Taedongum Street in 1910 Pyongyang.

Korea’s place in the world: a brief history

This article is the first of a series of four. The following provide historical background: Part 2 on Japanese occupation, and Part 3 on the Korean War. Part 4 is an in-depth analysis that attempts to shed light on the part Korea plays in contemporary geopolitics and the shakeup of global power. 

Significant events are taking place in the Korean peninsula as various countries compete within a region that’s formally been at war since June 1950. North and South Korea, the US, China, Russia, and Japan are those most directly affected by the recent threats of hot war, nuclear attack, promises of solidarity, hope for formal peace, and negotiations around de-nuclearisation. However, the future of the peninsula can impact the global balance of power and help direct the course of the international order within which trade, alliances, international law, military presence, and economic development are practiced and potentially restructured.

The following assessment provides a clue on the direction of my own judgment of the situation: “[China’s] long-term ambition is to dismantle the U.S. alliance system in Asia, replacing it with a more benign (from Beijing’s perspective) regional security order in which it enjoys pride of place, and ideally a sphere of influence commensurate with its power.” It was written by Stewart M. Patrick, senior fellow at the politically influential US think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Before moving to my own judgment and speculating on what may happen next, I’ll start with a bit of history. Korea’s past events are extended into the present condition, desires, anxieties, and aspirations of the region. Effectively, the history of which I’ll write very briefly is living and intertwined in the social and political fabric of the peoples who inhabit the peninsula and its surroundings, such that we can say that some key events are ongoing and not simply artifacts left behind from a past period. This history is not only informative, it’s present and active. So, it’s essential that we look at it in order to understand why things are as they are and how they may yet unfold.

Korea under a monarchy

Korea was once a single country, a kingdom or empire, to be precise. Its borders were relatively stable and well recognised, its language established, and a common culture shared by a great breadth of the people that inhabited its bounds. Unification behind a single throne was established and maintained from the 10th century on. This came to an abrupt end in the 20th century, but more on that later.

The population lived under monarchic dynasties, families whose senior-most individual would be invested as the living embodiment of the state. This is a typical condition of dynastic states. The greatest number of people were peasants and the economy was primarily agrarian. A very small class of people were born into the privilege of aristocracy. Similar to all other situations of concentrated wealth and power, there were periods of popular rebellion, and demands for various degrees of egalitarianism from the mass of the poor, who were simply born into their class position in a formally stratified society whose divisions were defined by birth and family lineage. As it was an agrarian and feudal economy, political and economic demands for justice would occasionally touch at the core cause of privilege and penury: the right to landed property. The most salient demands were for the redistribution of land and the restructuring of property rights. Most commonly, reform was demanded for reduced tithes and taxes so that the peasants could keep a larger portion of the goods they produced, making for a less precarious life. In this matter, the Korean peninsula was a rather normal possession of a monarchy and its corresponding aristocracy.

East Asia, the peninsula included, was for very many generations within the sphere of influence of a particularly powerful empire: that of China. China was also a dynastic feudal state. It can roughly be said to be the region’s equivalent of ancients Greece and Rome, only that it never fell and it persists to this day. China was an important source of philosophy, learning, legal codes, ideology, bureaucratic practices, technology, and cultural influences. It was also the founder of a tributary international system that encompassed various states within the region, depending on the period and the relative strength or weakness of the parties involved. Korea was a regular subject of this regional international order that combined the various states into a loose confederation with the Chinese throne as sole leader, while others could be somewhat inadequately described as protectorates. This was true until the 20th century.

Regional expansion of Western powers

Westerns arrived with power enough to challenge East Asia’s established order. These peoples included representatives of the United Kingdom, France, and the US. Westerners had one key advantage over those of the local states: by the 19th century, they had far superior military technology. This was violently leveraged to force numerous concessions on China, among others. Understandably the ease with which China was militarily defeated in several small yet profound battles catalysed rapid regional change. Japan undertook deep reforms, and Korea was forced to open some its markets to a network of international trade that fell outside the scope of the tributary system.

One of the best known and most harmful practices of forced Chinese submission was undertaken by the United Kingdom. It went to war (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) against then Qing dynasty China in order to force economic concessions on that country as well as to limit that country’s sovereignty over its own territory and that of its tributary states. These mid 19th century clashes are known as the Opium Wars. This is how Hong Kong ended up as a colony of the UK, and the sale and consumption of addictive British owned opium was forcibly maintained in China. Other Western powers also received significant concessions, including immunity from local laws for their citizens.

The partial subjugation of China was a matter of great importance for Korea. It was, after all, a tributary state. If its political, military, and economic superior could be defeated, then it would best be wary of Western power in case it suffered great losses.

The Japanese ruling elites, meanwhile, were able to take advantage of the turbulence in East Asia in order to further their own interests and establish a colonial system of the European mold. As the 19th century progressed, Japan began its expansion.

The conquest of Korea

Japan has an advantage that’s simultaneously a disadvantage, if its goal is imperial expansion: it’s an island state. As an island, it is defensible. This also means that its imperialists didn’t have a foothold on the Asian mainland and so they could more effectively be prevented from exerting influence on that land mass. Japanese imperial ambition of the 19th century, therefore, led to a logical conclusion: conquest of Korea. The Korean peninsula is geographically very close to Japan. Distance is an important factor in the delivery of military supplies as well as for the administration of territories. Additionally, the peninsula is naturally defensible against land invasions due to its shape and topography. So, a Japanese strategist could well see the benefit of controlling that peninsula if the goal was to further an agenda of regional domination.

War erupted between the Qing Empire and the Japanese Empire in 1894. The short war ended with the resounding defeat of the Chinese. They released Korea from the tributary state system as a condition of peace. Korea was then formally set loose from any intervening international hegemony. This did not last. In 1905, Korea was compelled to sign a treaty with Japan that rendered it a protectorate. Korea’s independence was successively eroded until it was annexed in 1910, to be administered by a Japanese governor-general.

Japan subsequently increased its hold on the peninsula, culminating in extreme repression in the 1930s. Koreans were compelled to abandon their given names to take on new Japanese names, their culture was assaulted, and Korean language education was banned. The people of the peninsula were to be re-imagined as Japanese subjects, a process that was coupled with forced erasure of many practices peculiar to Korean culture.

The same time period saw the invasion of north-eastern China (Manchuria). Japanese forces thus enlarged their empire’s territories, pressing further into the Asian mainland. A select number of Koreans, including some of the aristocracy, gained or retained positions of privilege within the new colonial landscape so long as they collaborated with their new masters’ rule and repression. Japanese domination and Korean collaboration did not go unopposed. Indigenous Korean rebellions sprung up, guerrilla movements fought for independence, and local collectives attempted to gain a measure of independence. These anti-colonial movements were brutally beaten down.

Japanese Empire, 1870 – 1942.
Japanese Empire, 1870 – 1942. / CC BY-SA 3.0 license.


Manchuria became an important theatre of resistance for both Koreans and Chinese. Crucially, Korean guerrilla armies operated out of that contested territory, the most resilient of which were communist. In this fashion, the Korean and Chinese resistance fighters shared a common struggle as well as a common ideology: independence from Japanese occupation as well as redistribution of wealth and power away from the hands of failed or collaborating indigenous elites.

Japan employed Korean collaborators in its programme of violent control; these led a series of hunting parties to seek out and destroy insurgencies. The confrontations were bloody and the guerrillas suffered great losses from siege, starvation, and violence. This Manchurian episode of (anti-)colonial warfare helped to distinguish numerous key leaders of Japan, as well as those of what became North and South Korea. For example, Kishi Nobosuke, Park Chung Hee, and Kim Il Sung were there involved.

Kishi Nobosuke was a Japanese who headed military supplies for the war and occupation efforts in Manchuria. After his country’s defeat in World War II, he was charged with Class-A war crimes and imprisoned. The tribunal which delivered such accusation was established by the US shortly after the end of World War II. After some years, Kishi was released from prison and became prime minister of Japan (1957-1958). He’s credited as one of the founders of the Liberal Democratic Party, that electoral party which has since dominated Japan’s mainly single-party state. He’s the granfather of Japan’s current prime minister (2012 to present), Abe Shinzo.

Park Chung Hee was born into a Korean aristocratic family of rural origin. He graduated from a Japanese military academy in occupied Manchuria, after which he entered into active duty. He’s known for his anti-sedition activities, and was charged with the infiltration and routing out of Korean anti-colonial guerrillas. Keep this name in mind, he will appear again.

Kim Il Sung was a Korean guerrilla leader of great fame among his anti-colonialist compatriots. He led one of the rare groups that succeeded in surviving the Japanese bloodletting. He became leader of North Korea until his death in 1994. An informal hereditary line of succession was effectively established, whereupon his son, Kim Jong-il replaced him, after which that leader’s son, Kim Jong-un, became leader upon his father’s death. Kim Jong-un is the current leader of North Korea.

Guerrilla fighters were not alone in seeing violence first hand. The Japanese occupiers and their Korean collaborators didn’t spare civilians. Insurgencies often survive thanks to the support they receive from the local population. People who were suspected of supporting the resistance were killed, and masses of people were relocated and concentrated in supervised villages in order to cut off militants from their civilian base.

Despite Manchuria’s place in China, Koreans constituted the large majority of resistors located there(1). This geographic condition proved fateful to the future of the peninsula. It should be remembered that China was itself torn asunder at that time. It was partially occupied by Japan and fighting a war against that country while the state was fragmented by intermittent yet pitched civil war (1927-1950). The Kuomintang of the Republic of China was on one side of the civil war, the Communist Party of China constituting the People’s Republic of China on the other. The Communist Party was ultimately victorious, and its Manchurian branch had a majority Korean membership made up of anti-colonial resistors. One such member was Kim Il Sung, who later went to lead North Korea. This is to show that the two governments, that of China and that of North Korea, had relations born of common cause that were reinforced by shared experiences.

From the perspective of the region, their ongoing warfare was joined by a great swathe of the planet with the onset of World War II.

The alliances made and abandoned during the course of that war along with the conditions of victory and loss have played an important role in determining the current shape of the Korean peninsula. Korea is today both formed and sundered by the living tensions of the region’s history, and it is an unfortunate articulation of strains imposed upon it by the ambitions of the world’s great powers.

The next article of this series will include a Korea-centric history of World War II, and provide background on the division of Korea into two parts. I’ll then give my own assessment of what I believe to be behind recent political events between the Korean governments, the US, and China.

This article is the first of a series of four. The following provide historical background: Part 2 on Japanese occupation, and Part 3 on the Korean War. Part 4 is an in-depth analysis that attempts to shed light on the part Korea plays in contemporary geopolitics and the shakeup of global power. 

Notes and Sources

(1) This has been confirmed by scholars after the review of Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Soviet documents that were made available more recently. See Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History. (Random House Publishing Group: 2010) Chapter 2: The Party of Memory, para. 14

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