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Last updated : Nov 2009
Korea South History
Korea South History - TravelPuppy.com
The 1st civilisation in Korea was centred upon the state of Choson which evolved in the northwest part of the peninsula during the 2nd century BC. Choson had strongly expanded until it came up against the more advanced Yen, a feudal empire which ruled much of northern China. In the beginning of the 1st century BC, China, now governed by the Han dynasty, attacked and demolished Choson and governed the northern part of the peninsula for the next four hundred years. To the south, a lot of independent rival kingdoms gradually developed, of which the most important was the Silla in the southeast. In alliance with the Chinese Tang dynasty, which had taken control in northern China in AD 618, the Silla beat their competitors and created a single political entity in Korea in AD 668 for the 1st time.

Around AD 870, a wave of revolts started to happen across Silla-controlled land and this triggered the gradual disintegration of the Silla empire and a period of chaos in which rival forces struggled for control. In the beginning of the 10th century, the eventual victor was the Koryo dynasty, once vanquished by the Silla, who joined the Song dynasty in China. The Koryo imitated the Song in setting up an advanced cultural and technological society (including the invention of printing during 1234, 2 centuries before its discovery in the West).

More importantly for the fate of the Koryo, the 1230s also saw the Mongol attack which quickly put down the Koryo forces and took control over the peninsula. It took until the early 14th century, and the assistance of the Chinese Ming dynasty, to recover Korean independence. In the late 14th century, the Koryo dynasty was then followed by the Choson who ruled Korea until the early 20th century.

The early years of the Choson saw Korea enter a period of unusual cultural and intellectual accomplishment, most importantly under the Buddhist King Sejong (1418-50). After Sejong; however, the country went into a period of decline that ended with attacks by the Japanese and then the Chinese Manchu dynasty, which brought Korea under the Chinese control. In spite of the Choson were still formally in control, Korea was effectively a dependent state of China for the next two hundred years.

During the 19th century, Korea became a geopolitical pawn in the rapid growing regional competition between China, Japan and the intruding European powers (and the USA). After the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the First Sino-Japanese war, Japan established a firm domination over Korea. Over the next fifteen years, Korea consecutively became a protectorate and finally, in 1910, a colony of the Japanese Empire. Korea was now in 1 of the darkest periods of its history. The deep suspicion which continues to affect the relationship between Japan and Korea this day dates from this period.

The Soviets and Americans agreed to divide Korea along latitude 38°N (the 38th parallel) at the end of World War II, when Japan was stripped off its colonial lands. When the Cold War broke out, the Korean border which was 1 of the few direct meeting points between the Soviet and American spheres of influence, became a key flashpoint. Cross-border attacks increased until full-scale war started between the 2 sides in 1950. The 3-year war which followed engaged all the main powers and came closer than, is often realised to provoking a nuclear conflagration. By 1953, a stalemate had been reached and a truce was signed. For the next 3 decades, locked into opposing Cold War blocs, the 2 Koreas went their separate ways.

Korea South evolved a successful capitalist economy; however, it failed to evolve a political system of comparable sophistication. In the early 1980s, Korea South was ruled by a series of dictatorships, both civilian and military. However, at this point, the country’s political leaders, with their powerbase in the monopolistic Democratic Justice Party, realised that some relaxation of the existing tight political control was obligatory. The question, as ever, was how far to go and how at what speed. The martial law was lifted in 1981. 5 years after that, a powerful parliamentary opposition had emerged in the form of the New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP), led by the veteran dissident Kim Dae-Jung.

The newly formed party complemented the existing extra-parliamentary opposition, which was rooted in the student and trade union movements. It is different from the West where student movement is normally dismissed or disregarded by the wider population, Korea South’s student protest, the Chondaehyop, has been widely supported by common people who felt it could articulate their complaints and desires (they had also attracted much public sympathy following the 1980 Kwangju massacre in which 200 protesting students were massacred by the army). The burgeoning labour protest, which had emerged with the country’s rapid industrialisation was also making its presence felt and the 2 have frequently co-ordinated their campaigns.

The Government conceded multiparty elections during 1988. Against expectations, the Democratic Justice Party managed to hang on to power. Actually, it remained in office for the next 9 years. It was not until December 1997 that Kim Dae-Jung, the perennial opposition leader, won the presidential poll (the Democratic Justice Party has changed its name twice – firstly to the Democratic Liberal Party and then to its recent title of the Grand National Party. The NKDP also changed its name and is now known as the Millennium Democratic Party).

Kim Dae-Jung’s most serious immediate problem upon taking office was the fall-out from the Asian crisis. This caused a sharp recession and finally required a substantial and humiliating bail-out by the IMF. The Government was compelled to promise to reform Korea South’s creaking financial system and end the relationship between the Government and the chaebol industrial giants who control much of the economy. Whether Kim Dae-Jung can deliver on this remains to be seen, but the electorate was undoubtedly not too unhappy: parliamentary elections during April 2000 delivered a mild endorsement in the form of a small increase in the Millennium Democratic Party’s National Assembly representation. The opposition Grand National Party remains the single largest bloc but, in coalition with the small conservative United Democratic Party and an assortment of independents, the MDP controls the government.

The very importance of Kim Dae-Jung’s political programme was a firm commitment to improving relations with the North after years of painfully gradual diplomatic movement. The historic Pyongyang summit between the leaders of the 2 countries in June 2000 vindicated his approach and opened a new chapter in relations. However, expectations of imminent reunification are definitely very premature. Having watched the German unification process very closely, the Korea Southn Government is aware that reunification would be costly – estimates run as high as US$50 billion yearly in the 1st few years – and difficult given the vast political and psychological gulf between the 2 Koreas. There are also numbers of strategic and regional problems in which the main regional powers – as well as the United States – will demand to be involved. During the last few years, every improvement in relations, such as the reuniting of families separated by the 1950s civil war, seems to have been matched by a negative development, such as the July 2002 naval gun battle between vessels from North and South. Kim Dae-Jung is still determined; however, to make sure that this part of his programme achieves some possible success.

During 2002, Korea South’s international profile, including national morale, received a boost from co-hosting the World Cup football competition. President Kim Dae-Jung was; however, unable to capitalise upon it as many members of his family became embroiled in a corruption scandal around the same time. The president resigned from the Millennium Democratic Party in order to try and distance it from the scandal, but the move seems to have made little difference to the declining popularity of both party and president. Also in 2002, a new premier, Kim Suk Soo, took office.