Korea, to World War II

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Korea, to World War II

The strategic location of the Korean Peninsula, situated at the far eastern edge of the Asian continent and a mere 210 kilometers (about 130 miles) from the Japanese archipelago, often compromised the state's ability to maintain its sovereignty. Nineteenth-century Russian expansion eastward only complicated Korea's already precarious position, particularly after Japan emerged as an imperial power and Korea's traditional ally, China, was weakened by domestic and foreign crises. The Korean Peninsula's division following the defeat of its colonial occupier, Japan, not only separated a people, but also Korea's agricultural south from its mineral-rich north.

Throughout most of its pre-1945 history, Korea participated in China's tributary system, whereby it recognized the Chinese emperor as the sole "Son of Heaven," followed the Chinese calendar based on his reign, and dutifully reported Korea's regal successions to the Chinese capital. Chinese imperial blessing in turn gained the Korean throne legitimacy, and selected Korean merchants were granted access to Chinese markets. Participation in this system also provided the Korean Peninsula with military protection, as long as the reigning dynasty in China was strong. Membership had its drawbacks, as well, particularly during times of dynastic transition, as was the case in the mid-seventeenth century. At this time, Chinese political instability forced the Korean government to decide whether to remain loyal to the waning Ming dynasty, which had just helped drive the Japanese from the peninsula, or support the Manchu, who challenged, and eventually toppled, the Ming.

Korea's relations with Japan generally assumed an open, albeit cautious posture. The threat of "pirate" (wako) intrusions dominated the two states' diplomatic relations from the twelfth to seventeenth centuries. The late sixteenth-century invasions of the Japanese military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) still remain a bitter memory to Koreans. The two peoples resumed their trade relations from the early seventeenth century, after the new Japanese regime cooperated in returning kidnapped artisans and in assisting in Korea's battle against Manchu (now Qing) retaliation over Korea's remaining loyal to China's Ming dynasty. The twelve Korean missions to the Japanese capital over the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) were as much for trade as they were for reconnaissance. Additional Japanese-Korean trade took place through the Japanese island of Tsushima, which frequently sent missions to the southern city of Pusan.

Domestically, the Korean government depended heavily on the precepts of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius (ca. 551–479 bce) to guide its legal, social, and political institutions. Korean elite wishing to secure a government position were required to pass a series of tests based on Confucian philosophy. The tenets of the ideology governed how social relations were maintained and administrative decisions made. An elite group, known as the yangban, comprised the kingdom's aristocracy, which surrounded and influenced decisions made by the king. Government positions were staffed from a pool of yangban who had successfully risen in the ranks by passing a series of civil service examinations that required the examinees to correctly interpret Confucian text passages.

In addition to the yangban, Korean society officially consisted of three commoner ranks: the farmers, artisans, and merchants. In practice, Korean society was much more complex, with the yangban divided into different ranks, and several groups, such as the slaves and the paekchong (a debased group discriminated against on account of their having participated in "unclean" occupations that involved animal butchering and leather works), holding ranks below the commoner.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were turbulent times for the Korean peninsula, in both its domestic and foreign affairs. Major domestic rebellions broke out in 1812, 1862, and 1894. The last uprising, led by the Tonghaks (eastern learning), initiated a foreign crisis after the Korean government requested Chinese assistance to quell the rebellion. This move invited in Japanese troops, which led to the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). These challenges also demonstrated fundamental weaknesses in the central bureaucratic system, including, but not limited to, its ability to fairly tax its constituents. During the 1880s, reform-minded groups emerged that sought, among other things, more equitable participation in government and reforms in taxation and education. One of the more successful reform-minded groups was the Independence Club, which endeavored to strengthen Korean sovereignty: it convinced the king to declare his land an empire (i.e., a sovereign state); it printed a newspaper written in Korea's han'gul script; and it initiated other symbolic projects to emphasize this point. Their success threatened the established traditional system, and in 1898 the Korean emperor Kojong (1852–1919) ordered their two-year experiment to disband, thus rendering helpless the core of Korea's reform movement.

Japan's presence on the Korean Peninsula intensified toward the end of the nineteenth century. In 1875 it initiated a confrontation along Korea's west coast that drew the two governments into negotiations to modernize their traditional relations. Armed with demands similar to those brought by the American naval officer Matthew C. Perry (1794–1858), who demanded in 1853 that Japan "open" itself to the West, Japanese negotiators imposed upon the Koreans a similar "unequal" treaty that forced them to open ports to Japanese residence, to accept extraterritorial rights for Japanese residents, and to accept determined fixed import and export tariffs. Soon thereafter, the United States and several European states arranged similar treaties with the Korean government. Over the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japanese intellectuals influenced the core of the Korean reform movement and assisted them in failed coup attempts. The Japanese were also implicated in the 1895 murder of Korea's pro-Chinese Queen Min.

Following victories in war with the Chinese (1895) and the Russians (1905), the Japanese moved to first establish Korea as its protectorate (1905) and later to formally annex the peninsula into its growing empire. Thus began a thirty-six-year period of colonial occupation that ended with Japan's surrender to the Allied forces in 1945. Many Koreans battled the Japanese presence. Righteous armies fought Japanese colonizers up through annexation (1910).

A huge independence movement, formed in March 1919, kept Japanese police occupied throughout much of that year. A provisional government was formed in the spirit of this movement, but it soon split into militant and diplomatic factions, with the former migrating to China and Russia to join Communist activists, and the latter traveling globally to seek support for Korea's independence. Others, who believed that Korea's future could not be guaranteed unless the people were prepared, envisioned a less radical, and more gradual, path to liberation. Still others believed this vision to be a pipe dream: Korea's best hope for the future lay with it remaining in the Japanese empire.

The sudden and complete defeat of Japan left a political void on the Korean peninsula that was filled by occupation, with the United States occupying the south and the Soviet Union the north. The division, which was to have been temporary, remains in place to this day.

see also China, First Opium War to 1945; East Asia, European Presence in; Empire, Japanese; Occupations, East Asia.


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Duus, Peter. The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895–1910. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Eckert, Carter J. Offspring of Empire: The Koch'ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876–1945. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

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