A Brief History of Korea

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Korea

By 4000 BC stone age farmers were living in Korea. By 1000 BC they had learned to use bronze. By about 300 BC they had learned to use iron to make tools and weapons. At first, Korea was divided into tribes but eventually organized kingdoms emerged. There were 3 of them, Goguryeo in the north and Silla and Baekje in the south.

According to legend, Silla was founded in 57 BC by Bak Hyeokgeose, Jumong founded Goguryeo in 37 BC and Onjo founded Baekje in 18 BC. In reality, the 3 kingdoms emerged later between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. These 3 kingdoms were heavily influenced by Chinese civilization. By the 4th century, they were highly civilized.

The three kingdoms of Korea fought for supremacy. China tried to defeat the northern kingdom of Goguryeo twice. Both times they were defeated by General Eulji Mundeok. However, the Chinese then made an alliance with the Silla kingdom against the other two. The Baekje kingdom was defeated by 660 AD and became part of Silla. Goguryeo followed in 668. Korea was then united under the Silla.

The Silla in Korea (668-935)

Although Korea was united under one monarch it was still largely a tribal society. This was underlined by the existence of the hwabaek. Originally they were a council of tribal leaders. Later they were a council of nobles and they had the power to decide who succeeded to the throne.

Korean society was strictly hierarchical. Most of the population were serfs and even the nobility was divided into ranks. Following the Chinese example, a university was formed where Confucian classics were taught. (You had to be of noble birth to study there). There were also civil service exams following the Chinese model. (Again only those of noble birth could take them).

Buddhism was introduced into Korea in the 4th century AD and soon many Buddhist temples were built.

In the late 8th century AD, the Silla kingdom began to break down. There were fights over the succession to the throne. Moreover, local warlords began to break away from the government in the capital, Gyeongju and formed their own states. One warlord called Wang Geon formed a state called Goryeo in 918. He defeated his rivals and in 935 became ruler of Silla.

The Goryeo in Korea (918-1392)

The Goryeo kingdom was faced with aggressive neighbors. A people called the Jurchens conquered north China and frequently fought the Koreans. Then China fell to the Mongols. They soon turned their attention to Korea and they invaded in 1231. The Korean royal family fled to the island of Ganghwa. The Mongols were unable to take the island but they were able to rampage throughout mainland Korea.

However, the Koreans fought back and the Mongols were never able to completely subdue Korea. Finally, in 1258, the Korean royal family surrendered. They were allowed to remain as puppet rulers.

In the 13th century, the Chinese philosophy called Neo-Confucianism arrived in Korea. This was also an age when exquisite celadon pottery was made. A man named Kim Bu-sik wrote a history of Korea called Sagi, The History of the Three Kingdoms.

However, the Goryeo dynasty was in decline. In 1392 a General named Yi Seong-gye was ordered to lead an army against the Ming rulers of China. Instead, he turned against his ruler. The general became the new king of Korea.

The Joseon in Korea (1392-1910)

The king moved the capital to Hanseong (Seoul) in 1394. Under the Yi rulers, Confucianism was made the official religion of Korea. Buddhism lost its influence. In 1443 King Sejong created a native Korean alphabet.

In Korea, there was a class of scholar-officials called the yangban. To join the civil service or to become an army officer, you had to pass certain exams in Confucian thought. To take the exams, you had to be the son of a yangban. So the scholar-official class was hereditary. Below the yangban was a class of clerks and specialists like doctors and accountants. They were called the jungin (middle-men).

Below them was the great mass of Korean society called the yangmin. They were peasants, craftsmen, and merchants. Certain trades such as butchers, tanners, and entertainers were outcasts. At the bottom of the pile were slaves.

Japan invaded Korea in 1592. They prevailed on land but at sea, they were defeated by Admiral Yi Sun-sin. The Japanese were forced to withdraw. They invaded again in 1597 but they withdrew in 1598.

In the 17th century, Korea suffered from factionalism among its ruling class. Silhak (practical learning). Scholars discussed the practical ways of solving Korea’s problems rather than purely abstract ideas.

In the 18th century, the Kings clamped down on factionalism. In Korea, trade and commerce flourished. Merchants had low status in Korean society. Confucianism regarded them with suspicion since they did not produce anything, unlike peasants and craftsmen.

The first contact with Europeans came in 1656 when a Dutch ship was shipwrecked off the coast of Korea. Then in the 18th century Jesuit priests traveled to China. Koreans visiting China met them and by the end of the 18th century, some Koreans had been converted to Catholicism. The new religion slowly spread in Korea despite waves of persecution in 1801, 1839, and 1866.

In the 1850s a new religion spread among the peasants. It was called Donghak (Eastern Learning) and it was led by Choe Je-u. The peasants were discontented in the 19th century and in 1864 there was a rebellion. The rebellion was crushed and Choe Je-u was executed.

Europeans Arrive In Korea

During the 19th century, Korea adopted an isolationist policy. The Koreans refused to trade with Westerners. At first, this policy was successful. Some French priests were killed in Korea in 1866. The French sent a gunboat to avenge them but they were driven off by Korean shore defenses. In 1871 Koreans burned a US ship called General Shermannwhich came to plunder the coast. The USA sent ships to Korea but they too were fought off.

However, Korea’s policy of isolation meant she fell behind other countries in technology and industry. After 1880 King Gojong attempted reform. In 1882 he introduced the slogan ‘eastern ethics, western technology’ but his measures were unpopular and were resisted by conservative officials and by the ordinary people. Confucianism was a very conservative religion or philosophy and made radical change difficult.

Until 1876 Japanese merchants were only allowed to trade in Busan. In that year they forced the Koreans to sign a treaty of trade and friendship. (King Gojong realized that Korea was too weak to fight them). Other ports were opened to the Japanese. There were to be no tariffs on Japanese goods. The treaty stated that Japan and Korea were independent nations. However, Japan had increasing power and influence over the Koreans.

Korea signed a similar trade treaty with the USA in 1882. This was followed by treaties with Britain and Germany the same year. In 1884 she signed a trade treaty with Russia and in 1886 with France.

In 1882 some soldiers in Imo rebelled. They burned the Japanese legation and killed the Japanese military adviser. Korea was forced to pay compensation to the Japanese and signed a new treaty, the Treaty of Jemulpo, which increased Japanese influence. Furthermore, the Chinese used the uprising as an excuse to station their troops on Korean territory.

In 1894 members of the Donghak religion and discontented peasants rose in rebellion. They insisted they were loyal to the king but they demanded certain reforms. The king appealed to the Chinese for help and they sent troops. Japan also sent troops. The king then made a truce with the rebels but the Japanese refused to leave. China and Japan then fought a war, which Japan won easily. For centuries Korea was a ‘tributary’ state of China. Chinese influence was now ended and Japan began to dominate Korea.

The Japanese installed a regent to rule and under Japanese pressure, a Deliberative Council was formed to introduce reforms. From July 1894 to December 1895 the Council swept away much of Korean tradition. There were many Koreans who wanted some reform but the Japanese forced them to introduce these reforms anyway. The regent resigned in October 1894 but the king did not attempt to stop the reforms.

The old rigid division of Korean society into classes was abolished. In the past, the Yangban, the scholar-official class, was not allowed to be involved in a trade. Now they were free to engage in business. The old civil service exams based on Confucian thought were abolished. New exams were introduced based on modern subjects. A new curriculum was introduced for schools with modern subjects. Slavery was abolished. Widows were now allowed to remarry and child marriage was abolished.

While all this was being done the Donghak started a second rebellion. They were crushed by the Japanese and the movement was destroyed. Their leader was captured and executed in 1895. Some further reforms were undertaken in the years 1895-1910. The first modern textile mill in Korea was built in 1897 and the first railway, from Seoul to Incheon, was built in 1901. However, Korea remained an overwhelmingly agricultural nation.

By 1900 there were many Protestant missionaries in Korea. By 1910 there was a small but rapidly growing number of converts.

Increasingly Korea fell under Japanese domination. Korea was made a Japanese ‘protectorate’ which meant that Japan now controlled Korean foreign policy and its relations with other countries. Then in 1907, Korea was forced to accept limited Japanese control of its internal affairs, and the Korean army was disbanded. A Japanese official was sent to run things. He was assassinated in 1909. That gave the Japanese an excuse to annex Korea which they did in 1910.

The Colonial Period in Korea (1910-1945)

The Japanese turned Korea into a colony to supply Japan with food. However, they also built bridges, railways, and roads. The Japanese also built many factories in Korea. The urban population grew rapidly although Korea remained predominantly agricultural. Nevertheless, Japanese rule was repressive. In 1919 many Koreans took part in peaceful demonstrations for independence. The Japanese responded by arresting and executing thousands of people.

Afterward, they made some small reforms. The Koreans were allowed to print newspapers and hold meetings. They were also granted religious freedom and more respect was shown to Korean customs.

However, all these reforms were superficial and in the 1930s the Japanese tried to assimilate the Koreans by persuading them to adopt Japanese names. From 1938 education was only in Japanese. Schoolchildren were forbidden to speak Korean. The Japanese also tried to persuade the Koreans to adopt Shinto (the Japanese national religion) without much success. During World War II many Koreans either volunteered or were forced to work in Japan. However Japanese attempts to turn Korea into part of Japan were ended in 1945 when they surrendered to the allies.

The Korean War

Even before the war ended Russia and the USA had agreed that after the war Korea would be divided into two zones, Russian and American. In August 1945 Russian troops entered the north. In September, after the Japanese surrender, American troops landed in the south. Korea was divided in two along an imaginary line, the 38th parallel. It was originally intended that the two zones would eventually be united into one.

Of course, that did not happen. With the onset of the Cold War, the divide between them hardened. The Russians installed a Communist government in the north and the south, a government was elected in 1948. Korea became two countries, one Communist, and one democratic.

The North Korean army invaded the south on 25 June 1950. They quickly drove south and captured Seoul. The UN Security Council invited members to help the South. US troops arrived on 30 June but they were forced to withdraw into the area around Busan. The first British troops arrived in Korea on 29 August 1950. On 15 September other US troops landed at Incheon 150 miles north of Busan. The soldiers in the Busan area broke out and pushed north and linked up with the troops in Incheon on 26 September. On the same day, allied troops liberated Seoul. United Nations troops then pushed the communists back over the 38th parallel and by 24 November they controlled about 2/3 of North Korea.

However, the Chinese then intervened. Strengthened by the Chinese 180,000 troops the Communists then counter-attacked and drove the allies south. By the end of 1950, the Allies were back at the 38th parallel. The Communists attacked again on 1 January 1951. The allies counter-attacked on 25 January and on 14 March they again liberated Seoul. Several Communist offensives followed but all of them were repulsed. The war ended in a stalemate and on 27 July 1953, a cease-fire was signed. The 38th parallel was once again the border between the two countries.

Modern South Korea

Democracy did not flourish in South Korea in the 1950s. The president, Syngman Rhee used a national security law of 1949 to close newspapers and imprison critics. However, his administration was corrupt and by 1960 it was facing growing economic problems. In 1960 riots by students forced Rhee to resign. Faced with inflation, unemployment, and continuing riots the army staged a coup in 1961. General Park Chung-hee became ruler.

The South Korean Economic Miracle

At first, the general declared martial law but in 1963 he held presidential elections and won. Nevertheless, his rule was repressive. He won a second election in 1967. The General won the third election in 1971 by only a small margin. Afterward, he drew up a new constitution which gave him more power. He was assassinated in October 1979.

Despite the repressive rule, South Korea’s economy began to grow rapidly from the mid-1960s, and by the 1990s the country had undergone an economic miracle. It was transformed from a poor, relatively undeveloped country into a thriving and rich economy. The state played a large part in the transformation. In the 1960s General Park built roads and bridges and expanded education. A series of 5-year plans were drawn up and the government took a central role in running the economy. Industry became dominated by large corporations called Chaebol.

After the assassination of General Park in 1979 the army again stepped in to restore order. General Chun Doo-hwan took power in May 1980. He declared martial law and arrested his opponents. Demonstrations against him were held in the city of Gwangju. They were led by students. The army crushed the protests by force, killing hundreds of people.

In the 1980s the Korean economy continued to grow and the country climbed out of poverty. South Korea became an affluent society

In 1988 the Olympics were held in Seoul which brought South Korea into the international limelight. However, from the mid-1980s, there was increasing unrest in South Korea led by students unhappy with the regime. In 1987 Christian leaders spoke out against the regime and many people held mass demonstrations. General Chun agreed to step down and democratic elections were held. In 1988 General Roh Tae-woo was elected president.

By the 1990s South Korea had become a fairly rich nation and its people had quite a high standard of living. It was also a democratic country. In the 1990s the government began to deregulate industry.

Modern North Korea

In stark contrast is North Korea. After Russian troops occupied the north a Communist government was installed. Kim Il Sung was made a ruler. Like many dictators, he created a ‘cult of personality’ by erecting statues of himself everywhere. Schoolchildren were taught to see him as the font of all wisdom. He created a very repressive regime. Religious belief was outlawed and the people were strictly controlled. Today North Korea is the last Stalinist regime in the world. With a great deal of Russian aid, North Korea was transformed from a poor agricultural country into an industrial one.

However, in the mid-1970s the economy began to stagnate and North Korea was overtaken by the South. Furthermore, North Korea was harmed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 but was succeeded by his son. In effect, the Communists have created a new dynasty. Kim Jong-Il. He died in 2011 and he was followed by his son Kim Jong Un.

In the late 1990s, a severe famine occurred in North Korea. There were unusually heavy rain and floods in 1995-96, followed by and drought in 1997 and typhoon damage in 1997. Malnutrition became common, especially among children. How many people died in the famine is not known.

In 2008 a woman named Yi So Yeon became the first Korean to travel in space. Then in 2013 Park Geun Hye became the first woman president of South Korea. In 2018 there was a thaw in relations between North and South Korea. In 2020 the population of North Korea was 25 million while the population of South Korea was 51 million.

A view of Seoul at night

Last revised 2024