Korea is an old country, with the earliest states beginning about the time of the Late Chou Dynasty in China. Despite the predominant Chinese influence on Korea and the vast borrowing of Chinese vocabulary, the Korean language is unrelated to Chinese. There is no agreement about just what it is related to, though kinship with Japanese seems likely and to the Altaic languages (Manchu, Mongol, Turkish) possible. Originally written in Chinese characters, Korean now uses its own unique writing system, Han-gul, promulated by King Sejong in 1446. Han-gul writes syllabic characters that are regularly composed of elements indicating the phonology of the syllables. This would allow Han-gul to be easily and freely mixed with Chinese characters, as was long done, or completely replace them, as has largely been the custom since 1945. To the uninitiated, Han-gul characters can easily be distinguished from Chinese, since they contain circles, which are not used in Chinese characters.
The earliest important state in Korea was Old Choson, which began in the 4th century BC and endured until its conquest by the Chinese state of Yen (or Yan) around 300 BC. When Yen was conqured by the Ch’in Dynasty in 222, its Korean possessions passed with it, though my map of the Ch’in actually doesn’t show it extending that far, so perhaps Ch’in control quickly lapsed. Nevertheless, at the fall of the Ch’in in 206, Han Dynasty control was extended into Korea, but briefly. A rebellion between 194-180, under a Chinese leader, Wiman, resulted in the independence of Choson until renewed Han conquest in 108 BC. Chinese control lapsed in the last reign of the Later Han Dynasty, around 210 AD, but then was restablished in the Three Kingdoms Period by the Wei Dynasty, around 238.
Meanwhile, other Korean states developed. North of the Chinese possessions was Puyo, beginning in the 4th century BC, which later was absorbed by Koguryo, traditionally founded in 57 BC. South of Chinese possessions in the Korean penninsula was the state of Chin, beginning in the 2nd century BC. Chin broke apart into the “three Hans,” the states of Mahan, Chinhan, and Pyonhan.
The Han states ended up aborbed by new kingdoms in the South, Paekche, Silla, and Kaya. The Kings of Paekche and Silla are listed here. Mahan fell to Paekche in 369. When Koguryo drove out the Chinese in 313 and arrived at the borders of Paekche and Silla, this began the “Three Kingdoms” period in Korean history (313-668). Koguryo is the kingdom that was attacked by the Sui Dynasty in 612. This was followed by T’ang Dynasty invasions, also defeated, 645-647. But the Chinese made headway, conquering Paekche in 660 and combining with Silla to overthrown Koguryo in 667-668. The Chinese tried to retain their Korean territory; but Silla took Paekche in 671, and the Chinese conceded the penninsula in 676.
Silla becomes the single kingdom of Chosen or Korea. The initial state survives until broken up by rebellions beginning in 891. A new “Three Kingdoms” period develops, until the country is reunified by the Koryo (“Later Koguryo”) state, which annexed Silla in 935. This is indicated in the King list as no more than a change in dynasty.
These lists come entirely form Bruce R. Gordon’s Regnal Chronologies. Korean language information is from Barron’s Korean at a Glance, by Daniel D. Holt and Grace Massey Holt [Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1988], and NTC’s Compact Korean and English Dictionary, by B.J. Jones and Gene S. Rhie [NTC Publishing Group, 1995].
The modern Japanese occupation of Korea, although recent, had major long term effects. The oppressive Japanese regime included the forced imposition of Shinto rites and the “missions” of various Japanese Buddhist sects. This tended to motivate sympathy for Western religion and, in particular, to discredit Buddhism altogether. Thus, up to a third of (South) Koreans are now Christians, and it is a rare church in California that does not have some Korean on its signs. A third of Koreans, however, are still Buddhist, and the rest observe the Korean equivalent of traditional Chinese Confucian/Taoist religion.
The Japanese occupation, of course, did not end without a new national trauma being introduced — the Russian occupation of the northern part of the country and then the establishment there of a Communist regime. When the North, with Russian blessing, invaded the South in 1950, this set off the first major shooting war in the Cold War. Before the front stabilized, the Communists nearly overwhelmed the surprised South Koreans and Americans. The North Koreans collapsed, however, when Douglas MacArthur daringly landed in their rear at Inchon. Only the intervention of the Chinese recovered the Communist position and resulted in a stalemate and a cease-fire with roughly the status quo ante.
The South Korean flag, with its traditional Chinese yin and yang symbols, is given at right. The North Korean flag, with a typical Communist red star, is unworthy of notice. Indeed, as South Korea grew into one of the economic “Four Tigers” of East Asia and left behind decades of dictatorship for democracy, North Korea developed into one of the nastiest and most psychotic tyrannies in history, with a dynasty of despots, the Kims, who have actually allowed the country to starve rather than have the word “pragmatism” cross their minds. North Korea even charges foreign relief organizations for the privilege of providing free food. Recently, the North and South have established some more friendly contacts, and the North has allowed some communication between divided families, but the present “Great Leader” of the North, Kim Jong Il, has given no indication of releasing his iron grip either on power or on the suffocated economy of his prison-state — which has not stopped radical and clueless South Korean students from demonstrating on behalf and the North and for reunification.
Recent developments, late in 2002, have thrown new light on North Korea. The government recently admitted that it had been kidnapping Japanese, in Japan itself, including one 13-year-old girl, in order to plant North Korean agents. They have now allowed some of these victims to visit relatives in Japan, but since they are not allowing their Korean families out of the country, the victims are expected to dutifuly return to their North Korean prison — most have not, hoping that their families will eventually be allowed to follow. The most unsettling revelation, however, has just been that North Korea ignored right from the beginning the agreement negotiated in 1994 by Jimmy Carter by which they would receive technical assistance in their nuclear power program, on the condition that they end their nuclear weapons program. Since there never was any provision for verifying the end of the weapons program, they simply didn’t bother to end it. Why they have now admitted this is a matter of speculation. In retrospect, one remembers Ronald Reagan’s maxim when dealing with the Soviets, “Trust, but verify.” Jimmy Carter, consistently naive in Realpolitik, demonstrates his ability to do damage even long out of office (even Bill Clinton didn’t want him in North Korea and had to accept the fait accompli negotiated by Carter). In 2003, the North Korean government announced that it had actually already produced a number of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, North Koreans, who are allowed to travel to China, have been seeking asylum in Western embassies and consulates there. In one incident, Chinese police broke into a Japanese consulate to drag out Korean supplicants. Japan protested, since this is a violation of International Law, and the Chinese actually released the Koreans.
In November 2004 National Geographic released a map showing the Earth at night. Japan, South Korea, and even much of China are lit up like lamps. North Korea, however, is as dark as many uninhabited places on Earth. Few things would be as graphically revealing of the poverty and misery of the North.
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