South Korea Brief History

By | November 2, 2021

I really had no idea what it would be like to visit South Korea when I met few, hardly anyone, who visited this small modern country with old traditions. My trip was interesting and eventful.

The journey started, and ended, in the capital Seoul, one of the world’s largest cities. After a few days of acclimatization, I took the train to the cities of Suwon, Andong, Gyeongju and Busan. From Busan I flew to the island of Jeju-do, perhaps the country’s most famous tourist destination. From Jeju-do I flew back to Seoul.

During the trip I visited most of the places on the UNESCO World Heritage List and many other historically interesting places, I visited crowded markets and the country’s largest fish markets, in Busan I visited the world’s largest department store, on the island of Jeju-do I walked in Hallasan National Park, met the famous female divers, haenyeo, in Ilchulbong and visited the Manjanggul lava tunnel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition, I visited one of the world’s most dangerous places, the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Here, all visitors can sign a paper stating that they are aware that they may be shot dead and that the military in that case has no responsibility for this. And of course I enjoyed all the good food!

South Korean history in brief

South Korea history, older

Year 3333 BC

According to Cheeroutdoor, the Koreans say that the origin of their civilization dates back to the kingdom of Choson, which according to legend was founded in 2 333 BC on the northwestern part of the Korean Peninsula

300s BC

In the 300s BC, it is believed that Choson expanded his empire into present-day Chinese Manchuria

108 BC – 400s AD

In 108 BC, China conquered the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and then had colonies there until the 400s AD.

Outside the colonies, several Korean city-states developed at the same time, including Koguryo, who expelled the Chinese in the early 300s AD.

Late 600s

At the end of the 6th century, the Kingdom of Shilla, located in the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula, conquered both Paekche in the southwest and Koguryo in the north, thus uniting the peninsula.


Shilla’s heyday collapsed and in 918 a new dynasty was founded called Koryo

1000s – 1100s

After the war against neighboring tribes, a period of economic and cultural heyday followed in the 11th and 12th centuries. With China as a model, the art of printing was developed


In the 13th century, the Korean Peninsula was invaded by Mongols who dominated it until the beginning of the 14th century, when the Koryo dynasty regained power.


General Yi Song-gye seized power after attacks by Chinese armies and a power struggle at court. He founded a new dynasty with the name of the old empire Choson and made Seoul the capital. The Choson Dynasty is also called the Yi Dynasty

15th century, beginning

Confucianism replaced the role of Buddhism in public life. After a brief period of cultural and scientific greatness during the first half of the 15th century, Choson also fell into disrepair


Japanese attacks destroyed large parts of the country

17th century, beginning

After two Chinese invasions, Korea became a Chinese obedient state and came to be isolated from the outside world, with the exception of contacts with China


Korea was forced to open ports for Japanese traders. Korea then concluded treaties with a number of Western countries and Russia

1894—1895 and 1904-1905

After Japan defeated China in the war between 1894–1895 and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–1905, Korea became a Japanese protectorate, which meant that the Koreans were allowed to control their own internal affairs while relations with the outside world were controlled by Japan.


Japan annexed Korea. The Japanese pursued a harsh policy of colonization, and the Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese customs and names. The Japanese developed mining, industry and agriculture while the profits were brought to Japan. Dissatisfaction with colonization led to rebellion


A peaceful popular uprising was called off, but the resistance movement grew, both inside and outside Korea. In Shanghai, China, a provisional Korean government was formed, which later split, led by Syngman Rhee. In North Korea, opposition to the Japanese was led by guerrilla leader and communist Kim Il Sung


Towards the end of World War II, North Korea was occupied by Soviet troops, while the southern part of the country was occupied by the Americans. The Allies had previously decided that Korea would regain its independence, but at the end of the year, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union decided that Korea would be ruled by the Allies for five years, which angered the Koreans.

During the disagreement between the United States and the Soviet Union over what a Korean transitional government would look like, a centralized communist state emerged under the rule of guerrilla leader Kim Il Sung in the Soviet-occupied zone in the north. In southern Korea, the United States set up an interim government of moderate nationalists, which led to violent protests and assassination attempts by right-wing groups.

South Korean history, modern


The United States raised the issue of Korea in the UN General Assembly, which set up a commission to hold elections throughout Korea. The Commission was not allowed to enter the northern part of the country


In May, elections were held for a National Assembly in South Korea. Singer Rhee was elected president

In August, the Republic of Korea was proclaimed

In the northern part of the country, the Communists held elections to a people’s assembly

In September, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was proclaimed


On June 25, North Korean troops crossed the truce and invaded South Korea. The UN Security Council branded North Korea an aggressor and called on member states to rescue South Korea. The Soviet Union, which boycotted the Security Council, could not veto it. American troops dominated the UN forces on the south side. At first, the North Koreans pushed far south but were then driven back north towards China. After China intervened on the North Korean side, the front stabilized at 38 degrees latitude


Peace talks began


The fighting continued until July 27, when a ceasefire agreement was concluded, but no peace agreement was reached, and the few kilometers wide demilitarized zone still forms the border between North and South Korea.


Although the United States provided large-scale financial assistance to South Korea after the war, Syngman Rhee’s position weakened, and a student uprising forced his resignation.


The political and economic unrest triggered a military coup led by Major General Park Chung Hee. The National Assembly was dissolved and emergency laws were introduced


Park Chung Hee, who ended his military career, was allowed to run again after the military coup in 1961 , won the presidential election and the military party gained a majority in parliament. A civilian government was formally appointed, but the former military held all important posts

With the help of foreign capital, rapid industrialization began and prosperity began to build. Domestic policy remained unstable


Park Chung Hee was close to losing the presidential election to Kim Dae Jung of the New Democratic Party (NDP). Many believed that the result was manipulated and that Kim was the real winner. South Korean security agents later tried to assassinate him.

The economic strategy changed; investments were directed to heavy sectors, such as the steel industry and shipbuilding, while prioritizing the electronics industry


Park Chung Hee dissolved the National Assembly, repealed the constitution and strengthened the president’s power through a new constitution


The political changes provoked protests and became bigger when Park issued the so-called anti-communist law, which among other things forbade students to demonstrate


The unrest increased further and Park Chung Hee was assassinated by the head of the country’s intelligence service. The new presidential election was followed by an army coup led by General Chun Doo Hwan


After large-scale student demonstrations, martial law was introduced, all political activity was banned and political leaders arrested, including Kim Dae Jung and rebels were crushed in the city of Kwangju with many casualties.

Kim Dae Jung was sentenced to death accused of being behind the uprising. After international protests, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and Kim was allowed to go into exile in the United States


The laws of war were softened and new parties were allowed to form, but Chun was still appointed president by a new electoral college. Kim Dae Jung and other opposition leaders regained the right to act politically in the mid-1980s


The students in Seoul started large demonstrations that forced President Chun to compromise with the opposition. A new constitution was negotiated and approved in a referendum. Direct election to the presidency resulted in a political liberalization


Roh Tae Woo took office as the newly elected president


Roh Tae Woo and opposition leaders Kim Young Sam and Kim Young Pil together formed the new Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) and gained a clear majority in parliament


Several opposition parties merged into a new alliance called the Democratic Party (DP), one of the leaders was Kim Dae Jung


In the parliamentary elections, the DLP lost its majority. But party candidate Kim Young Sam won the presidential election. Thus, for the first time in over three decades, South Korea got a president without a military background and a political purge was carried out in which former soldiers were forced to resign

President Kim was accused of irregularities and authoritarian leadership

When former presidents Chun and Roh were charged with corruption, Kim found it difficult to distance himself from them. Chun and Roh were also charged with the 1979 coup and the Kwangju massacre of 1980. Chun was sentenced to death and Roh to life imprisonment. Both were pardoned and later released


The DLP changed its name to the New Korea Party and managed to retain government power by a narrow margin

After the government had pushed through a weakened labor law, a wave of strikes was triggered which cost companies large sums and forced the government to back down. President Kim Young Sam and the government were also weakened by a severe export crisis and a corruption scandal


Lee Hoi Chang became the new leader of the new Conservative Party, the Grand National Party (GNP), after the NKP and DP merged

The presidential election was won by opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, who lost three previous presidential elections. He appointed Kim Jong Pil, the founder of the security service, who was believed to have been behind an assassination attempt on him, as prime minister.

The severe economic crisis marked much of President Kim Dae Jung’s policies. He was forced to break election promises and give companies the right to lay off employees, which led to millions of people losing their jobs. Major strikes and violent protests followed, and unrest led to a sharp fall in the stock market

South Korea Brief History