The history of the Korean people begins with the migration into the Korean Peninsula of Tungusic tribes from northern China and Manchuria about 3,000 BC . The archaeological evidence indicates that these tribes possessed a Neolithic culture and that it was not until about the 8th century BC that the art of metalworking came to Korea from China. The recorded history of Korea begins around 194 BC , when the ancient kingdom of Choson ("Land of Morning Calm") in northwestern Korea was seized by Wiman, a military figure from China of either Chinese or Korean origin. He usurped the throne from a king who, according to legend, was a descendant of Kija, a historical Chinese nobleman who emigrated from China at the end of the Shang dynasty (c.1122 BC ). A popular Korean legend of much later origin asserts that Kija was preceded in his rule over the Korean Peninsula by a dynasty started in 2333 BC by the semidivine figure Tan-gun, an offspring of the son of the divine creator and a "bear woman" (possibly a woman from a bear-totem tribe). Both Tan-gun and Kija are still widely revered.
The primitive state controlled by Wiman's successors fell victim to expanding Chinese power in 108 BC , and there followed more than four centuries of Chinese colonial rule. During this period, the advanced Chinese culture slowly spread into nearly every corner of Korea, giving impetus to the coalescence of the loosely knit Korean tribes into statelike formations. By AD 313, when the Chinese power was destroyed, three Korean kingdoms had emerged: Paekche, in the southwest; Silla, in the southeast; and Koguryo, in the northwest. The three kingdoms had advanced cultures for the time, each compiling a written history during the 4th–6th centuries. During the same period, Buddhism was introduced into Korea, from which it was later taken to Japan. Ultimately, the Silla kingdom crushed the other two and united all but the northernmost portion of the peninsula, ushering in the age of the Silla Unification (668–900). After rebellions broke out, Korea again suffered threefold division, until reunification was achieved in 936 under the leadership of Wang Kon, who had proclaimed a new dynasty in the kingdom of Koryo (founded in 918), which derived its name from Koguryo; the name Korea is derived from Koryo.
Chinese influence on political and social institutions and on Korean thought went on at an accelerated pace during the Koryo period, and there were some notable cultural achievements, including the traditional invention of the use of movable metal type in printing in the early 12th century. Beginning in 1231, however, the Mongols invaded Koryo, devastating the land and, from 1259 on, making puppets of the Korean kings. Following a revolt against the Mongol Empire in 1356 and a subsequent period of disorder, Gen. Yi Song-gye assumed the throne as King T'aejo in 1392, adopting the name Choson for Korea, moving the capital from Kaesong (the capital of Koryo since 918) to Seoul, and ushering in the long-lived Yi (or Li) Dynasty (1392–1910).
The first hundred years of Yi rule witnessed truly brilliant cultural achievements, especially during the reign of King Sejong (1418–50). The world's first authenticated casting of movable metal type was made in 1403. The Korean alphabet, Han'gul, was developed. A rain gauge was invented and put into use throughout the peninsula. A spate of basic texts—including histories, geographies, administrative codes, and works on music—were compiled and issued under state auspices. Scholars competed for government posts through the civil service examination system. By about 1500, however, factionalism divided the kingdom, and the Yi rulers were ill-prepared to meet foreign invasion. In 1592, in the course of an attempt to conquer China, the Japanese, under Hideyoshi Toyotomi, invaded Korea and were repulsed by an allied Chinese army and the Korean navy under Yi Sun-sin; in 1597 there was another invasion, which ended with Hideyoshi's death in 1598. After being invaded by the Manchus in 1636, Korea became a vassal state, eventually falling under the official but loose control of the Qing (Ch'ing), or Manchu, dynasty in China. During the 18th century, two energetic kings, Yongjo (r.1724–76) and Chongjo (r.1776–1800), were able to arrest somewhat the process of dynastic decline. The intellectual and cultural revival that they engendered, known as the Practical Learning Movement (Sirhak), was short-lived, however, and the Yi kingdom's bitterest century followed.
The first six decades of the 19th century were marked by a succession of natural disasters, by mounting peasant unrest and insurrection, and by administrative relapse into hopeless corruption and inefficiency. Eventually a Korean figure came forward to attempt to rescue the dynasty from impending collapse. This was Yi Ha-leng, known as the Taewon'gun (Prince Regent), who was the father of the king, Kojong, and held the actual power during the decade 1864–73. While his domestic reforms were generally enlightened and beneficial, he adopted an isolationist policy, including persecutions of the growing Roman Catholic community in Korea. Such a policy was doomed to failure. Soon after the Taewon'gun's downfall, the Kanghwa Treaty of 1876 with Japan opened Korea by force both to Japan and to the clamoring Western nations. During the last quarter of the 19th century, Korea was the prize in a complex rivalry for mastery of the peninsula among Japan, China, Western imperialist powers, and domestic political forces. Japan seized upon the pretext of peasant uprisings in Korea's southern provinces (the Tonghak Rebellion, led by followers of what later came to be called the Ch'ondogyo religion) during 1894–95 to destroy waning Chinese power in Korea in the First Sino-Japanese War. A decade later, Japan turned back the Russian bid for supremacy in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5). In 1910, with the tacit approval of the United States and the European powers, the Yi Dynasty came to an end with the formal annexation of Korea by Japan.
For 35 years, Korea (renamed Choson) remained under the Japanese yoke, until liberated by US and Soviet troops at the end of World War II. Although Japanese colonial rule brought to Korea considerable economic development along modern Western lines, the benefits went primarily to the Japanese, and the process was accompanied by ever harsher political and cultural oppression. The Korean people staged a nationwide passive resistance movement beginning on 1 March 1919 (the Samil or "March 1" Movement), only to have it swiftly and brutally crushed by their Japanese overlords. In the 1920s and 1930s, nationalist and Communist movements developed both within Korea and among Korean exiles in the former USSR, Manchuria (which was occupied by Japan in 1931), and the rest of China. After the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Japanese aimed to eradicate Korean national identity; even the use of the Korean language was banned.
After Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration for unconditional surrender on 14 August 1945, the 38th parallel was chosen, as a result of US initiative, as a line of demarcation between Soviet occupation forces (who had entered the north on 8 August) and US occupation forces (who were introduced on 8 September). While the Americans set up a full military government allied with conservative Korean political forces, the Soviets allied their government with leftist and Communist Korean forces led by Kim Il Sung, who had been an anti-Japanese guerrilla leader in Manchuria. After a joint commission set up by the US and the USSR failed to agree on plans for the reunification of Korea, the problem was placed on the UN agenda in September 1947. In accordance with a UN resolution, elections were held on 10 May 1948 in South Korea alone; North Korea did not recognize UN competency to sponsor the elections. The newly elected National Assembly formulated a democratic constitution and chose Syngman Rhee, who had been the leader of an independence movement in exile, to be the first president of the Republic of Korea, proclaimed on 15 August 1948. On 9 September, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the north, with Kim Il-sung at the helm. Like its southern counterpart, the DPRK claimed to be the legitimate government of all Korea. In December, however, the ROK was acknowledged by the UN General Assembly as the only government in Korea to have been formed according to the original UN mandate. The next year and a half brought sporadic border clashes between the two Koreas, coupled with increasing guerrilla activity in the south.
On 25 June 1950, the People's Army of the DPRK struck across the 38th parallel at dawn in a move to unify the peninsula under Communist control. The DPRK forces advanced rapidly; Seoul, the ROK capital, fell within three days, and the destruction of the ROK seemed imminent. At US urging, the UN Security Council branded the DPRK an aggressor and called for the withdrawal of the attacking forces. President Harry S. Truman ordered US air and naval forces into battle on 27 June and ground forces three days later. A multinational UN Command was then created to join with and lead the South Koreans. An amphibious landing at Inch'on (15 September) in the ROK under General Douglas MacArthur brought about the complete disintegration of the DPRK's military position.
MacArthur then made a fateful decision to drive into the north. As the UN forces approached the Yalu River, China warned that it would not tolerate a unification of the peninsula under US/UN auspices. After several weeks of threats and feints, "volunteers" from the Chinese People's Liberation Army entered the fighting en masse, forcing MacArthur into a costly, pell-mell retreat back down the peninsula. The battle line stabilized nearly along the 38th parallel, where it remained for two years. On 27 July 1953, an armistice agreement finally was signed by the North Korean People's Army, the Chinese volunteers, and the UN Command at P'anmunjom in the DPRK, ending a conflict that cost the lives of an estimated 415,000 South Koreans, 23,300 Americans (combat dead), and 3,100 UN allies; casualties among Communist forces are officially estimated by the DPRK at 50,000 but may have been as high as two million. A military demarcation line, which neither side regarded as a permanent border, was established, surrounded by the DMZ. After the armistice agreement, all but a token force of UN Command troops withdrew, except those of the United States, which in 1954 guaranteed the security of the ROK under a mutual defense treaty. A postwar international conference held in 1954 to resolve the problem of Korea's political division was unable to find a satisfactory formula for reunification. Meanwhile, the DPRK, with the aid of China and the former USSR, began to restore its war-damaged economy. A series of purges consolidated political power in the hands of Kim Il Sung and his supporters. By the end of the 1950s, Kim had emerged as the unchallenged leader of the DPRK and the focus of a personality cult that developed around him and his family.
In 1972, the government replaced the original 1948 constitution with a new document (which would be further revised in 1992), and reunification talks, stalled since 1954, resumed under Red Cross auspices, though without lasting effect. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as part of its "cold war" with the ROK, the DPRK extended its diplomatic relations to over 100 countries. The ROK continued to charge the DPRK with attempts at sabotage and subversion, including infiltration by tunnels under the DMZ. In the 1980s, Korea's basic divisions remained unresolved. Since 1980, President Kim proposed that both the North and South be reunited as a confederal state, with each part retaining regional autonomy and its own ideological and social system, but the ROK has rejected the concept; the DPRK likewise has rejected the ROK's repeated proposals for the resumption of North-South talks on reunification unless the United States is a third party in the negotiations, but neither the ROK nor the United States has accepted that condition. Kim was unanimously reelected president in May 1990, and his son, Kim Jong-Il (1942–), groomed since the 1960s as his designated successor, appeared to be running the nation's day-to-day affairs, though without benefit of any formal administrative post. Indications of an improvement in relations between the North and South included material relief provided by the DPRK to the ROK after a flood in 1984, talks under Red Cross auspices that led to a brief reunion of separated families in 1985, economic discussions, and interparliamentary contacts. The DPRK did not participate in the 1988 summer Olympic Games, officially hosted by the ROK, since it was not named as cohost.
During the 1990s, the DPRK was less able to rely on its allies, the large communist states of the former USSR and China. In 1990, the USSR and the ROK opened formal diplomatic relations and, by the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union cut off an important source of economic and political support for the DPRK. After a break of twelve years since the DPRK sided with the former USSR in the Sino-Soviet clash of 1969, China and the DPRK had reestablished ties in 1982. Yet in 1990, China and the ROK began to encourage mutual trade and in 1992 established formal diplomatic relations. Beginning in 1993, China demanded that all its exports to the DPRK be paid for with cash instead of through barter. The DPRK found itself increasingly isolated and in severe economic difficulty. Reunification talks, and the DPRK's relations with the US, took on added urgency as the DPRK sought international recognition and economic aid.
In the first half of the 1990s, the DPRK's foreign relations revolved around issues of joint US-ROK military exercises and of nuclear capabilities. Repeatedly, since 1986, the DPRK canceled negotiations with the ROK during the annual "Team Spirit" exercises of US and ROK militaries. In 1991, the United States withdrew its nuclear weapons from the ROK and the two Koreas signed a bilaterial agreement to create a nuclear weapons-free peninsula. Yet it was suspected that the DPRK was developing the capability to reprocess nuclear fuels and build nuclear weapons. (Both the ROK and Japan had stockpiles of plutonium.) Conflicts over the access of an International Atomic Energy Agency inspection team, which the DPRK allowed into North Korea in May 1994, to a reprocessing plant led to new tensions. These tensions were defused with an agreement for high-level talks between the US and the DPRK, previously refused by the United States, to be held on 8 July 1994, followed on 25 July by a summit in P'yongyang between the presidents of the two Koreas, the first such summit since Korea was divided in 1945.
On 8 July 1994, just as the US-DPRK talks were beginning, President Kim Il Sung died, and the talks were suspended. Kim Jong Il replaced his father as leader of the country, without assuming Kim Il Sung's previous titles of state president and general secretary of the Korean Workers Party. The official mourning period for Kim Il Sung was extended to three years.
On 10 September 1995 Russia advised the DPRK that it would not extend the 1961 treaty on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance. The DPRK closed the Neutral Nations Supervisory Committee offices in the northern half of the joint security area at Panmunjim in an effort to dismantle the Military Armistice Agreement in May of 1994, following the expulsion of the Czech and Polish representatives and the withdrawal of China, one of the three original signatures to the agreement. This post-Cold War framework was designed to pressure the US into guaranteeing the DPRK's survival by means of a bilateral peace treaty. Marshall O Jen U, the armed forces supreme commander and the second in the hierarchy behind Kim Il Sung died 25 February 1995. He had been a prominent symbol of military acceptance of the younger Kim.
After he had served as North Korea's de facto leader for four years without formally being named as president, Kim Jong Il's position was made official. On 5 September 1998, the Supreme People's Assembly paid tribute to his father, Kim Il Sung, by permanently abolishing the post of president, which left Kim Jong Il, in his capacity as Chairman of the National Defense Commission, the nation's top political official. At the same session, the assembly approved a number of other changes to the nation's constitution.
Tensions over North Korea's nuclear capabilities were revived when it reportedly fired a three-stage ballistic missile into the Pacific; claims that the vehicle was a satellite launcher were initially greeted by skepticism on the part of the United States and Japan, over which it had been fired.
Widespread flooding, due in part to North Korea's efforts to expand the land under collectivization by massive deforestation, has led to a national famine. Relief efforts have not been able to raise nearly enough food to feed North Korea's starving population. The policies of North Korea's government have led to reticence on the part of those nations that normally would have contributed to the UN-sponsored World Food Program (WPF). Nevertheless, in 1998 the WPF mounted the largest aid effort on record in an attempt to save millions of North Koreans from starvation. That year the DPRK accepted nearly $1 billion in food aid. Famine conditions continued through 1999 and into 2000, with the WPF issuing renewed calls for assistance from the international community.
As part of an effort to bring North Korea out of its self-imposed isolation, its government renewed the diplomatic initiative toward the South that had been interrupted by the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. What became known as South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of rapprochement toward the North resulted in the signing of a joint agreement at a summit in P'yongyang between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il in June 2000. In 2003, incoming South Korean President Roh Moohyun pledged to continue the "sunshine policy," but by then relations with North Korea had deteriorated due to revelations in October 2002 that North Korea was undertaking a program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons. This revelation came on the heels of US president George W. Bush's January 2002 State of the Union Address, in which he labeled North Korea (along with Iran and Iraq) a state that endangers the peace of the world by supporting terrorism and pursuing weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons). In late 2002, North Korea accused the United States of not adhering to the Agreed Framework between the two countries, established in 1994, in that the US's construction of two light-water reactors in North Korea was far behind schedule. The North demanded the International Atomic Energy Agency remove seals and surveillance equipment from its Yongbyon power plant, which the IAEA said was in danger of reprocessing spent fuel rods for plutonium.
In January 2003, North Korea announced it would withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In March, four armed North Korean fighter jets intercepted a US reconnaissance plane in international air space over the Sea of Japan / East Sea about 150 miles off North Korea's coast, and shadowed it for 22 minutes. The US plane broke off its mission and returned to its base in Japan, unharmed. On 1 April, the US announced that stealth fighters sent to South Korea for a training exercise were to remain there once the exercises ended. Later that month, talks were held between US and North Korean officials in Beijing; the talks ended in mutual recrimination, when US officials indicated the North had admitted it possessed nuclear weapons. The US on 6 June 2003 announced it would redeploy some of its 37,000 troops from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, in an attempt to enhance security and create a more agile and mobile force in the region. On 9 June, North Korea stated it would be necessary to develop a "nuclear deterrent" to reduce conventional weapons and funnel resources to programs that benefit its citizens, and to respond to the hostile stance taken by the United States with regard to North Korea.