Kate Monk's Onomastikon

(Dictionary of Names)

Korea (Choson)



The Koreans are an ancient people who came from Central Asia and Manchuria to form the tribal territory of Ancient Choson in about C4th BC. This was conquered by the Chinese Han dynasty in c.108 BC and divided into four counties which were abandoned to give way to the Three Kingdoms by 300 AD. These were Koguryo (North Korea and southern Manchuria), Paekche (south west Korea) and Silla (south east Korea and Naktong valley) and they fought for domination for three hundred years. Chinese influences included Buddhism, the literary language and Confucian philosophy. Silla, helped by an alliance with the Tang rulers of China, was in control of the whole peninsula by AD 688, and had removed the Chinese and been recognised as a separate kingdom by them by AD 735.

The Koryo dynasty, from which the Western name Korea is derived, was founded by General Wang Kon in the early C10th AD. The culturally and intellectually advanced Koryo civilization was ended by the Mongol invasions begun in 1231. Many of its advances were lost until the Chinese Ming dynasty took over in the mid C14th and General Yi Song-gye gained power in 1392. He moved the capital from the Koryo one, Kaesong, to Hanyang (Seoul), a hill fort in the Han valley. Government followed Confucian principles which emphasized nationalism, stability and high cultural achievement but was a rather strict society. King Sejong invented 'Hangul', a 28 letter phonetic Korean alphabet, which overcame the problems of trying to use Chinese structures and signs for phonetic Korean but Confucian scholars objected and it was considered inferior until the increasing modernization of the C20th.

By the C16th, the crown was less powerful than the traditional aristocracy or 'yangban'. Japanese pirates had been a problem throughout the C14th and C15th and a full scale invasion under Toyotomi Hideyoshi took place in 1592. Ming forces were called in and an armistice was agreed but Hideyoshi returned in 1597 and continued to occupy Kyongsang province until his death the following year. Manchu invasions began in 1627 and when they proclaimed themselves as the Ching dynasty in China they expected Korea to pay homage. Crown Prince Sohyon was held as a hostage. Two centuries of peace followed but Korea was so afraid of foreign invasion that all foreign visitors were refused entry and no-one was allowed out. This led to the country being called the 'Hermit Kingdom' but there was some trade with China and Japan.

The growing European presence in the Far East led to some Western texts entering Korea and Catholicism gained enough followers to be banned in 1795. French priests were sent in and there were about 11 000 Catholics in Korea by 1850 and this had doubled by 1865. The official belief was that Catholicism was connected with foreign influence and would lead to further invasions. As China and Japan began to be opened up to the West, Korea isolated itself even more but there were internal problems with the Tonghak or 'Eastern learning' cult founded by Ch'oe Che-u in the 1860s. When the American trader, 'General Sherman', was sunk off the north western coast of Korea in 1866, warships were sent to investigate but withdrew after occupying the Kanghwa Island forts when Korea refused negotiations.

The country was recognised as independent by the commercial Kanghwa Treaty with Japan in 1876, a 'friendship commerce and navigation' treaty with the US in 1883 and others with Italy and Russia in 1884 and France in 1886. Western inventions and visitors began to arrive in Korea but China was still the dominant influence although there was a coup by the Independence Party, who favoured Japan, in 1884. Internal revolts intensified in 1894 so Korea asked China for military aid. Japan also sent troops and suggested reforms which would end Chinese influence, occupying Kyongbok Palace in Seoul when these were refused. The Japanese forced Korea to declare war on China and destroyed the Chinese Ching fleet in the Yellow Sea to gain a clear victory which resulted on the Treaty of Shimonoseki and many concessions from China.

Reforms and the independence movement continued despite Russian and Japanese rivalry in the area which escalated into the Russo-Japanese War by early 1904. Japan's victories led to the signing of the Korean-Japanese Annexation Treaty in 1910. Japanese rule lasted until the end of WWI although demonstrations against it began as early as 1919 and Syngman Rhee led a campaign from exile. In 1945 Korea came under the control of America, China and the Soviet Union and many exiles returned including Rhee. The 38th Parallel became a frontier between South (American) and North (Russian) Korea and both states claimed jurisdiction over all Korea.

North Korea

Capital: Pyongyang

Size: 47 000 sq m Popn: 22 618 000

In North Korea in 1945, the USSR installed an Executive Committee of the Korean People with a staff of Soviet-trained communist Koreans. North Korea was declared a Democratic People's Republic in 1948 under the leadership of the Workers' Party of Korea with Kim Il Sung as Prime Minister and the last Soviet forces left in 1949. In 1950, it invaded South Korea in an attempt to unify the country. After UN warnings, President Truman sent in the Seventh Fleet in June to help the South. After the Americans crossed the 38th Parallel in October, China intervened and they were forced to retreat. Both sides had further victories and defeats until the armistice was signed in July 1953 but there was no final peace settlement and the country remained divided. A North-South co-ordinating committee was established in 1972 to encourage peaceful relations between the two sides but tension remained and there were frequent border incidents.

North Korea followed a socialist plan of economic development. During the 1950s, factories were nationalized and agriculture collectivized, with investment priority given to heavy industry and rural mechanization but economic growth has not been as great as in the South. The North remained neutral in the Sino-Soviet dispute, receiving economic and military aid from the USA and signing a friendship and mutual assistance treaty with China and remained almost unaffected by the wave of reform that affected other communist countries from 1987. The 1980s saw succession problems as Kim Il Song tried to establish his son Kim Il-Chong as sole heir designate. In 1992, he replaced his father as commander of the armed forces but the Workers' Party and armed forces appeared to oppose the succession aims. Mounting economic shortages have led to North Korean moves to end international isolation. In September 1990, Prime Minister Yon Hyong Muk visited South Korea, the highest-level official contact since 1948 and North Korea had its first formal contact with Japan in November/December. The end of communism in the USSR deprived it of a large amount of military and economic aid and it began to seek foreign investment. It joined the UN in December 1991 and signed a non-aggression pact with South Korea and in 1992, they made an agreement to ban the production and deployment of nuclear weapons. North Korea also signed the Nuclear Safe-guards Agreement which allowed international inspection of its nuclear facilities.

South Korea

Capital: Seoul

Size: 38 200 sq m Popn: 43 663 000

In the South, Syngman Rhee the leader of the right-wing Liberal Party, became the first President of the Republic of Korea with a US-based constitution. One of the first problems he had to face was a huge influx of refugees from the communist regime in the North and the Korean War followed in 1950-3. Rhee was accused of corruption and resigned after student-led disorder in 1960. The new parliamentary-style constitution gave the legislature more power but political instability followed and General Park Chung Hee led a military coup in 1961, re-establishing a presidential system of government with Park elected president in 1963. A major industrial development programme began and was successful, with rapid industrial growth during the 1960s and 70s and South Korea became a major exporter of light and heavy industrial goods.

During the 1970s, opposition mounted and martial law was imposed but a new constitution of 1972 strengthened Park's powers. The 1975 clampdown was relaxed for the 1978 elections but economic conditions deteriorated and there were protests. Park was assassinated and martial law re-imposed. Former prime minister Choi Kyu-Hah led an interim government which introduced liberal reforms and released opposition leader Kim Dae Jung in 1980 but riots in Kim's home city of Kwangiu led to Choi's resignation. He was replaced by the leader of the army, General Chun Doo Hwan, a new constitution was adopted and after Chun was re-elected president in 1981, the new Fifth Republic was proclaimed. There was an economic revival and cautious liberalization before the 1985 assembly elections, many political prisoners were released and Kim Dae Jung returned from exile. The Chun regime was forced to adopt a more liberal constitution and the presidential election of 1987 was won by the ruling party candidate, Roh Tae Woo, despite opposition accusations of fraud. The ruling Democratic Justice Party did not gain an overall majority and could only form a stable governing majority when it merged with two minor opposition parties to form the Democratic Liberal Party.

The political problems with North Korea have helped to justify a stern regime and large resources have been devoted to modernizing the armed forces, which are supported by US troops. In July 1990, the 80 members of Kim Dae Jung's Party for Peace and Democracy resigned from the national assembly in protest at government attempts to introduce new legislation. The speaker refused to accept the resignations but the opposition boycotted parliament when it re-convened in September. The government introduced a 'purification' campaign to improve public morals and reduce materialism. In May 1991, riots in protest at the killing of a student by police led to demands for the government to resign and economic and political reforms were introduced. Prime Minister Ro Jai Bong was replaced by Chung Won Shik and the police and security services were given emergency powers.

South Korea joined the UN at the same time as the North in September 1991. The USA announced the removal of all its nuclear weapons from the country and a reduction in troop numbers. When the leaders of North and South Korea met on December 13th, they signed a non-aggression pact which allowed cross-border communications, allowing free movement and reuniting divided families. A further pact banning nuclear weapons was signed later in December. The two-party structure was restored in 1991 when the New Democratic Party led by Kim Dae Jung merged with the small Democratic Party led by Lee Ki Taek, with the resulting Democratic Party led jointly. In the March 1992 elections, Chung Ju Yong, founder of the Hyundai manufacturing group, formed a political party. The ruling DLP lost its majority and Roh resigned as leader. Diplomatic relations with China were re-established in August 1992.

This collection of names was compiled by Kate Monk and is ©1997, Kate Monk.

Copies may be made for personal use only.

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