Koreans can trace a continuous history on the same territory reaching back thousands of years. The present politically divided peninsula is mirrored by distant eras such as the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC–AD 668), when the kingdoms of Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje jockeyed for control of territory that stretched deep into Manchuria. Korea's relationship with powerful neighbours China and Japan has also long defined the country's fortunes, while ties to the West have added further complexity to national self-understanding.

The First Korean

The imagined beginning of the Korean nation was the 3rd millennium BC, when a legendary king named Dangun founded old Joseon. Joseon (also spelled Choson) remains the name of the country in North Korea (and the name used by China to describe it: Cháoxiǎn), but South Koreans use the term Daehanminguk (or Hánguó in Chinese), a name dating from the 1890s.

Real or not, Dangun has been a continuous presence from his time down to the present, a kingly vessel filled by different people at different times who drew their legitimacy from this eternal lineage. Under its first president, for example, South Korea used a calendar in which Dangun’s birth constituted year one – setting the date at 2333 BC. If the two Koreas can’t agree on many things, including what to call their country, they can agree on Dangun.

Unfortunately there is no written history of Korea until a couple of centuries BC, and that history was chronicled by Chinese scribes. But there is archaeological evidence that humans have inhabited this peninsula for thousands of years, and that an advanced people were here seven or eight thousand years ago in the Neolithic period. These Neolithic people practised agriculture in a settled communal life and are widely supposed to have had family clans as their basic social grouping. Nationalist historians also trace many Korean social and cultural traits back to these Neolithic people.

The Three Kingdoms

Around the time of Christ, three kingdoms emerged on the Korean Peninsula: Baekje (also spelled Paekche), Goguryeo (Koguryŏ) and Silla (Shilla).

The Korean Peninsula is divided by a major mountain range about three quarters of the way down at the 37th parallel. This southwest extension of mountains framed Baekje’s historic territory, just as it did the Silla kingdom to the east. Goguryeo, however, ranged over a wild region consisting of northeastern Korea and eastern Manchuria, giving rise to contemporary dreams of a ‘greater Korea’ in territories that now happen to be part of China and Russia. While South Korea identifies itself with the glories of the Silla kingdom, which it says unified the peninsula in AD 668, the North identifies with Goguryeo and says the country wasn’t truly unified until the founding of the Goguryeo dynasty.

Central Kingdom

Baekje was a centralised, aristocratic state melding Chinese and indigenous influences. By the 3rd century AD, Baekje was strong enough to demolish its rivals and occupy what today is the core area of Korea, around Seoul. The kingdom controlled much of western Korea up to Pyongyang and, if you believe certain controversial records, coastal regions of northeastern China, too.

By the time Baekje moved its capital to Chungnam, however, its influence was under siege. Its centre of power, Hanseong (in the modern-day Seoul region), had fallen to Goguryeo from the north, and in 475 Baekje had to relocate its capital to Gongju (then known as Ungjin), where the mountains provided a bulwark and offered some protection.

The dynasty thrived anew, nurturing relations with Japan and China, and in 538 King Seong moved the capital further south to Buyeo (then known as Sabi). Unfortunately his Silla allies betrayed him, killing him in battle. Baekje fell into decline and was finally vanquished in 660 by a combined army from Silla and China’s Tang dynasty, though pockets of resistance held out for some years.

Northern Kingdom

Goguryeo conquered a large swath of territory by AD 312 and expanded in all directions, especially towards the Taedong River, which runs through Pyongyang, in the south. By the 5th century Goguryeo was in the ascendancy on the peninsula, and under warrior kings such as Gwanggaeto the Great (AD 391–412) and his son Jangsu (AD 413–419), it was also in control of huge chunks of Manchuria.

Southern Kingdom

Silla emerged victorious on the peninsula in 668. However, a consequence of this was that the country had come under the long-term sway of the great Tang dynasty (618–907) in China. Chinese statecraft, Buddhist and Confucian philosophy, Confucian practices of educating the young, and the Chinese written language became entrenched.

Silla sent many students to Tang schools and acquired a level of civilisation high enough to merit the Chinese designation of ‘flourishing land in the East’. Its capital at Gyeongju was renowned as the ‘city of gold’, where the aristocracy pursued a high culture and extravagant pleasures.

Chinese historians wrote that elite officials possessed thousands of slaves, with similar numbers of horses, cattle and pigs. Their wives wore solid-gold tiaras and earrings of delicate and intricate filigree. Scholars studied the Confucian and Buddhist classics and developed advanced methods for astronomy and calendrical science. ‘Pure Land’ Buddhism, a simple doctrine, united the mass of common people who could become adherents through the repetition of simple chants.

Artists from Goguryeo and Baekje also perfected a mural art found on the walls of tombs and took it to Japan, where it deeply influenced that country’s temple and burial art. However, it was the blossoming of Silla that still astounds contemporary visitors to Korea and makes its ancient capital at Gyeongju one of the most fascinating tourist destinations in East Asia.

Silla vs Balhae

Despite Silla’s military strength and prowess, broad territories of the old Goguryeo kingdom remained unconquered and a section of the Goguryeo elite established a successor state known as Balhae (Parhae), above and below the Amnok and Tuman boundaries that now form the border between China, Russia and Korea. Balhae’s continuing strength forced Silla to build a northern wall in 721 and kept Silla forces permanently below a line running from present-day Pyongyang in the east to the west coast.

Like Silla, Balhae continued to be influenced deeply by the Chinese civilisation of the Tang dynasty, sending students to the capital at Cháng'ān (present-day Xī'ān in Shaanxi province), on which it modelled its own capital city (the Japanese also modelled Kyoto on Cháng'ān).

Sidebar: The Glory of Baekje

In 1971 the tomb of King Muryeong, the longest-ruling Baekje king, was discovered in Gongju. It contained a wealth of funerary objects that had not seen the light of day in 1500 years, including remains of the king and queen’s wooden coffins, golden diadem ornaments, jewellery, clothing accessories and the king’s sword.

Unification Under Goryeo

A formidable military leader named Wang Geon had defeated Silla as well as some Baekje remnants by 930 and established a flourishing dynasty, Goryeo, from which came the name Korea. Korea was now fully unified with more or less the boundaries that it retains today. Wang was a magnanimous unifier. Regarding himself as the proper lineal king of Goguryeo, he embraced that kingdom’s survivors, took a Silla princess as his wife and treated Silla aristocracy with unprecedented generosity. His dynasty ruled for nearly 500 years and in its heyday was among the most advanced civilisations in the world. Among its cultural achievements was the Jikji, a Buddhist text and the oldest surviving book printed with metal movable type, dating to 1377 and predating the Gutenberg Bible by 78 years; a great flourishing in ceramics, especially celadon; and the Tripitaka Koreana, one of the world's largest libraries of Buddhist scriptures, held today at the temple of Haein-sa.

Goryeo Culture

With its capital at Kaesong, the Goryeo dynasty’s composite elite also forged a tradition of aristocratic continuity that lasted down to the modern era. By the 13th century there were two government groupings: civil officials and military officials. At that time the military people were stronger, but thereafter both were known as yangban (the two orders), which became the Korean term for aristocracy. Below the hereditary aristocracy were common people such as peasants and merchants. Below them were outcast groups of butchers, tanners and entertainers, who were called cheonmin and who lived a caste-like existence, often in separated and ostracised villages, and whose status fell upon their children as well. Likewise, slavery was hereditary (matrilineally), with slaves making up as much as 30% of Goryeo society.

The Goryeo aristocracy admired and interacted with the splendid Chinese civilisation that emerged during the contemporaneous Song dynasty (960–1279). Official delegations and ordinary merchants took Korean gold, silver and ginseng to China in exchange for silk, porcelain and woodblock books. Finely crafted Song porcelain stimulated Korean artisans to produce an even finer type of inlaid celadon pottery – unmatched in the world before or since for the pristine clarity of its blue-green glaze and the delicate art of its inlaid portraits.

Buddhism was the state religion, but it coexisted with Confucianism throughout the Goryeo period. Buddhist priests systematised religious practice by rendering the Korean version of the Buddhist canon into mammoth woodblock print editions, known as the Tripitaka. The first was completed in 1087 after a lifetime of work, but was lost. Another – the Tripitaka Koreana – was completed in 1251.

The Rise of the Mongols

This high point of Goryeo culture coincided with internal disorder and the rise of the Mongols, whose power swept most of the known world during the 13th century. Korea was no exception, as Kublai Khan’s forces invaded and demolished Goryeo’s army in 1231, forcing the government to retreat to the island of Ganghwado, a ploy that exploited the Mongol horsemen’s fear of water.

After a more devastating invasion in 1254, in which countless people died and around 200,000 people were taken captive, Goryeo succumbed to Mongol domination and its kings came to intermarry with Mongol princesses. The Mongols then enlisted thousands of Koreans in ill-fated invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, using craft made by Korea’s great shipwrights. The Kamakura Shogunate turned back both invasions with help, as legend has it, from opportune typhoons known as the ‘divine wind’ or kamikaze.

Joseon: The Last Dynasty

The overthrow of the Mongols by the Ming dynasty in China (1316–1644) gave an opportunity to rising groups of Korean military men to contest for power. One of them, Yi Seong-gye, grabbed the bull by the horns and overthrew Goryeo leaders, thus becoming the founder of Korea’s longest and last dynasty (1392–1910). The new state was named Joseon, harking back to the old Joseon kingdom 15 centuries earlier, and its capital was built at Seoul.

General Yi announced the new dynasty by mobilising some 200,000 labourers to surround the new capital with a great wall that was completed in 1396. Around 70% of it still stands today, including Sungnyemun (Namdaemun; the Great South Gate) and the Heunginjimun (Dongdaemun; the Great East Gate).

The deep Buddhist influence on the previous dynasty led the literati to urge the king to uproot Buddhist economic and political influence, which led to exile in the mountains for monks and their disciples – this is one of the reasons why many of Korea's Buddhist temples are located in mountain areas.

Influential literati in the Joseon dynasty were ideologues who wanted to restore Korean society to its proper path as they saw it, by using the virtues to discipline the passions and the interests. Over many decades the literati thus accomplished a deep Confucianisation of Joseon society. The reforming came in the name of Neo-Confucianism and Chu Hsi, the Chinese progenitor of this doctrine. The result was that much of what we now see as ‘Korean culture’ or ‘tradition’ arose from major social reorganisation by self-conscious 15th-century ideologues. Foreign observers declared that Korea was ‘more Confucian than China’.

King Sejong’s Gift

Hangeul is a phonetic script: concise, elegant and considered one of the most scientific in the world in rendering sounds. It was developed in 1443, during the reign of Korea’s greatest king, Sejong, as a way of increasing literacy – it is vastly simpler and easier to learn than Chinese characters (which reflect sound poorly and can have upwards of fifty strokes for just one character). But the Confucian elite wanted to maintain a supremacy and opposed Hangeul's wide use, hoping to keep the government exams as difficult as possible so only aristocratic children had the time and money to pass.

Hangeul didn’t come into general use until after 1945, and then only in North Korea. South Korea used a Sino-Korean script requiring the mastery of thousands of Chinese characters until the 1990s, but as Korean is not a tonal language like Chinese and therefore has more syllabic variety, the usefulness of Chinese characters in Korean was questionable (although tonal languages like Vietnamese, that also used Chinese characters, eventually replaced them with a romanised alphabet). Today, though, Chinese characters (hanja; 漢字) have mostly disappeared from Korea’s public space, to the consternation of Chinese and Japanese travellers who used to be able to read all the street and commercial signs. Hanja are, however, making a reappearance at tourists sights, due to the growth in Chinese tourism, and you will see old temples, Confucian academies and pagodas inscribed with hanja, in their full and traditional form (rather than in the more recent simplified Chinese variant).

King Sejong’s face, meanwhile, is etched on the ₩10,000 note.

Korea & China: A Special Relationship

General Yi Seong-gye founded his dynasty when he refused to send his troops into battle against a Chinese army, instead using them to overthrow his own government and make himself king. Not surprisingly, he received the blessing and support of the Chinese emperor, and Korea became a ‘tributary’ country to China – but more than that, it became the ideal tributary state, modelling itself on Chinese culture and statecraft.

From 1637 until the end of the practice in 1881, Korea sent a total of 435 special embassies and missions to China. The emperor sent gifts in return, but the lavish hospitality provided to the Chinese emissaries when they came to Seoul could take up 15% of the government’s revenue.

Most of the time China left Korea alone to run its own affairs, and Korea was content to look up to China as the centre of the only world civilisation that mattered. This policy was known as sadae (serving the great). Because of this special relationship, when Japan attacked in the 1590s, Chinese troops were sent to help repel them. In just one battle, as many as 30,000 Chinese soldiers died.

It isn’t clear what the common people thought about China until the modern period, nor were they asked. The vast majority were illiterate in a country that marked its elite according to their literacy – in Chinese. The aristocrats were enthusiastic Confucianists, adopting Chinese painting, poetry, music, statecraft and philosophy. The complicated Chinese script was used for virtually all government and cultural activities throughout the Joseon period, even though the native alphabet, hangeul, was an outstanding cultural achievement and possessed astonishing versatility.

Sidebar: Sadae through History

The policy of sadae was also in the background during the Korean War, when a huge Chinese intervention in late 1950 helped rescue the North from certain defeat. Today China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, with thousands of Korean students studying there, while China maintains its long-term alliance with North Korea.

Royal Pomp & Ceremony

Many of the premier cultural attractions in Korea today, such as Seoul’s palaces, are imperial relics of the long-lived Joseon dynasty. They are windows into a time in Korea’s history when absolute monarchs ruled. Pomp and ritual became an essential aspect of royal power, with attention to ritual and protocol developed into an art form. Koreans appeared to break sharply with this royal system in the 20th century, but when you look at the ruling system in North Korea, or the families that run most of South Korea’s major corporations, you can see the family and hereditary principles of the old system continuing in modern form.

In these more democratic times it is difficult to imagine the wealth, power and status of Joseon kings. The main palace, Gyeongbokgung (경복궁), contained 800 buildings and more than 200 gates – in 1900, for example, palace costs accounted for 10% of all government expenditures. In the royal household were 400 eunuchs, 500 ladies-in-waiting, 800 other court ladies and 70 gisaeng (female entertainers who were expert singers and dancers). Only women and eunuchs were allowed to live inside the palace – male servants, guards, officials and visitors had to leave at sunset.

Most of the women lived like nuns and never left the palace. A yangban woman had to be married for years before daring to move in the outer world of society, and then only in a cocoon of clothing inside a cloistered sedan chair, carried by her slaves. In the late 19th century foreigners witnessed these cloistered upper-class women, clothed and swaddled from head to toe, wearing a green mantle like the Middle Eastern chador over their heads and bringing the folds across the face, leaving only the eyes exposed. They would come out after the nightly curfew, after the bells rang and the city gates were closed against tigers, and find a bit of freedom in the darkness.

Lives of the Eunuchs

The only ‘male’ staff allowed to live inside the palaces, eunuchs (내시; naesi) were privy to all the secrets of the state and had considerable influence because they waited upon the king and were around the royal family 24 hours a day. All access to the king was through them, as they were the royal bodyguards and responsible for the safety of their master. This was an easy way to earn money and they usually exploited it to the full. These bodyguard eunuchs, toughened by a harsh training regime of martial arts, were also personal servants to the king and even nursemaids to the royal children. They played so many roles that life must have been very stressful for them, particularly as any mistake could lead to horrific physical punishments.

Although often illiterate and uneducated, a few became important advisers to the king, attaining high government positions and amassing great wealth. Most were from poor families and their greed for money was a national scandal. Eunuchs were supposed to serve the king with total devotion, like monks serving the Buddha, never thinking about mundane matters like money or status.

Surprisingly, eunuchs were usually married and adopted young eunuch boys who they brought up to follow in their footsteps. The eunuch in charge of the king’s health would pass on his medical knowledge to his ‘son’. Under the Confucian system, eunuchs had to get married. The system continued until 1910 when the country’s new Japanese rulers summoned all the eunuchs to Deoksugung and dismissed them from government service.

Roots of Gender Inequality

Park Geun-hye made women’s rights one of the cornerstones of her campaign to become South Korea's first female president in 2012. She promised a 'women’s revolution' for the country, which ranks 15th on the United Nations Development Programme's Gender Inequality Index. Women here can expect to make an average of 32% less than a man in the same job.

The roots of such inequality stretch way back to the 15th century, when the Joseon dynasty established new reforms and laws that led to a radical change in women’s social position and an expropriation of women’s property. Where many women were prominent in Goryeo society, they were now relegated to domestic chores of child-rearing and housekeeping, as so-called ‘inside people’.

From then on, the latticework of Korean society was constituted by patrilineal descent. The nails in the latticework, the proof of its importance and existence over time, were the written genealogies that positioned families in the hierarchy of property and prestige. In succeeding centuries a person’s genealogy would be the best predictor of his or her life chances – it became one of Korea’s most lasting characteristics. Since only male offspring could prolong the family and clan lines, and were the only names registered in the genealogical tables, the birth of a son was greeted with great fanfare.

Such historical influences remain strong in both Koreas today, where first sons and their families often live with the male’s parents, and all stops are pulled out to father a boy.

Korea & Japan

In 1592, 150,000 well-armed Japanese troops, divided into nine armies, rampaged throughout Korea, looting, raping and killing. Palaces and temples were burned to the ground and priceless cultural treasures were destroyed or stolen. Entire villages of ceramic potters were shipped back to Japan, along with thousands of ears clipped from dead Koreans, which were piled into a mound in Japan, covered over and retained into modern times as a memorial to this war.

A series of brilliant naval victories by Admiral Yi Sun-sin helped to turn the tide against the Japanese. Based in Yeosu, Yi perfected the geobukseon (거북선; turtle ship), a warship protected with iron sheets and spikes against the Japanese ‘grapple and board’ naval tactics. The standard Korean warship was the flat-bottomed, double-decked panokseon (판옥선), powered by two sails and hard-working oarsmen. It was stronger and more manoeuvrable than the Japanese warships and had more cannons. With these advantages, clever tactics and an intimate knowledge of the complex patterns of tides and currents around the numerous islands and narrow channels off the southern coast, Admiral Yi was able to sink hundreds of Japanese ships and thwart Japan’s ambition to seize Korea and use it as a base for the conquest of China.

Ming troops also arrived from China and by 1597 the Japanese were forced to withdraw. Stout resistance on land and sea thwarted Japanese ambitions to dominate Asia, but only at the cost of massive destruction and economic dislocation in Korea.

Japanese Takeover

Japan’s ambitions to seize Korea resurfaced at the end of the 19th century, when the country began to rapidly transform into Asia's first modern industrialised power. Seizing on the Donghak peasant rebellion in Korea, Japan instigated war with China, defeating it in 1895. After another decade of imperial rivalry over control of the peninsula, Japan smashed Russia in lightning naval and land attacks, stunning the Western world, which had previously viewed Asians as people to be subjugated rather than feared as economic and military rivals.

Japan was now in a secure position to realise its territorial ambitions with regard to Korea, which became a Japanese protectorate in 1905. Following King Gojong's abdication in 1907, Korea became a full colony of Japan in 1910, with the acquiescence of all the great powers, even though progressive calls were beginning to emerge to dismantle the entire colonial system. Furthermore, Korea had most of the prerequisites for nationhood long before most other countries in colonised areas of the world: common ethnicity, language and culture, and well-recognised national boundaries since the 10th century.

Feature: Donghak Demands

The Donghak Rebellion, which had been building for decades, erupted in 1894 in Jeolla province, attracting large numbers of peasants and low-born groups of people. The rebels were only armed with primitive, homemade weapons, but they defeated the government army. The rebellion then spread to neighbouring provinces, and when King Gojong called in Chinese troops, Japanese troops took advantage of the uproar to march into Seoul. The rebels were defeated and their leaders (including Jeon Bong-jun, who was known as the ‘Green Pea General’ because of his small size) were executed by Japanese firing squads.

The demands of the rebels revealed their many grievances against the Joseon social system:

  • Slaves should be freed.
  • The low-born should be treated fairly.
  • Land should be redistributed.
  • Taxes on fish and salt should be scrapped.
  • No unauthorised taxes should be levied and any corrupt yangban (aristocrat) should be severely punished.
  • All debts should be cancelled.
  • Regional favouritism and factions should be abolished.
  • Widows should be allowed to remarry.
  • Traitors who supported foreign interference should be punished.

Colonisation

Once fully in control Japan tried to destroy the Korean sense of national identity. A Japanese ruling elite replaced the Korean yangban scholar-officials; Japanese modern education replaced the Confucian classics; Japanese capital and expertise were built up in place of the Korean versions – Japanese talent for Korean talent; and eventually even the Korean language was replaced with Japanese.

Few Koreans thanked the Japanese for these substitutions, or credited Japan with any social improvements. Instead they saw Japan as snatching away the ancient regime, Korea’s sovereignty and independence, its indigenous if incipient modernisation and, above all, its national dignity. Most Koreans never saw Japanese rule as anything but illegitimate and humiliating. The very closeness of the two nations – in geography, in common Chinese civilisational influences and in levels of development until the 19th century – made Japanese dominance all the more galling to Koreans and gave a peculiar hate/respect dynamic to their relationship.

During colonisation there were instances when Koreans fought back. The South Korean national holiday on 1 March honours the day in 1919 when the death of ex-king Gojong and the unveiling of a Korean declaration of independence sparked massive pro-independence demonstrations throughout the country. The protests were ruthlessly suppressed, but still lasted for months. When it was over, the Japanese claimed that 500 were killed, 1400 injured and 12,000 arrested, but Korean estimates put the casualties at 10 times those figures.

Collaborating with Japan

A certain amount of Korean collaboration with the Japanese was unavoidable given the ruthless nature of the regime under the Japanese colonialists. Also in the last decade of colonial rule, when Japan’s expansion across Asia caused a shortage of experts and professionals throughout the empire, educated and ambitious Koreans were further co-opted.

The burst of consumerism that came to the world in the 1920s meant that Koreans shopped in Japanese department stores, banked at Japanese banks, drank Japanese beer, travelled on the Japanese-run railway and often dreamed of attending a Tokyo university.

Ambitious Koreans found new careers opening up to them just at the most oppressive point in this colony’s history, as Koreans were commanded to change their names and not speak Korean, and millions were used as mobile human fodder by the Japanese. Koreans constituted almost half of the hated National Police, and young Korean officers (including Park Chung-hee, who seized power in 1961, and Kim Jae-gyu, who, as intelligence chief, assassinated Park in 1979) joined the aggressive Japanese army in Manchuria. Pro-Japanese yangban were rewarded with special titles, and some of Korea’s greatest early nationalists, such as Yi Gwang-su, were forced into public support of Japan’s empire.

The issue of this collaboration was never punished or fully and frankly debated in South Korea, leaving the problem to fester until 2004, when the government finally launched an official investigation into collaboration – along with estimates that upwards of 90% of the pre-1990 South Korea elite had ties to collaborationist families or individuals.

The colonial government implemented policies that developed industries and modernised the administration, but always in the interests of Japan. Modern textile, steel and chemical industries emerged, along with new railroads, highways and ports. Koreans never thanked Japan for any of this, but it did leave Korea much more developed in 1945 than other countries under colonial rule, such as Vietnam under the French.

WWII & After

By 1940 the Japanese owned 40% of the land and there were 700,000 Japanese living and working in Korea – an enormous number compared to most other countries. But among large landowners, many were as likely to be Korean as Japanese – most peasants were tenant farmers working their land. Upwards of three million Korean men and women were uprooted from their homes and sent to work as miners, farm labourers, factory workers and soldiers abroad, mainly in Japan and Manchukuo, the Japanese colony in northeast China.

More than 130,000 Korean miners in Japan – men and women – worked 12-hour days, were paid wages well under what Japanese miners earned, were poorly fed and were subjected to brutal, club-wielding overseers. The worst aspect of this massive mobilisation, however, came in the form of ‘comfort women’ – the hundreds of thousands of young Korean women who were forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese armed forces.

It was Korea’s darkest hour, but Korean guerrilla groups continued to fight Japan in Manchukuo – they were allied with Chinese guerrillas, but Koreans still constituted by far the largest ethnic group. This is where we find Kim Il-sung, who began fighting the Japanese around the time they proclaimed the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932 and continued into the early 1940s. After murderous counter-insurgency campaigns (participated in by many Koreans), the guerrillas numbered only about 200. In 1945 they returned to northern Korea and constituted the ruling elite from that point down to the present.

Feature: The House of Sharing

An hour’s journey south of Seoul, in bucolic countryside, is the House of Sharing, a very special retirement home and museum. Here live a handful of women, now in their 90s, who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels across Asia before and during WWII. ‘Comfort women’ is the euphemism coined by the Japanese military for these women, 70% of whom were Korean. A study by the UN has put the number of women involved at around 210,000 (the Japanese government claims the figure was 50,000).

At the House of Sharing they prefer the respectful term halmoni, which means grandmother. In the museum here you can learn more about the atrocious conditions and experiences these women were forced to endure. Most of them were aged between 13 and 16, and had to service between 30 and 40 soldiers a day.

‘We must record these things that were forced upon us.’ These words by Kim Hak Soon, one of the first Korean halmoni to testify about her experiences, introduces the museum exhibition which includes a display of the artworks created by the halmoni that reflect their feelings and experiences. Video documentaries about the halmoni are screened and discussions are held about their plight and the ongoing sexual trafficking of women around the world. The overall picture painted by the guides of these frail, sometimes crotchety women, is of pillars of strength who after a lifetime of shame and sorrow have chosen to spend their twilight years as campaigners for social justice.

It’s a heavy-going experience but one not without a sense of hope – both at the resilience of the human spirit and the prospect for reconciliation. The greatest number of visitors to the House come from Japan and every year a Peace Road Program brings Korean and Japanese students together to help further understanding of their countries’ painfully entwined history and how they might be better neighbours in the future.

Mutual Animosity

Japan’s surrender to the Allies in 1945 opened a new chapter in the stormy relationship between the two countries. Thanks to munificent American support, Japan began growing rapidly in the early 1950s and South Korea got going in the mid-1960s. Today companies in both countries battle each other to produce the best ships, cars, steel products, computer chips, smart phones, flat-screen TVs and other electronic equipment. The new rivalry is a never-ending competition for world markets.

Several generations have passed since the end of WWII and Japan and South Korea are both democracies and natural trading partners and allies. However, a high degree of mistrust and mutual animosity remains between the countries. Sticking points include perceptions of what happened during the colonisation period and territorial issues over the islands of Dokdo/Takehima. A survey by a Tokyo think tank in 2015 found that 52.4% of Japanese have a negative impression of Korea, while 72.5% of Koreans feel the same about Japan. In South Korea, one survey found that Japan’s current right-wing prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is less popular than the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

The Korean War

The 38th Parallel

In the immediate aftermath of the obliteration of Nagasaki, three Americans in the War Department (including Dean Rusk, later Secretary of State) drew a fateful line at the 38th parallel in Korea. The line was supposed to demarcate the areas in which American and Soviet forces would receive the Japanese surrender, but Rusk later acknowledged that he did not trust the Russians and wanted to get the nerve centre of the country, Seoul, into the American zone. He consulted no Koreans, no allies and not even the president in making this decision. But it followed on from three years of State Department planning in which an American occupation of part or all of Korea was seen as crucial to the postwar security of Japan and the Pacific. The US then set up a three-year military government in southern Korea that deeply shaped postwar Korean history.

The Soviets came in with fewer concrete plans for Korea and moved more slowly than the Americans in setting up an administration. They thought Kim Il-sung would be good as a defence minister in a new government, but sought to get him and other communists to work together with Christian nationalist figures such as Jo Man-sik. Soon, however, the Cold War rivalry overshadowed everything in Korea, as the Americans turned to Rhee Syngman (an elderly patriot who had lived in the US for 35 years) and the Russians to Kim Il-sung.

By 1948 Rhee and Kim had established separate republics and by the end of the year, Soviet troops had withdrawn, never to return again. American combat troops departed in June 1949, leaving behind a 500-man military advisory group. For the first time in its short history since 1945, South Korea had operational control of its own military forces. Within a year war had broken out and the US took back that control and has never relinquished it.

The War Begins

In 1949 both sides sought external support to mount a war against the other side, and the North succeeded where the South failed. Its greatest strength came from tens of thousands of Koreans who had been sent to fight in China’s civil war, and who returned to North Korea in 1949 and 1950. Kim Il-sung also played Stalin off against Mao Zedong to get military aid and a critical independent space for himself, so that when he invaded he could count on one or both powers to bail him out if things went badly. After years of guerrilla war in the South (fought almost entirely by southerners) and much border fighting in 1949, Kim launched a surprise invasion on 25 June 1950, when he peeled several divisions off in the midst of summer war games; many high officers were unaware of the war plan. Seoul fell in three days, and soon North Korea was at war with the US.

The Americans responded by getting the United Nations to condemn the attack and gaining commitments from 16 other countries, although Americans almost always bore the brunt of the fighting, and only British and Turkish combat forces had a substantial role. The war went badly for the UN at first and its troops were soon pushed far back into a small pocket around Busan (Pusan). But following a daring landing at Incheon (Inchon) under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, North Korean forces were pushed back above the 38th parallel.

Creating the DMZ

The question then became whether the war was over. South Korea’s sovereignty had been restored and UN leaders wanted to call it a victory. But for the previous year, high officials in the Truman administration had been debating a more ‘positive’ strategy than containment, namely ‘rollback’ or liberation, and so Truman decided to march north to overthrow Kim’s regime. Kim’s long-time relations with Chinese communists bailed his chestnuts out of the fire when Mao committed a huge number of soldiers, but now the US was at war with China.

By the start of 1951, US forces were pushed back below the 38th parallel, and the communists were about to launch an offensive that would retake Seoul. This shook America and its allies to the core, Truman declared a national emergency and WWIII seemed to be at the doorstep. But Mao did not want general war with the US and did not try to push the UN forces off the peninsula. By spring 1951 the fighting had stabilised roughly along the lines where the war ended. Truce talks began, dragging on for two years amid massive trench warfare along the lines. These battles created the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

At the end of the war, Korea lay in ruins. Seoul had changed hands no less than four times and was badly damaged, but many prewar buildings remained sufficiently intact to rebuild them much as they were. The US Air Force pounded the North for three years until all of its cities were destroyed and some were completely demolished, leaving the urban population to live, work and go to school underground, like cavemen. Millions of Koreans died (probably three million, two-thirds of them in the North), millions more were left homeless, industries were destroyed and the entire country was massively demoralised because the bloodletting had only restored the status quo. Of the UN troops, 37,000 were killed (about 35,000 of them Americans) and 120,000 were wounded.

Feature: Best North Korea Books

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Barbara Demick; 2009) Award-winning account of life in Chongjin, a bleak North Korean town near the border with China, that reads like a thriller.

In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom (Yeonmi Park; 2015) Eviscerating narration of one young girl's escape from North Korea and being trafficked around north China before finding freedom.

Aquariums of Pyongyang: 10 years in the North Korean Gulag (Kang Chol-hwan; 2006) Harrowing tale of a defector who survived a decade in the notorious Yodok camp.

Without You, There Is No Us (Suki Kim; 2015) An account of Kim’s 2011 stint teaching at an elite Pyongyang all-male university.

Postwar Recovery

The 1950s was a time of depressing stagnation for the South, but rapid industrial growth for the North. Then, over the next 30 years, both Koreas underwent rapid industrial growth. The North’s growth was as fast as any in the world from the mid-1950s into the mid-1970s, and even in the early 1980s its per-capita GNP was about the same as the South’s. But then the South began to build an enormous lead that soon became insurmountable and by the 1990s huge economic disparities had emerged. The North experienced depressing stagnation that led finally to famine and massive death, while the South emerged as a major global economic power.

Feature: Rise of the Jaebeol

Much of the credit for what came to be known as the 'Miracle on the Han' (after the Han River running through Seoul) belongs to Korea's industrial conglomerates or jaebeol (also spelled chaebol; 재벌). Although their origins as family-owned business organisations stretch back to the days of Japanese colonisation, it was in the 1960s that the jaebeol came into their own. In 1963 the key companies came together to form the Federation of Korean Industries to promote their interest and support President Park Chung-hee's drive for economic development.

Operating under a motto of 'if it doesn't work, make it work' Hyundai, in particular, made huge strides for Korea – for example, building the 400km-long Gyeongbu Expressway connecting Seoul to Busan in less than 2½ years, and building a successful shipyard from scratch as a new business. In contrast to this gung-ho approach, Samsung had a reputation for reviewing all the options before making a choice – something that served it equally well as it became the country's largest jaebeol, its revenue accounting for around 15% of South Korea's GDP.

This great triumph came at enormous cost, as South Koreans worked the longest hours in the industrial world for decades and suffered under one military dictatorship after another. Corrupt, autocratic rulers censored the media, imprisoned and tortured political opponents, manipulated elections and continually changed the country’s constitution to suit themselves. Washington backed them up (except for a brief moment in the 1960s) and never did more than issue tepid protests at their authoritarian rule. Student protests and less frequent trade-union street protests were often violent, as were the police or military forces sent to suppress them. But slowly a democratisation movement built strength across the society.

Dictatorship & Massacre

When the Korean War ended in 1953, Rhee Syngman continued his dictatorial rule until 1961, when he and his wife fled to Hawaii following widespread demonstrations against him that included university professors demonstrating in the streets of Seoul. Ordinary people were finally free to take revenge against hated policemen who had served the Japanese. Following a military coup later in 1961, Park Chung-hee ruled with an iron fist until the Kennedy administration demanded that he hold elections. He narrowly won three of them in 1963, 1967 and 1971, partly by spreading enormous amounts of money around (peasants would get envelopes full of cash for voting).

In spite of this, the democracy activist Kim Dae-jung nearly beat him in 1971, garnering 46% of the vote. That led Park to declare martial law and make himself president for life. Amid massive demonstrations in 1979, his own intelligence chief, Kim Jae-gyu, shot him dead over dinner one night, in an episode never fully explained. This was followed by five months of democratic discussion until Chun Doo-hwan, a protégé of Park, moved to take full power.

In response the citizens of Gwangju took to the streets on 18 May 1980, in an incident now known as the May 18 Democratic Uprising. The army was ordered to move in, on the pretext of quelling a communist uprising. The soldiers had no bullets, but used bayonets to murder dozens of unarmed protesters and passers-by. Outraged residents broke into armouries and police stations and used seized weapons and ammunition to drive the troops from their city.

For over a week pro-democracy citizen groups were in control, but the brutal military response came nine days later, on 27 May, when soldiers armed with loaded rifles, supported by helicopters and tanks, retook the city. Most of the protest leaders were labelled communists and summarily shot. At least 154 civilians were killed, with another 74 missing, presumed dead. An additional 4141 were wounded and more than 3000 were arrested, many of whom were tortured.

The Return of Democracy

Finally, in 1992, a civilian, Kim Young-sam, won the presidential election and began to build a real democracy. Although a charter member of the old ruling groups, Kim had resigned his National Assembly seat in the 1960s when Rhee tried to amend the constitution and had since been a thorn in the side of the military governments along with Kim Dae-jung. Among his first acts as president were to launch an anti-corruption crusade, free thousands of political prisoners and put Chun Doo-hwan on trial.

The former president’s conviction of treason and monumental corruption was a great victory for the democratic movement. One of the strongest labour movements in the world soon emerged and when former dissident Kim Dae-jung was elected at the end of 1997, all the protests and suffering and killing seemed finally to have effected change.

Kim was ideally poised to solve the deep economic downturn that hit Korea in 1997, as part of the Asian financial crisis. The IMF demanded reforms of the jaebeol as the price for its $57 million bailout, and Kim had long called for a restructure of the conglomerates and their cronyism with the banks and the government. By 1999 the economy was growing again.

Sunshine Policy

In 1998 Kim also began to roll out a ‘Sunshine Policy’ aimed at reconciliation with North Korea, if not reunification. Within a year Pyongyang had responded, various economic and cultural exchanges began and, in June 2000, the two presidents met at a summit for the first time since 1945. Seen by critics as appeasement of the North, this engagement policy was predicated on the realist principles that the North was not going to collapse and so had to be dealt with as it was, and that the North would not object to the continued presence of US troops in the South during the long process of reconciliation if the US normalised relations with the North – something Kim Jong-il acknowledged in his historic summit meeting with Kim Dae-jung in June 2000.

Between 2000 and 2008, when Lee Myung-bak’s administration suspended the policy, tens of thousands of South Koreans were able to visit the North, some for heartbreakingly brief meetings with relatives they hadn’t seen for half a century. Big southern firms established joint ventures using northern labour in a purpose-built industrial complex at Kaesong. In 2000 Kim Dea-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for implementing the Sunshine Policy.

After Kim

When President Kim retired after his five-year term his party selected a virtual unknown, Roh Moo-hyun, a self-taught lawyer who had defended many dissidents in the darkest periods of the 1980s. To the surprise of many, including officials in Washington, he narrowly won the 2002 election and represented the rise to power of a generation that had nothing to do with the political system that emerged in 1945 (even Kim Dae-jung had been active in the 1940s). That generation was mostly middle-aged, having gone to school in the 1980s with indelible images of conflict on their campuses and American backing for Chun Doo-hwan. The result was a growing estrangement between Seoul and Washington, for the first time in the relationship.

Roh continued Kim’s policy of engagement with the North, but his mismanagement of the economy and the decision to send South Korean troops to Iraq saw his public support plummet. The opposition tried to impeach Roh when, ahead of national parliamentary elections in 2004, he voiced support for the new Uri Party – a technical violation of a constitutional provision for the president to remain impartial. The impeachment failed, but Roh’s popularity continued to slip and the Uri Party, suffering several defeats by association with the president, chose to distance itself from him by reforming as the Democratic Party.

The end result was a swing to the right that saw Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party elected president in 2007, and Roh retire to the village of Bongha, his birthplace in Gyeongsangnam-do. Eighteen months later, as a corruption investigation zeroed in on his family and former aides, Roh committed suicide by jumping off a cliff behind the village. The national shock at this turn of events rebounded on President Lee, who was already suffering public rebuke for opening Korea to imports of US beef.

Changes of Guard

President Lee served out his five-year term of office, to be replaced in the December 2012 national election by Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president and the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee. Born in 1952, Park had served as the country's first lady in the 1970s, following the assassination of her mother in 1974 and before the killing of her father in 1979. She publicly apologised for the suffering of pro-democracy activists under her father's dictatorial regime and was first elected as an MP in 1998. Quite apart from her political stance, Park was not married, which in South Korea's conservative society elevated the significance of her presidential election win even more.

In October 2011 Park Won-soon, a former human-rights lawyer and independent candidate, was elected Seoul’s mayor, ending a decade of right-wing political domination of the capital. In February 2012 Park affiliated himself with the DUP (Democratic Union Pary) and in 2014 won a second term of office in the most powerful post in South Korea after the president. That same year the DUP merged with the New Political Vision Party to form the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), but performed poorly in by-elections in 2015.

Other succession issues dominated the Korean Peninsula. North of the border, Kim Jong-un was hailed the ‘great successor’ following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011. At the time little was known about Kim Jnr, the third in the family dynasty that has ruled the repressive single-party state since 1948 – even his birthday (1982–1984?) was unclear, though it was known he had been educated in Switzerland, a period that saw him develop a strong fondness for Nike trainers (according to his classmates). North Korea analysts scrambled to interpret scraps of news from the secretive country, such as the public appearances of Ri Sol-ju, officially acknowledged as Kim’s wife, and the public execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Sung-taek, who had previously been believed to be pulling the strings of power behind the scenes.

Feature: Sinking of the Sewol

On 16 April 2014, while sailing from Incheon to Jeju-do, the ferry MV Sewol capsized while attempting to make a sharp turn in a channel with strong underwater currents. Of the 476 passengers and crew aboard, 304 people drowned, most of them teenagers from a high school in Ansan, Gyeonggi-do. Many of the survivors were rescued by fishing boats and other commercial vessels that arrived at the scene well before either the coast guard or the Korean navy.

Grief over the tragedy was swiftly followed by national outrage when it was discovered that not only was the ferry carrying more than three times the legal limit of cargo (which was also improperly secured), but that Captain Lee Jun-seok – who had not been on the bridge at the time disaster struck – had abandoned ship, along with many of the crew, while passengers had been instructed to stay in their cabins. The captain was later found guilty of negligence and sentenced to 36 years' imprisonment.

The owner of the shipping line that operated the Sewol was found dead under suspicious circumstances a few months after the sinking. The government was also in the figurative dock for its botched role in the rescue operation and poor regulation of the shipping industry in general. Approval ratings for President Park Geun-hye dropped amid rumours that she was out of reach on the day of the disaster. The president's office strongly denied this and charged a Japanese reporter with defamation when those rumours were printed in Japan's Sankei Shimbun.

Downfall of Park Geun-hye

In April 2015, South Korean President Park suffered a further setback when the prime minister, Lee Wan-koo, tendered his resignation after just two months in the job following bribery accusations by a business tycoon who had recently committed suicide, leaving a letter detailing alleged corruption. Lee was the fifth of Park’s prime ministers since 2013 and charges against him followed hard on his declaration of an 'all-out war' on corruption by the government.

All this was mere a mere softening up for the final, inglorious demise of Park Geun-hye, when she was impeached and removed from office in 2017 for abuse of power and corruption and finally sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2018. Park was succeeded by Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, a former human rights lawyer, whose early presidential tenure was most notably marked by a warming of relations with North Korea in 2018.

Feature: Taming Korea's Unruly Parliament

In 2009 Foreign Policy magazine cited South Korea's National Assembly as one of the most unruly parliaments in the world, where debates often get out of hand and even resort to violence. Such were the scenes in 2004 when then-President Roh Moo-hyun was being impeached. In 2008 angry opposition lawmakers reached for sledgehammers and electric saws to break into a locked committee room where the governing Grand National Party (now renamed Saenuri, or New Frontier Party) was attempting to rush though a free-trade bill. This was followed by a 12-day sit-in before the matter was resolved. Fist fights again broke out during the heated debate over media privatisation in July 2009. And in 2011, during a vote to ratify the nation’s free-trade agreement with the US, an opposition lawmaker exploded a tear-gas canister in the chamber.

In December 2014 no such scenes accompanied the passing of the 2015 budget – the first time since 2002 that the budget had been passed within the constitutional deadline of 30 days before its implementation at the start of January. However, it wasn't exactly that politicians had mended their brawling ways. The deadline for budget approval was met because of new legislation mandating that the budget bill is automatically forwarded to a plenary session by 30 November. Speaking to the Korea Herald, Myongji University professor of politics Chung Jin-min said that the law attempted to create a 'culture of handshaking' among lawmakers.

Sidebar: Korea’s Place in the Sun

Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History by Bruce Cumings (2005) offers an overview of Korean history from year one to the 1860s, followed by a close examination of the modern period.

Sidebar: Chihwaseon

Chihwaseon (2002), which won a prize for director Im Kwon-taek at Cannes, is a visually stunning film based on the true story of a talented, nonconformist painter who lived at the end of the Joseon dynasty.

Sidebar: Sourcebook of Korean Civilisation

Sourcebook of Korean Civilisation (1993), edited by Peter H Lee, has a wide selection of original historical documents and materials, in translation and with commentary.

Sidebar: Ondol Floors

The Balhae bequeathed a lasting invention to the Korean people: sleeping on ondol floors. This system, which uses flues from a central hearth to heat the floors of each room, is still in wide use in contemporary Korea, with the stone flues covered by waxed and polished rice paper.

Sidebar: A New History of Korea

A New History of Korea by Lee Ki-baik (1984) takes a cultural and sociological perspective of the country’s history.

Sidebar: The Dutch Come to Korea

Hendrick Hamel’s fascinating account of his 13 years in Korea, after he and 36 other sailors were shipwrecked on Jeju-do in 1653, is available in Gari Ledyard’s The Dutch Come to Korea, with full scholarly annotation.

Sidebar: Samurai Invasion

Samurai Invasion by Stephen Turnbull (2002) is a detailed account of the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s.

Sidebar: War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-sin

War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, edited by Sohn Pow-key (1977), is a straightforward and fascinating account by Korea’s greatest admiral of the battles, floggings and court intrigues that were his daily preoccupations.

Sidebar: Life in Korea Under the Last Dynasty

Korea by Angus Hamilton (1904) is a rare and lively description of life in Korea under the last dynasty.

Sidebar: Joseon Royal Court Culture

Based on primary sources, the superbly illustrated Joseon Royal Court Culture by Shin Myung-ho (2004) details the unique Confucian royal-court lifestyle.

Sidebar: Dongnimmun

The Dongnimmun (독립문; Independence Gate), built in Seoul in 1897 by the Independence Club, stands where envoys from Chinese emperors used to be officially welcomed to the city.

Sidebar: Times Past in Korea

The fascinating Times Past in Korea: An Illustrated Collection of Encounters, Customs and Daily Life Recorded by Foreign Visitors (2003) was compiled by Martin Uden, former British ambassador to South Korea.

Sidebar: Isabella Bird Bishop

Isabella Bird Bishop visited Gyeongbokgung in 1895 and noted: ‘What with 800 troops, 1500 attendants and officials of all descriptions, courtiers and ministers and their attendants, secretaries, messengers and hangers-on, the vast enclosure of the palace seemed as crowded and populated as the city itself’.

Sidebar: At the Court of Korea

At the Court of Korea by William Franklin Sands gives a first-hand account of King Gojong and his government between 1890 and 1910.

Sidebar: Topknots

Men wearing a topknot were widespread during Korea’s pleasant relations with China's Ming dynasty, but later it became a symbol of ‘Ming loyalists’ in Korea after that dynasty fell. In 1895 King Gojong had his topknot cut off, but conservatives didn't follow his example or share his enthusiasm for reforms.

Sidebar: The Dawn of Modern Korea

The Dawn of Modern Korea (Andrei Lankov, 2007) is a fascinating, accessible look at Korea in the early 20th century and the cultural and social impacts of Westernisation as King Gojong tried to modernise his tradition-bound hermit kingdom.

Sidebar: Sohn Kee-chung

The Korean Sohn Kee-chung won the marathon gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but he was forced to compete as Kitei Son under the flag of Japan, Korea’s occupying power.

Sidebar: Eunuch

Eunuch (1968), directed by Shin Sang-ok, is about a woman forced by her father to become the king’s concubine, although she loves someone else. The art-house film depicts the inner sanctum in those now-empty palaces.

Sidebar: The Korean War

US Academic Bruce Cumings’ The Korean War: A Modern History (2010) and UK journalist Max Hastings’ The Korean War (1988) are two takes on this pivotal conflict, analysing its causes, progress and repercussions.

Sidebar: Korea Society

Go to the Korea Society’s website (www.koreasociety.org) to listen to podcasts about Korean current affairs and the country’s recent history.

Sidebar: Korean Foundation

Korean Foundation (https://en.kf.or.kr) has video lectures on history and a link to Koreana (www.koreana.or.kr), an excellent quarterly magazine with some history articles. Click the top left-hand box for English, next to the word 'Go'.

Sidebar: Gwangju Prize for Human Rights

In memory of the 1980 pro-democracy martyrs, the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights has been awarded since 2000. Recipients have included Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Myanmar (Burma).

Sidebar: Paekdusan

Koreans associate their origins with Paekdusan (White-Head Mountain), a 2744m mountain on the border of North Korea, and China with a volcanic lake at its summit. North Koreans say that Kim Jong-il was born there, even if most historians think he was born along the Sino–Russian border.

Sidebar: Dolmen

Bronze Age (c 10,000 BC) people on the Korean Peninsula built dolmen or stone burial chambers such as those found on the island of Ganghwado.

Sidebar: Historic Bastions

  • Mongchon-toseong, Seoul
  • Old City Wall, Seoul
  • Hwaseong, Suwon
  • Namhan Sanseong
  • Banwolseong, Gyeongju

Sidebar: Royal Succession

The common Korean custom of father-to-son royal succession is said to have begun with Baekje king Geun Chogo. His grandson inaugurated another long tradition by adopting Buddhism as the state religion in AD 384.

Sidebar: Unesco World Cultural Heritage List

Bulguk-sa (Pulguk-sa) temple and the nearby Seokguram Grotto in Gyeongju are both on the Unesco World Cultural Heritage list; the latter dates to around AD 750 and is home to some of the world's finest Buddhist sculptures (though you must admire them from a distance).

Sidebar: Jikji

Printed in 1377, Jikji is the world's first book created using movable metal type, a full 78 years before the Gutenberg Bible.

Sidebar: Geobukseon

Although only a handful were deployed, replicas of geobukseon turtle-boat battleships can be found on Odongdo and in museums throughout the country, including Seoul’s War Memorial of Korea.

Sidebar: Collaboration

South Korea punished very few citizens who collaborated with the Japanese, partly because the US occupation (1945–48) re-employed so many of them and partly because they were needed in the fight against communism.

Sidebar: Presidential System of Government

Since 1948 South Korea has had a presidential system of government. The president, who is head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is elected every five years and can only sit for one term of office.

Sidebar: Elections

Elections for the 300-seat National Assembly, South Korea's parliament, are held every four years and result in 246 directly elected members, with the other 54 appointed through proportional representation.

Sidebar: Memories of May 1980

For eyewitness accounts of the still-controversial Gwangju massacre of 1980, read Memories of May 1980 by Chung Sang-yong (2003), or the website of the May 18 Memorial Foundation (www.518.org).

Sidebar: Top Jaebeol

  • Samsung (represents 20% of Korean exports)
  • LG (plastics and electrical goods producer)
  • Hyundai-Kia (construction and Korea's largest automaker)
  • SK (textiles, petrochemicals, telecommunications and leisure)

Sidebar: The Impossible Country

Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor (2012) is a good primer on modern life and times in Korea, including aspects of the country's history and politics.