Korean History and Political Geography



Koreans often use the proverb “when whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken” to describe their country’s victimization at the hands of larger, more powerful neighbors. China, as the largest and most technologically and culturally advanced society in East Asia, exerted the most important outside influence on Korea until modern times. In the twentieth century, Korea became the focus of rival interests among neighboring China, Japan, and Russia as well as the more distant United States. But for well over a thousand years, until colonization by Japan in the early twentieth century, successive kingdoms on the Korean peninsula were able to maintain a society with political independence and cultural distinctiveness from the surrounding nations.

Korea Before the Twentieth Century

Settled, literate societies on the Korean peninsula appear in Chinese records as early as the fourth century BCE. Gradually, competing groups and kingdoms on the peninsula merged into a common national identity. After a period of conflict among the “Three Kingdoms”—Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast—Silla defeated its rivals and unified most of the Korean peninsula in 668 CE. Korea reached close to its present boundaries during the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), from which its Western name “Korea” is derived. The succeeding Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) further consolidated Korea’s national boundaries and distinctive cultural practices.

Within Korea there are some regional differences expressed in dialect and customs, but on the whole regional differences are far outweighed by an overall cultural homogeneity. Unlike China, for example, regional dialects in Korea are mutually intelligible to all Korean speakers. The Korean language is quite distinct from Chinese and in fact structurally similar to Japanese, although there is still debate among linguists about how the Korean and Japanese languages may be related. Many customs, popular art forms, and religious practices in traditional Korea are also quite distinct from either Chinese or Japanese practices, even though the Korean forms sometimes resemble those of Korea’s neighbors in East Asia and have common roots.

Traditional Korea borrowed much of its high culture from China, including the use of Chinese characters in the written language and the adoption of Neo-Confucianism as the philosophy of the ruling elite. Buddhism, originally from India, also came to Korea from China, and from Korea spread to Japan. For many centuries Korea was a member of the Chinese “tribute system,” giving regular gifts to the Chinese court and acknowledging the titular superiority of the Chinese emperor over the Korean king. But while symbolically dependent on China for military protection and political legitimization, in practice Korea was quite independent in its internal behavior.

After devastating invasions by the Japanese at the end of the sixteenth century and by the Manchus of Northeast Asia in the early seventeenth, Korea enforced a policy of strictly limited contact with all other countries. The main foreign contacts officially sanctioned by the Choson Dynasty were diplomatic missions to China three or four times a year and a small outpost of Japanese merchants in the southeastern part of Korea near the present-day city of Pusan. Few Koreans left the peninsula during the late Choson Dynasty, and even fewer foreigners entered. For some 250 years Korea was at peace and internally stable (despite growing peasant unrest from about 1800), but from the perspective of the Europeans and Americans who encountered Korea in the nineteenth century, Korea was an abnormally isolated country, a “hermit kingdom” as it came to be known to Westerners at the time.

Japanese Colonial Period During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Korea became the object of competing imperial interests as the Chinese empire declined and Western powers began to vie for ascendancy in East Asia. Britain, France, and the United States each attempted to “open up” Korea to trade and diplomatic relations in the 1860s, but the Korean kingdom steadfastly resisted. It took Japan, itself only recently opened to Western-style international relations by the United States, to impose a diplomatic treaty on Korea for the first time in 1876.

Japan, China, and Russia were the main rivals for influence on Korea in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and after defeating China and Russia in war between 1895 and 1905, Japan became the predominant power on the Korean peninsula. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea outright as a colony, and for the next 35 years Japan ruled Korea in a manner that was strict and often brutal. Toward the end of the colonial period, the Japanese authorities tried to wipe out Korea’s language and cultural identity and make Koreans culturally Japanese, going so far in 1939 as to compel Koreans to change their names to Japanese ones. However, Japan also brought the beginnings of industrial development to Korea. Modern industries such as steel, cement, and chemical plants were set up in Korea during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the northern part of the peninsula where coal and hydroelectric power resources were abundant. By the time Japanese colonial rule ended in August 1945, Korea was the second most industrialized country in Asia after Japan itself.

Divided Korea and the Korean War

The surrender of Japan to the allies at the end of World War II resulted in a new and unexpected development on the Korean peninsula: the division of Korea into two separate states, one in the North (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, D.P.R.K.) and one in the South (the Republic of Korea, R.O.K.). In the final days of the war, the United States and the Soviet Union had agreed to jointly accept the Japanese surrender in Korea, with the U.S.S.R. occupying Korea north of the 38th parallel and the U.S. occupying south until an independent and unified Korean government could be established. However, by 1947, the emerging Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, combined with political differences between Koreans of the two occupation zones and the policies of the occupation forces on the ground, led to a breakdown in negotiations over a unified government of Korea.

On August 15, 1948, a pro-U.S. government was established in Seoul, and three weeks later a pro-Soviet government in Pyongyang. Both governments claimed to legitimately represent the entire Korean people, creating a situation of extreme tension across the 38th parallel. On June 25, 1950, North Korea, backed by the U.S.S.R., invaded the South and attempted to unify the peninsula by force. Under the flag of the United Nations, a U.S.-led coalition of countries came to the assistance of South Korea. The Soviet Union backed North Korea with weapons and air support, while the People’s Republic of China intervened on the side of North Korea with hundreds of thousands of combat troops. In July 1953, after millions of deaths and enormous physical destruction, the war ended approximately were it began, with North and South Korea divided into roughly equal territories by the cease-fire line, a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that still forms the boundary between North and South Korea today.

The Two Koreas

Since 1953, North and South Korea have evolved from a common cultural and historical base into two very different societies with radically dissimilar political and economic systems. The differences between North and South Korea today have little to do with pre-1945 regional differences between northern and southern Korea. North Korea has been heavily influenced by Soviet/Russian culture and politics as well as those of China. It has developed a self-styled politics of juche (“self-reliance”) based on economic and political independence, having a highly centralized political system with a “Great Leader” at its apex (Kim Il Sung until his death in 1994, his son Kim Jong Il since then) and a command economy. North Korea developed into perhaps the most isolated and controlled of all communist states, and even 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, showed little sign of political and economic liberalization despite severe economic hardship.

South Korea, on the other hand, has been greatly influenced by the United States and, in a more subtle way, by Japan. The U.S. has maintained close political, military, and economic ties with South Korea since the R.O.K. was founded in 1948. While South Korea has often been less democratic than Americans would like or the Korean leaders claimed it to be, since the fall of its military dictatorship in the late 1980s democracy appears to have become increasingly consolidated in the R.O.K. Meanwhile, South Korea made impressive economic gains in the 1970s and 1980s and can be considered now among the world’s developed industrial countries. South Korea recovered rapidly from the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and is currently the third-largest economy in Eastern Asia, after Japan and China.

As in many other countries, American popular culture is an important presence in South Korea. To a lesser extent, Japanese popular culture is influential as well. However, South Korea has developed its own distinctly Korean forms of popular culture, while traditional Korean culture has undergone something of a revival in recent decades. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, South Korean pop music, film, and television dramas were becoming quite popular in other parts of Asia too, especially China and Vietnam.

Despite the general cultural homogeneity of Korea, regional sentiment has become an important factor in South Korean politics and in other areas of contemporary life. The main regional division is between the Cholla area of the southwest and the Kyongsang area of the southeast. Although some would claim that these regional differences go back to the ancient Three Kingdoms period, in fact modern South Korean regionalism is mostly a phenomenon originating in the rapid industrialization that began in the 1960s. At that time, President Park Chung Hee focused on the economic development of his home region of Kyongsang, and drew much of South Korea’s leadership from there. This bias toward Kyongsang continued through the succeeding presidencies of Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae Woo, and Kim Young Sam, who were all from the region. Meanwhile, Cholla remained relatively backward and was seen as a place of dissenters, including long-time opposition figure Kim Dae Jung. As a consequence, voting patterns in South Korea have shown overwhelming favoritism toward candidates from the voters’ home region. After Kim Dae Jung became president in 1998, he attempted to bring more regional balance to economic and political development in South Korea, but regional identification and prejudice remain strong.

The division of Korea into North and South was imposed upon the Korean people by outside forces, and many if not most Koreans insist that the two Koreas must one day be reunited. In the early 1970s, mid-1980s, and early 1990s, the two Koreas appeared to be reaching breakthroughs in inter-Korean relations, but each movement toward reconciliation and reunification ended in frustration. Finally, in June 2000, the leaders of North and South Korea met in Pyongyang, in the North, to discuss improving North-South relations. This was the first time such a summit meeting had ever taken place, and the event once again raised expectations of reconciliation and eventual reunion between the two halves of the divided peninsula. However, there is still very little contact between the governments or the people of North and South Korea, and barring a dramatic turn of events, the hope for reunification appears to be a long way off.

The Korean Diaspora

In addition to the 46 million people in South Korea and 23 million in the North, some 6 to 7 million people of Korean descent, or approximately 10 percent of the population of the two Koreas combined, live outside the Korean peninsula. In proportion to the population of the home country, the Korean “diaspora” comprises one of the largest groups of emigrants from anywhere in Asia. The largest communities of overseas Koreans are in China (two million), the United States (over one million), Japan (700,000), and the former Soviet Union (450,000), mostly in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The Korean diaspora is distinctive both for its relative size and the fact that it is almost entirely a twentieth-century phenomenon, with the exception of Koreans in China and Russia, who began to immigrate there in large numbers in the 1860s. There were no Koreans in U.S. territory until after 1900, and most Koreans in Japan today are, or are descendants of, immigrants who came during the colonial occupation period of 1910-1945.

Koreans were first brought to Hawaii in 1903 as workers in the sugarcane fields. Later, Koreans settled increasingly on the U.S. mainland, especially in Southern California. Koreans in the U.S. still numbered only in the few tens of thousands until after 1965, when restrictions on immigration from Asia were relaxed. By the 1980s, Koreans were among the most rapidly growing groups of immigrants to the United States. Immigration from Korea leveled off after 1988 and began to decline in the early 1990s, but increased slightly again after the Asian financial crisis hit South Korea in 1997. The main concentrations of Koreans in the U.S. are in the Los Angeles area, New York, and Chicago.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, South Korea is among the major industrialized nations of the world and is widely recognized as a success in economic development and political democratization. South Korea has evolved remarkably from the poor, backward country that emerged from the shadows of Japanese colonial rule in 1945. It is also a country with a strong sense of national identity and great pride in its culture, traditions, and accomplishments. At the same time, Korea remains divided into North and South, with nearly two million men under arms on the peninsula and a high state of military tension. As it has for more than a century, Korea occupies a strategic place on the world map, and any conflict on the peninsula would have the potential to draw in neighboring countries, if not farther. Korea may no longer be a “shrimp,” but the waters it swims in are not yet entirely safe.