Civilization V CIVILOPEDIA Online
Civilizations and Leaders
Korea

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Korea

History

The Korean peninsula, known today for its divided republics of North and South Korea, has been home to numerous kingdoms over the ages, some virtuous, some steeped in infamy. At times rivaling its powerful neighboring states of China and Japan, Korea was united under the rule of the Choson Dynasty for over 500 years. The turmoil of the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, followed by the Korean War in 1950, would shatter this once sacred unity. From this strife, South Korea has emerged as a nation of increasing economic and cultural significance on a global scale. In contrast, the oppressive regime controlling the reclusive North Korean state is frequently the subject of international condemnation for its handling of human rights and diplomatic relations.

Climate and Terrain

Situated between the East Sea and the Yellow Sea, the Korean Peninsula shares its northern border with China, and to a lesser extent Russia, separated respectively by the Amnok and Tumen rivers. Although Korea features a diverse geography, the country is primarily mountainous, the highest peak being Baekdu Mountain at 9,003 ft (2,744m). Like its neighbors, Korea is affected by the East Asian Monsoon each summer, bringing the possibility of intense rainfall and oppressive humidity to much of the region. The winter months can also be quite harsh, with subzero temperatures not uncommon, particularly in the north.

Pre-History and the Old Kingdom

From at least the Middle Paleolithic era, Korea was inhabited by humans living in caves or under rock outcroppings near the sea. Over the course of several thousand years, primitive communities would form, primarily as these gatherers became more adept at hunting. Of the numerous early communities found throughout the peninsula, one in particular would rise to prominence and become the foundation for all of the Korean kingdoms to come - "Ko Choson," also known as "Old Choson."

Old Choson was founded in approximately 2000 BC by the legendary figure Tan'gun Wanggom, whose father is said to have descended from the heavens. Some modern historians believe the name "Tan'gun Wanggom" may have actually been a title given to early authority figures, representing both a political and religious figure within the community. Whether guided by the hand of a single leader, or a number of early rulers, Old Choson would become the most advanced of the early Korean tribal kingdoms throughout the advent of the Iron Age in the 4th century BC.

Rise of the Three

For most of the 1st millennium AD, Korea was divided by the rule of three distinct monarchies. The "Three Kingdoms of Korea" -- Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla -- each controlled a segment of the peninsula, with Koguryo being the largest and, for a time, the most powerful. However, diplomatic relations would prove to be the undoing of the Koguryo, as its southernmost rival, Silla, negotiated an alliance with the Tang Dynasty of China. This alliance would bring great strength to Silla, allowing them to conquer both the Paekche and the Koguryo by 668, leaving the Silla with uncontested control of most of the Korean Peninsula.

Transforming Kingdoms

Having conquered the kingdoms of Koguryo and Paekche, the new "Unified Silla," often referred to as the "Later Silla," would continue to control the peninsula for several hundred years. As is often the case after such a long period of uninterrupted dominion, the authority of the king began to come into question around the 9th century AD. The "bone-rank system," a sort of hereditary segregation based on a person's blood ties to the king, had maintained the balance of power between the king and the aristocratic nobility for some time. However, this system would ultimately contribute to the downfall of the Silla, as the nobility they desperately relied on for taxation and management grew tired of the caste system that limited their role in governance.

In the end, continuous internal strife would lead to the kingdom's submission to the emerging Koryo Dynasty by 935. The Koryo would maintain a sovereign kingdom within Korea, despite pressure from the Mongol Yuan Dynasty of China, until 1392.

Choson Dynasty

The Choson Dynasty, widely regarded as the most notable kingdom in Korea's history, was founded by the rebellious Koryo Commander Yi Song-gye in 1392. Ordered to invade the neighboring Chinese province of Liaotung (a pre-emptive strike against the Chinese Ming Dynasty), Yi instead seized the opportunity to control Korea himself, leading his army into the Koryo capital and dethroning the king in a military coup. Forming his own dynasty and renaming himself King Taejo of Choson, named for the ancient Choson kingdom, Taejo would create the first unified Korean dynasty in the country's history.

The most revered of the Choson leaders, King Sejong the Great, ruled from 1418 until his death in 1450. Sejong's policies paved the way for vast strides in the arts and sciences during his reign, including the publication of the Korean written language, "Hangul." It was also during this period that Korean Confucianism, its roots established during the preceding Koryo dynasty, would take hold over Korea. Neo-Confucianism, known as "Seongnihak," would become the primary school of thought for scholars across the peninsula. These Confucian values, emphasizing morality and self-improvement, became the basis for many of the values held sacred by Korean society today.

The Choson Dynasty would be ruled by 27 distinct monarchs during its 500-year rule, ending in 1897. During the waning years of the dynasty, Korea underwent a period of isolationism, limiting contact with the surrounding nations in an effort to blunt outside influence. Having long been the subject of Chinese and Japanese influence, many historians believe that it was during this period, when Korea became known as the "Hermit Kingdom," that the first hints of a modern Korean national identity began to take shape.

Korean Empire

The First Sino-Japanese war, fought between China and Japan across large swaths of the Korean peninsula beginning in 1894, would provide the first glimpse of Japan's emerging strength in East Asia. Having long been the subject of Chinese influence and fearful of the emerging power demonstrated by Japan, the Choson leadership saw fit to declare the creation of the Korean Empire in 1897. Hoping to assert Korea's independence from both China and Japan, these aspirations would be short lived. Japan quickly moved to assert control over Korea after defeating much of the Chinese Qing Dynasty's forces.

Japanese Occupation

The Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910 (which Korean historians to this day claim was only signed under extreme duress) would effectively annex the whole of Korea to Japan. Despite an active resistance movement among the Korean people from the early stages of the occupation, Japan maintained control over the nation for nearly 35 years. The "Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea," based in Shanghai, China, would serve as the Korean government- in-exile throughout the occupation. Japan's hold over Korea finally came to an end on September 2, 1945 following Japan's defeat in World War II. Today, many Koreans still harbor a strong resentment towards Japan for this dark period in their history.

Korean War

The Korean War, the great conflict that divided the Korean Peninsula as it stands today, arose from the vacuum of power following Japan's defeat in World War II. The 38th Parallel, a dividing line agreed upon by the United States and the Soviet Union, was expected to mark a temporary administrative split between the countries. In 1948, North Korea would form a communist government led by Kim II-Sung, while South Korea elected its first president, Syngman Rhee, via national elections. Both leaders insisted the Korean people should be united under one rule, but each expected the unification to occur under their own political system.

In June of 1950, North Korea invaded the South, aided by Soviet military equipment from World War II. Shortly thereafter, the United Nations issued a resolution condemning the invasion and recommending military intervention by its member states. At the time, the United States considered the spread of Communism to be a direct result of Soviet influence, and responded as the primary military force aiding South Korea.

Although North Korea captured much of the southern territory early in the war, the arrival of American forces under the leadership of General MacArthur soon countered those gains. Eventually regaining South Korea's territory up to the 38th Parallel, the American and South Korean forces would fight the North to an eventual stalemate. Negotiations for an armistice, which would serve to end the fighting - but not officially end the war - began in 1951 and would continue for several years. The armistice agreement was finally signed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North) and the Republic of Korea (South) under the guidance of the United Nations in 1953.

Division of Korea

Officially, the armistice agreement signed by the Korean republics only stipulated an end to the fighting, meaning the two are theoretically still at war. Today, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing them is the most heavily fortified border on earth, with both sides vigilantly observing the other. Over the years, a number of incidental incursions and other violations of the armistice have occurred, primarily antagonistic actions by the North Korean regime. Despite these incidents, the delicate cease fire has remained in effect for over 50 years.

Modern Korea

Today, South Korea has become a world leader in science and technological development, and is recognized as one of the "Four Asian Tigers," a group of four highly developed industrialized economies in Asia (the other three being Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan). Home to a well-educated and highly-skilled work force, South Korea has a strong culture of technological adoption, boasting some of the fastest residential internet connections available, and is home to industry leaders Samsung and LG, two of the largest mobile phone manufacturers in the world.

Conversely, the secretive government of North Korea has struggled to provide the necessities of daily life to its people, who are known to suffer through famine and poverty under the Communist regime. Isolated from public scrutiny, what little we know of North Korea comes from defectors who have managed to escape or from the rarely allowed visit by foreign journalists. Frequently sanctioned for developing weapons programs deemed dangerous by the international community, North Korea has a limited economy and is supported by constant aid from the People's Republic of China and humanitarian efforts initiated by the United Nations member states.

Korea Factoids

South Korea is famous for its gaming culture, particularly a love affair with the classic Blizzard title "Starcraft". Professional matches and tournaments receive widespread media attention throughout the country, including broadcasts on several television networks.

The Chinese characters for Choson were often translated into English as "Morning Calm," which later evolved into the nickname "The Land of the Morning Calm," referring to all of Korea.

Kimchi, the widely recognized dish native to Korea, generally accompanies every meal in Korean cuisine. Typically made from fermented cabbage, radish, scallions, or cucumbers, there are literally hundreds of unique recipes and varieties of Kimchi available today.

The national sport of South Korea, Tae Kwon Do, is attributed to the original nine "Kwans," or schools of Tae Kwon Do, that developed after the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea. The sport itself is believed to have originated with the traditional Korean martial art known as "Taekkyeon."