[Excerpted from North Korea: A Country Study. Andrea Matles Savada, ed. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1993]


Koreans inhabit a mountainous peninsula protruding southward from the northeastern corner of the Asian continent and surrounded on three sides by water. Although Japan exercised decisive influence by the late sixteenth century, in ancient times the peoples and civilizations on the contiguous Asian continent were far more important. The peninsula is surrounded on three sides by other peoples: Chinese to the west; Japanese to the east; and an assortment of peoples to the north, including "barbarian" tribes, aggressive invaders, and, in the twentieth century, an expanding and deepening Russian presence. Koreans have emerged as a people influenced by the peninsula's internal and surrounding geography.

The northern border between Korea and China formed by the Yalu and Tumen rivers has been recognized for centuries. But these rivers did not always constitute Korea's northern limits; Koreans ranged far beyond this border well into northeastern China and Siberia, and neither Koreans nor the ancient tribes that occupied the plains of Manchuria (northeastern China) considered these riverine borders to be sacrosanct. The harsh winter climate also turned the rivers into frozen pathways for many months, facilitating the back-and-forth migration out of which the Korean people were formed.

Paleolithic excavations show that humans inhabited the Korean Peninsula half a million years ago, but most scholars assume that present-day Koreans are not descended from these early inhabitants. Neolithic age (from 4,000-3,000 B.C.) humans also inhabited the area, identified archaeologically by the ground and polished stone tools and pottery they left to posterity. Around 2,000 B.C., a new pottery culture spread into Korea from China. These people practiced agriculture in a settled communal life, and are widely supposed to have had consanguineous clans as their basic social grouping. Korean historians in modern times sometimes assume that the clan leadership systems characterized by councils of nobles (hwabaek) that emerged in the subsequent Silla period can be traced back to these neolithic peoples, and that a mythical "child of the sn," an original Korean, also was born then. There is no hard evidence, however, to support such beginnings for the Korean people.

By the fourth century B.C., a number of walled-town states on the peninsula had survived long enough to come to the attention of China. The most illustrious of these states was Old Chosn, which had established itself along the banks of the Liao and the Taedong rivers in southern Manchuria and northwestern Korea. Old Chosn prospered as a civilization based on bronze culture and a political federation of many walled towns; the federation, judging from Chinese accounts, was formidable to the point of arrogance. Riding horses and deploying bronze weapons, the Chosn people extended their influence to the north, taking most of the Liaodong Basin. But the rising power of the north China state of Yen (1122-255 B.C.) checked Chosn's growth and eventually pushed it back to territory south of the Ch'ngch'n River, located midway between the Yalu and Taedong rivers. As the Yen gave way in China to the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and the Han dynasties (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Chosn declined, and refugee populations migrated eastward. Out of this milieu, emerged Wiman, a man who assumed the kingship of Chosn sometime between 194 and 180 B.C. The Kingdom of Wiman Chosn melded Chinese influence, and under the Old Chosn federated structure--apparently reinvigorated under Wiman--the state again expanded over hundreds of kilometers of territory. Its ambitions ran up against a Han invasion, however, and Wiman Chosn fell in 108 B.C.

These developments coincided with the beginnings of iron culture, enabling the rise of a sophisticated agriculture based on implements such as hoes, plowshares, and sickles. Cultivation of rice and other grains increased markedly. Although the peoples of the peninsula could not yet be called "Korean," there was an unquestioned continuity in agrarian society from this time until the emergence of a unified Korean state many centuries later.

Han Chinese built four commanderies, or local military units, to rule the peninsula as far south as the Han River, with a core area at Lolang (Nangnang in Korean), near present-day P'yongyang. It is illustrative of the relentlessly different historiography practiced in North Korea and South Korea, as well as the projection backward of Korean nationalism practiced by both sides, that North Korean historians deny that the Lolang Commandery was centered in Korea. They place it northwest of the peninsula, possibly near Beijing, in order to de-emphasize China's influence on ancient Korean history. They perhaps do so because Lolang was clearly a Chinese city, as attested by the many burial objects showing the affluent lives of Chinese overlords and merchants.

The Period of the Three Kingdoms

From approximately 108 B.C. until 313, Lolang was a great center of Chinese statecraft, art, industry (including the mining of iron ore), and commerce. Lolang's influence was widespread; it attracted immigrants from China and exacted tribute from several states south of the Han River that patterned their civilization and government after Lolang. In the first three centuries A.D., a large number of walled-town states in southern Korea grouped into three federations known as Chinhan, Mahan, and Pynhan; during this period, rice agriculture had developed in the rich alluvial valleys and plains to such an extent that reservoirs had been built for irrigation.

Chinhan was situated in the middle part of the southern peninsula, Mahan in the southwest, and Pynhan in the southeast. The state of Paekche, which soon came to exercise great influence on Korean history, emerged first in the Mahan area; it is not certain when this happened, but Paekche certainly existed by 246 since Lolang mounted a large attack on it in that year. Paekche, a centralized, aristocratic state that melded Chinese and indigenous influence, was a growing power: within a hundred years Paekche had demolished Mahan and continued to expand northward into the area of present-day South Korea around Seoul. Contemporary historians believe that the common Korean custom of patrilineal royal succession began with King K n Ch'ogo (r. 346-75) of Paekche. His grandson, Ch'imnyu, inaugurated another long tradition by adopting Buddhism as the state religion in 384.

Meanwhile, in the first century A.D. two powerful states emerged north of the peninsula: Puy in the Sungari River Basin in Manchuria and Kogury, Puy's frequent enemy to its south, near the Yalu River. Kogury, which like Paekche also exercised a lasting influence on Korean history, developed in confrontation with the Chinese. Puy was weaker and sought alliances with China to counter Kogury, but eventually succumbed to it around 312. Kogury expanded in all directions, in particular toward the Liao River in the west and toward the Taedong River in the south. In 313 Kogury occupied the territory of the Lolang Commandery and came into conflict with Paekche.

Peninsular geography shaped the political space of Paekche, Kogury, and a third kingdom, Silla. In the central part of Korea, the main mountain range, the T'aebaek, runs north to south along the edge of the Sea of Japan. Approximately three-fourths of the way down the peninsula, however, roughly at the thirty-seventh parallel, the mountain range veers to the southwest, dividing the peninsula almost in the middle. This southwest extension, the Sobaek Range, shielded peoples to the east of it from the Chinese-occupied portion of the peninsula, but placed no serious barrier in the way of expansion into or out of the southwestern portion of the peninsula--Paekche's historical territory.

Kogury ranged over a wild region of northeastern Korea and eastern Manchuria that was subjected to extremes of temperature and structured by towering mountain ranges, broad plains, and life-giving rivers; the highest peak, known as Paektu-san (White Head Mountain), is on the contemporary Sino-Korean border and has a beautiful, crystal-pure lake at its summit. Kim Il Sung and his guerrilla band utilized associations with this mountain as part of the founding myth of North Korea, and Kim Jong Il was said to have been born on the slopes of the mountain in 1942. Not surprisingly, North Korea claimed the Kogury legacy as the main element in Korean history.

According to South Korean historiography, however, it was the glories of a third kingdom that were the most important elements. Silla eventually became the repository of a rich and cultured ruling elite, with its capital at Kyngju in the southeast, north of the port of Pusan. In fact, the men who ruled South Korea beginning in 1961 all came from this region. It has been the southwestern Paekche legacy that suffered in divided Korea, as Koreans of other regions and historians in both North Korea and South Korea have discriminated against the people of the present- day Chlla provinces. But taken together, all three kingdoms continue to influence Korean history and political culture. Koreans often assume that regional traits that they like or dislike go back to the Three Kingdoms period.

Silla evolved from a walled town called Saro. Silla historians are said to have traced its origins to 57 B.C., but contemporary historians regard King Naemul (r. 356-402) as the ruler who first consolidated a large confederated kingdom and established a hereditary kingship. His domain was east of the Naktong River in present-day North Kyngsang Province, South Korea. A small number of states located along the south central tip of the peninsula facing the Korea Strait did not join either Silla or Paekche, but instead formed a Kaya League that maintained close ties with states in Japan. Kaya's possible linkage to Japan remains an issue of debate among historians in Korea, Japan, and elsewhere. There is no convincing evidence to definitively resolve the debate, and circumstantial historical archaeological evidence is inconclusive. The debate is significant since its outcome could influence views on the origin of the Japanese imperial family. The Kaya states eventually were absorbed by their neighbors in spite of an attack against Silla in 399 by Wa forces from Japan, who had come to the aid of Kaya. Silla repelled the Wa with help from Kogury.

Centralized government probably emerged in Silla in the last half of the fifth century, when the capital became both an administrative and a marketing center. In the early sixth century, Silla's leaders introduced plowing by oxen and built extensive irrigation facilities. Increased agricultural output presumably ensued, allowing further political and cultural development that included an administrative code in 520, a class system of hereditary "bone-ranks" for choosing elites, and the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion around 535.

Militarily weaker than Kogury, Silla sought to fend the former off through an alliance with Paekche. By the beginning of the fifth century, however, Kogury had achieved undisputed control of all of Manchuria east of the Liao River as well as the northern and central regions of the Korean Peninsula. At this time, Kogury had a famous leader appropriately named King Kwanggaet'o (r. 391-412), a name that translates as "broad expander of territory." Reigning from the age of eighteen, he conquered sixty-five walled towns and 1,400 villages, in addition to assisting Silla when the Wa forces attacked. As Kogury's domain increased, it confronted China's Sui Dynasty (581-617) in the west and Silla and Paekche to the south.

Silla attacked Kogury in 551 in concert with King Sng (r. 523-54) of Paekche. After conquering the upper reaches of the Han River, Silla turned on the Paekche forces and drove them out of the lower Han area. While a tattered Paekche kingdom nursed its wounds in the southwest, Silla allied with Chinese forces of the Sui and the successor Tang Dynasty (618-907) in combined attacks against Kogury. The Sui emperor Yang Di launched an invasion of Kogury in 612, marshaling more than 1 million soldiers only to be lured by the revered Kogury commander lchi Mundk into a trap, where Sui forces virtually were destroyed. Perhaps as few as 3,000 Sui soldiers survived; the massacre contributed to the fall of the dynasty in 617. Newly risen Tang emperor Tai Zong launched another huge invasion in 645, but Kogury forces won another striking victory in the siege of the An Si Fortress in western Kogury, forcing Tai Zong's forces to withdraw.

Koreans have always viewed these victories as sterling examples of resistance to foreign aggression. Had Kogury not beaten back the invaders, all the states of the peninsula might have fallen under extended Chinese domination. Thus commanders like lchi Mundk later became models for emulation, especially during the Korean War (1950-53).

Paekche could not hold out under combined Silla and Tang attack, however. The latter landed an invasion fleet in 660, and Paekche quickly fell under their assaults. Tang pressure also had weakened Kogury, and after eight years of battle it gave way because of pressure from both external attack and internal strife exacerbated by several famines. Kogury forces retreated to the north, enabling Silla forces to advance and consolidate their control up to the Taedong River, which flows through P'yongyang.

Silla emerged victorious in 668. It is from this date that South Korean historians speak of a unified Korea. The period of the Three Kingdoms thus ended, but not before the kingdoms had come under the long-term sway of Chinese civilization and had been introduced to Chinese statecraft, Buddhist and Confucian philosophy, Confucian practices of educating the young, and the Chinese written language. (Koreans adapted Chinese characters to their own language through a system known as idu.) The Three Kingdoms also introduced Buddhism, the various rulers seeing a valuable political device for unity in the doctrine of a unified body of believers devoted to Buddha but serving one king. Artists from Kogury and Paekche also perfected a mural art found in the walls of tombs, and took it to Japan, where it deeply influenced Japan's temple and burial art. Indeed, many Korean historians believe that wall murals in Japanese royal tombs suggest that the imperial house lineage may have Korean origins.

Korea under Silla

Silla and Paekche had sought to use Chinese power against Kogury, inaugurating another tradition of involving foreign powers in internal Korean disputes. But Silla's reliance on Tang forces to consolidate its control had its price. Because Silla had to resist encroaching Tang forces, its sway was limited to the area south of the Taedong River. Nevertheless, Silla's military power, bolstered by an ideal of the youthful warrior (hwarang), was formidable. It seized Tang-occupied Paekche territories by 671, pushed Kogury still further northward, and drove the Tang commanderies off the peninsula by 676, thereby guaranteeing that the Korean people would develop independently, without outside influences.

The broad territories of Kogury, however, were not conquered, and in 698 a Kogury general named Tae Cho-yng established a successor state called Parhae above and below the Yalu and Tumen boundaries. Parhae forced Silla to build a northern wall in 721, and kept Silla forces below a line running from present-day P'yongyang to Wnsan. By the eighth century, Parhae controlled the northern part of Korea, all of northeastern Manchuria, and the Liaodong Peninsula. Both Silla and Parhae continued to be heavily influenced by Tang Chinese civilization.

Silla and Tang China had a great deal of contact inasmuch as large numbers of students, officials, and monks traveled to China for study and observation. In 682 Silla set up a national Confucian academy to train high officials and later instituted a civil-service examination system modeled on that of the Tang. Parhae modeled its central government even more directly on Tang systems than did Silla and sent many students to Tang schools. Parhae's culture melded indigenous and Tang influences, and its level of civilization was high enough to merit the Chinese designation "flourishing land in the East."

Silla in particular, however, developed a flourishing indigenous civilization that was among the most advanced in the world. Its capital at Kyngju in present-day South Korea was renowned as the "city of gold," where the aristocracy pursued a high culture and extravagant pleasures. Tang dynasty historians wrote that elite officials possessed thousands of slaves, with like numbers of horses, cattle, and pigs. Officials' wives wore gold tiaras and earrings of delicate and intricate filigree. Scholars studied the Confucian and Buddhist classics, built up state administration, and developed advanced methods for astronomy and calendrical science. The Dharani sutra, recovered in Kyngju, dates as far back as 751 and is the oldest example of woodblock printing yet found in the world. Pure Land Buddhism (Buddhism for the Masses) united the common people, who could become adherents through the repetition of simple chants. The crowning glories of this "city of gold" continue to be the Pulguksa temple in the city and the nearby Skkuram Grotto, both built around 750. Both are home to some of the finest Buddhist sculpture in the world. The grotto, atop a coastal bluff near Kyngju, houses the historic great stone Sakyamuni Buddha in its inner sanctum; the figure is situated so that the rising sun over the Sea of Japan strikes it in the middle of the forehead.

Ethnic differences between Kogury and the Malgal people native to Manchuria weakened Parhae by the early tenth century, just as Silla's power had begun to dissipate a century earlier when regional castle lords splintered central power and rebellions shook Silla's foundations. Parhae, coming under severe pressure from the Kitan warriors who ruled parts of northern China, Manchuria, and Mongolia, eventually fell in 926. Silla's decline encouraged a restorationist named Kynhwn to found Later Paekche at Chnju in 892 and another restorationist, named Kungye, to found Later Kogury at Kaesng in central Korea. Wang Kn, the son of Kungye who succeeded to the throne in 918, shortened the dynastic name to Kory and became the founder of a new dynasty by that name, from which came the modern term Korea.

Unification by Kory

Wang Kn's army fought ceaselessly with Later Paekche for the next decade, with Silla in retreat. After a crushing victory in 930 over Paekche forces at present-day Andong, South Korea, Kory obtained a formal surrender from Silla and proceeded to conquer Later Paekche by 935--amazingly, with troops led by former Paekche king Kynhwn, whose son had treacherously cast him aside. After this accomplishment, Wang Kn became a magnanimous unifier. Regarding himself as the proper successor to Kogury, he embraced survivors of the Kogury lineage who were fleeing the dying Parhae state, which had been conquered by Kitan warriors in 926. He then took a Silla princess as his wife and treated the Silla aristocracy with great generosity. Wang Kn established a regime embodying the remnants of the Later Three Kingdoms--what was left after the almost fifty years of struggle between the forces of Kynhwn and Kungye--and accomplished a true unification of the peninsula.

Placing the regime's capital at Kaesng, the composite elite of the Kory Dynasty (918-1392) forged a tradition of aristocratic continuity that lasted to the modern era. The elite fused aristocratic privilege and political power through marriage alliances and control of land and central political office, and made class position hereditary. This practice established a pattern for Korea in which landed gentry mingled with a Confucian- or Buddhist-educated stratum of scholar-officials; often scholars and landlords were one and the same person. In any case, landed wealth and bureaucratic position were powerfully fused. This fusion occurred at the center, where a strong bureaucracy influenced by Confucian statecraft emerged. Thereafter, this bureaucracy sought to dominate local power and thus militated against Japanese or European feudal pattern of parcelized sovereignty, castle domains, and military tradition. By the thirteenth century, two dominant government groupings had emerged: the civil officials and the military officials, known thereafter as yangban.

The Kory elite admired the Chinese civilization that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Official delegations and ordinary merchants brought Kory gold, silver, and ginseng to China in exchange for Song silk, porcelain, and woodblock books. The treasured Song porcelain stimulated Kory artisans to produce an even finer type of inlaid celadon porcelain. Praised for the pristine clarity of its blue-green glaze--celadon glazes also were yellow green--and the delicate art of its inlaid portraits (usually of flowers or animals), Kory celadon displayed the refined taste of aristocrats and later had great influence on Japanese potters.

Buddhism coexisted with Confucianism throughout the Kory period; it deeply affected daily life and perhaps bequeathed to modern Korea its eclecticism of religious beliefs. Kory Buddhist priests systematized religious practice by rendering the Chinese version of the Buddhist canon into mammoth woodblock print editions, known as the Tripitaka. The first edition was completed in 1087, but was lost; another, completed in 1251 and still extant, is located at the Haeinsa temple near Taegu, South Korea. Its accuracy, combined with its exquisite calligraphic carvings, makes it the finest of some twenty Tripitaka in East Asia. By 1234, if not earlier, Kory had also invented moveable iron type, two centuries before its use in Europe.

This high point of Kory culture coincided with internal disorder and the rise of the Mongols, whose power swept most of Eurasia during the thirteenth century. Kory was not spared; Khubilai Khan's forces invaded and demolished Kory's army in 1231, forcing the Kory government to retreat to Kanghwa Island (off modern-day Inch'n). But after a more devastating invasion in 1254, in which countless people died and some 200,000 people were captured, Kory succumbed to Mongol domination and its kings intermarried with Mongol princesses. The Mongols then enlisted thousands of Koreans in ill-fated invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, using Korean-made ships. Both invasions were repelled with aid, as legend has it, from opportune typhoons known as "divine wind," or kamikaze. The last period of Mongol influence was marked by the appearance of a strong bureaucratic stratum of scholar-officials, or literati (sadaebu in Korean). Many of them lived in exile outside the capital, and they used their superior knowledge of the Confucian classics to condemn the excesses of the ruling families, who were backed by Mongol power.

The overthrow of the Mongols by the founders of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China gave a rising group of military men, steeled in battle against coastal pirates from Japan, the opportunity to contest for power. When the Ming claimed suzerainty over former Mongol domains in Korea, the Kory court was divided between pro-Mongol and pro-Ming forces. Two generals marshaled their forces for an assault on Ming armies on the Liaodong Peninsula. One of the generals, Yi Sng-gye, was pro-Ming. When he reached the Yalu River, he abruptly turned back and marched on the Kory capital, which he subdued quickly. He thus became the founder of Korea's longest dynasty, the Yi (1392-1910). The new state was named Chosn, harking back to the old Chosn kingdom fifteen centuries earlier; its capital was built at Seoul.

The Chosn Dynasty: Florescence

One of General Yi's first acts was to carry out a sweeping land reform long advocated by Confucian literati reformers. After a national cadastral survey, all extant land registers were destroyed. Except for land doled out to loyalists called merit subjects, Yi Sng-gye declared everything to be owned by the state, thus undercutting Buddhist temples, which held vast farm lands, and locally powerful clans. Both groups had exacted high rents from peasants, leading to social distress in the late Kory period. These reforms also greatly enhanced the taxation power of the central government.

Buddhist influence in and complicity with the old system made it easier for the Confucian literati to urge an extirpation of Buddhist economic and political influence, and exile in the mountains for monks and their disciples. Indeed, the literati accomplished a deep Confucianization of Chosn society, which particularly affected the position of women. Often prominent in Kory society, women were now relegated to domestic chores of child-rearing and housekeeping, as so-called inside people.

As neo-Confucian doctrines swept the old order away, Korea effectively developed a secular society. Common people, however, retained attachments to folk religions, shamanism, geomancy, and fortune-telling, influences condemned by both Confucianism and the world at that time. This Korean mass culture created remarkably lively and diverse art forms: uniquely colorful and unpretentiously naturalistic folk paintings of animals, popular novels in Korean vernacular, and characters like the mudang, shamans who summoned spirits and performed exorcisms in kt, or shamanistic, rituals.

For more than a century after its founding, Chosn flourished as an exemplary agrarian bureaucracy deeply influenced by a cadre of learned scholar-officials who were steeped in the doctrines of neo-Confucianism. Like Kory, the Chosn Dynasty lacked the typical features of a feudal society. It was instead a classic agrarian bureaucracy.

Chosn possessed an elaborate procedure for entry to the civil service, a highly articulated civil service, and a practice of administering the country from the top down and from the center. The system rested on an agrarian base, making it different from modern bureaucratic systems; the particular character of agrarian-bureaucratic interaction also provided one of Korea's departures from the typical Chinese experience.

James B. Palais, a widely respected historian of the Chosn Dynasty, has shown that conflict between bureaucrats seeking revenues for government coffers and landowners hoping to control tenants and harvests was a constant during the Chosn Dynasty, and that in this conflict over resources the landowners often won out. Controlling land theoretically owned by the state, private landed interests soon came to be stronger and more persistent in Korea than in China. Although Korea had a centralized administration, the ostensibly strong center was more often a façade concealing the reality of aristocratic power.

One interpretation suggests that Korea's agrarian bureaucracy was superficially strong but actually rather weak at the center. A more conventional interpretation is that the Chosn Dynasty was ruled by a highly centralized monarchy served by a hereditary aristocracy that competed via civil and military service examinations for access to bureaucratic office. The state ostensibly dominated the society, but in fact landed aristocratic families kept the state at bay and perpetuated local power for centuries. This pattern persisted until the late 1940s, when landed dominance was obliterated in a northern revolution and attenuated in southern land reform; since then the balance has shifted toward strong central power and top-down administration of the whole country in both Koreas. The disruptions caused by the Korean War magnified the sociopolitical consequences of these developments.

The scientific Korean written alphabet han'gl was systematized in the fifteenth century under the greatest of Korean kings, Sejong (r. 1418-50), who also greatly increased the use of metal moveable type for book publications of all sorts. Korean is thought to be part of the Altaic group of languages, which includes Turkic, Mongol, Hungarian, Finnish, Tungusic (Manchu), and possibly Japanese. In spite of the long influence of written Chinese, Korean remains very different in lexicon, phonology, and grammar. The new han'g l alphabet did not come into general use until the twentieth century, however. Since 1948 North Koreans have used the Korean alphabet exclusively while South Koreans have retained usage of a mixed Sino-Korean script.

Confucianism is based on the family and an ideal model of relations between family members. It generalizes this family model to the state and to an international system--the Chinese world order. The principle is hierarchy within a reciprocal web of duties and obligations: the son obeys the father by following the dictates of filial piety; the father provides for and educates the son. Daughters obey mothers and mothers-in-law; younger siblings follow older siblings; wives are subordinate to husbands. The superior prestige and privileges of older adults make longevity a prime virtue. In the past, transgressors of these rules were regarded as uncultured beings unfit to be members of society. When generalized to politics, the principle mean that a village followed the leadership of venerated elders and citizens revered a king or emperor, who was thought of as the father of the state. Generalized to international affairs, the Chinese emperor was the big brother of the Korean king.

The glue holding the traditional nobility together was education, meaning socialization into Confucian norms and virtues that began in early childhood with the reading of the Confucian classics. The model figure was the so-called true gentleman, the virtuous and learned scholar-official who was equally adept at poetry and statecraft. In Korea education started very early because Korean students had to master the extraordinarily difficult classical Chinese language--tens of thousands of written ideographs and their many meanings typically learned through rote memorization. Throughout the Chosn Dynasty, all official records and formal education and most written discourse were in classical Chinese. With Chinese language and philosophy came a profound cultural penetration of Korea, such that most Chosn arts and literature came to use Chinese models.

Confucianism is often thought to be a conservative philosophy, stressing tradition, veneration of a past golden age, careful attention to the performance of ritual, disdain for material goods, commerce, and the remaking of nature, combined with obedience to superiors and a preference for relatively frozen social hierarchies. Much commentary on contemporary Korea focuses on this legacy and, in particular, on its allegedly authoritarian, antidemocratic character. Emphasis on the legacy of Confucianism, however, does not explain the extraordinary commercial bustle of South Korea, the materialism and conspicuous consumption of new elites, or the determined struggles for democratization by Korean workers and students. At the same time, one cannot assume that communist North Korea broke completely with the past. The legacy of Confucianism includes the country's family-based politics, the succession to rule of the leader's son, and the extraordinary veneration of Kim Il Sung.

The Chosn Dynasty had a traditional class structure that departed from the Chinese Confucian example, providing an important legacy for the modern period. The governing elite continued to be known as yangban but the term no longer simply connoted two official orders. In the Chosn Dynasty, the yangban had a virtual monopoly on education, official position, and possession of land. Entry to yangban status required a hereditary lineage. Unlike in China, commoners could not sit for state-run examinations leading to official position. One had to prove membership in a yangban family, which in practice meant having a forebear who had sat for exams within the past four generations. In Korea as in China, the majority of peasant families could not spare a son to study for the exams, so upward social mobility was sharply limited. But because in Korea the limit also was specifically hereditary, people had even less mobility than in China and held attitudes toward class distinction that often seemed indistinguishable from the attitudes underlying the caste system.

Silla society's "bone-rank" system also underlined that one's status in society was determined by birth and lineage. For this reason, each family and clan maintained an extensive genealogical record, or chokpo, with meticulous care. Because only male offspring prolonged the family and clan lines and were the only names registered in the genealogical tables, the birth of a son was greeted with great felicitation.

The elite were most conscious of family pedigree. A major study of all those who passed examinations in the Chosn Dynasty (some 14,000) showed that the elite families were heavily represented; other studies have documented the persistence of this pattern into the early twentieth century. Even in 1945, this aristocracy was substantially intact, although it died out soon thereafter.

Korea's traditional class system also included a peasant majority and minorities of petty clerks, merchants, and so-called base classes (ch'ommin), that is, castelike hereditary groups (paekchng) such as butchers, leather tanners, and beggars. Although merchants ranked higher than members of low-born classes, Confucian elites frowned on commercial activity and up until the twentieth century squelched it as much as possible. Peasants or farmers ranked higher than merchants because they worked the land, but the life of the peasantry was almost always difficult during the dynasty, and became more so later on. Most peasants were tenants, were required to give up at least half their crop to landlords as tax, and were subject to various additional exactions. Those in the low-born classes were probably worse off, however, given very high rates of slavery for much of the Chosn period. One source reported more than 200,000 government slaves in Seoul alone in 1462, and recent scholarship has suggested that at one time as much as 60 percent of Seoul's population may have been slaves. In spite of slavery being hereditary, however, rates of escape from slavery and manumission also were unusually high. Class and status hierarchies also were built into the Korean language and have persisted into the contemporary period. Superiors and inferiors were addressed quite differently, and elaborate honorifics were used to address elders. Even verb endings and conjugations differed according to station.

Chosn Dynasty Confucian doctrines also included a foreign policy known as "serving the great" (sadae), in this case, China. Chosn lived within the Chinese world order, which radiated outward from China to associated states, of which Korea was the most important. Korea was China's little brother, a model tributary state, and in many ways the most important of China's allies. Koreans revered things Chinese, and China responded for the most part by being a good neighbor, giving more than it took away. China assumed that enlightened Koreans would follow it without being forced. Absolutely convinced of its own superiority, China indulged in a policy that might be called benign neglect, thereby allowing Korea substantive autonomy as a nation.

This sophisticated world order was broken up by Western and Japanese influence in the late nineteenth century. Important legacies for the twentieth century remained, however. As a small power, Korea had to learn to be shrewd in foreign policy. Since at least the seventh century, Koreans have cultivated the sophisticated art of "low determines high" diplomacy, a practice whereby a small country maneuvers between two larger countries and seeks to use foreign power for its own ends. Although both North Korea and South Korea have often struck foreign observers as rather dependent on big-power support, both have not only claimed but also strongly asserted their absolute autonomy and independence as nation-states, and both have been adept at manipulating their big-power clients. Until the mid-1980s, North Korea was masterful not only in getting big powers to fight its battles, but also in maneuvering between the Soviet Union and China to obtain something from each and to prevent either from domination. And just as in the traditional period, P'yongyang's heart was with Beijing.

Nonetheless, the main characteristic of Korea's traditional diplomacy was isolationism, even what scholar Kim Key-hyuk has called exclusionism. After the Japanese invasions of the 1590s, Korea isolated itself from Japan, although the Edo Shogunate and the Chosn Dynasty established diplomatic relations early in the seventeenth century and trade was conducted between the two countries. Korea dealt harshly with errant Westerners who came to the country and kept the Chinese at arm's length. Westerners called Korea the Hermit Kingdom, a term suggesting the pronounced hostility toward foreign power and the deep desire for independence that marked traditional Korea.

Dynastic Decline

A combination of literati purges in the early sixteenth century, Japanese invasions at the end of the century, and Manchu invasions in the middle of the seventeenth century severely debilitated the Chosn state, and it never regained the heights of the fifteenth century. This period also saw the Manchus sweep away the Ming Dynasty in China, ending a remarkable period when Korean society seemed to develop apace with China, while making many independent innovations.

The doctrinaire version of Confucianism that was dominant during the Chosn Dynasty made squabbles between elites particularly vicious. The literati based themselves in neo-Confucian metaphysics, which reached a level of abstraction virtually unmatched elsewhere in East Asia in the writings of Yi Hwang, also known as Yi T'oe-gye, who was regarded as Korea's Zhu Xi after the Chinese founder of the neo-Confucian school. For many other scholar-officials, however, the doctrine rewarded arid scholasticism and obstinate orthodoxy. First, one had to commit his mind to one or another side of abstruse philosophical debate, and only then could the practical affairs of state be put in order. This situation quickly led to so-called literati purges, a series of upheavals beginning in the mid-fifteenth century and lasting more than 100 years. The losers found their persons, their property, their families, and even their graves at risk from victors determined to extirpate their influence--always in the name of a higher morality. Later in the dynasty, the concern with ideological correctness exacerbated more mundane factional conflicts that debilitated central power. The emphasis on ideology also expressed the pronounced Korean concern with the power of ideas; this emphasis is still visible in Kim Il Sung's chuch'e doctrine, which assumes that rectification of one's thinking precedes correct action, even to the point of Marxist heresy in which ideas determine material reality. By the end of the sixteenth century, the ruling elite had so homogenized its ideology that there were few heterodox miscreants left: all were presumably united in one idea.

At the end of the sixteenth century, Korea suffered devastating foreign invasions. The first came shortly after Toyotomi Hideyoshi ended Japan's internal disorder and unified the territory; he launched an invasion that put huge numbers of Japanese soldiers in Pusan in 1592. His eventual goal, however, was to control China. The Chosn court responded to the invasion by fleeing to the Yalu River, an action that infuriated ordinary Koreans and led slaves to revolt and burn the registries. Japanese forces marched through the peninsula at will until they were routed by General Yi Sun-sin and his fleet of armor-clad ships, the first of their kind. These warships, the so-called turtle ships, were encased in thick plating with cannons sticking out at every point on their oval shape. The Japanese fleets were destroyed wherever they were found, Japan's supply routes were cut, and facing Ming forces and so-called righteous armies that rose up to fight a guerrilla war (even Buddhist monks participated), the Japanese were forced to retreat to a narrow redoubt near Pusan.

After desultory negotiations and delay, Hideyoshi launched a second invasion in 1597. The Korean and Ming armies were ready this time. General Yi returned with a mere dozen warships and demolished the Japanese forces in Yellow Sea battles near the port of Mokp'o. Back in Japan, Hideyoshi died of illness, and his forces withdrew to their home islands, where they nursed an isolationist policy for the next 250 years. In spite of the victory, the peninsula had been devastated. Refugees wandered its length, famine and disease were rampant, and even basic land relationships had been overturned by widespread destruction of registers.

Korea had barely recovered when the Manchus invaded from the north, fighting on all fronts to oust the Ming Dynasty. Invasions in 1627 and 1636 established tributary relations between Korea and the Manchu's Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The invasions, however, were less destructive than the Japanese invasions, except in the northwest where Manchu forces wreaked havoc. Thereafter, the dynasty had a period of revival that, had it continued, might have left Korea much better prepared for its encounter with the West.

The Confucian literati were particularly reinvigorated by an intellectual movement advocating that philosophy be geared to solving real problems of the society. Known as the Sirhak (Practical Learning) Movement, it spawned people like Yu Hyngwn (1622-73), from a small farming village, who poured over the classics seeking reform solutions to social problems. He developed a thorough, detailed critique of nearly all the institutional aspects of Chosn politics and society, and a set of concrete reforms to invigorate it. Chng Yag-yong (1762-1836) was thought to be the greatest of the Sirhak scholars, producing several books that offered his views on administration, justice, and the structure of politics. Still others like Yi Su-kwang (1563-1628) traveled to China and returned with the new Western learning then spreading in Beijing, while Yi Ik (1681-1763) wrote a treatise entitled Record of Concern for the Underprivileged.

A new vernacular fiction also developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much of it taking the form of social criticism. The best known is The Tale of Ch'unhyang, which argues for the common human qualities of lowborn, commoners, and yangban alike. Often rendered as a play, it has been a favorite in both North Korea and South Korea. An older poetic form called sijo, which consists of short stanzas, became another vehicle for free expression of distaste for the castelike inequities of Korean society. Meanwhile, Pak Chi-wn journeyed to Beijing in 1780 and authored Jehol Diary, which compared Korean social conditions unfavorably with his observations of China.

The economy diversified as the transplant of rice seedlings boosted harvests and some peasants became enterprising small landlords. Commercial crops such as tobacco, ginseng, and cotton developed, and merchants proliferated at big markets like those in Seoul at East Gate and South Gate, at the gate to China at iju, and at the gate to Japan at Tongnae, near Pusan. The use of coins for commerce and for paying wages increased, and handicraft production increased outside government control. The old Kory capital at Kaesng became a strong center of merchant commerce and conspicuous wealth. Finally, throughout the seventeenth century, Western learning filtered into Korea, often through the auspices of a spreading Roman Catholic movement, which especially attracted commoners by its creed of equality.