North Korea – Between China and Japan

According to Zipcodesexplorer, the prehistory of the Korean peninsula, according to what has emerged from the most recent excavations, opens with a Paleolithic culture that marks the appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens about 30,000 years BC It is believed that starting from the 5th millennium, in the Middle Neolithic, Paleo-Asian and Paleosiberian populations arrived in Korea and the development of agriculture took place. The mythical Tangun period dates back to the Neolithic culture: the legend tells that the son of heaven, Wanung, descended on earth and married a girl transformed into a bear, who gave birth to Tangun, the founder of the state of Chósen, the cradle of the Korean nation. Chósen did not resist the Chinese expansion led by Emperor Han Wu (109 BC). In its place, in the north of the peninsula, four colonies were established, one of which, Lelang, it was maintained by the Han dynasty until about 200 of the Common Era, well after the Chinese had abandoned the peninsula (38 AD), leaving it the benefits of their civilization, still today the basis of the Korean one. Around the same time, three tribal confederations were formed in the rest of Korea, Mahan, Chinan and Pyonhan. The economy of the first was based on agriculture, destined more for internal consumption than for a little developed trade. The second confederation, on the other hand, had developed not only agriculture but also sericulture and livestock breeding; the iron produced by it was famous, which was used as currency in the markets and was exported to the other states of the Han Chinese empire, as well as to the Japanese islands. Finally, the Pyonhan confederacy occupied the extreme southeastern strip of the peninsula and lacked a centralized organization; otherwise it was very similar to Chinan. The league of Kaya gradually emerged in this part of Korea, placing itself at the center of the intense trade between the Japanese archipelago and the continent; the numerous emigrants from this area formed a part of the Japanese population.

With the weakening of Han power, a series of political transformations took place in Korea, the main result of which was the evolution of tribal confederations into three main states: Koguryo, Paekche and Silla. The so-called ‘Three Kingdoms’ period lasted from the 4th century AD until the mid 7th century. From Chinese sources and archaeological finds it appears that Koguryo (with its capital in present-day Pyongyang) was the most advanced of the three kingdoms, from both a technical and cultural point of view. In many respects the kingdoms of Paekche and Silla received the influence of Koguryo, transmitting the Sino-Korean culture to Japan. Common features of the three kingdoms were the presence of central aristocracies formed by local tribal chiefs who moved to the capital, the compilation of stories in order to strengthen state identities, the introduction of Buddhism, adopted as a kind of national religion. Between 660 and 680 Silla, allied with the Chinese emperors of the Tang dynasty (618-907), succeeded in eliminating the adversaries and unifying the peninsula, governing it for the following three centuries. The new unified state experienced a form of absolute monarchy, served by a rigidly organized central administration to execute royal decrees and entrusted to an aristocratic class compensated in money and with the temporary assignment of land to be exploited.

The state of Koryo (918-1392), from which the name Korea derives, replaced that of Silla and represented the reaction of the North to the southern dominance. Its ruling class was largely made up of members of the provincial aristocracy of the Silla monarchy. The period was characterized by a preponderant influence of the Buddhist church. The monks played an important role in the state and the monasteries also played a significant part in the national economy; they were, moreover, the main centers not only religious, but also cultural and artistic. Every field of social, political and economic life was profoundly influenced by Buddhism, which remained the main religion, even when the Korean state was incorporated into the Mongol Yuan Empire, which reigned over China from 1280 to 1368, and the Mongolization of its ruling class deepened. During the Koryo era, the recruitment of bureaucracy through state examinations was carried out to a certain extent, but access to public office remained reserved for aristocratic families.

Koryo did not survive the fall of the Mongols and, a few years after the advent of the Ming in China, the Yi family took power in Korea (1392), founding a new dynasty, which with 26 monarchs would remain in power until the annexation of the Korea to Japan. The capital was moved to Hanyang, today’s Seoul. In the change, symbolized by the revival of the old name of Chósen for the reign, the Confucian nobility had played a notable part and the advent of the new dynasty had profound repercussions in the cultural as well as in the political field. The Confucian ethical system officially took the place of a now corrupt and fallen Buddhism. With the first monarchs of the Yi dynasty, Korea experienced a notable cultural flowering. Thanks to the copper casting of Chinese movable type, numerous publications on medicine, astronomy, geography, history and agriculture were printed, while the final development, around the middle of the fifteenth century, of the Korean phonetic alphabet made it possible to spread popular culture in vulgar language. Confucian academies were opened and Korean scholars offered their original contribution to the doctrinal body of Confucianism; many of them later became part of the government staff, with the intention of substituting Confucian ideals for the prevailing bureaucratic practice. During this phase of its history, Korea had to face the first invasion attempts by the Japanese, who at the end of the sixteenth century came to take over the capital, to withdraw from it following the uprising of the population and the Chinese intervention. The passage of the Japanese armies left extensive destruction in the country and the subsequent fall of the Ming dynasty in China marked a period of decline for Korea that lasted throughout the 18th century and characterized by violent fights between the nobles, which only accentuated the weakening of the country, while the entry of Christianity, introduced by missionaries from China, opened conflicts with the Confucian establishment and with the government, which repeatedly tried to suppress the first attempts by Catholic organizations.

The interventions and interference of the Western powers and of Japan progressively intensified starting from the mid-nineteenth century. The reaction of the Korean ruling class was to close the country more and more from the outside world, placing severe restrictions on any type of communication. Meanwhile, the region had become a major target of French, US, Japanese and Russian aggression. Under the pretext of ‘opening’ Korea, and of ‘liberating’ it from the traditional relationship that formally bound it to the Chinese empire, first Japan, then the United States and other powers bound it to a series of unequal treaties. To cope with the severe conditions imposed on the country, the government was forced to increase spending and, consequently, the tax levy. The result was the outbreak of the revolt which took the name of tonghak, “oriental science”, into which the starving peasant masses also converged. The rebellion, repressed in 1894 by the government with the help of foreign weapons, offered Japan the opportunity to intervene directly and begin to impose its political influence on the Korean kingdom. For a short time the country was able to maintain formal independence. In 1897 King Kojong proclaimed the ephemeral empire of Taehan, with the intention of placing the peninsula on the same level as the three neighboring monarchies, the Chinese, Japanese and Tsarist empires; but with the Treaty of Portsmouth, which in 1905 put an end to the Russo-Japanese war, the peninsula actually came under Japanese rule, first in the form of a protectorate with a resident Japanese general, and then, following the abdication of the Korean emperor in 1907 and his transfer in 1910 of all sovereign rights to the emperor of Japan, of a full-fledged colony integral part of the Japanese empire, with the ancient name of Chósen, which in Japanese means “freshness of the morning”. Japan subjected Korea to a heavy colonial regime, combining economic exploitation with political and cultural oppression and severely repressing the popular protests that took place especially starting from 1919. On 1 March of that year in Seoul, to face a massive demonstration of two million students and citizens who gathered to peacefully demand independence, the Japanese authorities unleashed the police, army and navy, causing tens of thousands of dead, wounded and arrested, most of whom were later sentenced. Other demonstrations, promoted by resistance movements animated by students and intellectuals, followed one another in 1926 and 1929, and Japan responded by accentuating the country’s militarization. With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese conflict (1937) and after Japan’s entry into the Second World War (1941), the Japanese authorities tried to completely wipe out Korea as a nation: they forced Koreans to the Shinto cult and even to adopt Japanese names, while banning institutions dedicated to the cultivation of Korean studies and closing magazines and newspapers published in the country.

The liberation of the country came only with the end of the war and with the defeat of Japan, but this was accompanied by its division into two zones of occupation, Soviet and American, respectively north and south of the 38th parallel. Although the Moscow conference of December 1945 had established the reconstitution of a unitary Korean state, it was not possible to reach an agreement to this effect and in the two occupation zones alternative structures were formed, on the basis of which it was reached in the course of 1948 the proclamation of two states, each of which claimed jurisdiction over the entire country. The Republic of Korea, with its capital city Seoul, was proclaimed on August 15, 1948 in the zone occupied by US forces, after approval by the National Assembly elected in May, a presidential constitution; the first president of the republic, Syngman Rhee, was elected in July 1948 by the National Assembly. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with its capital Pyongyang, was proclaimed on 9 September 1948 in the Soviet occupation zone following the approval, by the People’s Assembly elected in August, of a socialist constitution; head of government became the leader of the Communist Party (since 1949 Korean Workers’ Party) Kim Il Sung. The division was followed, between the end of 1948 and the middle of 1949, by the withdrawal of the Soviet and American occupation troops.

North Korea - Between China and Japan