According to Korean foundation mythology, Dangun established the Joseon dynasty in 2333 BC (nicknamed “Gojoseon” to avoid confusion with another dynasty formed in the 13th century; the prefix Go- means ‘older,’ ‘before,’ or ‘before’). Gojoseon grew to dominate the northern Korean Peninsula as well as portions of Manchuria. In the 12th century BC, the Gija Joseon was established. Wiman Joseon fell to the Han dynasty of China towards the end of the 2nd century BC. In 108 BC, the Han dynasty conquered the Wiman Joseon and established the Four Commanderies of Han. During the following century, there was a strong Chinese presence in northern portions of the Korean Peninsula, and the Lelang Commandery lasted for nearly 400 years until being captured by Goguryeo. Gojoseon collapsed after numerous wars with the Chinese Han dynasty, ushering in the Proto–Three Kingdoms of Korea period.
Buyeo, Okjeo, Dongye, and the Samhanconfederacy controlled the peninsula and southern Manchuria in the early Common Era. As the Three Kingdoms of Korea, Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla rose to dominate the peninsula from the different nations. Silla’s unification of the Three Kingdoms in 676 ushered in the North–South States Period, during which Unified Silla ruled over most of the Korean Peninsula, while Balhae ruled over the northern portions of Goguryeo.
Poetry and painting were welcomed in Unified Silla, and Buddhist culture flourished. During this period, relations between Korea and China were largely calm. Due to internal conflict, the united Silla crumbled and succumbed to Goryeo in 935. Balhae, Silla’s northern neighbor, was established as Goguryeo’s successor state. Balhae ruled over much of Manchuria and portions of the Russian Far East at its peak. In 926, it was conquered by the Khitan.
In 936, King Taejo of Goryeo unified the peninsula. Goryeo, like Silla, was a culturally advanced state that printed the Jikji in 1377 using the world’s earliest moveable metal type printing machine. Goryeo was severely damaged by Mongol invasions in the 13th century. Goryeo remained to govern Korea after almost 30 years of conflict, albeit as a vassal ally of the Mongols. Following the fall of the Mongol Empire, significant political turmoil ensued, and the Goryeo dynasty was deposed in 1392 by the Joseon dynasty, following a revolt led by General Yi Seong-gye.
In honor of Gojoseon, King Taejo changed Korea’s name to “Joseon” and relocated the capital to Hanseong (old name of Seoul). The first 200 years of the Joseon dynasty were characterized by relative calm, with King Sejong the Great’s establishment of Hangul in the 15th century and the growth of Confucianism’s influence in the nation.
Japan attacked Korea from 1592 and 1598. The Japanese forces were commanded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but his advance was stopped by Korean soldiers with the help of Righteous Army militias and Ming dynasty Chinese troops. The Japanese troops were ultimately forced to leave after a series of effective attrition engagements, and they signed a peace deal with Ming Chinese officials. Admiral Yi Sun-sin and his fabled “turtle ship” rose to prominence during this battle. Joseon was subjected to Manchu invasions in the 1620s and 1630s, which ultimately spread to China.
Joseon had an almost 200-year era of calm after another series of battles with Manchuria. King Yeongjo and King Jeongjo, in particular, pushed the Joseon dynasty to a new renaissance.
Japanese occupation (1910–45)
The Joseon dynasty’s last years were characterized by seclusion from the outside world. Korea’s isolationist stance gave it the moniker “Hermit Kingdom” in the nineteenth century. Although the Joseon dynasty attempted to defend itself from Western imperialism, it was ultimately compelled to allow commerce. Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945, after the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War.
Japan attempted to repress Korean culture and customs while running the economy mainly for its own gain. On March 1, 1919, anti-Japanese and pro-liberation demonstrations took place throughout the country (the March 1st Movement). During the repression of this uprising, about 7,000 individuals were murdered. Anti-Japanese riots, such as the national student revolt of 1929, prompted the military to tighten its grip over the country in 1931. Japan intensified its attempts to destroy Korean culture after the breakouts of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and World War II.
Koreans were compelled to take the names of Japanese people. Japanese Shinto shrines were declared obligatory places of worship. The school curriculum was changed to remove Korean language and history classes. A large number of cultural items from Korea were destroyed or transported to Japan. Dongnipgun (Liberation Army) resistance organizations operated along the Sino-Korean border, waging guerilla warfare against Japanese troops. Some of them were involved in allied operations in China and Southeast Asia. The communist Kim Il-sung, who eventually became the leader of North Korea, was one of the guerilla commanders.
Koreans at home were compelled to assist the Japanese war effort during WWII. The Japanese military conscripted tens of thousands of soldiers. Around 200,000 girls and women, many of them from Korea, were forced to provide sexual services for the Japanese troops, dubbed “comfort women” by the Japanese.
Soviet occupation and division of Korea (1945–50)
The Korean Peninsula was split into two zones along the 38th parallel after the conclusion of World War II, with the Soviet Union occupying the northern half and the United States occupying the southern half. The politics of the Cold War led in the creation of two distinct nations with radically opposing political, economic, and social systems, shattering initial aspirations for a united, independent Korea.
In October 1945, Soviet general Terentii Shtykov proposed the creation of the Soviet Civil Authority, and in February 1946, he backed Kim Il-sung as head of the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea. Shtykov’s main achievement during the interim administration was a massive land reform initiative that dismantled North Korea’s tiered class structure. Landlords and Japanese collaborators moved to the South, where land reform and occasional rebellion were absent. Shtykov nationalized major businesses and headed the Soviet delegation to Moscow and Seoul for discussions on the future of Korea. South Korean people revolted against the Allied Military Government in September 1946. An rebellion of Jeju islanders was brutally suppressed in April 1948. In May 1948, the South became a state, and two months later, it was ruled by fanatical anti-communist Syngman Rhee. On September 9, 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was founded in the north. Shtykov was the first Soviet ambassador, and Kim Il-sung was appointed Prime Minister.
In 1948, Soviet troops left the north, and in 1949, most American soldiers left the south. Ambassador Shtykov accused Rhee of plotting an invasion of the North and supported Kim’s aim of unification of Korea under socialism. They persuaded Joseph Stalin to approve a quick blitzkrieg of the South, which resulted in the start of the Korean War.
Korean War (1950–53)
North Korea’s troops invaded the South on June 25, 1950, and quickly took control of the majority of the nation. A UN army headed by the United States intervened to protect the South and moved quickly into North Korea. As they approached China’s border, Chinese troops intervened on North Korea’s side, reversing the war’s balance. On July 27, 1953, the fighting came to an end with an armistice that restored North and South Korea’s old borders to a large extent. The conflict claimed the lives of almost one million citizens and troops. Almost every significant structure in North Korea was destroyed as a consequence of the conflict.
Some have referred to the fight as a civil war, despite the fact that there are other causes at play. The Korean War was the first military war of the Cold War, and it established the precedent for many subsequent confrontations. It is often regarded as an example of a proxy war, in which the two superpowers fight in another country, causing the people of that country to bear the brunt of the damage and death associated with such a large-scale conflict. The superpowers averted a full-fledged war against one another, as well as the use of nuclear weapons against one another. It widened the scope of the Cold War, which had previously been primarily focused on Europe.
The peninsula is still divided by a highly guarded demilitarized zone (DMZ), and there is still anti-communist and anti-North Korean sentiment in South Korea. The US has maintained a significant military presence in the South since the war, which the North Korean government regards as an imperialist occupying army.
Border skirmishes, celebrity abductions, and assassination attempts disrupted the relative calm between the South and the North after the ceasefire. Several assassination attempts against South Korean officials were unsuccessful, including those in 1968, 1974, and the Rangoon bombing in 1983; tunnels were discovered under the DMZ, and war was almost declared over the axe murder event at Panmunjom in 1976. The two nations did not attempt to engage with one another for almost two decades following the conflict. Secret, high-level talks started in 1971, culminating in the North-South Joint Statement of July 4, 1972, which set guidelines for working for peaceful reunification. The negotiations ended in failure when, in 1973, South Korea said that the two Koreas should seek separate membership in international organizations.
During the August Faction Incident of 1956, Kim Il-sung successfully withstood Soviet and Chinese attempts to overthrow him in favor of Soviet Koreans or the pro-China Yan’an faction. The last Chinese soldiers left North Korea in October 1958, which is widely seen as the date when the nation became fully independent. According to certain historians, the August 1956 event showed independence. North Korea remained tightly linked to China and the Soviet Union, and Kim was able to use the Sino-Soviet divide to his advantage. North Korea aspired to lead the Non-Aligned Movement, emphasizing Juche philosophy to set itself apart from both the Soviet Union and China.
Industrial output has quickly recovered after the war, reaching 1949 levels by 1957. Relations with Japan had improved considerably by 1959, and North Korea started permitting Japanese people to return to their homeland. North Korea revalued its won in the same year, making it more valuable than its South Korean equivalent. Until the 1960s, North Korea’s economic development was faster than South Korea’s, and as late as 1976, North Korea’s GDP per capita was equal to that of its southern neighbor.
China started mending its ties with the West, especially the United States, and reevaluating its relations with North Korea in the early 1970s. With Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the diplomatic issues came to a head. As a result, Kim Il-sung started cutting relations with China and reemphasizing national and economic self-reliance, as embodied in his Juche Idea, which encouraged the country to produce everything. The economy had begun to stagnate by the 1980s, began its lengthy slide in 1987, and almost collapsed following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, when all Russian assistance was abruptly stopped. Shortly after, the North resumed commercial ties with China, but the Chinese couldn’t afford to give enough food assistance to satisfy demand.
The Arduous March
Kim Jong-il started gradually taking over different governmental responsibilities in 1992, as Kim Il-health sung’s began to deteriorate. In the middle of a confrontation with the US over North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack in 1994. Before formally declaring his status as the new leader, Kim announced a three-year period of national mourning.
The Agreed Framework, which was negotiated with US President Bill Clinton, put a stop to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. Kim Jong-il implemented a strategy known as Songun, which means “military first.” There’s a lot of suspicion that this approach is being utilized to bolster the military while thwarting coup attempts. Travel restrictions were tightened, and the state security apparatus was beefed up.
Flooding in the mid-1990s worsened the economic crisis, destroying crops and infrastructure and resulting in widespread hunger that the government was unable to stop. The government received UN food assistance in 1996. Since the famine began, the government has grudgingly allowed illicit black markets while preserving an ostensibly socialist economy. Corruption thrived, and dissatisfaction with the government grew.
North Korea started attempting to normalize ties with the West in the late 1990s, renegotiating disarmament agreements with US officials in return for economic assistance. Simultaneously, as part of its Sunshine Policy, South Korea started to interact with the North, expanding on Nordpolitik.
With the election of George W. Bush as President of the United States in 2001, the worldwide climate shifted. South Korea’s Sunshine Policy and the Agreed Framework were both rejected by his government. North Korea was regarded as a rogue state by the US administration, while North Korea redoubled its attempts to obtain nuclear weapons in order to escape the destiny of Iraq.
North Korea claimed on October 9, 2006 that it had conducted its first nuclear weapons test.
Former US President Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-il in August 2009 to win the release of two American journalists who had been imprisoned for unlawfully entering the Korea.
President Barack Obama’s approach to North Korea has been to avoid making agreements with the country in order to defuse tensions, a strategy known as “strategic patience.”
The sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and North Korea’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island raised tensions with South Korea and the United States in 2010.
Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s supreme leader, died of a heart attack on December 17, 2011. Kim Jong-un, his youngest son, was named as his successor.
Despite worldwide criticism, North Korea continued to build its nuclear weapons in the years after. In 2013 and 2016, notable tests were conducted.