Korea History  

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SOUTH KOREA

According to Korean legend, the god-king Tangun founded the Korean nation in BC 2333. By the first century AD, the Korean Peninsula was divided into the kingdoms of Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche. The Silla kingdom unified the peninsula in 668 AD. The Koryo dynasty (from which the Western name "Korea" is derived) succeeded the Silla kingdom in 935. The Choson dynasty, ruled by members of the Yi clan, supplanted Koryo in 1392 and lasted until the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910.

Throughout most of its history, Korea has been invaded, influenced, and fought over by its larger neighbors. It has suffered approximately 900 invasions during its 2,000 years of recorded history. Korea was under Mongolian occupation from 1231 until the early 14th century and was repeatedly ravaged by Chinese (government and rebel) armies. The Japanese warlord Hideyoshi launched major invasions in 1592 and 1597.

China had by far the greatest influence of the major powers and was the most acceptable to the Koreans. The Choson Dynasty was part of the Chinese "tribute" system, under which Korea was independent in fact, but acknowledged China's theoretical role as "big brother." China was the only exception to Korea's long closed-door policy, adopted to ward off foreign encroachment, which earned it the name of "Hermit Kingdom" in the 19th century.

Korea's isolation finally ended when the major Western powers and Japan sent warships to forcibly open the country. At the same time, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian competition in Northeast Asia led to armed conflict and foreign intervention established dominance in Korea, formally annexing it in 1910.

The Japanese colonial era was characterized by tight control from Tokyo and ruthless efforts to supplant Korean language and culture. Organized Korean resistance, notably the 1919 Independence Movement, was unsuccessful and Japan remained firmly in control until the end of World War II.

Near the end of the war, the April 1945 Yalta Conference agreed to establish a four-power trusteeship for Korea. The trusteeship of the U.S., U.K., Soviet Union, and China was intended as a temporary administrative measure pending democratic elections for a Korean government. With the unexpected early surrender of Japan in September 1945, the United States proposed--and the Soviet Union agreed--that Japanese troops surrender to U.S. forces below the 38th parallel and to Soviet forces above.

At a December 1945 foreign ministers' conference in Moscow, it was proposed that a 5-year trusteeship be established in Korea. The Moscow conference generated a firestorm of protest in the South. Some of its most critical opponents were Korean leaders associated with the provisional government established in Shanghai in 1919 by Korean nationalists living abroad. Most notable among them was nationalist leader Syngman Rhee.

The joint Soviet-American commission provided for by the Moscow Conference met intermittently in Seoul but became deadlocked over the issue of free consultations with representatives of all Korean political groups for establishment of a national government. The U.S. submitted the Korean question to the UN General Assembly for resolution in September 1947. In November, the General Assembly ruled that UN-supervised elections should be held.

The Soviet Union and Korean authorities in the North ignored the UN General Assembly resolution on elections. Nonetheless, elections were carried out under UN observation in the South, and on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (R.O.K.) was established. Syngman Rhee became the Republic of Korea's first president. On September 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) was established in the North under Kim Il Sung. Both administrations claimed to be the only legitimate government on the peninsula.

Armed uprisings in the South and clashes between Southern and Northern forces along the 38th parallel began and intensified during 1948-50. Although it continued to provide modest military aid to the South, the U.S. withdrew its occupation forces by June 1949, leaving behind only a military advisory group of 500.


On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. Led by the U.S., a 16-member coalition undertook the first collective action under United Nations Command (UNC). Shifting battle lines and continuous bombing of the North inflicted a high number of civilian casualties and wrought immense destruction. Following China's entry on behalf of North Korea in 1950, and the stabilization of the front line the following summer, stalemate ensued for the finalĘ2 years of the conflict.

Armistice negotiations, initiated in July 1951, finally concluded on July 27, 1953 at Panmunjom, in the now Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The resulting Armistice Agreement was signed by the North Korean army, Chinese People's Volunteers, and the U.S.-led and R.O.K.-supported United Nations Command. A peace treaty has never been signed, and the R.O.K. refused to sign the Armistice Agreement.

Domestically, South Korea experienced political turmoil under years of autocratic leadership. Military coups and assassinations characterized the country's first decades. But a vocal civil society emerged that led to strong protests against authoritarian rule. Composed primarily of university students and labor unions, protests reached a climax after Major General Chun Doo Hwan's 1979 military coup and declaration of martial law. A confrontation inĘGwangju in 1980 left at least 200 civilians dead but consolidated nationwide support for democracy. In 1987, South Korea was able to hold its first democratic elections in many years.