South Korea: A historical itinerary

What is culture? Simply speaking, it is the way of life for an entire society. Going wider and broader (like how I envision this post is going to be), it encompasses a whole plethora of domain – codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, art, law and morality, and systems of belief. Indian culture is loud and proud and so evidently visible when you step across the threshold of your home. In contrast, there’s much curiosity surrounding the Korean culture. I am not talking about the apparent “green flag” guys depicted in K-dramas, or the BTS fandom. Beyond the on-screen va va voom, the word “Korea” paints of two active borders and missiles running across it. So, what happens when my proclivity runs a little more holistic and less exclusive? Well, why don’t I take you through the journey and see if we can come to a mutual agreement! 15 days was not enough to be honest, but I have tried to organize this travelogue in terms of historical moments and its correlating place. Let’s hope I am successful.

Pride of a Country – The Korean culture

Stepping into South Korea in the chill of early November, and experiencing their unique K-culture, one thing was very evident: Koreans are immensely proud of their heritage and culture. The fact that Korea is one of the oldest countries in the world next to China, adds a significant part to their pride. Despite the unique global positioning of the peninsula, the origin of Koreans is not as clear cut and simplified as the boundary line suggests. The history, culture and philosophies of Korea can be best understood in terms of the way Koreans have interacted with their neighbors in the north (i.e. China, Manchuria and, more recently, Russia) and in the south and the east across the Korean Strait and the Sea of Japan (i.e. Japan and, more recently, the USA). And yet, every Korean identify themselves with a sense of jhung (~ kinship) to one of its founding myths of an early king, Tangun who was born when a bear prayed to become human, just by one line: “We, the descendants of Tangun . . .

Myth or not, Tangun is considered as the founding father of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom that existed during 2333 BC as per the Chinese record in a text called Guanzi. Despite the non-Chinese origin of myths and lore, the Chinese influence was a stronghold in Korean Peninsula. And it wasn’t a very unsual phenomenon to be honest. Many countries in East Asia, which were geographically adjacent at the time, characteristically showed the Chinese influence. From 100 BC to AD 313, China colonized part of the Korean Peninsula under the dictum of the Han dynasty and influenced Korea with political centralization, writing, economics, military, technology, and religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

With Goguryeo’s subsequent conquest, a new era came into existence. The Proto-Three Kingdoms period, sometimes called the Several States Period, is the time before the rise of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, which included Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje, and occurred after the fall of Gojoseon. As the name suggests, this time period consisted of numerous states that sprang up from the former territories of Gojoseon. Among these states, the largest and most influential were Eastern Buyeo and Northern Buyeo.

Historically, the Three Kingdoms Period is the one that is much touted about when it comes to the Korean history of ancient times. Existentially speaking, its hard to imagine three swords in the same scabbard, but history paints a very colorful picture. The Three Kingdoms period, generally recognized as the 4th century through 668, was a time of war. At one time or another, each of the three kingdoms was the most powerful. And at one time or another, the other two formed alliances against the third. Each in turn broke alliances. It is not surprising that Buddhism, a philosophy that transcends family and nation and looked into value of life and death, was so successful at this time.

Unlike what the name of the period suggests, there were originally four kingdoms – Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla and Gaya. While the kingdoms Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla ensured their survival well into the 7th century, Gaya, which fell to Silla in the mid-sixth century, is often overlooked, but it played an important role in the formation of Korea. Goguryeo (also spelled as Koguryŏ) was a highly militaristic state that occupied a vast territory and regularly contested for control of the Korean Peninsula. In fact, that is how the source of the modern name of Korea came to be. History documents the flourishing rule of Yeongnak Taewang (“Supreme King” or “Emperor” Yeongnak) – Gwanggaeto who ensured that Goguryeo was on equal standing as an empire with the imperial dynasties in China. Numerous military conflicts with various Chinese dynasties falls under the “badge of honour” of Goguryeo, most notably the Goguryeo–Sui War, in which Goguryeo defeated a huge force (traditionally said to be over a million men), and contributed to the Sui dynasty’s fall.

Interestingly, Baekje follows the same founding myths as Goguryeo having been established by a Goguryeo prince. However, in contrast to its sibling state, Baekje established itself as a great maritime power which made it the Phoenicia of East Asia. The maritime skills thus obtained was instrumental in the dissemination of Buddhism throughout East Asia, along with Chinese characters, iron-making as shown by the infamous Gilt-bronze incense burner, advanced pottery, and ceremonial burial.

In contrast, the kingdom of Silla emerged as a sea power largely due to its territory which included the port city of Busan. However, More than its sea power, it was the diplomatic alliances and opportunistic pacts that contributed to the Silla reign. With the support of China’s Tang dynasty, Silla first conquered the Baekje in 660 AD and then Goguryeo in 668 AD. Opportunistic pettiness aside, and with the fall of Goguryeo, Silla succeeded in unifying the Korean Peninsula for the first time during 7th century, thus allowing for the first united Korean national identity.

Considering the widespread influence of the Han dynasty of China within Korean politics, interestingly the reunification in China preceded the Unification in Korea. Following the Silla-Tang War of 676 AD, the golden era of Unified Silla was established. The unification of Korea brought about far-reaching changes in government, including the adoption of Chinese-style structures and an enlarged role for the king and the central government, accompanied by an increasingly wealthy aristocracy. Buddhism flourished during this period as monasteries such as establishment of the Bulguksa Temple. The influence of such a rich inheritance can still be seen as you walk along the streets of Gyeongju. The former capital of Unified Silla was considered as the crossroad of trade between China and Japan. As the Persians called it “In this beautiful country Silla, there is much gold, majestetic cities and hardworking people. Their culture is comparable with Persia.

From Three Kingdoms Silla through Unified Silla, there are more than 300 tombs covering nearly 1,000 years of Silla culture located within Tumuli Park. Silla buried their dead kings and nobles in huge earthen tombs, some of which approached 50 feet in height. The tombs are partly the reason for naming the whole region of Gyeongju, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most famous of these tombs is Geumgwanchong Tomb which was excavated in the 1970s and provided the only known extant painting from the Silla era.  Another prime attraction indicating the Silla domain is located within the Wolseong Park – the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in the East Asia. The Cheomseongdae observatory dates back to the 7th century AD and comprised of 366 stones that are supposed to represent the length of a year, built in 27 layers which honored the 27th ruler Queen Seondeok, and the 12 base stones are meant to represent the months. The park is also known for another non-historical feature – Pinky Muhly fields.  

Unified Silla lasted for 267 years until King Gyeongsun surrendered the country to Goryeo in 935 AD, after 992 years and 56 monarchs. And there’s no better place to appreciate this nugget of history than the Gyeonju National Museum. The museum is said to house over 80,000 relics, of which only 2,500 can be displayed at any one time. The most famous artifact of this museum would be the infamous Emille Bell. Also known as the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, the bell was cast in 711 AD and weighs a whopping 18.9 tons, making it the largest bell in Asia.  The bell is rung by a wooden battering ram from the outside, not by a clapper inside the bell, as in the West. The bell’s purpose is to call all sentient beings to worship the Buddha. According to the Korean legends, when the bell was first made, it would not ring so it was melted down to be recast.  The head priest then threw a child into the molten pit and when the bell was finally rung, the sound it made was “Emi, emi, emi, emile”, which means “Mommy, mommy, mommy, for your sake”. And hence a gory name and legend came to be associated with a religious artifact.

It is far too easy to remove historical details, especially when kingdom strength doesn’t register on the pages of major historical events. Balhae, the Prosperous Country in the East, was one such instance. Balhae was founded only 30 years after Goguryeo had fallen, and adopted the cultural nuances and policies of the Tang dynasty. Since Balhae was relatively a weaker kingdom, it was easily conquered by the Khitan-led Liao dynasty in 926. Large numbers of refugees, including Dae Gwang-hyeon, the last crown prince of Balhae, were welcomed by Goryeo kingdom. The effects of war had already eliminated all historical records of Balhae. Once Goryeo absorbed Balhae territory, it compiled no known histories of Balhae either. Credit goes to the Joseon dynasty historian Yu Deuk-gong who advocated the proper study of Balhae as part of Korean history, and coined the term “North and South States Period” to refer to this era.

Goryeo dynasty, founded by Wang Geon in 918, emerged as the ruling dynasty of Korea by 936 since it was considered as the successor of the former Goguryeo dynasty. Goryeo (also spelled as Koryŏ) reign lasted for nearly 500 years, from 918 to 1392, enjoyed years of peace, while withstanding chaotic years of war. Some of the most noteworthy battles under Koryŏ reign would be the Goryeo-Sui confrontations and Goryeo-Khitan war. Unlike former rulers, Koryŏ is better known for its cultural achievements than for its wars or politics. Koryŏ was responsible for developing the first civil system and laws, and Koryŏ celadon the pride and joy of Korean culture. The Koryŏ dynasty also saw two unique developments in the field of printing: The largest collection of Buddhist scripture was carved in the early 13th century on 81,258 printing blocks engraved with 52,330,152 characters from the Hanja script. Tripitaka Koreana is organised over 1496 titles and 6568 volumes and is the pride and joy of Haeinsa temple. At about the same time Korea was the first country in the world to develop metal movable typography, about 200 years before Johannes Gutenberg developed typography in Europe.

As fate would have it, politics is truly a fickle friend. Korea was under the control of the military when the greatest challenge to its independence came: the invasion of the Mongols. Koryŏ’s first contact with the Mongols, in the early 13th century, was as an ally against the Khitan. Interestingly, the Choe military regime in Korea connected the dots with two different historical tangents that invariably changed the game of destiny. At the time of the Choe military government in Korea, the military rulers governed Japan. The Japanese bakufu ruled for more than 700 years, while the house of Choe was in control for only four generations (62 years). Both transitions to military rule, however, occurred within 10 years of each other. The Japanese bakufu came to power in 1160, 10 years before Chong Chungbu’s takeover in Korea. Korea returned to civilian rule after 62 years in 1258, but Japan remained under the control of military overlords until late 19th century.

The second historical tangent of Choe military government leads to the Mongol invasions of 1231. The invasion not only started a tribute system that called on an asset that the Chinese had never asked for: slaves. It is estimated that the Mongols hauled off at least 200,000 slaves during the time they controlled Korea, from 1231 to 1368. As part of the peace treaty that came into existence after the fall of the military regime, for the next eight generations, each Korean king relinquished the crown prince, allowing him to be raised in Beijing, and each king had a Mongol mother and a Mongol wife. No Chinese dynasty dominated the Korean court as thoroughly as did the Mongols. For this reason, Yuan dynasty of China called Korea a “son-in-law kingdom,” since the emperor’s daughters would marry the Korean king. But at the same time, Korea was also the “mother” kingdom, or at least the kingdom that provided the mother of the emperor.

Portrait of Kind Taejo, the founder of Joseon dynasty in the royal attire ‘gollyongpo’. The early Joseon kings wore blue in accordance with the taditions of the preceding Goreyeo dynasty. Red was adoped during the reign of King Sejong. Dragons were a prominent symbol of the king or the emperor.

With the fall of Yuan dynasty in China, a new dynasty came into rule during 1392 in Korea – The Chosun dynasty (or the Yi dynasty, or the Joseon dynasty), established under the reign of Koryŏ’s former General Yi Songgye who later renamed himself as King Taejo, the “temple name” for kings in the Chinese fashion. Since King Taejo decided to revise all the norms in order to be part of history, it comes as no surprise that he also relocated the capital of his new kingdom to Hanyang, today’s Seoul, capital of South Korea. Immediately after this strategic move, Gyeongbokgung palace was initially built as the central court in 1395. Afterwards, the palace was continuously expanded during the reign of King Taejong and King Sejong the Great. It was severely damaged by fire in 1553, and subsequently underwent a costly restoration under the orders of King Myeongjong. Four decades later, the entire Gyeongbokgung Palace was torched by the Koreans as an aftermatch to the Japanese invasions of Korea of 1592-1598. Gwanghwamun Gate (first image below) is the main entrance into Gyeongbokgung Palace, and so it is also the largest and most imposing of the four gates. The more popular tourist hangout would be the Heungnyemun gate. Other than the tourist and instagrammers, you can easily identify this gate by the presence of Gatekeepers who stand on duty on two-hour shift.

Geunjeongmun gate is the south gate of Geunjeongjeon, the main hall of Gyeongbokgung Palace. It is surrounded by corridors on both sides and characteristically displays the dapo style of architecture that was famous during the Chosun (or Joseon) dynasty. The gate is divided into three separate aisles, and only the king was allowed to walk through the center. The first building that you encounter is the Geunjeongjeon Hall which is known as the throne hall and is the largest and most formal hall of the entire complex. The building has been designated as Korea’s National Treasure since 1985. Records state that the name Geunjeongjeon was created by the minister Jeong Do-jeon one of King Taejo’s right-hand man, and means “diligent governance hall”. Under the canopy of this room, there is a special screen painted with auspicious scenes of sun, moon, five mountain peaks and pine trees which represents the absolute and the eternal power of the Joseon King.

For the many tourists seeking out royal palaces in Korea, the primary attraction is usually Gyeongbokgung, the largest of the Five Grand Palaces built during the Joseon dynasty. However, amongst the five, Changdeokgung was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 as an “outstanding example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design“. The fact that the portions of the palace were used to film the hugely popular Korean drama Dae Jang Geum adds further to its attraction for K-drama lovers. Built in accordance with Confucian and pungu principles when it comes to its site selection and architectural styles, the palace served as the site of the royal court and the seat of government up until 1868. History documents that the palace was built as a result of power struggle between brothers. Construction of Changdeokgung Palace began in 1405 during the reign of King Taejong, and was completed in 1412.

The dynasty was well set up, but it was not without its problems. King Taejo had two wives and eight sons, six by the first wife and two by the second, which historically resulted in the Strife of Princes. The result of the strife was establishment of second King Taejong’s reign, who ensured the continuity of the family line for the next 500 years despite killing many of his rivals and relatives to gain power. His effective rule included various socioeconomic, political and administrative reforms that improved the populace’s lives, strengthen national defense, and laid down a solid foundation for his successor (and more popular) Sejong’s rule.

Sejong’s accomplishments are legendary. He commissioned research and publications in medicine, pharmacology, and agronomy especially considering the unique environment of Korea. He contributed to the development and advancement of various inventions related to agriculture, including the rain gauge, water clock, and sun dial. All of King Sejong’s policies were intended to improve the lives of the populace, which is why he has be named as the Ruler for the People.

Of all of Sejong’s accomplishments, by far his greatest and the one for which he is best known was the creation of hangul, the Korean alphabet. You see, the strong relations with China over centuries, resulted in a strong influence of Chinese, especially the use of pronounciations of ‘Hanja’, the Chinese characters. ‘Hanja’ was being largely used by the native population as a means of writing while using their native language for speaking. Various efforts were made by the Koreans to adopt Chinese characters in the writing systems – ‘Idu’ i.e. placing the characters in Korean word order, ‘Hyangchal’ which referred to the order, grammar elements and vocabulary in Korean style, and ‘Gugyeol’ which was written next to Chinese characters for reading comprehension. Another greater limitation was that only the upper class were literate because only they were conversant in Chinese, both in the way the Chinese themselves used it and in the specialized way that Koreans had developed it. Understanding that in an era where literacy is considered as power, King Sejong tried to redistribute this power by creating simple letters.

Hanguel is the only alphabet in the world whose creation details were recorded in a book. The document is Hunminjeongeum, which provides an explanation on the background and principles behind the creation of Hanguel and illustrates when, how and by whom Hanguel was reinvented. In his attempt to prove the efficiency of his common language, Sejong first tried writing 125 poems in Hanguel. After that, he continued to experiment with Hanguel spelling rules that could more accurately express Korean language, but also transfer the pronunciations of Chinese characters in Hanguel. King Sejong originally made 28 Hanguel characters, but today’s Hanguel is 24 characters (10 vowels and 14 consonants) in total. The four letter that disappeared are because the usage became obsolete. As such, Hanguel is a live document that gets adapted to changes in Korean and will continue to transform. The National Hanguel Museum, probably my most favorite building ever, proudly showcases the cultural and political context, linguistic structure and evolution of the Korean alphabetical character system.

The pride and joy of its countrymen is often established in the way they express their identity. And nothing captures that integral nuance better than the way Hanguel has revitalised the entire Korean peninsula. The greatest challenge to hanguel’s survival came from Sejong’s son, King Sejo. Because Sejo (b. 1417) usurped the throne, people wrote criticisms of him in hanguel. In response, Sejo outlawed the use of the alphabet and burned the books already printed in it. Thereafter, the alphabet was seen as somewhat subversive and was used only in clandestine for the rest of the dynasty, from the late 15th century until the late 19th century.

If there are three things, that I would take back as a unique identifier of South Korea, it would be its 3Hs – Hanguel, Hanbok and Hanok. Nothing defines cultural identity of a country and its people more than how they speak, what they wear, and how they live. The origin of the Hanok can be dated back to the founding of Korea, reflecting a way of life, interweaves with social and political history. The role as a dwelling associated with personal identity originated primarily during the Joseon period. Beyond the authenticity of using simple hand tools and zero nails for constructing these buildings, the unique impact of Confucianism in Korean home life can seen with the demarcation between rooms and location of each space for men and women. The Bukchon Hanok Village comprises of 900 hanoks that once housed the upper-crust of Joseon society.

Interestingly, many of the conflicts that was seen during the Middle Joseon period were largely based on the religious ideologies that were largely prevalent or adopted. For instance, while Buddhism and Confucianism entered Korea at roughly the same time (between the 4th and 6th centuries), Buddhism gained a stronger hold during the Silla period and though much of the Koryo period (918-1392). For instance, the founding father of Koryo dynasty drafted Ten Injunctions that combined the affirmations of both Buddhism and Confucianism as a guiding tool for Koryo successors.

Confucianism, on the other hand, gained a greater momentum during the Koryo period and came to dominate the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) completely. Confucian ideology was largely based on actions based on rightful criticism and its two fundamental principles of statecraft – virtue and merit. In order to govern, one must first be able to successfully govern oneself. As such Offices of Censorate was established – one office monitored the king, the second monitored the bureaucracy and the third took on censoring duties. The bureaucratic constraints pushed the “usurper successors” of Sejong into successive purges against the “government”.

But beyond the internal political factions and conflicts, the Middle Joseon period also marked by another significant event that would forever change Korean history – The Japanese invasion. Looking at the widespread influence of China throughout East Asia, it comes as no surprise that Japan’s military rule also looked at building an expansive and inclusive territory which called for an “imperial road” through Korea. Considering the complicated fraternal relationships thanks to Choe regime and Mongol invasions, Joseon
Koreans were insulted by the request and reacted with due outrage. Underestimating the superiority of Japanese warfare and their weaponry would be the first dent to the Joseon regime. Unlike the Three Kingdoms of Korean peninsula, the Joseon dynasty was built at a time when there was peace everywhere. Beyond moderate border skirmishes and internal power struggles, the Joseon dynasty had no combat experience; a complete contrast to the warring clans of Japan who have been unified under another warlord. Another interesting fact was that unlike the Japanese military regimes that mandated soldiers to be groomed from a young age, the Confucian philosophy during Joseon rule largely valued education and scholarships as a way of life to gain social success and hierarchy.

Imjin war – Invasion of Busan (left) and Japanese armour which consists of a yoroi (the body) and kabuto (helmet) for the head

The salvation for Korea came in the form of Chinese intervention on land and Korean naval success at sea under the leadership of Yi Sun-Shin. Admiral Yi had prepared a strong navy whose fleet included some “turtle boats,” ships with a protective covering of metal plates to make them impervious to the fire arrows of the enemy. These turtle boats were the first ironclad warships in the world. More than the ships, however, Admiral Yi’s knowledge of the Korean waters and skill in planning an attack were the decisive factors in Korea’s naval victories. Even today his war diary “Nanjung Ilgi” provides a front row view to the action of his time against the Japanese invaders. The diary has been added to UNESCO’s International Memory of the World Registers.

The war may have been about contending between Chinese and Japanese supremacy. But between the two squabbling giants, Korea was left as the whipping boy. The aftermath of Imjin War left 2 million to 4 million Koreans dead and destroyed most of the homes and farms of the countryside. All five palaces in Seoul had been burned; the main palace was not rebuilt until 1865. In contrast, Japan lost soldiers and sailors, but its people and land were not affected by the war. The Ming dynasty of China had spent so much of its capital and manpower in the war with Japan that it became vulnerable to its northern neighbors, the Manchu who toppled the Ming dynasty and set up their own rulers, the Qing dynasty, in 1644. In order to ensure loyalty amongst existing allies, the new dynasty of China also invaded Korea and added fire by hijacking the crown prince and his siblings.

The Ming-to-Qing confrontation raised a philosophical and religious problem for the Joseon Koreans. Ming was the “older brother” in Confucian terms, but the Qing, as the usurpers, was not worthy of elder brother status. This moral dilemma pushed Joseon toward increased orthodoxy in their practice of Confucianism. Since older brother was gone, it was up to younger brother to maintain Confucian standards. The dilemma started entering into court politics: Confucianism became so important that an exact analysis of proper ceremonies was important in Korea, which had become the repository of orthodox Confucianism since the Chinese court has been reinvented. The debilitating social order of the 1800s Korea along with conservative and inept Confucianism philosophy added to the downfall of a dynasty.

Building further on this narrative, the invasions also added to a deep-seated paranoia that led the leaders to ban all foreign travel and visitors. A strictly limited trade was permitted with Japan, and occasionally Korean envoys were sent to the court of the shogun at the Japanese capital of Edo. Though Korea acknowledged its subordination to China and the legitimacy of China’s new Qing (Manchu) dynasty, it kept the border along the Yalu River closed. This led to the description of Korea as the “Hermit Country”, having all its doors to the outside world closed for 400 years until 1873.

However, self-imposed isolationism is rarely successful completely. Within its sealed borders, Korea continued to change, sometimes fussing over the details of court ritual or the rules of inheritance to bring them into line with Confucian orthodoxy and at times giving birth to intellectual ferment that analyzed society and human relations in a fresh way. Outside of the sealed borders, Western imperialism started spreading its wings. Western ideologies started trickling in via Western books translated into Chinese brought in by Korean envoys. Catholic missionaries may have begun showing an interest in Korea as early as the 16th century with the arrival of the first Portuguese entourage with the invading Japanese army. Many Koreans were attracted to the doctrines of Christianity in the form of Catholicism, which Koreans
called “Western Learning” and saw as a more egalitarian religion than Confucianism. By the late 18th century Korea had its first native Christians. By 1856, the infant Korean Catholic church was said to house to almost 17000 faithful. During the mid-1860s the Regent was the main proponent of isolationism and the instrument of the persecution of native and foreign Catholics. By the end of the 18th century, Catholicism became popular enough for the state to ban it, but it continued to grow in the face of active persecution.

By the time the Heungseon Daewongun assumed de facto control of the government in 1864 as the father of the minor King, there were twelve French Jesuit priests living and preaching in Korea, and an estimated 23,000 native Korean converts. Heungseon Daewongun established and effective to campaign to control state policy and isolation especially after knowing the Western incursions in East Asia. The first attempt at opening Korea for trading was made by America in 1866. In the same year, a Hungarian adventurer named Ernst Oppert attempted to kidnap the bones of Regent Daewongun’s father since he was aware that as per the Confucian principles, the descendants of a man would have good or bad fortune depending on where his ancestors’ bones were buried. In 1871, U.S. authorities sent a small expedition to inquire into the fate of the missing merchant ship the SS General Sherman, and the French sent a small expedition to inquire into reports of the execution of French priests in anti-Catholic purges. unfortunately for a conservative ruler, all these incidents added to Heungseon’s impression of Westerners as barbarians.

Unhyeongung Palace or the Royal Residence of Regent Heungseon and his family, including the Emperor Gojong, 26th king of the Joseon dynasty. The palace complex spanned all the way to Changdeokgung palace, the main palace at that time. The complex is a source of information into the last 5 decades of the Chosun period. Norakdang Hall and Noandang Hall were built in 1864, Irodang Hall and Yeongnodang Hall in 1969.

In 1876, Japan enforced the Ganghwa Treaty, an unequal treaty of amity and trade. The treaty declared that Korea was an independent state, meaning that it was no longer a tributary state of the Qing dynasty. The treaty also ensured that three ports were furthered opened up to Japanese trade. Later supplements to the treaty contained provisions that privileged Japanese commercial interests. Other powers soon signed similar treaties: the Americans in 1882, the British and Germans in 1882 (ratified in 1884), the Russians and Italians in 1884, and the French in 1886. The Chinese, too, moved to establish closer ties with Korea. In 1897, in an effort to defend the nation’s sovereignty against foreign powers, King Gojong changed the name of the state from the Joseon dynasty to that of Korean Empire, thus becoming Emperor Gojong. At the same time, the Grangmu Reform of the Emperor was initiated from 1897 to 1907, with an aim to modernize and westernize the Korean empire. The reforms staged the fundamental background for future Korean development in infrastructure, reforming the economy and creating a nucleus for modern bureaucracy and military. However, in 1894–1895, China’s defeat during the Sino–Japanese War, left Korea open for attack.

But the turn of event that cemented Japanese colonial rule was the savage assassination of Queen Min (often referred to by her posthumous title, Empress Myeongseong), wife to the Emperor, on October 1895, in the palace by Japanese samurai for her pro-Chinese stance. Following this, in 1904–1905, the Russo–Japanese War produced another Japanese victory that reduced the status of Korean empire further. In 1910, Japan forcibly abolished the nation’s sovereignty, asserting control over all national affairs and initiating the Japanese colonial Period that lasted till 1945 when World War II ended. The colonial period saw the development of a modern civil service, a postal system, newspapers, banks, corporations, and trade associations as well as capitalism and the response to capitalism, including trade unions and leftist organizations. Korea during this period changed from a society largely dependent on the peasantry to one that became dominated by an industrial class and wage work.

Among Koreans today, North and South, the mere mention of the idea that Japan somehow “modernized” Korea calls forth indignant denials, raw emotions, and the sense of mayhem having just been, or about to be, committed. But then I wonder, are there truly any colonial colony that will speak with fondness of the atrocities of the bygone era! Unlike the Confucian administration and tradition, the Japanese way of rule carried an intrusiveness and efficiency that reached even the lowest levels of Korean society. The 35 years of Korea as a Japanese colony can be best captured through subtle nuances left behind – cultural influences, people’s memories, and technological innovations.

Baek In-je House in Gahoe-dong, Bukchon is a classic example of Japanese influence in Korea. Built in 1913 during the colonial rule, the building is modern uptake of hanok with two-storeyed sarangchae (men’s quarters) and anchae (women’s quarters) connected through the hallway unlike traditional hanoks of Joseon dynasty where sarangchae and anchae are separated. In addition, you can find Japanese architectural elements such as tatami mats, red bricks, and glass windows, which were distinctive features at the time.

The Cultural Policy Period (1919–31) which was marked with abundance of cultural creativity while catering to subtle censorship and suppression; and the Assimilation Period (1931–45) was considered as a feverish attempt to eradicate the Korean culture. In the Korean collective memory today, Japan represents the invasion of 1592 and the colonial takeover in 1910. Koreans talk of how they had to change their names to Japanese names and emphasize that they could not use their own language or write in their own alphabet. One can describe it as a “core” memory, associated with heavy-handed policies that came with
the Japanese in 1910, even though the name law and language prohibition were not implemented until 1939, and the last phase of the occupation which was governed by a time of war and extreme deprivation.

Beyond the digs at cultural identity, the worst situation that was conscripted for the Koreans was the implementation of comfort corps, a euphemism for young women forced to serve as prostitutes for the soldiers of the Japanese empire. Among them were Japanese women as well as those of conquered lands, including Chinese, Filipinas, Burmese, Pacific Islanders, and even a few Dutch women captured when Japan took over Indonesia, but the largest contingent of women in the comfort corps were Korean, as high as 80 percent by some estimates.

Few sights inflame a Korean’s nationalistic feelings more than a map that labels the body of water between Korea and Japan the “Sea of Japan.” Korea argues vehemently that that body of water should be called the East Sea. The other way of instigating a reaction would be the topic of Comfort Corps. The desire to hush up shameful things rather than embarrass family members, a concept typical in most Asian societies, may account for the women’s long silence, but in the late 1980s the silence was broken. As the local guide explained during our walk through in DMZ, once the silence was broken, every year, silent vigil is held in Seoul with the hope that the current Japanese government will acknowledge the depravity committed, issue and apology and due reparations, and provide an official number that will help provide closure to many.

Japan’s defeat freed Korea from its rule, but an argument between the United States and the Soviet Union left a bittersweet liberation. The war did not damage the Korean Peninsula in terms of any war-related casualties. Lives were lost of only those Koreans who were scattered to places where the fighting actually happened. The main loss that Korea sustained was the loss of its unity and the subsequent peace of mind.

While Japan surrendered south of the 38th parallel, the Soviet Union set up a communist regime in the North. Kim Il Sung arrived in the Soviet occupation zone of Korea in October 1945, the same month that Syngman Rhee arrived in the American occupation zone. In 1947, the United Nations proposed to hold supervised general elections. North Korea rejected the offer. On August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was proclaimed, with Rhee as its first president. Less than a month later, on September 9, Kim Il Sung proclaimed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

In 1949, the US reduced its defense, and on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Koreans do not call it the “Korean War.” Rather, they refer to it as the “June 25 Incident,” the date the sudden invasion of Seoul had penetrated the national consciousness. Seoul, which had the misfortune of being quite close to the 38th parallel, was taken in three days. The ‘‘Forgotten War,’’ left 1.3 million people dead and 2.8 million wounded, and destroyed one-fourth of the resources and wealth and half the infrastructure of the country. Even today, Korea spends 6% of its GNP every year on defense. They have the fifth largest military force in the world. And, walking in close proximity world’s most dangerous and active demilitarized zone reinforces the eerie aftermath of countless stories untold.

The Compatriot’s Spirit is a unique installation that is present in the War Memorial, representing the glory of today that Korean race have attained by overcoming the tribulations through the Great Union. The skeins of thread of both sides of the knot represent the history of tribulations that the Korean race have suffered while the knot in the middle symbolizes the Mugunghwa, the Rose of Sharon, the national flower of Korea. Interesting, the Great Union is the only way that they know and hope for – to overcome a national crisis and regain national prosperity and cultural identity.

Please note, despite the exhaustive long post, if you have managed to reach the very end, here is a list of places that has been covered with regards to this post.

Bukchon VillageGyeongju National Museum
Gyeongbokgung PalaceCheomseongdae Observatory
Changdeokgung PalaceBulguksa temple
Gwanghwamun SquareDaereungwon Tomb Park
Unhyeongung PalaceCheonmachong
Jongmyo ShrineGyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village
Bongeunsa temple
Jogyesa temple
Myeongdong Cathedral
National Hanguel Museum
National Museum of Korea
The War Memorial of Korea
Seoul Station
Bank of Korea
Seodaemun Prison Museum
Demilitarized Zone

Recent (and not-so recent) Posts:

South Korea


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