Ancient history up to and including the Middle Ages
Korea has a long history in which it has developed and maintained its own identity despite its geographical location, sandwiched between the influential and powerful neighbouring countries of China and Japan.
The first Korean state, Gojoseon (Ko-choson), was brought under Chinese rule in 108 BC. In the following centuries, Chinese writing, Confucianism and official organisation were introduced in Korea. The Chinese were expelled in 313 AD, upon which three Korean kingdoms (Silla in the southeast, Baekje in the southwest and Goguryeo in the north) flourished. During this "period of the three kingdoms" Buddhism made its appearance. In the 7th century, Silla succeeded in bringing the entire Korean peninsula under its control, a situation that lasted until the mid-10th century. The successor to the Silla empire was a kingdom called Goryeo (Koryo): this name was corrupted by Arab and European travellers into "Korea". In 1238, the Mongols invaded Korea and made Goryeo indebted to them for a century. Towards the end of the 14th century, Korea faced the first well-organised Japanese invasions, but the invading armies were soon halted. General Yi Seong-gye used his popularity as a conqueror of the Japanese to claim the throne in 1392. The Joseon (Choson) dynasty he founded would remain in power until the early 20th century.
During the Joseon period, the foundations were laid for many elements that characterise today's Korea. For example, in the 15th century, a distinct Korean script was designed, and according to the prevailing Confucian principles, the bureaucratic class ("Yangban") enjoyed great influence. The large-scale Japanese invasions of 1592 and 1597, which could only be repelled with great Korean losses and the help of the Ming Chinese, sowed the seeds of the historical rivalry between Korea and Japan. In the 17th century, as an ally of the Ming dynasty, Joseon became involved in the internal Chinese power struggle against the rebellious Manchus. When the Manchus won this battle, Korea closed itself in on itself in increasing isolation. In the 18th century and early 19th century, contacts were maintained only with China. The Joseon kings and the Yangban tried to keep out foreign influences, such as the emerging Christianity.
Japanese threat and Second World War
In 1876, Japan forced the opening of Korea through the threat of war, and the country became a plaything between Japan, China and Russia, which competed for power in north-east Asia in the late 19th century. The Japanese-Russian War (1904-1905) finally confirmed Japanese hegemony in the region. Korea then became a Japanese protectorate in 1905, to be fully colonised in 1910. Although the Japanese brought economic development (railways, mining, industry), they made themselves very unloved by their attempts to erase the Korean identity, among other things by introducing Japanese as a compulsory language in education. During the Second World War, Korea was used as a base for the Japanese war effort, and many Koreans were employed in the war industry or abused as "comfort women". The Japanese capitulation in 1945 meant the end of the colonisation, but the Allied Powers could not agree on the way in which Korean self-rule should take shape.
From 1945, the north of the Korean peninsula up to the 38th parallel was ruled by the Soviet Union, and the south by the United States. In the north, the communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was established in 1948 with Kim Il-sung as its leader, who founded a one-party state with "juche" (autarchy) as its leading ideology. On 25 June 1950, the North Korean army tried to reunite the country in a surprise attack. Only just before the southern port city of Busan were the North Koreans brought to a halt by a multilateral UN force that had come to the aid of the South Koreans. When the UN force then completely overran the North with a counter-attack and almost reached the Chinese border in November 1950, China intervened. With massive help from the Chinese army, North Korea was able to move the front line south again and the war reached an impasse. After three years, a ceasefire was declared (27 July 1953) between North Korea on the one hand and South Korea and the UN/USA on the other. The dividing line between North and South again lay more or less at the 38th parallel, but the casualties and devastation on both sides were very great. The two Koreas are still formally in a state of war, as a final peace settlement has still not been reached despite attempts to do so.
Within the climate of the Cold War, the regime of Kim Il-sung was able to consolidate relatively easily. Various 'purges' in the party and army leadership were carried out and the methods of repression and control of the population were gradually perfected. Initially, the economic development of the country was relatively successful, but in the 1980s it became clear that economically South Korea was increasingly lagging behind the North. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the changes in China led to a sharp decline in the early 1990s in the support that North Korea had received for decades from its communist allies. The country suffered major energy shortages, which led to an economic crisis. This crisis was exacerbated by the 'army-first policy', with which Kim Jong-il (the new leader who had succeeded his father Kim Il-sung after his death in 1994) allocated scarce energy and food supplies largely to the army. In the second half of the 1990s, famine broke out on a large scale. Continuing international tensions, serious human rights violations and a failed economic system make today's North Korea a country with few positive prospects.
In 2000, there is a historic handshake between the leaders of the two Koreas and relations relax a little. Georg W. Bush declares in January 2002 that North Korea belongs to the "axis of evil" together with other "rogue states" such as Iraq and Iran. From 2003 to 2006 there are tensions surrounding North Korea's nuclear programme. In February 2007, North Korea agreed to close its main nuclear reactor in exchange for aid. In June 2008, North Korea made an important step in the disarmament process through a declaration. In October 2008, the United States removed North Korea from its list of "axis of evil" countries in exchange for North Korea's commitment to full disclosure of its nuclear programme. In April and May 2009, tensions rose after a missile launch and an underground nuclear test. The latter is condemned by the United States, China and Russia. In January 2010, the situation relaxed somewhat. North Korea says it is striving for a nuclear weapon free peninsula. In March 2010, tensions between the two Koreas escalated again after a South Korean warship was sunk following firing.
At the end of September 2010, the Communist Party decided at its Seventh Congress that dictator Kim Jong-il would remain Secretary-General of the Workers' Party. After Kim Jong-il's death, his son Kim Jong-un succeeded him in December 2011. In 2012, there is a row with the United States over North Korea's nuclear programme, but North Korea receives support from its powerful neighbour China. In January 2014, Dennis Rodman, the well-known American basketball player, visits North Korea and Kim Jong-un, very much against the United States' wishes. In March 2014, the five-yearly parliamentary elections are held, only officially approved candidates can be elected, the turnout is as always close to 100%. In May 2016, Kim Jong-un holds a party congress for the first time since 1980. New nuclear tests are held in August and September 2016. North Korea claims in January 2017 that it can launch a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile. Over the course of 2017, the nuclear threat increases and Kim Jon-un and President Trump indulge in unfriendly remarks. A rapprochement with South Korea begins in January 2018, with the intention of North Korea competing in the Pyongyang Olympics. Kim Jong-un becomes the first North Korean leader to enter the South in 2018 when he meets South Korean President Moon Jae-in for talks. Weeks later, he meets US President Donald Trump.
Since 2019, North Korea has continued to develop its ballistic missile programme and has issued statements condemning the US and promising to further strengthen its military capabilities, including long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. North Korea remains one of the most isolated countries in the world and one of the poorest in Asia. North Korea's main goals for 2022 are to kick-start economic development and improve the living conditions of its people, as the country faces a "great life-and-death struggle", Kim said Friday in a speech timeems the Eighth Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in 2021.
CIA - World Factbook
BBC - Country Profiles
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