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Three kingdoms

Korea has a long history, in which it has developed and maintained a distinct 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 her control, a situation that lasted until the mid-10th century.

Goryeo period

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.

Joseon period

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-Russian war and Japanese hegemony

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.

North- and South Korea

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 south, the Republic of Korea was established in 1948, with Syngman Rhee (Rhee Sung-man) as its leader.

Korean war

On 25 June 1950, the North Korean army tried to reunite the country in a surprise attack. It was only just before the southern port city of Busan that the North Koreans were brought to their senses 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 counterattack and was almost at 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). 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.

Second half of the 20th century

After the Korean War, the future of South Korea did not look very bright: the war had resulted in heavy human and material losses, the poor and predominantly agricultural South was permanently cut off from the industrial outlets in the North, and President Rhee turned out to be an authoritarian leader who obstructed democratic reforms. After the death of President Rhee in 1960, and a brief democratic intermezzo, the military man Park Chung-hee seized power. Democracy was also hard to find under President Park, but in the 1960s and 1970s, the country's economic development was energetically pursued. President Park was assassinated in 1979, after which a new democratic experiment was quickly interrupted by the rise of another military dictator, President Chun.

The 1980s were marked by increasingly vociferous calls for democratisation from an increasingly prosperous and articulate population. International pressure was also mounting, partly due to the increased attention South Korea was receiving from the increasingly prominent international economic role it was playing. The importance of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul should not be underestimated either. The Constitution was reformed in 1987, and extensive democratic reforms took place under President Roh Tae-woo from 1988 onwards. In 1992, Kim Yong-sam became the first civilian president in almost 30 years. He was succeeded in 1998, after the first full democratic presidential elections, by Kim Dae-jung, who had been a political prisoner under dictator Park due to his activity as leader of the trade union movement.

21th century

In the December 2002 elections, Roh Moo-hyun, a former lawyer for civil and trade union rights, was surprisingly elected President. Since 25 February 2003, Roh Moo-hyun has been President of South Korea, where, as under Kim Dae-jung, financial-economic reforms and relaxation in the relationship with North Korea are the main objectives.

In October 2006, Ban Ki-moon was appointed as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In February 2007, talks started between North and South Korea at the highest level and in November the premiers met for the first time in 15 years. In December 2007, Lee Myung-bak won the presidential election by a large margin, followed by a win in the parliamentary elections in April 2008. In August 2009, the former prime minister and Nobel Prize winner Kim Dae-jung died. In March 2010, tensions between the two Koreas escalated again after a South Korean warship was sunk following firing. In April, South Korea decides to suspend all trade with the North. In July, the ruling party loses local elections. In August 2010, President Lee made a major governmental change. In 2011 and 2012, tensions between the Koreas continue.

Since 25 February 2013, Park Geun-hye has been the 11th President of South Korea, the first woman to hold that position and also the first female head of state in the modern history of Northeast Asia. By the end of 2013, the situation between the two Koreas seems to be thawing again. In March 2014, there is renewed inter-Korean shelling and tensions rise after new missile tests by North Korea. In May 2014, Prime Minister Chung Hong resigns in the wake of the handling of the ferry disaster a month earlier; the successor is Ahn Dai-hee former judge of the Supreme Court. In late 2015, there are mass protests in Seoul against the government's economic policies. In 2016, there are renewed tensions with North Korea over missile launches and nuclear tests.

In May 2017, the centre-left candidate Moon Jae-in is elected president; he wants diplomatic talks with North Korea. In January 2018, an actual rapprochement with North Korea began; the intention was that North Korea would participate in the Pyongyang Olympic Games under the same banner. North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics, the sending of a high-level delegation to Seoul and three inter-Korean summits in 2018 seem to have ushered in a temporary period of respite, boosted by the historic US-North Korea summits in 2018 and 2019. Nevertheless, relations stagnated in 2020 and 2021.


Elmar Landeninformatie

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
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