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Koreans associate their origins with one of the most beautiful points on the globe, the great mountain on their northern border, Paekdusan (or White-Head Mountain), with a crystal-pure volcanic lake at its summit. (The North Koreans say that Kim Jong-il was born there, even if most historians think he was born along the Sino-Russian border.)

Koreans remain today a ‘mountain people’, who identify with hometowns and home regions that, so they argue, differ greatly from other places in Korea. Koreans are also an ancient people: they are one of the few peoples in the world who can trace a continuous history and presence on the same territory going back thousands of years. Since Korea has had next to no ethnic minorities, Koreans have traditionally thought that they are a homogeneous and unique people – and that they always have been.

The First Korean

The imagined beginning of the Korean nation was the 3rd millennium BC, when a king named Dangun founded old Joseon. Joseon (also spelled Choson) remains the name of the country in North Korea, but South Koreans use the term ‘Hanguk’, a name dating from the 1890s.

The first Korean – Dangun – was not just a person but a king, and 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. In 1993 North Korea announced with great fanfare the discovery of Dangun’s tomb at a site close to Pyongyang: ‘The founding of Kojoson (old Joseon) by Dangun 5000 years ago marked an epochal occasion in the formation of the Korean nation… The Koreans are a homogeneous nation who inherited the same blood and culture consistently down through history’. All the scribes came forward to proclaim Koreans as the oldest (and therefore finest) people in the world, with one continuous line of history from the 30th-century BC down to the present.

Unfortunately there is no written history of Korea until the centuries just before the birth of Christ, and that history was chronicled by Chinese scribes. But there is archaeological evidence that human beings inhabited this peninsula half a million years ago, and that an advanced people were there seven or eight thousand years ago in the Neolithic period – as revealed by the ground and polished stone tools and pottery they left to posterity. 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 peoples.

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The Three Kingdoms

Around the time of Christ three ancient kingdoms emerged that influenced Korean history down to our time. The first state to emerge in the Three Kingdoms era (57 BC–AD 668) was Baekje (Paekche), which was a centralised, aristocratic state melding Chinese and indigenous influence. 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 common Korean custom of father-to-son royal succession is said to have begun with Baekje king Geun Chugo. His grandson inaugurated another long tradition by adopting Buddhism as the state religion (in 384). The northern kingdom, Goguryeo (Koguryŏ), conquered a large territory by AD 312 and expanded in all directions, especially toward the Taedong River in the south, which runs through Pyongyang. Peninsular geography shaped the political space of Baekje and Goguryeo and a third kingdom called Shilla (Silla), which fills out the trilogy.

Approximately three-quarters of the way down the peninsula, at the 37th parallel, the major mountain range veers to the southwest, dividing the peninsula. This southwest extension of mountains framed Baekje’s historic territory, just as it did the Shilla 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 Shilla kingdom, which they say unified the peninsula in 668 AD, the North identifies with Goguryeo and says the country wasn’t truly unified until the founding of the Goguryeo dynasty. Meanwhile people in the southwestern part of the country felt abused by dictators and left out of the growth of South Korea for decades until one of their own was elected president in 1997 (Kim Dae-jung), and often identified with the Baekje legacy.

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Buddhism in Korea

Buddhism came to Korea from China in the latter part of the Three Kingdoms era, establishing itself first in Goguryeo and Baekje in the late 4th century and then in Shilla in the early 6th century. With royal support the faith spread throughout the peninsula and became the official religion in all three states – and remained so until the end of the 14th century. It wasn’t quite the familiar Buddhism of ascetic monks, however – some monasteries became wealthy and owned large estates and thousands of slaves, and some monks dressed in silk robes, rode fine horses and indulged in wine, women and song. Korean Buddhism also incorporated indigenous shamanist beliefs; many of the colourful wooden temples you can still visit in the mountain temples have a small hall dedicated to shamanist deities like the mountain gods and have histories that stretch back over a thousand years.

Far from being pacifists, Korean monks often came to the defence of their country. Many mountain fortresses found throughout the Korean peninsula contained temples and were garrisoned by warrior monks. Toughened by their spartan lifestyle and trained in martial arts, monk warriors played a major part in resisting the Japanese invasions in the 1590s – even though Confucianism had become the state doctrine and the new rulers treated them as lowborn and no better than beggars. Monks were not allowed to enter the gates of Seoul, for example, which is why many temples are hidden away on remote mountains.

Today Buddhist sects in Seoul sometimes come to blows over their disputes, and some monks even marry and have children; the ascetic Seon (Zen) doctrine is the most common one, but has many rivals. If all this sounds heretical, the Korean approach to religion is often eclectic – the same person might be a Christian, a Buddhist and a Confucianist, depending on the day.

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Shilla Ascendancy

Shilla emerged victorious on the peninsula in 668, and it is from this famous date that South Korean historians speak for the first time of a unified Korea. This brought an end to the era of the Three Kingdoms, but not before all of them had come under the long-term sway of Chinese civilisation by introducing Chinese statecraft, Buddhist and Confucian philosophy, Confucian practices of educating the young, and the Chinese written language. 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 Japan’s temple and burial art. But it is the blossoming of Shilla that still astounds contemporary visitors to Korea, and makes its ancient capital at Gyeongju (Kyŏngju) one of the most fascinating tourist destinations in East Asia.

Shilla had close relations with the great Tang dynasty in China, sent many students to Tang schools, and had a level of civilisation high enough to merit the Chinese designation ‘flourishing land in the East’. Shilla culture melded indigenous and Tang influences: in 682 it set up a national Confucian academy to train high officials, and later instituted a civil-service examination system modelled on that of the Tang. But Shilla had a flourishing indigenous civilisation clearly different from the Tang, one that was among the most advanced in the world. 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 like 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 like today’s Hare Krishnas could become adherents through the repetition of simple chants.

The crowning glory of Gyeongju is the Bulguk-sa (Pulguk-sa) temple, which was rebuilt in the 1970s, and the nearby Seokguram Grotto. Both were built around 750 and are home to some of the finest Buddhist sculpture in the world. Buddhists came on pilgrimages to Gyeongju from as far away as India and Arab sojourners sometimes came to the temple to stay.

In spite of Shilla’s military strength, broad territories of the old Goguryeo kingdom were not conquered 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 Shilla to build a northern wall in 721 and kept Shilla forces permanently below a line running from present-day Pyongyang in the east to the west coast. As one prominent South Korean historian wrote, ‘Shilla and Balhae confronted each other hostilely much like southern and northern halves of a partitioned nation’.

Like Shilla, Balhae continued to be influenced deeply by the Chinese civilisation of the Tang, sending students to the capital at Ch’angan, on which it modelled its own capital city.

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Unification under Goryeo

A formidable military leader named Wang Geon had defeated Shilla as well as some Baekje remnants by 930, and established a flourishing dynasty, Goryeo, from whence came the name Korea. Korea was now fully unified with more or less the boundaries that it retains today. Wang was not just a unifier, however, but a magnanimous one. Regarding himself as the proper lineal king of Goguryeo, he embraced that kingdom’s survivors, took a Shilla princess as his wife and treated the Shilla aristocracy with unprecedented generosity. His dynasty ruled for nearly a millennium, and in its heyday was among the most advanced civilisations in the world.

With its capital at Kaesong, a town 76km north of Seoul, 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 like peasants and merchants. Below them were outcaste groups of butchers, tanners and entertainers, who were called cheonmin and who lived a castelike 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 elite fused aristocratic privilege and political power through marriage alliances and control of land and central political office, and fortified this class position to the point of impregnability by making status hereditary. Goryeo established a social pattern in which a landed gentry mixed its control of property with a Confucian- or Buddhist-educated stratum of scholar-officials, usually residing in the capital. Often scholars and landlords were one and the same person, but in any case landed wealth and bureaucratic position became powerfully fused. At the centre, a bureaucracy influenced by Confucian statecraft emerged, which thereafter sought to influence local power and which was a contrast with the Japanese or European feudal pattern of castle towns, landed domains and parcellised sovereignty all backed by a strong military class (although Korea came close to the feudal pattern in the 9th and 10th centuries, when strong walled-town lords and military commanders challenged central power).

The large landed families held their land in perpetuity and could bequeath it to their survivors; its produce was at the service of the owner, after taxes were paid. Worked mostly by peasant tenants who paid rent in kind, this land system often produced vast estates of great wealth worked by hundreds of tenants or slaves, and in its essential form persisted through the subsequent Joseon period and the Japanese colonial period. Family landholding became more important than office-holding in perpetuating aristocratic dominance over time. The wealthy, aristocratic landlord became a beneficence or a plague (depending on your point of view) from early Goryeo down to modern times, and an egalitarian redistribution of the land became a focal point of Confucian reformers, capitalist modernisers and communist agitators alike.

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The rise of the Mongols

The Goryeo aristocracy was by no means a class without merit, however. It admired and interacted with the splendid Chinese civilisation that emerged during the contemporaneous Song dynasty (960–1279). Official delegations and ordinary merchants brought Korean gold, silver and ginseng to China in exchange for silks, porcelains and woodblock books. Finely crafted Song porcelains 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 wood-block print editions, known as the Tripitaka. The first was completed in 1087 after a lifetime of work, but was lost; another, completed in 1251, can still be viewed today at Haein-sa. By 1234, if not earlier, Koreans had also invented movable metal type, two centuries before its inception in Europe.

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 Ganghwa-do, a ploy that exploited the Mongol horsemen’s fear of water. But after a more devastating invasion in 1254, in which countless people died and some 200,000 people were made captives, 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.

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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; it was completed in six months in 1394, and scattered remnants of it still stand today, especially the Great South Gate (Namdaemun) and the Great East Gate (Dongdaemun).

Yi was generous to his defeated Goryeo antagonists, sending them off to comfortable exile. Such magnanimity encouraged one writer to wax poetic about Yi Seong-gye’s virtues – a typical example of how Koreans sing the manifold praises of their leaders, especially dynastic founders:

His presence is the mighty warrior, firm

He stands, an eagle on a mountain top;

In wisdom and resource none can compare,

The dragon of Namyang is he.

In judgment on the civil bench,

Or counsel from the warrior’s tent, he rules;

He halts the waves that roll in from the sea,

And holds the sun back from its heavenly course.

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. Over many decades the literati thus accomplished a deep Confucianisation of Joseon society, which particularly affected the position of women. Where many women were prominent in Goryeo society, they were now relegated to domestic chores of childrearing and housekeeping, as so-called ‘inside people’. Up until recent times the woman’s role in Korean society seemed to be as old as the bones in ancestral graves: just as central, just as hidden, and just as unchangeable.

Goryeo society had a relatively strong matrilineal system. It was by no means a matriarchy, but it wasn’t the patriarchy of later centuries. A new husband was welcomed into the wife’s house, where the children and grandchildren would live. Many men were happy to take this route because women shared rights of inheritance with their male siblings. Women were so valuable that men wanted several; a Chinese envoy in 1123 found a wealthy man in Gaeseong with four. But plural wives weren’t dependent on one man; often living apart, they had their own economic underpinnings. Detailed ritual did not surround the marriage act, nor relations between sexes: ‘the general free and easy contact between the sexes amazed…Chinese observers.’ There were no restrictions on widows remarrying; women took serial husbands, if not several at the same time.

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. 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’.

The unquestionable effect of the new reforms and laws was a slow-moving but ultimately radical change in women’s social position and an expropriation of women’s property, more or less complete by the late 15th century. 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. Hereditary aristocratic principles became so ingrained that according to Edward Wagner, who taught Korean Studies at Harvard for 35 years, a relative handful of elite families were responsible for most of the 14,000-odd exam passers of the civil-service examination system in the 500 years of the Joseon, exams being the critical route to official position.

The self-conscious Confucianisation of Korean society had clear negative effects for women and common people, but it also reinforced some of modern Korea’s most admirable qualities: the deep concern for family; the broad respect for education (scholars and philosophers were at the pinnacle of Confucian reform), more or less automatic admiration for elders (and the elderly); and a belief that ultimately human society should be governed by the virtuous, not the powerful or the wealthy.

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Korea & China: A Special Relationship

Smack in the middle of the grand Sejongno boulevard in Seoul is a gigantic statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whose artful naval manoeuvres saved Korea from Japanese conquest in the 1590s. This statue is a nice symbol of the general idea that for most Koreans most of the time, foreigners might be people intent on invading Korea. Japan is the best case, of course, with the warlord Hideyoshi laying waste to the peninsula only to be turned back by Admiral Yi, and with Japan’s victories over China in 1895 and Russia in 1905, establishing Japanese colonial rule in Korea. Mongols, Manchus and others usually grouped as ‘barbarians’ came charging across Korea’s northern borders. But the Mongols and Manchus were also conquerors of China, which made them barbarians, too, and led many Koreans to think that China was not just the centre of an admirable civilisation but also a good neighbour, giving to Korea more than it took away.

General Yi Song-gye founded his dynasty when he refused to send his troops into battle against a Chinese army, and instead turned around and used 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. 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 Hideyoshi’s forces attacked in the 1590s, Chinese troops were sent to help repel them. In just one battle as many as 30,000 Chinese soldiers died.

Sadae was in the background during the Korean War as well, when a huge Chinese army intervened in late 1950 and helped rescue the North from certain defeat. Meanwhile, many South Koreans felt that the behaviour of the Chinese troops during the Korean War was superior to that of any other force, including the American troops. 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. So, it can be said that Korea’s relationship with China is one of the only foreign entanglements that most Koreans seem happy with, and it’s likely to grow ever stronger in the 21st century.

Of course, 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, as we have seen, 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.

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Royal Pomp & Ceremony

Many of the premier cultural attractions in Korea today, such as Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung, Namdaemun and Changdeokgung, 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 also 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 we look at the ruling system in North Korea, or the families that run most of South Korea’s major corporations, we see the family and hereditary principles of the old system continuing in modern form.

It is difficult to imagine the wealth, power and status of Joseon kings in these more democratic times. The main palace, Gyeongbokgung, contained 800 buildings and over 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 same cloistered upper-class women, clothed and swaddled from head to toe, wearing a green mantle like the Middle Eastern chador (robe) 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.

Isabella Bird Bishop visited the newly restored Gyeongbokgung in 1895 and noted in Korea and Her Neighbours: ‘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’.

In James Scarth Gale’s History of the Korean People, Harriet Heron Gale, a missionary, observed the pampered life of the crown prince: ‘An army of attendants and maids in long blue silk shirts and yellow jackets hover about his little kingship all day long, powdering his face, painting his lips and finger tips, shaving the top of his head, pulling out his eyebrows, cutting his food into the daintiest of morsels, fanning him with monstrous long-handled fans, never leaving him alone for a moment…even at night guarding and watching by his bedside, singing him to sleep with a queer little lullaby’.

Because the eunuchs were the only ‘male’ staff allowed to live inside the palaces, they were privy to all the secrets of the state, and had considerable influence because they waited upon the king.

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Korea & Japan

In 2005 the South Korean president refused to hold a summit meeting with the Japanese prime minister because the latter insisted on visiting the Yasukuni shrine, a memorial to Japan’s war dead that happened to include Class A war criminals from WWII, and because all year long both countries squabbled over the ownership of an uninhabited pile of rocks in the East Sea, known as Dok-do (that is, Takeshima). Relations between these two countries have not always been difficult and controversial, but certainly they have been for at least four centuries, since Hideyoshi sought to subdue Korea on the way to conquering China.

In 1592, 150,000 well-armed Japanese troops, divided into nine armies, rampaged throughout Korea looting, raping and killing. Palaces and temples were burnt 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, using iron-clad warships called geobukseon (turtle ships), helped to turn the tide against the Japanese. Ming troops also arrived from China, and by 1597 the Japanese were forced to withdraw. A year later Hideyoshi died a broken man. 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.

Japan’s ambitions to seize Korea resurfaced 300 years later, at the end of the 19th century, when Japan suddenly rose up as the first modern great power in Asia. Seizing on the Donghak peasant rebellion in Korea, Japan instigated war with China, defeating it in 1895. After another decade of imperial rivalry over Korea, Japan smashed Russia in lightning naval and land attacks, stunning the world because a ‘yellow’ country had defeated a ‘white’ power.

With both China and Russia taken care of Japan was in a secure position to realise its territorial ambitions with regard to Korea, which became a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910, with the acquiescence of all the great powers. It was a strange colony, coming ‘late’ in world time, after most of the world had been divided up, and after progressive calls had emerged to dismantle the entire colonial system. Furthermore Korea had most of the prerequisites for nationhood long before most other countries: common ethnicity, language and culture, and well-recognised national boundaries since the 10th century. So the Japanese engaged in substitution after 1910: exchanging a Japanese ruling elite for the Korean yangban scholar-officials; instituting central coordination for the old government administration; exchanging Japanese modern education for the Confucian classics; building Japanese capital and expertise in place of the Korean versions – Japanese talent for Korean talent; eventually even replacing the Korean language with Japanese.

Koreans never thanked the Japanese for these substitutions and did not credit Japan with creations. Instead they saw Japan as snatching away the ancien 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. Furthermore 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 intensity to the relationship, a hate/respect dynamic that suggested to Koreans, ‘there but for accidents of history go we’.

The result: neither Korea nor Japan has ever gotten over it. In the North countless films and TV programs still focus on atrocities committed by the Japanese during their rule, and for decades the descendants of Koreans deemed by the government to have collaborated with the Japanese occupation authorities were subject to severe discrimination. South Korea, however, punished very few collaborators, partly because the US Occupation (1945–48) reemployed so many of them, and partly because they were needed in the fight against communism.

A certain amount of Korean collaboration with the Japanese was unavoidable given the ruthless nature of the regime under the Japanese colonialists, and then in the last decade of colonial rule when Japan’s expansion across Asia caused a shortage of experts and professionals throughout the empire. Ambitious Koreans found new careers opening 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 of Koreans 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, like Yi Gwang-su, were forced into public support of Japan’s empire. Although collaboration was an inevitable result of the repression of the Japanese occupation, it 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 of collaboration – along with estimates that upwards of 90% of the pre-1990 South Korea elite had ties to collaborationist families or individuals.

Westernised Japanese and Korean bureaucrats ran the colonial government. They 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 left Korea much more developed in 1945 than, say, Vietnam under the French. Still, the main trauma of the occupation was probably psychological rather than political or economic, because Japan tried to destroy the Korean sense of national identity.

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.

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. Over 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.

Japan’s surrender to the Allies in 1945 opened a new chapter in the stormy relationship between the two countries. Thanks to a very soft peace and munificent American support, Japan began growing rapidly in the early 1950s. South Korea got going in the mid-1960s, and today companies and workers in both countries battle each other to produce the best ships, cars, steel products, computer chips, mobile phones, flat-screen TVs and other electronic equipment. The new rivalry is a never-ending competition for world markets, just as sports became another modern-day battleground to decide who is top dog.

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The Korean War

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, dividing this nation that had a unitary integrity going back to antiquity. 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, in 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 like 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 both 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 only time in its history since 1945, South Korea now 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, illustrating that the US has always had a civil war deterrent in Korea: containing the enemy in the North and constraining the ally in the South.

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 (with both sides at fault), 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 UN 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.

The question then became, ‘was the war 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 New Year’s Eve US forces were pushed back below the 38th parallel, and the communists were about to launch an offensive that would soon 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 and dragged on for two years, amid massive trench warfare along the lines. These battles created the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the truce talks bequeathed the Quonset huts at Panmunjom, where both sides have met periodically ever since to exchange heated rhetoric and where millions of tourists have visited.

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 wounded.

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Postwar Recovery

The 1950s were 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. However, 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 an economic power ranked 11th in the world, with roughly the GNP of Spain. The North’s industrial 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.

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; meanwhile 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.

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 won three of them in 1963, 1967 and 1971 partly by spreading enormous amounts of money around (peasants would get white 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 in May 1980. The military response was so brutal and wanton that it became a touchstone in Korean life, marking an entire generation of young people.

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Sunshine Policy

Finally, in 1992, a civilian, Kim Young-sam, won 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 been worthwhile.

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, really for the first time in the relationship.

Roh continued Kim’s sunshine policy of engagement with the North but his mismanagement of the economy and 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. A year and a half later, as a corruption investigation zeroed in on his family and former aides, Roh com- mitted suicide by jumping off a cliff behind the village. The national shock at this sad turn of events rebounded on President Lee who was already suffering public rebuke for opening Korea to imports of US beef.

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 conglomerates, or jaebeol, as the price for its $55 million bailout, and Kim had long called for restructuring the conglomerates and their cronyism with the banks and the government. By 1999 the economy was growing again.

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. Often 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 is, 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 that Kim Jong-il acknowledged in his historic summit meeting with Kim Dae-jung in June 2000.

Since 2000 tens of thousands of South Koreans have visited the North and big southern firms have established joint ventures using northern labour in a purpose-built industrial complex at Kaesong. There have also been some heartbreakingly brief reunions between family members separated by the conflict 50 years ago.

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The Nuclear Question

After a tumultuous 20th century, South Korea is by any measure shaping up to be one of the star performers of the 21st century. Its top companies such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai make products the world wants. Koreans have taken so quickly to the internet that it is now possibly the most wired nation on earth. The talented younger generation has produced such a dynamic pop culture that hallyu (the ‘Korean Wave’) is a huge phenomenon in China, Japan and Southeast Asia, and is gaining popularity in the West.

The single anachronism in Korea’s progress, however, remains the continuing dispute over the North’s nuclear programs. The Clinton and Bush administrations pursued very different policies, with Clinton’s people talking directly to the North and getting an eight-year freeze on its plutonium facility, and a near buy-out of its medium and long-range missiles in late 2000. The Bush administration refused bilateral talks with the North and placed it in an ‘axis of evil’ along with Iraq and Iran. The North responded by saying it feared a US attack along the lines of the invasion of Iraq and needed a nuclear deterrent to stop it.

Deeply worried about the possibility of conflict, in 2003 China sponsored six-party talks (China, Japan, Russia, the US and both Koreas) to get Washington and Pyongyang talking and negotiating. These intermittent discussions have yet to yield a significant result. On the contrary, the North has successfully tested nuclear bombs, first in October 2006, then again in May 2009. Towards the end of the same year the North began to make gestures that it was willing to re-enter negotiations over its nuclear program.

US President Barack Obama’s brief visit to South Korea in November 2009 saw him and President Lee again offer the carrot of economic aid to the North if they returned to international negotiations on nuclear issues. Obama also squeezed a concession from Lee that South Korea would revisit the terms of the proposed free trade agreement with the US so that both countries may move towards ratifying the deal.

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