Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Understanding the Koreas: A Report of FPRI’s History Institute for Teachers

Understanding the Koreas: A Report of FPRI’s History Institute for Teachers

Walter McDougall opened the conference, speaking of Northeast Asia’s role as “a major hinge, and at times the most important hinge, of global geopolitics.” One could even argue that World War I was a direct result of the 1904 Russo-Japanese War over the Russians’ penetration into Manchuria and northern Korea. That war led the French and the British, who were allied with the two sides, to sign the Entente Cordiale; defeat by Japan led Russia to redirect its foreign policy ambitions to the Balkans, where its support for Serbia nationalism lit the fuse that ignited World War I. This was not to suggest that the current tension on the peninsula will lead to a global conflagration, “but then, no one expected that in 1904, either.” Lucien Ellington, a senior fellow of FPRI’s Marvin Wachman Fund for International Education and editor of Education about Asia, noted that we need to understand Korea in its own right, with its culture older than even Japan’s.

“The Shrimp Between Two Whales”

Edward J. Shultz, professor of Asian Studies at University of Hawaii at Manoa, addressed the importance of the perception of Korea as “the shrimp between two whales,” China and Japan, in geopolitics. But Koreans are proud of their own long history. Artifacts date its civilization back to the Paleolithic age, and its written history begins at the dawn of the common era. Inventions made there include woodblock printing; the first moveable metallic print, in 1239; and ironclad vessels—the “turtle ships” used to stave off the Japanese—in the 1590s. It was an early master of ceramics, and perfected celadon beginning in the tenth century.

Koreans remain bitter to this day about Korea having been made into a Japanese colony (1910-45), but in addition to exploiting the nation, Japan did implement successful modernization efforts, and sparked Korean nationalism. Korea’s lingering resentments are seen in the major issues today between the nations over Japanese history textbooks, for instance, and sovereignty over the Tokdo islands in the East Sea (Sea of Japan).

North Korea has 22 million people and South Korea 46 million. Together, Korea would be the world’s 16th-largest country. Its division into two countries in 1945, which was to have been temporary, split a unified, harmonious nation in two and led to the 1950-53 Korean War, which left 3 million dead and destroyed the nations’ infrastructure.

By 1948 Kim Il-sung had consolidated his power in North Korea, over which he reigned until his death in 1994, at which time his son, Kim Jung-il, assumed power. The collapse of the Soviet Union deprived the country of its major source of aid, ruining much of its infrastructure and agriculture. In South Korea, Gen. Park Chung-hee, who toppled founder Rhee Syng-man in the 1960s, got the country organized and on the road to an economic take-off. Democracy followed, with Kim Young-sam becoming the first civilian elected president (1992), followed by Kim Dae-jung (1997) and Roh Moo-hyun (2002).

South Korea is now one of the most open societies in Asia, a cultural influence globally, and an economic success story, all made possible by its commitment to education. In America, where Koreans have had a strong presence since 1893, they have the highest self-employment rate of any ethnic group. Meanwhile North Korea’s economy is smaller than that of New Hampshire. The North also feels threatened, with no backer since the fall of the Soviet Union. It has only the nuclear card.

Early Korean History

Milan Hejtmanek, assistant professor of history at University of Pennsylvania, also emphasized how deeply Koreans care about their long past. He reviewed the earliest Chinese settlements in Korean peninsula and the subsequent Three Kingdoms period, with the rise of the Koguryo kingdom (37 BC – 668 CE) in southern Manchuria and northern Korea; Paekche (18 BCE – 660 CE) around the Han River Basin; and Silla (57 BCE – 936 CE) in the southern part of Korea. Today, the boundaries between these ancient kingdoms still have political meaning: in the 1992 presidential election, one candidate came from each of the three kingdom areas. Large portions of Koguryo are now in North Korea, and although Korea had been unified for 1,000 years, once the nation was split in 1945, it was easy for North Korea to fall back onto its Koguryo heritage, which was discriminated against in the 19th century and with which North Korea strongly identifies.

Koguryo was a warrior race that arose around the time of the Roman Empire; its ancient capital of Guonei on the Yalu River moved to Pyongyang in 427. Korea’s territorial demarcation with China is still disputed, and a strong irredentist movement in South Korea believes that Korea’s destiny lies in recapturing its lost territory. Many Korean ethnics have their own autonomous zone in Yanbian (Manchuria) and identify with South Koreans, who view that zone proprietarily. Many North Koreans have fled, for economic and other reasons, into Manchuria, and this would become a flood should North Korea collapse.

The Paekche kingdom is a challenge to historians. It has connections to both the north and Japan, and became a bitter enemy to Koguryo. Paekche arts were of the highest sophistication and greatly influenced the Japanese, who also learned to read and write from Koreans, who had achieved literacy earlier via the Chinese.

Silla was the smallest of the kingdoms. Initially Paekche’s ally, it became its enemy once it was strong enough. It made a dangerous alliance with Tang China, which used it to defeat the other states in the 660s. Silla then united the remnants of the other states into the Unified Silla State, which had wide-ranging contacts with the world. (The notion of Korea as a hermit kingdom may explain Korea in the 19th century, but not in these early years.) Silla came apart by the 19th century, and 20th-century Korean nationalists lambasted Silla for having thrown away their patrimony.

A successor to the three kingdoms, the Koryo kingdom (918 – 1392), extended Korean territory considerably, from Silla to the Yalu River, and moved the capital north to Kaesong—the probable future capital of a unified Korea, halfway in between Seoul and Pyongyang. It featured a “twin ranks” system, yangban, of civil and military aristocrats, civilian rule, and a focus on education. Then came the Mongol invasions, and in 1259 Kubla Kahn made Koryo a “son-in-law state”: Koryo princes would marry Mongol princesses, which spared Koryo further ravages and gained it new technologies.

The Choson dynasty that reigned from 1392 until 1910 forcibly required Koreans to go it on their own. T’aejo, the first emperor, banned Koreans from study in China, and travel there was minimized. Under King Sejong the Great, Korea led the world in topography, astronomy, linguistics, music, and medicine, and in 1443 it finished creating its own alphabet, the highly phonetic hangul. But Japanese invasions brought China in, an eerie prefiguration of Korean war. The Japanese retreated after six inconclusive years of battle, and Korea was left with a permanent mistrust of Japan.

Modern Korean History, 1876-1953

G. Cameron Hurst III, professor and director of the Center for East Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania (and FPRI Senior Fellow), covered Korea’s forced opening by imperialism. It lost its sovereignty, suffered 36 years of colonial rule, was divided into two nations, and survived a destructive civil war with international intervention. This is not past, dead history, but is very much alive today.

As this period began in 1876, Korea was indeed what could be called a “hermit kingdom.” But the 1876 Treaty of Kanghwa opened Korea up to interaction with and exploitation by foreign powers. The treaty is something of a Japanese version of Commodore’s Perry’s treaty opening up Japan. It gave Japan three ports, extraterritoriality, residential rights, and commercial privileges. “Enlightenment” advocates then urged modernization and “self-strengthening” against China. An 1882 treaty with the U.S. led to relations with other Western powers and also is the root of anti- Americanism: though the treaty called for the U.S. to “use its good offices on Korea’s behalf,” Koreans feel that the U.S. did little to discourage the Japanese from colonizing it.

A soldiers’ revolt that same year was emblematic of the clash between forces of modernity and tradition. Chinese forces came in to keep order, and Yuan Shih-k’ai soon became resident Minister, with Chinese and foreigners such as Paul Georg von Mollendorff as “advisors.” He tried in harsh way to remove reformists, stifle nationalism, and limit foreign contacts. Even as China itself was crumbling under the same foreign pressure, it sought to hold onto influence in Korea. With first China and Japan, and now also Russia and England, were clashing over interests in Korea, Korea was no longer arbiter of its own destiny. The Sino-Japanese War was fought around Korea, Japan’s victory in which resulted in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, granting Korea “independence and forcing China to cede Taiwan and the Liaotung peninsula. Russia saw opportunities in Korea, leading Japan to exert firmer control. Dr. Philip Jaisohn (Soh Chae Pil) formed the Independence Club to champion independence and reforms. This was the last real chance for Koreans to effect reform, but the club’s leaders were jailed (Rhee) or deported to the U.S. (Jaisohn). (Philp Jaisohn was the first Korean to become a naturalized American citizen; he lived in Media, PA from 1925 to 1951, and his home is now a historic landmark open to visitors. For information: see

With tension increasing between Japan and Russia over Manchuria and Korea, Japan finally attacked Russia in 1904. Emboldened by its win, it made Korea a “protectorate,” with Ito Hirobumi as Resident General. The Koreans put up a struggle against the Japanese forces and assassinated Ito, after which Japan forced the Korean cabinet to sign a document of annexation. Koreans still see the signers as traitors, and this period of colonialism as an open wound, especially the Japanese Occupation (1937-45), when Japan, to support its war in China, occupied the country, used Koreans as slave labor and “comfort women,” imposed the Japanese language and Shinto worship. This is the period of “lost names,” as Koreans were forced to give up their surnames.

Jubilation at liberation in 1945 was short-lived, as the USSR and U.S. set the 38th parallel as a “temporary” demarcation between them. Those two nations being unable to make trusteeship work, in fall 1948 the ROK and DPRK were established, under Rhee in the South and Kim in the North, each of whom regarded the other as illegitimate and aspired to absorb the other. That there was conflict between these two artificial states is not surprising.

While it is common in the U.S. to view the Korean War (1950 – 53) as embedded in Cold War history, Koreans knew it started as a civil war. In all events, it was an exercise in futility. The situation after the war was little different from before. The South lost Kaesong and gained other territory, but the countries remained divided, hostility was greater than ever, and the two nations’ infrastructures were destroyed. Perhaps 4 million people died. Importantly, the war is not over. There is only an armistice which South Korea itself did not sign (the UN signed for it), a “cessation of hostilities,” and the war is a fundamental reason behind the current North Korean crisis.

Economic and Political Developments After 1953

Soon Won Park, assistant professor of history at Howard University, picked up Korean history after the war, with the reconstruction of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1954, Korea was a land of refugees and broken families, its social fabric rent. Both Rhee and Kim had to accept a divided Korea and work on consolidating their power, dependent on foreign aid and defense. The two states exemplify the best and worst of postcolonial experiences.

Rhee had little interest in the economy, focusing instead on land reform. But after Gen. Park led a coup d’etat and came to office in the early 1960s, his economic development plans put the country back on track. Park was assassinated in 1979, after which his right-hand man, Chun Doo-hwan, assumed power. The next year saw the worst experience in Korean history after the war, the Kwangju bloodbath of 1980 that started out a democratization protest. But the call for democratization had been heard, which Roh Tae-woo, Korea’s last military ruler (1988-93) did introduce. The country’s self-confidence restored, it has continued to grow into one of the four Asian Tigers (with Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong). This growth-made possible by centralized governance; U.S. and Japan aid and loans, industries built up during the war, cheap labor, and strong education-also, however, led to labor exploitation, anti-government and anti-America sentiments, and the usual problems of urbanization.

The North has had only two leaders, Kim Il-Sung (1948-94) and his son, Kim Jung-Il. Kim combined Soviet-model institution building and the Chinese Communist leader cult into a can-do, juche ideology, a seclusion policy or Kim Il- Sungism, which called for absolute unity at home, self- reliance, and independence. Until the mid 1960s, North Korea did much better with its economic plans than did the South, but a slowdown began in 1969. Before long the negative consequences of self-reliance were felt: the lack of capital and overspending on the military.

Korea’s Religious Mosaic

Donald Baker, associate professor of Asian Studies at University of British Columbia, surveyed Korea’s faiths. While 80 percent of Korean-Americans are Christian (10 percent of them Roman Catholic), Korea is more Buddhist than Christian. About half profess themselves to be non-believers, one-quarter call themselves Buddhists, 20 percent Protestants, 8 percent Catholics and 1 percent “other”: Confucianism, new religions such as the Unification Church, Islam, Bahai, etc. The idea of professing a faith is new in Korea, it must be noted. Koreans always went to temple, but before Christianity introduced the idea of identifying oneself as “a Christian” (which means Protestant in Korea), they did not tend to identify themselves as “a Buddhist” (which can mean simply “not a Christian”). Folk traditions such as Animism and Shamanism have flourished alongside these faiths.

Confucianism formally declared itself a religion in 1995, but it has become primarily a set of ethical principles. The Korean Catholic Church was born in 1784, before any missionaries were in Korea, by those who learned of it in China and self-converted; Protestantism came a century later but took off immediately. There are now dozens of Presbyterian, Methodist, and Holiness Church denominations. The Full Gospel Holiness Church is the largest church in the world, with 700,000 members, and Korea also has the world’s largest Presbyterian and Methodist churches. These tend to be evangelical fundamentalist, patriarchal, and hierarchical. It is an intense religiosity, with long and frequent services, revivals, and retreats.

North Korea officially has freedom of religion, in order to appear modern, and there are token Chondogyo, Buddhist, Catholic, and Protestant organizations, some with political parties. But the real religion is juche, the self-reliance philosophy created by Kim Il-Sung, which teaches that “we are not alive as individuals, but as members of a social, political community.”

South Koreans are growing more congregational and confessional: they are increasingly identifying with specific religious organizations and participating in group worship. Whether or not this trend will favor Christianity remains unclear.

Korean Society Since 1953

Mikyoung Kim, Fulbright visiting scholar at Portland State University, highlighted the social effects of generational and other tensions, Westernization, and development on Korean society. Per capita income in South Korea went from $100 in 1960 to $6,500 in 1980, and now $14,000. This growth has brought about huge wealth accumulation in a very short time span, as south Korea achieved in thirty years (1960-90) the kind of mature capitalist system it has took 100 years for earlier Western states to achieve.

All of this growth has been accompanied by urbanization-76 percent of Koreans now live in urban centers-and increasing disparity in wealth distribution. Gen. Park, with his can- do, aspirational ideology, did a remarkable job of lifting the country from poverty to wealth and overcoming a victimized mentality, but this has also put a great deal of pressure on the country’s youth. Additionally, the wage gap between men and women has yet to be equalized. Part of this is because men tend to hold positions in larger companies where pay is higher, but Confucian values that subordinate women also play a role. For now, divorce has skyrocketed to higher than the Western rate, and the fertility rate is down from a total fertility rate of 4 in the 1960s to 0.63 children per woman today.

The Koreas and U.S. Foreign Policy

The conference concluded with a panel discussion on the prospects for an open, meaningful dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington. Roy U. T. Kim, professor of political economy at Drexel University, FPRI Senior Fellow, and advisor to Congressman Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), reported on Rep. Weldon’s “human-face diplomacy” with Korea, and in particular on the congressional delegations to Pyongyang he led in May/June 2003 and January 2005, to encourage its participation in the six-party talks. Dr. Kim sees Pyongyang’s fear of U.S. attempts to achieve regime change as the main barrier to its cooperation. China is more concerned with the Taiwan issue at the moment and so can offer only limited assistance in the talks, and the abduction and textbook issues complicate Tokyo’s position.

Many South Koreans now fear the U.S. more than North Korea, with which it has achieved some cross-DMZ economic integration, so it is doubtful how much South Korea would support the U.S. if it attacked North Korea. Because South Korea’s cultural ties are greater with China than the U.S., it is China to whom South Korea increasingly turns to solve the crisis. China is now South Korea’s top trading partner, and more South Korean students study in China than in the U.S. The measure of Korea’s maturing nationalism can be taken in August 2005, when in all probability the North and South will jointly celebrate the 60th anniversary of Korea’s liberation.

Donald Clark, professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, addressed the United States’ stakes in the Korean peninsula. The U.S. has affirmed its commitment to the ROK in blood and treasure, both in lives lost during the war and, since then, in economic aid and with the mutual security treaty. Since 1953, the U.S. has been at pains to emphasize the illegitimacy of the North Korean regime, and to insist that the ROK is the legitimate government of Korean people, with rights to the entire territory. Until about 1990 we therefore refused to talk to North Korea, and have engaged in systematic economic warfare with it comparable to what we do to Cuba. But North Korea found way to force the U.S. into dialogue in 1992-93, after the fall of its sponsor state, with its emergence as a nuclear threat. And South Koreans, now unthreatened by the North, no longer insist that the U.S. not talk to North Korea. In fact, they encourage it.

Kongdan Oh of the Institute for Defense Analyses noted the lack of U.S. area experts on North Korea. U.S. foreign policy is dominated by functionalists (nuclear arms, military, and trade), not by cultural/linguistic area experts, who are turned to only when there is a crisis. Official visits to the region tend to “leapfrog” from China to Japan, skipping Korea. The administration has not devised any strategy for Korea at a time when the gap between the U.S. and South Korea is widening. South Koreans want to pursue “peace and prosperity” and “education, environmental health, and enjoyment of a better life” while our policy could be described as “security and safety.” South Korea wishes to be benign at a time when we are seen as being more aggressive. This is fueling an anti-Americanism that has to be taken seriously.

While talks with North Korea continue to be spoken of as the only option, none of the panelists felt that a Libya-like solution to the crisis would be possible or that North Korea would give up its weapons.

Keynote: Dealing with the North Korean Nuclear Threat

Donald Oberdorfer, distinguished journalist in residence at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, gave the keynote address, on the roots of the North Korean nuclear crisis. He stressed that Korea is one of the oldest cultures on earth, one that was unified for thirteen centuries prior to 1945. With the Japanese suing for peace in August 1945, U.S. leaders asked two colonels to draw a line across a map of the Korean Peninsula, where the U.S. would divide occupation duties with the USSR and try to stop the Soviets from taking the entire Peninsula and perhaps moving on to Japan. One of those colonels, Dean Rusk, reported in his memoirs that, having only a National Geographic map to go by, they simply drew a line at the 38th parallel, slightly above Seoul and as far north as they thought they reasonably could.

This was to be a temporary expedient until the two sides could get together and form some trusteeship arrangement, but it did not work that way. The Soviet Union put guerrilla commander Kim Il-Sung in charge, while the United States brought in the 70-year-old, Western-educated Rhee. In 1950, after the Chinese communists had triumphed over the nationalists and the Soviet Union had exploded its first atomic bomb, Stalin approved Kim’s invading the South. The Korean War was on, a bloody three-year battle up and down the peninsula that ended very close to where it had begun.

North Korea remains the last Stalinist state on earth. It has sometimes been unable to feed its people: an estimated 1 million North Koreans died of starvation and related illnesses in the mid-1990s. It still has food shortages, as a mountainous and not a very fertile country-it needs to produce something to sell to the world, as South Korea does. Human rights are deplorable. The North Koreans have always wanted nuclear weapons, having been threatened by them during the war, and especially after South Korea began a secret nuclear weapons program in the 1970s. Even though Washington stopped that program on finding out about it, by the 1980s North Korea was building a plutonium-processing factory at Yongbyon.

In 1994, the U.S. and North Korea negotiated the Agreed Framework, as part of which North Korea would shut down Yongbyon, which it did. But there were rumors even toward the end of the Clinton administration that it was secretly working instead on a highly-enriched uranium program, a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the Framework, and certainly a violation of the NPT. Early in 2003, while the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq, the North Koreans kicked out the UN inspectors, announced that they had left the NPT, and began manufacturing plutonium.

With these developments, the U.S. had to do something. The idea was born of what later became the six-party talks among the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia. But after three rounds of talks, in February 2005, the DPRK announced that it had nuclear weapons and that, as a full-fledged nuclear state, it was not coming back unless mutual disarmament became the main subject.

Each party to the talks has its own national interests regarding North Korea. Most of South Korea’s electorate is under the age of 40, and sees North Korea not as a threat but as a country to get along with. China, which itself has had nuclear weapons since 1964, is more concerned that North Korea’s weapons might encourage South Korea and Japan to become nuclear states. Nor does it want to see any kind of destabilizing change in North Korea, which they need as a buffer state. So they have a stake in maintaining the North Korean regime as it is.

Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi would like to see a negotiated agreement, but at the same time, the Japanese have a serious problem. North Korea kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and early 1980s. Kim in September 2002 acknowledged this and apologized to Japan, hoping that this would settle the matter. But because the North Koreans could not account for all those who had been kidnapped, it simply ended up inflaming the issue. So Japan is at the moment in an antagonistic posture with regard to North Korea. And today’s Russia is in no position to do much about the matter.

Especially after 9/11, the U.S. fears a North Korean nuclear program probably more than any other party, concerned that North Korea could sell or leak out nuclear materials to some state or non-state actor. Up until now, the Bush administration has mainly urged North Korea to come back to the talks, which it is unlikely to do. Up until now Washington has not given nearly enough attention to this problem, which has got some how to be solved. (A videofile of the lecture has been posted on FPRI’s website at the URL listed at the end; the text will be posted shortly.)

Books Recommended by Our Speakers

Ki-baik Lee, A New History of Korea (Harvard, 1984). Carter Eckart, et al., Korea, Old and New (Harvard, 1990). Djun-kil Kim, The History of Korea (Greenwood, 2005). Peter Lee, Sources of Korean Tradition, 2 vols. (Columbia Univ. Press, 1996, 1997). Dae Sook Suh, Kim Il Sung (Columbia Univ. Press, 1993). Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Basic Books, rev. ed. 2001). Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig, North Korea through the Looking Glass (Brookings, 2000) David Kang and Victor Cha, Nuclear North Korea (Columbia, 2004)

Recommended Websites

Recommended Films

  • Arirang: Part 1, The Korean-American Dream and Part 2, The Korean-American Journey. DVD and VHS ($20,
  • Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring (2003) (DVD and VHS).

Additional Resources on FPRI’s Website

Note: Other materials from the History Institute on “Understanding the Koreas” will be posted soon. Additionally, information and materials from earlier History Institute weekends is available.  For other editions of Footnotes, visit FPRI’s website at: