Korean electorate, under a frightened atmosphere, overwhelmingly approved the new constitution. The Yushin Constitution granted the president emergency powers, empowered him to appoint one-third of the members of the National Assembly, and guaranteed the president indefinite tenure in office. The all-powerful president was to be elected by a rubber-stamp electoral college, the National Conference for Unification, which had some 2,300 locally elected delegates. On 23 December 1972 Park was elected president, with a six-year tenure, without one dissenting vote. Six years later, on 6 July 1978, he won another term in the same manner. Now the period of the Fourth Republic, more commonly referred to as the Yushin era, was fully under way.

 

12. Both Koreas in a New Phase (1993 to the Present)

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President Kim Young-Sam, sworn in on 25 February 1993, was the first civilian president in a country that had been ruled by former military men since 1961, and he proudly named his administration the “civilian government.” His successors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, followed suit, defining their administrations, respectively, as the “national government” and “participatory government.”

Portraying himself as a reformer, Kim Young-sam suggested a new politics that would address the chronic “Korean disease,” the corruption that infested every level of society. Indeed, South Koreans derisively called their country the “ROTC,” or Republic of Total Corruption. In his inaugural address he vowed to build a “new Korea,” pledging to fight corruption in the public sectors and to revitalize the already strained economy. During his first months in office, he forced the disclosure of his own property as well as that of his cabinet, members of the National Assembly, and high-ranking public servants, a practice still in place today. Within a few weeks a number of prominent figures, including the Speaker of the National Assembly, the mayor of Seoul, and three cabinet ministers, resigned because of public allegations of past corruption.

 

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