History of South Korea

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > South Korea > Map Economy History

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 Shilla, Koguryo, and Paekche. Shilla, with the aid of Tang China, unified the peninsula in 668 AD. With its center at Kyongju, the dynasty flourished for roughly three centuries before internal strife and foreign pressures led to its downfall in the 10th century. The Koryo dynasty--from which the Western name "Korea" is derived--succeeded Ssilla in 935. Among the cultural achievements of Koryo was the development of improved ceramics production and the world's first moveable metal type.

Following a military coup in1392, Koryo was supplanted by the Choseon, established by members of the Yi clan and lasted until 1910 when Japan formally annexed the Korean Peninsula. Throughout much of its history, Korea has been invaded, influenced, and fought over by its larger neighbors. It has suffered about 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. Beginning in 1592, the Japanese warlord, Hideyoshi, launched several military campaigns to take the peninsula. The Choseon Kingdom managed to repel Hideyoshi's armies with the aid of Ming China. However, the experience impelled the Yi court to choose a policy of foreign isolation, with the exception of China. It was this period of isolationism from which Korea earned the name "The Hermit Kingdom" in the 19th century.

Despite the closed-door-policy of the Choseon dynasty, China retained it position as the major source of influence on Korea, as it has for much of Korean history. Historically, Korea was a part of China's "tribute" system under which Korea maintained its independence but recognized China as a "cultural superior." Although the isolationist policies of the Yi court allowed the Choseon dynasty to maintain stability, the country fell behind international developments and subsequently was given a rude awakening to the new world order that existed in the latter half of the 19th century. Korea's policy of isolationism formally 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. China's defeat by Japan during the Sino-Japanese War (1894) secured for Japan suzerain rights over Korea. Japan formally annexed 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, most notably the March 1, 1919 Independence Movement, was unsuccessful, and Japan remained firmly in control until the end of World War II. Meanwhile, the so-called Provisional Government of Korea was established in Shanghai, China (1919) by overseas Korean nationalists although their influence on politics was limited following the Japanese suppression of the March 1st Movement.

Toward the conclusion of the Second World War, the participants of 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 the formation of an official 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 Shanghai Provisional Government. Most notable among them was the 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 people.

Korean War of 1950-53
On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. The UN, in accord with its Charter, engaged in its first collective action by establishing the UN Command (UNC), under which 16 member nations sent troops and assistance to South Korea. At the request of the UN Security Council, the United States, contributor of the largest contingent, led this international effort. After initially falling back to the southeastern Pusan perimeter, UN forces conducted a successful surprise landing at Incheon and rapidly advanced up the peninsula. As the main UN force approached the northern Yalu River, however, large numbers of "Chinese People's Volunteers" intervened, forcing UN troops to withdraw south of Seoul. The battle line seesawed back and forth until the late spring of 1951, when a successful offensive by UN forces was halted to enhance cease-fire negotiation prospects. The battle line thereafter stabilized north of Seoul near the 38th parallel.

Although armistice negotiations began in July 1951, hostilities continued until 1953 with heavy losses on both sides. On July 27, 1953, the military commanders of the North Korean Army, the Chinese People's Volunteers, and the UNC signed an armistice agreement at Panmunjom. Neither the United States nor South Korea is a signatory of the armistice per se, though both adhere to it through the UNC. No comprehensive peace agreement has replaced the 1953 armistice pact; thus, a condition of belligerency still technically exists on the divided peninsula.

The Military Armistice Commission (MAC) was created in 1953 to oversee and enforce the terms of the armistice. The Neutral Nation Supervisory Committee (NNSC)--originally made up of delegations from Poland and Czechoslovakia on the D.P.R.K. side and Sweden and Switzerland on the UN side--monitors the activities of the MAC. In recent years, North Korea has sought to undermine the MAC by various means. In April 1994 it declared the MAC void and withdrew its representatives. Prior to this it had forced the Czechs out of the NNSC by refusing to accept the Czech Republic as the successor state of Czechoslovakia, an original member of the NNSC. In September 1994 China recalled the Chinese People's Volunteers representatives to the MAC, and in early 1995 North Korea forced Poland to remove its representatives to the NNSC from the North Korean side of the DMZ.

Toward Democratization
Syngman Rhee served as president of the Republic of Korea until April 1960, when unrest led by university students forced him to step down. Though the constitution was amended and national elections were held in June, Maj. Gen. Park Chung Hee led an army coup against the successor government and assumed power in May 1961. After 2 years of military government under Park, civilian rule was restored in 1963. Park, who had retired from the army, was elected president and was reelected in 1967, 1971, and 1978 in highly controversial elections.

The Park era, marked by rapid industrial modernization and extraordinary economic growth, ended with his assassination in October 1979. Prime Minister Choi Kyu Ha briefly assumed office, promising a new constitution and presidential elections. However, in December 1979 Maj. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan and close military colleagues staged a coup, removing the army chief of staff and soon effectively controlling the government. University student-led demonstrations against Chun's government spread in the spring of 1980 until the government declared martial law, banning all demonstrations, and arresting many political leaders and dissidents. Special forces units in the city of Kwangju dealt particularly harshly with demonstrators and residents, setting off a chain of events that left at least 200 civilians dead. This became a critically important event in contemporary South Korean political history. Chun, by then retired from the army, officially became president in September 1980. Though martial law ended in January 1981, his government retained broad legal powers to control dissent. Nevertheless, an active and articulate minority of students, intellectuals, clergy, and others remained critical of the Chun government and demonstrated against it.

In April 1986 the President appeared to yield to demands for reform, particularly for a constitutional amendment allowing direct election of his successor. However, in June 1987 Chun suspended all discussion of constitutional revision, and the ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP) approved Chun's handpicked successor, Roh Tae Woo. In response, students, then followed by the general public, took to the streets in protest. In a surprise move, on June 29, ruling party presidential candidate Roh Tae Woo announced the implementation of democratic reforms. The constitution was revised in October 1987 to include direct presidential elections and a strengthened National Assembly consisting of 299 members.

The main opposition forces soon split into two parties--Kim Dae-jung's Peace and Democracy Party (PPD) and Kim Young Sam's Reunification Democratic Party (RDP). With the opposition vote split, Roh Tae Woo subsequently won the December 1987 presidential election--the first direct one since 1971--with 37% of the vote.

The new constitution entered into force in February 1988 when President Roh assumed office. Elections for the National Assembly were held on April 26. President Roh's ruling Democratic Justice Party was then able to win only 34% of the vote in the April 1988 National Assembly elections--the first time the ruling party had lost control of the Assembly since 1952.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of State

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