Korea is the name of the peninsula
off of the northeastern edge of China
. Once one country, Korea is now divided into North
and has been since the Korean War
. The peninsula itself is about 600 miles
long and 135 miles wide, bordered by China, Russia
, the Yellow Sea
, and the Sea of Japan
Location: Eastern Asia
Terrain: Mountainous, with deep narrow valleys and some coastal plains in the west
Ethnicity: Mostly native Korean, with some Chinese and Japanese
Humans have been living on the Korean peninsula since before 10,000 BC. In these early times, Korea was inhabited by fishermen who lived near the seacoast and rivers starting in 3000 BC. and a group of hunters and gathers who also engaged in some basic agriculture. Around 300 BC, techniques to grow wet-field rice and shape metal had reached Korea from China. The state of Choson developed in the northwest in the second century BC, with a capital where Pyonguang is today. This state fell to the Chinese Han armies and the Chinese and their civilization began to spread throughout the area.
By the first century BC, the Chinese had mostly abandoned Korea due to native resistance and three Korean kingdoms were coming to power: Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the west, and Silla in the southeast. All of the states adopted Buddhism by 528 BCE, which had been introduced by China along with the Chinese written language and T'ang Dynasty art. Until the 20th century, Korea used Chinese characters for their language and you can still see its influence. T'ang China joined forces with the Silla and defeated the other two kingdoms, which paved the way for an era of peace for the peninsula under the Silla when the study of topics such as medicine, sculpture, and astronomy flourished.
During the 800s, the Silla government lost control over the country to warlords and for a century Korea was at war. In 935 BCE, the peninsula was unified as the state of Koryo and remained that way until 1392. During these years, hundreds of Buddhist monasteries were built and trade with China increased and influenced Koryo. Starting in the 1000s, Koryo was plagued by invaders. First, the Ch'itan people of Manchuria, then the Mongols. After over 100 years of struggling with the Mongols, the Koreans and the Chinese wore them out and forced them back to their homeland. A general named Yi Songgye seized power in 1392 and began the Yi Dynasty.
The Yi Dynasty brought many changes for Korea. A riged class system developed and an anti-Buddhist ruling elite developed. The yangban as they were called had a more Confucian view on life and society. During these years Korea lived mostly in peace and trade and the exchange of knowledge thrived. The hangul alphabet was formed, which made it possible for Koreans to read and write in their own language. The "script of the Korean people," was finished in 1446 and made it possible for all Koreans to become somewhat educated.
In 1592, the Japanese first invaded the Korean peninsula. For six years, Korea struggled for freedom and finally was able to drive the Japanese out. For the decade following 1627, the Manchus of the Chinese Ch'ing Empire invaded and until the end of the 1800s Korea remanded tributary to them. The constant invasions and wars disrupted the strict Yi social controls and many Koreans took advantage of these times to shed low class, slavery, and find ways to better their place in society.
For the first time, Koreans had contact with the west in the 1600s. The Dutch visited Korea and some of them even aided in the struggle against the Manchus. These were the first people from the west in Korea, even though the Chinese had told them about Europe before. During the first half of the nineteenth century Jesuit priests came to Korea from China and European ships came to the peninsula looking to trade. The Koreans refused to trade with the west and fired upon ships who entered their bays and rivers. Eventually, a treaty was negotiated that permitted Japan to have access to three Korean ports and in order to downplay the Japanese influence similar agreements were signed with Western countries.
The late 1800s and early 1900s were filled with Chinese and Japanese and Russia influences and struggles to see in which image Korea would be modernized. The Tonghak Rebellion in 1894 broke out due to anti-foreign sentiment among the natives and the need for political and social reforms. Both China and Japan tried to help put down the rebellion, but in the end they ended up fighting the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Japan's victory ended centuries of Chinese influence over Korea, but the Japanese found themselves fighting for Korea again in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The Japanese made Korea a formal Japanese colony in 1910 which ended the Yi Dynasty. Although the Japanese helped bring Korea into the twentieth century, they also suppressed the native culture and gave preference in everything to Japanese who has immigrated to the peninsula. 1919 brought the Samil Independence Movement, a passive resistance campaign which ended with the deaths and imprisonment of thousands of Koreans.
Japan's defeat in World War II liberated Korea, but Soviet and American troops occupied the north and south part of Korea respectively. Until 1948, there were negotiations to reunify the two halves and the south went as far as to hold elections for a new president. In September, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was formed in the north with Kim Il Sung as its leader. All foreign troops were withdrawn from Korea by 1950 and the North Koreans invaded the south with Soviet equipment in June of that year. Although the United Nations had voted to aid South Korea, most of the troops that were sent were American. The Chinese entered the war near the end of the year and supported the north. A truce was signed in 1953 with the new border close to the pre-war border. See North Korea and South Korea for their respective histories.
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