History: Prehistory and founding of a nation
Archaeological finds of prehistoric toolmaking on the Korean Peninsula date back to 70,000 BC, and the first pottery is found around 8000 BC. Neolithic era comb-pattern pottery culture peaked around 3,500-2,000BC.
Legend has it that Korea began with the founding of Gojoseon (also called Ancient Chosun) by the legendary Dangun in 2333 BC. Archaeological and contemporaneous written records of Gojoseon as a kingdom date back to around 7th-4th century BC, functioning as a loose confederacy of smaller polities. The western half fell to the encroaching Han Dynasty of China and its territories were governed by remote outposts, but was a tenuous foothold and the natives of the peninsula and Manchuria soon reclaimed the territory, namely the Three Kingdoms of Korea, Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje. Despite repeated attempts by China, namely the Sui Dynasty and later the Tang Dynasty, to conquer the Korean Peninsula, northern-based Goguryeo managed to repel them. Eventually, Goguryeo fell to a Silla-Tang alliance, which had earlier defeated Baekje. This “unified” Korea began under the Silla dynasty, however true political and cultural unification would not be be achieved until the Goryeo dynasty, after absorbing Goguryeo remnants (Balhae) in 926. Even though Tang later invaded, Silla forces managed to drive them out, thus maintaining Korea’s independence.
The kingdom saw relative peace until the 8th and 9th centuries when, ironically, Goguryeo revivalists led uprisings and toppled the Silla, establishing the Goryeo (also called Koryo) dynasty, from which the name “Korea” was derived by Westerners. One highlight of the Goryeo dynasty was that in 1234 the world’s first metal movable type was invented by a Korean named Choe Yun-ui (200 years before Gutenberg’s printing press). Goryeo was replaced by the Joseon (also romanized Chosun) dynasty, after a coup by one of its generals, Lee sung gae (이성계). The Joseon dynasty ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, being one of the longest actively ruling dynasties in world history. It was during the early part of the Joseon dynasty that Korean technological inventions such as the world’s first water clock, ironclad ship, and other innovations took place. During the rule of King Sejong the Great, the world’s first rain gauge was invented and the Korean alphabet known as hangul was created.
Rapid modernization stirred by the Second Industrial Revolution created tension between China and Japan as they felt the pressures of Western expansionism, each wanting to extend their influence over Korea. This eventually led to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, which took place on the Korean Peninsula, devastating the Joseon. It put Japan in a position to extend its imperialism into Korea without fear of Chinese intervention. Then in 1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, making Korea a protectorate until they were finally able to annex Korea in 1910, thus beginning a brutal 35-year occupation of the country. Despite numerous armed rebellions, assassinations and intellectual and cultural resistance, suppression and a cultural assimilation policy that included forcing Koreans to take Japanese names and forbidding them to speak the Korean language allowed Japan to maintain colonial control.
The Japanese exercised rule of the peninsula until their defeat in World War II in 1945. Japan was forced to surrender the territory and the Allied Powers divided the nation at the 38th Parallel, with the Soviet Union occupying the northern half and the United States occupying the southern half. The divide was supposed to be temporary, however, the political struggle between the two nations to gain influence over the unified Korea led each to establish governments within their newly created territories.
The fallout of the occupation can still be felt today, with the two countries frequently at loggerheads regarding the Japanese military’s sexual enslavement of Korean women (called comfort women) and the use of forced labor.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Soviet forces occupied the northern half of Korea while US forces occupied the southern half. North and South each declared independence as separate states in 1948, with Kim Il-Sung establishing a communist regime with the support of Soviet Union in the north, and Syngman Rhee establishing a capitalist regime with the support of the United States in the south. The disastrous Korean War, which destroyed much of the country, began in 1950 when Kim Il-Sung attacked the south. US and other UN forces intervened on South Korea’s side, while the Soviet Union and China supported the North. An armistice was signed in 1953 splitting the peninsula along a demilitarized zone, with no significant territorial gains made by either side. But a peace treaty has never been signed, and the two Koreas remain technically at war with each other to this day.
Republic of Korea
Despite initially being economically outdone by its northern rival, South Korea achieved rapid economic growth starting in the 1960s under the leadership of former military general President Park Chung Hee. As one of the East Asian Tigers, the South Korean economy’s industrialization and modernization efforts gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, with per capita income rising to 20 times the level of North Korea. In 1996, South Korea joined the OECD or “the rich nations club”. Today, South Korea has been recognized as an industrialized, developed economy with some of the world’s leading high technology corporations such as Samsung and LG.
The downsides of South Korea’s economic growth, however, included heavy censorship, authoritarian governments (i.e, the 2nd Republic led by former military leader Park Chung-Hee, which would last from 1962 to Park’s murder in 1979) and multiple human rights violations (illegal detentions, torture, straight-up murder, etc., like the infamous Gwangju Massacre from 1980) Demands for greater freedom of press and human rights fomented to nationwide demonstrations that led to democratic elections in 1987, just prior to the South Korean capital of Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
South Korea is now a liberal democracy and an economic powerhouse. In June 2000, a historic first summit took place between the South’s President Kim Dae-jung and the North’s late leader Kim Jong-il (leading Kim Dae-jung to be awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize for South Korea), but the peace process has moved at a glacial pace.
The country elected its first female president, Park Chung-Hee’s daughter Park Geun-hye, in 2012. However, between 2016 and 2017 she was impeached and then removed from office on charges related to influence peddling by her top aide, Choi Soon-sil. Moon Jae-in was elected as President in new elections held in 2017.
In recent years, a phenomenon known as the “Korean Wave” (or Hallyu) in which the popularity of South Korean film, television, music, food and other culture aspects has swept most of Asia and many other parts of the world has brought increased attention to the country.