In Chapter 1 of A Concise History of Modern Korea: From the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present by Michael J. Seth, the author describes the history of Korea becoming a modernized and globalized country. Due to the geographical location of Korea being an isolated peninsula, for twelve centuries the country was ethnically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from the rest of the world. There were no notable minority groups within Korea and no populations of Korean peoples outside of the country. Korea politically was an independent nation, but was heavily influenced by China, which was seen as the central power of Asia. Korea occupied both an independent status as its own ethnic group from China, but also acted in some ways as a territory of China’s until the Treaty of Kanghwa was signed in 1876. Signed with the newly reformed Meiji Governemnt of Japan, this treaty opened three Korean ports to Japanese trade and also established permanently Korea as an independent nation from China. This act marks the beginning of the modern Korean state, as prior to the treaty Korea had no foreign trade policy.
In this time period, 1876-1910, multiple countries attempted to take ownership over Korea, primarily Russia, China, and Japan. Because of Korea’s geographical position as a peninsula in the center of Asia, Korean ports are strategically crucial to power in Asia and therefore were highly coveted by these nations. With the opening of the borders to foreign trade came an unequal distribution of wealth, creating disdain between Korean peasants and the foreign merchants of China and Japan entering the country. This brought about multiple uprisings from the peasant class. The Tonghak Uprising of 1894 most notably sparked the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. The Tonghak was a religious minority that combined Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, an omnipotent deity inspired by Christianity, as well as Korean folk religion. The religion was started by Ch’oe Che-u, who was seen as a threat to the Korean government because of the religion’s call for egalitarianism. Today the religion is called Ch’ondogyo, after multiple changes in leaders and years of persecution, but the religion is still present in Korea as a minority. From the UN’s 2007 data, we see that 22.8% of the population is now Buddhist, 10.9% is Catholic, 18.31% is Christian, and only .09% of the population is Ch’ondogyo, and an overwhelming 46.4% claims no religion. Christianity was first introduced in the 1860’s during the time of the Opium Wars in China, when Catholic missionaries entered Korea. Before colonization however, the country’s religion was heavily influenced by Confucius, and so I am confused as to how these shifts of practicing religions have happened so rapidly. I am interested in continuing studying how religion has affected Korea, especially after learning that the largest peasant revolution was based in a religion unique to Korea.
This chapter ends with a brief description of Japan’s colonization of Korea in 1910. Seth writes that this is “viewed by most Koreans as one of the two great tragedies of their modern history; the other being the division of the country” (35-6). Japan continued its occupation of the country until 1945. In this period however, Korea is industrialized by the Japanese colonization. Japan brought increased construction of railways, electricity to the capital city Seoul, and a Western style of buildings into the cities. In the present, South Korea claimed the highest overall score in the 2015 Bloomberg Innovation Index, which calculates ranking dependent on six categories, Korea notably receiving first place in both the Research and Development and High-Tech Companies categories. Maybe the history of Japan’s assistance to the modernization of Korea is intrinsically important to the country’s highly innovative reputation today.
In other recent news, North Korea on September 9th completed a fifth nuclear test, getting disdain from South Korea and from the rest of the world who continues to try and force the North to disarm their nuclear weapons (nytimes.com). Earlier this month there was a serious flood in North Korea, and while the people of South Korea are sympathetic to their neighbors, the South Korean government has stated that even if requested, they will not provide aid to North Korea due to the nuclear test this month. In the article, “South Korea Says It’s Unlikely to Help North Recover From Flood” Choe Sang-Hun writes, “The suffering of ordinary citizens elicits sympathy in the South. The South’s Constitution includes North Korea in its territory and calls for “national unity” through “humanitarianism and brotherly love.”” (nytimes.com). From my readings on the history of Korea, this connection between the nations is likely due to the centuries of history in which Korea was an isolated, ethnically homogenous independent nation. Even while the South is not in support of the nuclear testing in the North, in the Constitution and in the public opinion in the South the whole continent is seen as being home of the united Korean people.
For next week, I hope to begin bridging the gap between Japan’s colonization of Korea in 1910 and the modern conflict between the two countries, either by examining in further detail the Korean war and the separation of the continent into two countries, or a more deep analysis of how Japan’s colonization of the continent brought industry into the country.
On Nuclear Testing in North Korea:
Innovation Index Information: