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History of South Korea
 
 
 

Early History

As is true of all countries, Korea's geography was a major factor in shaping its history; geography also influenced the manner in which the inhabitants of the peninsula emerged as a people sharing the common feeling of being Koreans. The Korean Peninsula protrudes southward from the northeastern corner of the Asian continent and is surrounded on three sides by large expanses of water. Although Japan is not far from the southern tip of this landmass, in ancient times events on the peninsula were affected far more by the civilisations and political developments on the contiguous Asian continent than by those in Japan

Because the Yalu and Tumen rivers have long been recognised as the border between Korea and China, it is easy to assume that these rivers have always constituted Korea's northern limits. But such was not the case in the ancient period. Neither of the rivers was considered to be sacrosanct by the ancient tribes that dotted the plains of Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. Because the rivers freeze in the winter, large armies were able to traverse them with ease. Even when the rivers were not frozen, armies equipped with iron tools could easily build ships to cross them.

The Korean people trace their origins to the founding of the state of Choson. Choson rose on the banks of the Taedong River in the northwestern corner of the peninsula and prospered as a civilisation possessing a code of law and a bronze culture. The Choson people gradually extended their influence not only over other tribes in the vicinity, but also to the north, conquering most of the Liaodong Basin. However, the rising power of the feudal state of Yen in northern China (1122-225 B.C.) not only checked Choson's growth, but eventually pushed it back to the territory south of the Ch'ongch'on River, located midway between the Yalu and Taedong rivers. The Chinese had discovered iron by this time and used it extensively in farming and warfare; the Choson people were not able to match them. Yen became established in the territory vacated by Choson.

Meanwhile, much of what subsequently came to constitute China proper had been unified for the first time under Qin Shi Huangdi. Subsequently, Yen fell to the Qin state; the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.) was in turn replaced by a new dynasty, the Han (206 B.C.- A.D. 220). In 195 B.C. a former officer of Yen took over the throne of Choson by trickery, after which he and his descendants ruled the kingdom for eighty years; but in 109-108 B.C. China attacked Choson and destroyed it as a political entity. The Han Chinese then ruled the territory north of the Han River as the Four Eastern Districts; the original territory of Choson became Lolang (or Nangnang in Korean). (North Korean historians have argued that the Lolang District was located more to the northwest of the Korean Peninsula, perhaps near Beijing. This theory, however, has not been universally accepted.) Until the Han period the Korean Peninsula had been a veritable Chinese colony. During some 400 years, Lolang, the core of the colony, had become a great center of Chinese art, philosophy, industry, and commerce. Many Chinese immigrated into the area; the influence of China extended beyond the territory it administered. The tribal states south of the Han River paid tribute to the Chinese and patterned much of their civilisation and government after Chinese models.
The Three Kingdoms

The territory south of the Han River is relatively distant from the Asian continent; hence, the people living there were initially able to develop independently, without much involvement with events on the continent. The early settlers of this region gradually organised themselves into some seventy clan states that were in turn grouped into three tribal confederations known as Chinhan, Mahan, and Pyonhan. Chinhan was situated in the middle part of the peninsula, Mahan in the southwest, and Pyonhan in the southeast. Their economies were predominantly agricultural, and their level of development was such that they built reservoirs and irrigation facilities. These tribal states began to be affected by what was happening in the region north of the Han River around the first century B.C.

About the middle of the third century A.D., the Chinese threat began to serve as a unifying political force among the loose confederations of tribes in the southern part of the peninsula. Adopting the Chinese political system as a model, the tribes eventually merged into two kingdoms, thereby increasing their chances of survival against Chinese expansionism. The two kingdoms eventually came to play an important role in Korean history.

Geographic features of the southern parts of the land, in particular the configuration of mountain ranges, caused two kingdoms to emerge rather than one. In the central part of Korea, the main mountain range, the T'aebaek Range, runs north to south along the edge of the Sea of Japan, which lies off the east coast of the peninsula. Approximately three-fourths of the way down the peninsula, however, at roughly the thirty-seventh parallel, the mountain range veers southwest, dividing the peninsula almost in the middle. This extension, the Sobaek Range, proved politically significant; the tribes west of it were not shielded by any natural barriers against the Chinese-occupied portion of the peninsula, whereas those to the southeast were protected. Moreover, the presence of the mountains prevented the tribes in the two regions from establishing close contacts.

The tribal states in the southwest were the first to unite, calling their centralised kingdom Paekche. This process occurred in the mid-third century A.D., after the Chinese army of the Wei Dynasty (A.D. 220-65), which controlled Lolang, threatened the tribes in A.D. 245. The Silla Kingdom evolved in the southeast. Silla historians traced the kingdom's origin to 57 B.C., but contemporary historians regard King Naemul (A.D. 356-402) as having been the earliest ruler. Some of the tribal states in the area of the lower Naktong River, along the south central coast of the peninsula, did not join either of these kingdoms. Under the name Kaya, they formed a league of walled city-states that conducted extensive coastal trade and also maintained close ties with the tribal states in western Japan. Sandwiched between the more powerful Silla and Paekche, Kaya eventually was absorbed by its neighbours during the sixth century.

The northern kingdom of Koguryo emerged from among the indigenous people along the banks of the Yalu River. The Han Chinese seized the area in 108 B.C., but from the beginning Chinese rulers confronted many uprisings against their rule. Starting from a point along the Hun River (a tributary of the Yalu), the rebels expanded their activities to the north, south, and southeast, increasingly menacing Chinese authority. By A.D. 53 Koguryo had coalesced into an independent centralized kingdom; the subsequent fall of the Han Dynasty and ensuing political divisions in China enabled Koguryo to consolidate and extend its power.

Despite repeated attacks by Chinese and other opposition forces, by 391 the kingdom's rulers had achieved undisputed control of all of Manchuria east of the Liao River as well as of the northern and central regions of the Korean Peninsula. Koguryo's best-known ruler, King Kwanggaet'o--whose name literally means "broad expander of territory"--lived to be only thirty-nine years of age, but reigned twenty-one years, from 391 to 412. During that period, Kwanggaet'o conquered 65 walled cities and 1,400 villages, in addition to aiding Silla when it was attacked by the Japanese. His accomplishments are recorded on a monument erected in 414 in southern Manchuria. Koguryo moved its capital to P'yongyang in 427 and ruled the territory north of the Han River. But Koguryo's expansion caused it to come into conflict with the Sui Dynasty of China (581-617) in the west and Silla, which was beginning to expand northward, in the south.


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