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History of South Korea

The ancient Koreans were divided into a number of groups on the Korean peninsula and on what is today mainland China. Some of these groups were focused on the mountainous interior and north, while others lived on the lowlands. The terrain separated these groups and unity among the people took much to accomplish.

Not until the 400s or 500s did any one of these groups gain enough influence and power to oversee a vast area on the peninsula and even then there were a number of political entities that held power in various parts of the peninsula. During this time much of the Korean way of life was similar to that of China at the time and in the 600s Buddhism was introduced from China, making a substantial impact, particularly in the south.

In 936 the kingdom of Goryeo (the root of the word Korea) came to control much of today's Korean peninsula. This group ruled the region for the next couple centuries as Buddhism was spread and a distinct culture and ethnicity formed.

The Mongols, based in Beijing invaded the Korean peninsula in the 1200s and quickly overtook the landmass. With this invasion came Confucianism and thoughts competing with Buddhism. After the Mongols and Chinese withdrew from the peninsula there was much debate between philosophies and allegiances. These debates and the battles that arose from them continued until almost 1400 when a Confucianism leader came to power and moved the capital to what is today known as Seoul.

Korea was then overcome by the Japanese in the 1500s and the Manchu Chinese in the 1600s. Despite this foreign rule, this time instilled a Korean pride in the people as they further developed their culture, identity, and even a distinct alphabet.

Once free from foreign rule in the 1800s, the Koreans counter-reacted to their past and banned foreigners from their country. The Japanese and small groups of French missionaries were asked to leave and the government only continued communication with China. This self-isolationism only lasted briefly though as the Far East trade routes were becoming increasingly important for European and North American powers.

Due to small battles and military threats from the United States and Japan, Korea finally opened up to the outside world in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, their fear of foreign rule came to being almost immediately after they opened up as Japan took the peninsula in the 1890s.

After a very brief period of independence starting in 1897, Japan retook the peninsula and maintained control on the region on and off until the end of World War II (WWII). The Japanese attempted to destroy Korean culture in a number of ways, but in part by destroying symbolic history such as buildings. This led to strong resistance and a failing economy in Korea. Many people fled to Manchuria (in China), while others stayed to fight or to try to make a living.

During WWII the Japanese insisted the Koreans fight on their side, but few agreed to this and many joined the Chinese army to liberate themselves from Japanese rule. Due to their geographic location, the Korean peninsula was the victim of Chinese-Japanese battles and by war's end the peninsula was in poor condition. To put a bigger strain on the economy, many of those Koreans who fled under Japanese rule returned to the peninsula.

At the conclusion of WWII, the peninsula was divided between the United States (in the south) and the Soviet Union (in the north) in the form of administration zones, but with the idea that the two sides would unite. The United Nations (UN) led a peninsula-wide popular election to determine future political governance, but the north refused to participate. Once results were tallied, the south declared independence as the "Republic of Korea" and the north countered by claiming independence as the "People's Democratic Republic of Korea;" both side claimed jurisdiction over the entire peninsula.

This political tension rose in the late 1940s until the Korean War broke out in 1950. After a surprise attack and quick advance into the south, the north fell back as the UN and US landed troops on the peninsula. To respond, China and the Soviet Union (although unofficially) entered the war and in 1953 the war ceased in a stalemate with a new border almost exactly where the original border had been.

After the Korean War the government in South Korea became more autocratic and repressive as the economy declined and multiple leaders were overthrown only to be replaced by other autocratic rulers.

This stagnant rule ended in the late 1970s with the assassination of South Korea's President Park Chung-hee. The new government came in and greatly improved the economy, while opening relations with the north to discuss a political union. These talks went nowhere and soon the economy was again failing so in the late 1980s a new government was brought in.

Since the 1980s the state of affairs in South Korea has slowly improved as their economy is opening up and expanding while political freedoms are being extended and international communications have improved. However, the situation in relation to North Korea is still unresolved and the people in the south today debate what the best direction for their future is. Many people maintain unity, while many young people view a joint state would be little more than an economic burden, crippling the future of the nation.

This page was last updated: July, 2012