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History of South Korea

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Powerful kingdoms flourished on the Korean Peninsula more than two thousand years ago. Of particular importance were the Koguryo˘ (established in 37 BC), Paekche (18BC), and Silla (57 BC) dynasties. Silla kings united the three warring kingdoms in AD 668 and developed a rich Buddhist culture. By 935, the strong new Koryo˘ kingdom had established itself on the peninsula. The name Korea comes from Koryo˘. During the Koryo˘ era, the world’s first movable metal-type printer was invented. Koryo˘ general Yi So˘ng-gye seized power, declared himself king, and established the Choso˘n (or Yi) Dynasty in 1392. The Yi ruled for more than five hundred years. In the latter part of the Yi Dynasty, China and Japan sought control of Korea, a struggle the Japanese eventually won. They annexed Korea in 1910.

At the end of World War II (1945), the Soviet Union entered Korea from the north and the United States entered the south to accept the surrender of Japanese troops. The peninsula was accordingly divided (at the 38th parallel) into two administrative zones. After attempts to hold nationwide elections failed, an independent government was established in the south with U.S. support; Syngman Rhee became president. In June 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea, triggering a three year war. The United States and United Nations sent troops to help South Korea. Concerned that the war might spill into Chinese territory, China sent troops to aid North Korea. The war ravaged the peninsula and ended in a stalemate (a peace treaty still has not been signed), with the original border virtually unchanged. Violent border incidents have occurred over the years, and South Korea and North Korea continue to have large military presences at the border.

Rhee resigned in 1960 after student unrest over charges of corruption. Indeed, students have played a vital role in South Korea’s democratic evolution. Their demonstrations precipitated a military coup in 1961, and General Park Chung Hee seized power. Elected in 1963, Park implemented some reforms but retained firm control. He was assassinated in 1979.Student demonstrations in Kwangju in 1980 brought down the interim government. Troops sent to halt the demonstration skilled some two hundred students. Kwangju became a center for antigovernment sentiment, and the slain students are memorialized every year. General Chun Doo Hwan was appointed president. The economy steadily improved during the 1980s, but political dissent was still tightly controlled. After more mass demonstrations for greater political liberty, Chun stepped down in 1987. General Roh Tae Woo was freely elected that year, and he began instituting reforms that paved the way for civilian rule.

Kim Young Sam won elections in 1992 to become the first civilian to hold the presidency in more than 30 years. Kim promised to further reforms and continue economic progress, but he was plagued by scandals, the Asian economic crisis of1997, and the bankruptcy of the Hanbo Steel Industry Company, one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates.

Elections in 1997 brought former dissident Kim Dae Jungto power as president in 1998. He implemented a “sunshine policy” of constructive engagement with the North in hopes of eventually achieving reunification. While the goal of reunification has long been espoused on both sides of the border, different visions and deep suspicions keep the two Koreas far apart. Roh Moo Hyun, elected president in 2002, continued diplomacy with North Korea, but the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has escalated tensions between the nations.


“South Korea (Republic of Korea).” CultureGrams World Edition. 2008.

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