The myth of Korea's foundation by the god-king Tangun in BC 2333 embodies the homogeneity and self-sufficiency valued by the Korean people. Korea experienced many invasions by its larger neighbors in its 2,000 years of recorded history. The country repelled numerous foreign invasions despite domestic strife, in part due to its protected status in the Sino-centric regional political model during Korea's Chosun dynasty (1392-1910). Historical antipathies to foreign influence earned Korea the title of "Hermit Kingdom" in the 19th century.
With declining Chinese power and a weakened domestic posture at the end of the 19th century, Korea was open to Western and Japanese encroachment. In 1910, Japan began a 35-year period of imperial rule over Korea. Memories of Japanese annexation still recall fierce animosity and resentment by older Koreans, as a result of Japan’s efforts to supplant the Korean language and culture. Nevertheless, restrictions on Japanese movies, popular music, fashion, etc. have been lifted, and younger Koreans eagerly follow Japanese pop culture.
Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers in 1945, signaling the end of World War II, only further embroiled Korea in foreign rivalries. Division at the 38th Parallel marked the beginning of Soviet and U.S. trusteeship over the North and South, respectively. On August 15, 1948 the Republic of Korea (R.O.K.) was established, with Syngman Rhee as the first President; on September 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) was established under Kim Il Sung.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. Led by the U.S., a 16-member coalition undertook the first collective action under United Nations Command (UNC). Shifting battle lines and continuous bombing of the North inflicted a high number of civilian casualties and wrought immense destruction. Following China's entry on behalf of North Korea in 1950, and the stabilization of the front line the following summer, stalemate ensued for the final 2 years of the conflict.
Armistice negotiations, initiated in July 1951, finally concluded on July 27, 1953 at Panmunjom, in the now Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The resulting Armistice Agreement was signed by the North Korean army, Chinese People's Volunteers, and the U.S.-led and R.O.K.-supported United Nations Command. A peace treaty has never been signed, and the R.O.K. refused to sign the Armistice Agreement.
Domestically, South Korea experienced political turmoil under years of autocratic leadership. Military coups and assassinations characterized the country's first decades. But a vocal civil society emerged that led to strong protests against authoritarian rule. Composed primarily of university students and labor unions, protests reached a climax after Major General Chun Doo Hwan's 1979 military coup and declaration of martial law. A confrontation in Gwangju in 1980 left at least 200 civilians dead but consolidated nationwide support for democracy. In 1987, South Korea was able to hold its first democratic elections in many years.
In December 2002, President Roh Moo-hyun was elected to a single 5-year term of office.
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