Fasten your seat belts, historical aficionados. Today we're taking a trip to Asia, specifically to Korea! I don't know about you but I find so much of what we consume about history is related to Europe that it's always a breath of fresh air when we get to learn something about other places. My guest today is Deborah Nam-Krane, author of The New Pioneers series. Let's check out her post.
Korean History: It’s Not All The Korean War by Deborah Nam-Krane
Koreans have been asserting their right to carve out their own identity for centuries. China, the big kid in their neck of the woods, wanted Korea to be a part of China, and for a couple of centuries they got their wish. But Koreans (like many other peoples) stubbornly clung to the idea of their independence, and by 300 A.D. they had pushed out their Chinese conquerors. (A Korean historian might tell you that this event was the deciding factor in the fall of the Han dynasty; a Chinese historian might tell you it was going to happen eventually anyway.)
Korea wasn’t Korea at that point; it was Three Kingdoms, Koguryo, Paekchae and Silla.
While they frequently fought among themselves, they all agreed on one thing: China wasn’t going to go away, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. All of them entered into formal diplomatic relations with China, and at no point in history is China’s cultural influence not evident: language, arts, religion and, perhaps most importantly, philosophy and politics are all influenced by China.
In fact, when in 1443 the court of King Sejong instituted Hangul, or the Korean alphabet, it was met with outrage by some of the yangban, or Korean aristocracy. Although the Chinese characters never did full justice to the Korean vocabulary and hangul was established to do just that, in the eyes of the yangban, only barbarians used an alphabet (or a language) other than Chinese, and after hundreds of years battling the Mongols, this was seen as a slap in the face. (The rest of the Korean population, however, happily adopted the easy-to-learn alphabet.)
Centuries later, when the Japanese conquered Korea (don’t let anyone tell you that Korea abnegated itself; they refused to sign their existence away, and the only reason the royal seal appeared on the documents the Japanese prepared was because the Japanese representative affixed it himself), Korean identity was even more threatened. It was not enough that Japan demanded that Korea be considered a part of Japan; by the time World War broke out, the Japanese were demanding that Koreans change their names to Japanese names and otherwise use the Japanese language. (To get an idea of what that means, imagine that every child in England would have to be given a French name- or a German one.) While the Chinese had always understood Korea’s strategic importance, the Japanese considered the Koreans genetically and culturally inferior. In their minds, they were doing the Koreans a favor by forcing them to adopt Japanese customs.
We’ll never know what course Korean culture might have taken had it not been for the occupation. As many have said, culture is not monolithic, and all are subject to outside influences. But in addition to being subjected to systematic destruction, the response to the Japanese occupation varied from collaboration to open resistance, and those who resisted sought safe haven in the Soviet Union, the United States and China, among other places. All of them had very different ideas about the most effective means of achieving their ends, and by the time the Japanese were defeated by the United States in 1945, those important questions hadn’t been answered.
Even worse, when the Americans arrived in Korea, many genuinely did not understand that Korea had been a very unwilling part of Japan. Worse, they took their advice about how to proceed from the Japanese administrators on their way out. Naturally, most of them recommended the people who had worked with them, never mind how resented they were by the rest of the population. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that the subsequent elections saw so little participation and were repudiated by many; because of the way the long-simmering tensions were or rather weren’t handled, it was only a matter of time before they exploded in a civil war. It was Korea’s poor luck that its conflict could be exploited in a proxy war between the United States, the Soviet Union and China.
There are now two Koreas, and they could not be more different. One has embraced capitalism, and the other is hanging onto a mirage of a communist dream. Ironically, in the early years after the civil war, it was Communist North Korea, who disdained aid as a sign of weakness, that did well at first and South Korea was seen as something of an international beggar. By the late 80s, however, that had flipped; not only was South Korea the site of the Summer Olympics of 1988, it was also home to industries that would become among the most successful international corporations in the world, including Hyundai, Samsung and LG. Most importantly of all, they had finally overthrown their military dictators, and today South Korea’s presidents are allowed only one five-year term, a nice change from the decades of power previous presidents enjoyed. Modern South Korea boasts one of the most educated and productive populations in the world. Sadly, the same cannot be said of North Korea, which has endured multiple famines and become dependent on international aid over the last two decades under the corrupt Kim “dynasty”.
The dream of many Koreans who lived through the Korean War is to see both parts of their country reunited after sixty years. However, as that generation dies off and people no longer remember a time when the country was unified, it’s not clear that this will be a goal that will be pursued in the future. For now, we can only imagine what the people of that unified country will look like. I like to think that they will be as hardy, stubborn, brave and resourceful as their ancestors were two thousand years ago when they fought off the Chinese. Here’s hoping that fighting for unity is as motivating as fighting for freedom.
Deborah Nam-Krane is a writer in Boston proper who has been writing novels since the age of thirteen. When she's not homeschooling her sons or making sure her daughters get their work done, she's writing, reviewing and editing.