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 Japans 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
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
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.