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ETHNONYMS: Choson, Han'guk


Identification. Because Korea is an ethnically homogeneous nation, there are no ethnonyms per se. There are, however, several alternative names used by outsiders as well as natives, all of which come from the names of previous states or dynasties. The name "Korea" comes from the Koryo dynasty (918-1392). "Han'guk" is an abbreviation of "Taehan Min'guk" (Republic of Korea), which is used exclusively by South Koreans. Its origin can be traced to "Taehan Che'guk" (Great Han Empire), the new name of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910) chosen in 1897. "Choson" originated from Old Choson (2333-194 b.c.) , the first Korean state that possessed a bronze culture. The Yi dynasty was also named "Choson" and North Korea prefixed it for the name of its regime, "Choson Minjuju-ui Inmin Konghwa'guk" (Democratic People's Republic of Korea). From "Choson," meaning "morning calm and freshness," Korea acquired the epithet by which it is known, the "land of the morning calm."

Location. The Korean Peninsula and its associated islands lie between 33°06 and 43°01 N and between 124°11 and 131°53 E. Of the entire peninsula's area of 219,015 square kilometers, South Korea is 98,477 square kilometers, including islands and excluding the 1,262 square kilometers of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), about 45 percent of the entire peninsula. Korea is geomorphologically characterized by abundant hills and mountains, which occupy nearly 70 percent of its territory. Low hills, plains, and basins along the rivers are located in the south and the west, whereas the eastern slope is steep with high mountains and without significant rivers and plains. Winter is long, cold, and dry. January is the coldest month, and its average temperatures range from about 2° C in southeastern Korea to about 21 ° C in parts of the northern mountainous region. Summer is short, hot, and humid, with late monsoon rains. In the hottest month, July, temperatures average between 21 ° C and 27° C. Annual rainfall varies from year to year, and ranges from 50 centimeters in the northeastern inland region to 140 centimeters on the southern coast. About 70 percent of the annual rainfall occurs from June through September.

Demography. The population of South Korea has grown rapidly since the birth of the republic in 1948. Accelerating between 1955 and 1966, it reached 29.2 million, with an annual average growth rate of 2.8 percent; but the growth rate declined significantly during the period of 1966 to 1985, falling to an annual average of 1.7 percent. Thereafter, the annual average growth rate was less than 1 percent. As of 1 January 1989, the population of South Korea was slightly over 42.1 million. The population of North Korea for 1989 is unavailable, but it was estimated to be over 21 million in 1987. South Korea's Economic Planning Board estimates that its population will increase to between 46 and 48 million by the end of the twentieth century, with growth rates ranging between 0.9 and 1.2 percent. Since Korea is one of the world's most homogeneous nations ethnically and racially, the population of other national origins is negligible and the legal status of such aliens is mostly temporary. However, as of 1988 nearly 4 million ethnic Koreans live outside the peninsula: 1.7 million in China; 1.2 million in the United States and Canada; 680,000 in Japan; 85,000 in Central and South America; 62,000 in the Middle East; 40,000 in western Europe; 27,000 in other Asian countries; and 25,000 in Africa.

Linguistic Affiliation. Although the remote origins of the Korean language are disputed among linguists, it is generally believed that the prototype of the Korean language belongs to the Ural-Altaic Language Group and specifically to the Altaic Language Family, which includes Turkish, Mongolian, Japanese, Korean, and others. Modern Korean is descended from the language of the Silla Kingdom (57 b.c.-a.d. 935). The prolonged political and cultural influence of the Chinese upon Korea had a profound impact upon the written and spoken Korean language, especially from the Confucian classics. The Japanese attempted to stifle the Korean tongue completely toward the end of their colonial rule (1910-1945), but they failed to leave more than a minimum trace of their language on Korean. Prior to the invention of Han'gul in 1446, Korean borrowed Chinese characters, using either the sounds or the meanings of certain Chinese characters. Even today, Koreans use Chinese characters alongside their own written language, as the Japanese do. Although the Korean language displays some regional variations both in vocabulary and pronunciation, there are no mutually unintelligible dialects. Variations are recognized between North and South Korea, resulting from a prolonged separation of the two Koreas.

History and Cultural Relations

Recent archaeological evidence has revealed that Paleolithic humans began to inhabit the Korean Peninsula some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. It is not yet known, however, whether the contemporary Korean people are the descendants of the Paleolithic inhabitants. The Korean people commonly trace their origins to the founding of the state of Old Choson, which arose in the northwestern corner of the peninsula. Several kingdoms and dynasties succeeded it; by the seventh century, the peninsula was united under the Silla Kingdom. The inhabitants of the peninsula have suffered from frequent foreign intruders, and the history of Korea can be told in terms of geopolitical adversities. Because Korea is located in the middle of the Far East, it has always been vulnerable to attacks from neighboring states. In addition to invasion and domination by Chinese dynasties over the centuries, nomadic northern tribes have continually intruded on Korea. The rise and fall of Chinese dynasties has had a profound impact on the security of Korea. Two full-scale Japanese invasions into Korea in the sixteenth century devastated the Korean Yi dynasty. Taewon'gun (1821-1898) of the Yi dynasty adopted a policy of isolationism in direct response to Western incursion, but in the mid-nineteenth century Japan, China, Russia, some European nations, and the United States pressured Korea to open its doors to outsiders in the name of modernization. Competing foreigners clashed on Korean soil, which led to the Russo-Japanese War (19041905). Victory in this conflict provided Japan with a firm base for sole control of the peninsula, which it annexed in 1910 and maintained as a colony until 1945. Despite persistent foreign threats, invasions, and incursions, the peninsula has been united since the seventh century, except in rare and temporary instances, and has remained undivided, protected on its northern border by two rivers, the Yalu and Turnen.

The peninsula was, however, divided in 1945 along the 38th parallel by the United States and the Soviet Union at the start of the cold war. This division eventually led to the fratricidal Korean War (1950-1953), as a result of which the existing demarcation at the 38th parallel was broadened to form the DMZ. Since the peninsula has been divided, the two Koreas have taken distinctly different paths. Whereas South Korea is evolving into a liberal democracy after years of authoritarian and military rule, North Korea has emerged as a committed Communist society. By 1992, North Korea was one of very few Communist countries remaining in the world. Beginning in 1971, there has been a continuing series of inter-Korea talks, although these discussions have alternated between dialogue and tension. Nevertheless, despite a prolonged division, a civil war, and the differences in ways of life, all Koreans share a strong common belief that they are the same brethren (tong'jok and min 'jok).


Before recent economic growth and industrialization accelerated urbanization, most Koreans lived in the countryside. In 1910 when Japan colonized Korea, the urban population of Korea was no more than 3 percent of the total population. Traditionally Korean villages were located along the southern foothills, and many Koreans believed that an ideal site for a house or village must have a hill behind it and a stream in front.

In some villages the population consists solely of members of one lineage; other villages have many different lineages. The size of villages varies, ranging from 10 to 150 households. Most of the housing consists of one-story structures made of stone or homemade bricks. Formerly, some of the houses had thatch roofs, which have been replaced by tile or slate roofs as part of the New Village movement that began in 1970. Traditionally, rooms were heated by the ondol method, and hot air from burning wood outdoors warmed the stone floor. Now coal, oil, and electricity are replacing wood.

Rural settlement patterns have been altered significantly by a massive migration from rural to urban to industrialized areas beginning in the mid-1960s. In this period, at least 9 million farmers and their families, nearly a quarter of the total population, are estimated to have left their farms and moved to cities. In 1988, the urban population reached over 78 percent. In mid-1989, the population of Seoul, the capital, was more than 10.5 million, nearly one-fourth of the entire South Korean population, with a population density of 17,365 persons per square kilometer. Construction of large numbers of high-rise apartment complexes in Seoul and other cities has alleviated housing shortages to some extent and has determined the major settlement pattern of urban Korea.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Before the 1900s, Koreans lived as subsistence farmers of rice, barley, sorghum, and other crops and satisfied most of their basic needs through their own labor or through barter. Fishery products in the coastal villages were popular. The Japanese introduced some heavy industries, locating them in the north, and improved Korean infrastructure for obvious reasons. In the meantime, the south remained mainly agricultural, with some light industry. Division of the peninsula made it impossible for Koreans to exchange products between northern industries and southern farms. The Korean economy lost its balance.

A drastic transformation of the Korean subsistence economy took place after the mid-1960s as South Korea adopted a policy of economic modernization, emphasizing export-oriented industrialization and growth. A series of five-year economic plans beginning in 1962 has exceeded the goals originally set, and growth rates have been phenomenal. Real growth was 12.5 percent between 1986 and 1988, and 6.5 percent in 1989. South Korea became the world's tenth-largest steel producer by 1989 and began exporting automobiles, ships, electronic goods, textiles, shoes, clothing, and leather products. Because of South Korea's emphasis on industrialization, the relative importance of the agricultural sector has steadily declined. By January 1989, agriculture, fishing, and forestry employed approximately 13 percent of the total industrial work force and generated 10.2 percent of gross domestic product. At the same time, farmers increased their income (by 24.4 percent in 1988) by raising cash crops, thus increasingly becoming commercial farmers.

Industrial Arts. A variety of implements and objects of industrial arts is available. Most popular are manufacturing replicas of the Koryo and Yi dynasty celadons. Lacquerware and items with mother-of-pearl inlay are popular. "Knots" with silk thread for accessories are another product, manufactured using ancient arts. Most of these are sold domestically, but some limited quantities are made for export.

Trade. Since Korea's economic modernization has become oriented toward industrialization and growth, Koreans place a great emphasis on export. Annual trade in 1988 was more than $900 billion, and South Korea became the world's tenth-largest trading nation. Main export items include textiles, clothing, electronic and electric equipment, footwear, machinery, steel, rubber tires and tubes, plywood, and fishing products. Major import items are machinery, electronic and electrical equipment, petroleum and petroleum products, steels, grain, transport equipment, chemicals, timber and pulp, raw cotton, and cereals. South Korea achieved a surplus of more than $4.6 billion in the balance of payment for trade in 1989.

Division of Labor. During the Koryo and Yi dynasties, until it was outlawed in 1894, division of labor by class was pervasive: yangban (nobility), mainly the scholar-officials, were largely exempt from manual labor performed by commoners. Division of labor by gender was also prominent, strongly influenced by Confucian-oriented values: men were primarily responsible for outside labor as providers, whereas women performed domestic tasks. Despite the existence of male preference in many jobs and occupational ranks, the gender gap is narrowing, especially for highly educated women in the cities. Domestic work, however, has continued to be the work of women. In the case of urban working women, their burden has become doubly onerous. In the rural villages an increasing number of women participate in agricultural work, even in the rainfall (nonirrigated) field, which was not the traditional pattern.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, the king owned all land and granted it to his subjects. Although specific parcels of land tended to remain within the same family from generation to generation (including communal land owned by clans and lineages), land occupancy, use, and ownership patterns were legally ambiguous and widely divergent. The Japanese conducted a comprehensive land survey between 1910 and 1920 as their colonization began, in order to identify landownership. Farmers whose families had farmed the same land for generations but who could not prove ownership to the colonial authorities lost their land. Those farmers either became tenants or were forced to leave the land, emigrating to the cities or overseas. At the time of liberation, almost half (48.9 percent) of farm households were landless tenants, and another 34.6 percent were part-time part-tenants, whereas only 1.4 percent were owner-cultivators. After 1945, the American occupation authorities confiscated and redistributed the land held by the Japanese colonial government, although they allowed Koreans to retain their private property. The South Korean government then carried out a land reform in 1949 whereby Koreans with large landholdings had to divest most of their land to those who actually tilled it. Land reform provided for a more equitable distribution of available land. However, by 1989, more than 30 percent of Korean farmland was cultivated by landless tenants whose numbers were estimated to be 67 percent of the total farm population.


Kin Groups and Descent. The rule of descent in Korea was and still is patrilineal in principle, although a bilateral trend has begun to emerge. The origin of patrilineal rule may be prehistoric, but it first gained strength through Chinese influence beginning in the first half of the first century b.c. The patrilineal rule of descent gave rise to a number of elaborate kin groups, lineages, and clans. Most lineages and clans maintain written genealogical records following the patrilineal rule. There are over 1,000 clans in Korea, each of which includes scores of lineages. Some genealogies published recently tend to list female members who were already married to members of other clans.

Kinship Terminology. The influence of Chinese Confucianism has altered the original kinship terminology, especially in kinship nomenclature for reference terms among those of yangban origin. As far as the terms of address for cousins are concerned, Korean kinship can be classified as a modified Hawaiian type, although male paternal parallel cousins are favored over other cousins.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditional marriages were thoroughly arranged, particularly among the noble class as a form of class endogamy. The ideal form of marriage was and is monogamy. Although arranged marriages are still popular in rural villages, an increasing number of educated and urban Koreans choose their own mates. Many of them use a compromise form between arranged marriage and free choice: parents, kin, and friends recommend several candidates equal in their qualifications and leave the final selection to the persons who are going to be married (mat'son ). Semiprofessional matchmakers are emerging in the cities; they arrange marriages between children of the newly rich and privileged class, charging high commissions for their services.

The rule of residence used to be patrilocal, but a growing number of young couples practice neolocal residence. Marital bonds have been so strong in the past that divorce was infrequent, even unthinkable. Now the number of divorces among educated, young, urban Koreans is increasing yearly. Divorce no longer carries a stigma, and remarriage does not have many guidelines.

Domestic Unit. In accordance with increasing urbanization and industrialization, the extended family is no longer a domestic unit. The predominant form of household unit, especially in the cities, is the nuclear family, although a transitional form of stem family is also common. The average number of people in households was slightly over 5 in the 1960s and 1970s, but that number had decreased to 4.1 by the mid-1980s.

Inheritance. The rule of inheritance has evolved over a long period of time. Prior to the 1600s, sons and daughters inherited equally, but since the 1800s primogeniture has been the rule, although ultimogeniture occurred in some remote mountain villages. Even after liberation in 1945 and the revision of the civil code in 1977and despite an effort to upgrade the position of women in inheritancethe current civil code specifies the rule of primogeniture by giving 5 percent more to the eldest son than to other sons and unmarried daughters. A married daughter's share is a quarter of the allotment given to her brothers.

Socialization. In their early years children receive a great deal of affection, indulgence, and nurturing from both parents. Infants and toddlers are seldom separated from their mothers or left unattended. Parents encourage children to be dependent, obedient, and cooperative. They usually introduce prohibitive norms only as the children grow older, and they apply punishments for disobedience rather than wrongdoing. The primary agency for socialization is gradually changing from extended family to nuclear family, thus making parents more influential than grandparents, and prohibitive norms are gradually being replaced by permissive norms. Because of the influence of the Confucian heritage, Koreans have an obsession for education: they value formal education as the single most important factor for individual success and upward mobility. Currently, Korea has six years of compulsory education, and over 93 percent of the population is literate. About 35 percent of the student-age group attended colleges and universities in 1989, one of the world's highest percentages.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. When Korea was still a preindustrial and agricultural society, predominant forms of social organization were family- and kinship-centered institutions such as lineages (minimum and maximum) and clans. Kin-based organizations are still present and considered to be important. However, recent industrialization, urbanization, and massive migration have resulted in movement away from lineage- and neighborhood-based social relations toward functionally based relations. Both formal and informal social organizations are formed in factories, shops, and offices. Branches of many multinational organizations are also present. Organizations based on school ties are now pivotal.

Political Organization. Following the division of Korea, South Korea became a democratic republic, whereas North Korea remains a communist dictatorship. South Korea is in its sixth republic. The most recent constitution was approved in October 1987, effective February 1988, and mandates a strong president, elected for one five-year term, and 224 members of the 229-member National Assembly, elected by popular vote for four-year terms. Political parties appoint the remaining officials according to a proportional formula. An independent judicial branch, with the Supreme Court at its apex, administers justice. South Korea has nine provinces, which are divided into counties, cities, townships, towns, and villages, and six provincial-level cities.

Social Control. Traditionally, any conflict or dispute in a family, a village, or even among villages has been settled mainly by informal control, through the mediation of either heads of households or village elders. However, formal control mechanisms have replaced the informal social controls. In the past, Koreans were reluctant to take their grievances to the courts and even took offense at the idea, but nowadays they are not so averse to the legal process.

Conflict. The Korean Peninsula is the only remaining part of the world where a cold war remnant of ideological conflict and tension exists. Although various levels of inter-Korean talks have taken place since 1971, as of 1992 no significant progress has yet been made. Recently, in South Korea, regional conflict and resentmentespecially between Cholla and Kyongsang provinceshave arisen because of the domination of South Korea's politics and business by people from Kyongsang Province. The three most recent presidents, all of whom were ex-generals, came from Kyongsang Province. The South Korean government has made a conscious effortincluding the construction of a new four-lane highway between the two provincial capitals in 1984to reduce, if not eliminate, a potentially harmful animosity between these regions.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Koreans have been inclusive rather than exclusive in their religious beliefs, and the majority of them have opted for expressing no religious preference. Because of this, it is difficult for anyone to give an accurate religious census of Korea. Polytheistic shamanism and other animistic beliefs appear to be the oldest forms of religion, dating back to prehistoric time. South Korea has a great diversity of religious traditions, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Ch'ondogyo, Christianity, and as many as 300 new religious sects. Among the 1985 Korean religious population of 17 million (about 42.6 percent of the total population), over 480,000 (2.8 percent) claimed that they were Confucianists, over 8.07 million (46.9 percent) were Buddhists, more than 8.34 million (48.5 percent) claimed to be Christian (both Roman Catholic and Protestant), and the remaining 310,000 (1.8 percent) belonged to various other religions. Some estimate that by the early 1990s over a quarter of the entire South Korean population was Christian. South Korea has the highest percentage of Christians of any country in East Asia or Southeast Asia with the exception of the Philippines, and the growth rate is unusually high.

Religious Practitioners. Shamanism is performed by shamans, most of whom are women, by holding shamanic ritual, kut, in order to gain good fortune for clients, cure illnesses by exorcising evil spirits, or propitiate local or village gods. Shamans formerly were of low social status and were victims of discrimination. Recently, with growing nationalism, the dances, songs, and incantations of kut have been revitalized. Buddhism is experiencing a modernization movement: "mountain Buddhism" is changing toward "community Buddhism," and "temple-centered Buddhism" is turning into "socially relevant Buddhism." Accordingly, the role of monks goes beyond the religious sphere, and their worldly possessions are also modernized. Some clergymen and priests in Christian churches have become outspoken advocators of human rights, critics of the government, and sympathizers with the union movement.

Ceremonies. Despite the strength of Christianity, most families in South Korea observe the Confucian practice of honoring their dead ancestors on the anniversaries of their death days, New Year's Day, and other holidays such as hansik (the 105th day after the winter solstice) and ch'usok (the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month). The people conduct rituals and ceremonies in honor of Confucius each spring and autumn at the Confucian shrines. Shamans can hold kut at their clients' request. Buddhists pray day and night on Buddha's birthday, the eighth day of April lunar month, which is often followed by a street parade in the cities; Christians celebrate Christmas Day in their churches. Both of these days are national holidays.

Arts. Koreans have practiced the arts since prehistoric times, especially painting, sculpture, various handicrafts, and music. The walls of tombs of the Koguryo Kingdom (37 B.Ca.d. 668) revealed multicolor paintings of birds, animals, and human figures. Over the centuries, Chinese art as well as Buddhism and Confucianism have influenced Korean arts: bronze images of Buddha, stone carvings, stone pagodas, and temples are influenced by Buddhism; poetry, calligraphy, and landscape paintings are influenced by Confucianism. There are many unique Korean arts, including folk paintings (min'hwa ); Koryo and Yi dynasty celadons are well known. Because of their fame, many Korean potters were taken back to Japan during the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s. The influence of the Western arts, especially drama, motion pictures, music, and dances, has been pronounced.

Medicine. Modern Occidental medicine is the dominant form of medical practice, and since 1991 virtually all South Koreans have had medical insurance. Traditional practice of medicine, however, is not uncommon. Shamanic rituals are performed and herbal remedies are used to cure various illnesses. Shops selling traditional medicines, including ginseng, are common.

Death and Afterlife. Christian ideas of the afterlife involve heaven and hell; reincarnation is the belief of Buddhists. Although Confucian teaching on the afterlife is uncertain and implicit, Koreans who observe ancestor worship believe that death is not a final termination but a transformation. In Korean folk belief, death means a departure from this world to the "otherworld." The otherworld is not necessarily located far away from this world but may be over the mountains. Death is thought to be a rite of passage, and the dead are generally considered to be similar to the living. Elaborate ancestor-worship rites, offering various foods as to a living person, spring out of these beliefs.

See also Kolisuch'ǒk; Koreans in Japan


Brandt, Vincent S. R. (1971). A Korean Village: Between Farm and Sea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Janelli, Roger L., and Dawnhee Yim Janelli (1982). Ancestor Worship and Korean Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Kendall, Laurel (1985). Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kim, Choong Soon (1988). Faithful Endurance: An Ethnography of Korean Family Dispersal Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Kim, Choong Soon (1992). The Culture of Korean Industry: An Ethnography of Poongsan Corporation. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Sorensen, Clark W. (1988). Over the Mountains Are Mountains: Korean Peasant Households and Their Adaptations to Rapid Industrialization. Seattle: University of Washington Press.


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Ko·re·an / kəˈrēən; kô-/ • adj. of or relating to North or South Korea or its people or language. • n. 1. a native or national of North or South Korea, or a person of Korean descent. 2. the language of Korea, which has has its own writing system and may be distantly related to Japanese.

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Korean National language of North and South Korea. Some scholars classify it as one of the Altaic languages. It is spoken by more than 50 million people. The Korean alphabet developed in the 15th century.