Korea Research Paper

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The Korean peninsula is located at the eastern edge of the Asian continent, with the Yellow Sea on one side and the East Sea on the other. Although scholars have subsumed Korea’s history into discussions of East Asia (primarily China), Korean kingdoms and dynasties interacted with foreign powers long before modernization in the late nineteenth century. Today the peninsula is divided into two Koreas, North and South.

Evidence for the existence of human beings in the Korean peninsula can be traced back to about 700,000 years ago, to the foraging (Paleolithic) era. The Neolithic period, in which sedentary life began, started from almost 10,000 BCE. The first state established in Korean peninsula was Old Choson (Joseon); its mythical founding year is said to be about 4,300 years ago, and historical records confirm that it existed around the seventh–eighth century BCE. Since then, the Korean peninsula has experienced the rise and decline (during the Three Kingdoms era) of the states of Koguryo (37 BCE–668 CE), Paekche (18 BCE– 660 CE), and Shilla (Silla, 57 BCE–935 CE), whose rule overlapped; the Unified Shilla (668–935 CE); the Balhae (698–926 CE); the Koryo kingdom (918–1392); and the Choson dynasty (1392–1910).

Until the nineteenth century, scholars traditionally discussed the history of the Korean peninsula in the context of the international order of East Asia, primarily the Chinese tributary system, a basic mechanism for forming diplomatic relations with neighboring countries. As a result, it was widely assumed that Korea engaged with the world as a whole only after its opening and modernization in the late nineteenth century.

But Korean history demonstrates that Korea constantly interacted with other Asian countries and other parts of the world even before the modern period. Korea imported Buddhism and many aspects of material culture from India and Central Asia and also interacted with Arabic countries. Western culture was introduced during the Choson dynasty. Indeed, diverse exchanges with the outside world were indispensible for the development of Korean traditional culture.

Encountering the World: Prehistory–1392

The contact zone of Korea with the rest of the world during the Neolithic and Bronze Age reached as far as Siberian steppe culture, China, and Japan. The comb-pattern pottery used by Neolithic people in Korea seems to have been brought into the peninsula by Asian people from the Siberian steppe region. Bronze Age remains of more than 30,000 dolmen (single-chamber megalithic tombs) in the Korean peninsula are similar to the ones found in Liaoning in northeastern China and Kyushu in western Japan. This confirms that exchanges between these regions formed a common cultural sphere.

Cultural interaction expanded after the Iron Age during the Three Kingdoms era. The Three Kingdoms of Koguryo, Paekche, and Shilla adopted Buddhism circa the fourth century. Before that, belief systems were mainly shamanistic. Buddhism seems to have been introduced by Chinese or Indian monks via China. In the era of Unified Shilla, Korean monks such as Haecho went on pilgrimages as far as India and Arabic countries.

It is noteworthy that historical records from the period of the Three Kingdoms and the era of Unified Shilla refer to various glass products and imports from Persia and Southeast Asia. Samguk sagi (The History of the Three Kingdoms) mentions wool carpets and rugs from Persia and luxury goods from Southeast Asia. These commodities seem to have been imported through direct trade because there is some evidence of personal contacts. For example, in the painting of wrestling (Ssireum, or Korean traditional wrestling) on a Koguryo-era tomb mural, one of the wrestlers has an exotic appearance with big eyes and an aquiline nose. The stone statue of a military man standing in front of the Unified Shilla royal tomb called Kwaereung also looks foreign. It is likely that the figures were either Central Asian or Arabic.

Cultural interactions predominated with the Chinese, but were also closely linked to the maritime trades of Arabian merchants. In the seventh century, the Islamic region began its contacts with China. According to eighth-century Chinese records, south China was linked to trading routes in Indonesian waters, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the east African coast. The Three Kingdoms and the Unified Shilla may have used these sea routes when they traded with Arabian merchants.

The Silk Roads connecting China and the Western world was another important route for exchange. Koguryo envoys can be seen in the mural that depicts the reception of twelve foreign envoys in the midseventh century, discovered at the site of Afrasiab in the outskirts of Samarqand in Uzbekistan in 1965. We can infer that they were Koguryo envoys if we consider their ethnicity, dress, and the international relations of that period. They had reached Samarqand via the northern steppes in order to establish an alliance. The Three Kingdoms formed diplomatic relations not only with China but also with numerous ethnic groups and states in the northwestern steppe regions. By doing so, they were able to sustain their survival and their position as one of the axes of the East Asian order.

The Koryo kingdom (918–1392) engaged actively in international trade networks that reached as far as Arabia, and imported Indian cotton, sugar, ivory, and dyes from the south. Koryo’s historical records refer to Arabian merchants who came to the kingdom; the name “Koryo” was known to the Western world, and the modern name “Korea” is derived from it.

The Koryo fought with the Mongols for forty years. As a result of their eventual defeat in 1270, Koryo experienced Mongol intervention in its domestic affairs for a long time. While Koryo was politically controlled by the Mongols during this period, they could interact with the Islamic world through the Mongols and import information and knowledge, such as the calendar from Islam. The Map of Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Capitals produced in 1402 in the early Choson era, was based on geographical knowledge from Arabia. The map shows the territories of the world and their capitals, and includes China, the Korean peninsula, Japan, Siberia, Southeast Asia, India, the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, and Europe. This map demonstrates Koryo’s rich understanding of world geography.

The Koryo kingdom must be mentioned in the history of the print technology of the world. Print technology was developed from the early period in Korea, and the Great Dharani Sutra of Pure and Immaculate Light is the oldest existing book printed from woodblock type. This tradition might have contributed to the development of metal movable type. The Prescribed Ritual Text of the Past and Present was printed in 1234 using metal movable type, but this text no longer exists. The Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings (Jikji), published in Cheongju in 1377, is the oldest surviving book published using metal movable type. It is stored in the French National Library. The use of metal movable type in Korea occurred seventy-seven years earlier than Gutenberg’s use of movable type printing. The Koryo kingdom’s technology provided a foundation for the development of the Choson dynasty’s high quality of metal movable type technology.

Foreign Relations during the Choson Dynasty

Foreign policies of the Choson dynasty (1392–1910) were influenced by the closed-door policy of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). In addition, Japanese pirates had been thriving from the late Koryo period, and occasional trade with Southeast Asia came to an end because of Japanese piracy. Thus, Koreans interacted with foreign countries (except for China and Japan) only intermittently, and with foreigners, via shipwrecks for example, in sometimes difficult contexts. (The shipwreck of the Dutch jaght [yacht] Sperwer in 1653, and the forced detainment by the Choson government of Hendrick Hamel and thirty-six other survivors for thirteen years, attracted the attention in the Netherlands and the West when Hamel, after escaping to Japan, published a journal about this experiences in 1668.)

Korea under the Choson dynasty was not completely isolated, however, for it still communicated with the Western world, and acquired Western goods, through China. Catholicism was introduced in the seventeenth century. Korean envoys to Beijing home brought news of the scientific and religious writings of the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who was then stationed in China. At first, Catholicism was accepted as a form of scholarship, but later, as a religion.

In the nineteenth century, China revealed its weakness to expanding Western imperialist powers in East Asia. The Choson government began to waver in its perception of the West. Some Koreans, aware of Western intentions to invade, supported a maritime defense policy. Others advocated the adoption of Western technology for national interests. During this period of confusion, the Choson government signed the Treaty of Kanghwa with Japan in 1876, and concluded treaties with the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia, France and Austria. As a result, the dynasty started to develop modern international relations. Ultimately it failed to defend itself against the invasion of Japan, which was emerging as the most powerful nation-state in East Asia.

Modernization, Colonial Rule, and a Country Divided

Beginning in 1910, Korea experienced the frustration of modernization and Japanese colonial rule for thirty-six years. Right after its liberation in 1945, the Korean peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel and occupied by the Soviet Union army in the north and the U.S. army in the south. This was a reflection of the confrontation between the United States (the liberal capitalist bloc) and the Soviet Union (the communist bloc). This occupation ultimately resulted in the formal division of Korea: North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with its capital at P’yongyang; and South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea, with its capital.

The Korean War in 1950 was an expression of these conflicts and confrontations. The Korean War took the form of a civil war, but it was essentially an international proxy war. And it was the same during the war and the truce talks. The war ceased not with a peace treaty but with an armistice. The war had a tremendous impact on modern Korean history.

South Korea has accomplished dramatic economic growth since the 1960s, a feat often called the “miracle of Han River.” Further, South Korea overcame a hundred years of turmoil since its modern history began, and has successfully established and consolidated a democratic political system.

On the other hand, North Korea is officially a socialist republic, under its de facto leader Kim Jong-il; the country maintains strong ties to the People’s Republic of China and its allies in Southeast Asia—Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. In August 2009, the government’s disclosure of a uranium enrichment program caused great consternation among world leaders. Because of North Korea’s command economy, in which the government controls all aspects production and distribution, international trade is highly restricted.


  1. Cumings, B. (2005). Korea’s place in the sun: A modern history. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.
  2. Jeong, Soo-Il. (2001). Coexistence of civilizations. Paju, South Korea: Sakyejul Publishing Ltd.
  3. Lee, Ki-baik. (1984). A new history of Korea. Edward W. Wagner with Edward J. Shults (Trans.). Seoul: Ilchokak.

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