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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Koreans/Young-Sik Yoo

Koreans in Canada trace their ancestral origins to the land of Korea, even though a certain number may have been born or lived somewhere else before coming to this country. Historic Korea is in the centre of East Asia between China and Japan, two countries that have had a profound impact on the political and cultural evolution of Korean civilization. Geographically, Korea is a peninsula covering 219,000 square kilometres and surrounded by the Sea of Japan, the Korean Strait, and the Yellow Sea; it is bordered on the north by China and a small portion of Russia. Since World War II, the peninsula has been divided into two countries: North Korea, with slightly over half the territorial size and an estimated 21 million people (1987); and South Korea, with an estimated 42.1 million people (1989). Korea is ethnically and racially homogeneous with only a small number of other peoples within its borders living there on a temporary basis. There are, however, an estimated 5 million Koreans (1993) living in 129 countries abroad, mainly in China (1.7 million), the United States (840,000), and Japan (85,000), as well as in Central and South America, the Middle East, western Europe, other Asian countries, and Africa. The majority of Koreans in Canada have come from South Korea.

Although for most of the twentieth century Korea has either been occupied or politically divided, the country before then had a long tradition of independent statehood extending back nearly 5,000 years. The Koreans commonly trace their origins to the founding of the state of Old Chosŏn in the northwestern corner of the peninsula about 2,300 B.C.E. During the last half of the first century B.C.E., three kingdoms (Kogurygŏ, Paekche, and Silla) arose, which about 676 C.E. united under the leadership of the Kingdom of Silla. This was a period in which Buddhism was introduced from China (c. 372 C.E.) and adopted as the official religion and when, beginning in the sixth century, Confucian philosophy came to influence Korea’s government and life in general.

The outset of the tenth century was marked by civil war but during the 930s Korea was united under the Korygŏ dynasty, which was to rule for nearly 500 years. The artistic, literary, medical, and technological achievements of the previous Silla Kingdom were advanced further under Korygŏ rule. For instance, in 1240 Korea became the first country in the world to use movable cast-metal type printing, preceding by two centuries Gutenberg’s later achievement in Europe. Korea was also subjected to the Mongol invasions that started about 1231 and that exposed the country to various forms of cultural influence, known as mongolization, as well as political subordination that was to last until nearly the end of the fourteenth century.

Following the retreat of the Mongol rulers at the end of the fourteenth century, a rebellion broke out against Korygŏ rule that led to the creation of the Yi dynasty, which was to govern the country from 1392 to the outset of the twentieth century. Under the first of the Yi rulers, the capital was moved to Hanyang, now known as Seoul, which henceforth was to remain the political, economic, and cultural centre of Korea. The Yi dynasty replaced Buddhism with Confucianism as the state ideology not only for official matters but also for people’s private lives. Confucianism set out specific ethical codes that emphasized rationality and a tightly structured hierarchal society. The highest respect was accorded family elders, the monarch, and China as the older, more established country.

The peaceful order of Korea under Yi rule was disrupted by devastating invasions from the south by the Japanese in the 1590s and by China’s Manchu rulers from the north in the 1620s and 1630s. Following this experience, Korea retreated into strict isolationism and became known as the “Hermit Kingdom.” The isolationist policy was further buttressed by the cultural chauvinism of the ruling class, to whom it was inconceivable that anything of value could be learned from any foreign country other than China.

Korea’s self-imposed isolation was to be challenged in the nineteenth century. British, French, Russian, and American ships landed at various times but were rebuffed by the Koreans. Finally, in 1876, Korea’s first foreign trade treaty was made with Japan, followed by the United States in 1882 and several European countries shortly thereafter. Before long, Korea was to become caught up in the larger struggle among its neighbours for control of all of East Asia. Japan invaded Korea following its defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95); then, in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), which marked another Japanese victory, and the intervention of U.S. diplomacy, Korea was forced into becoming a protectorate of Japan. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea outright and was to rule the country as a colony for the next thirty-six years.

As part of Japan, Korea’s economy was transformed, with the introduction of modern agricultural practices in the south and industrialization in the northern part of the country. At the same time, Japan set out to eradicate the Korean national identity. Large-scale protests that occurred in 1919 were brutally repressed, leaving an estimated 7,000 protestors killed or wounded and another 47,000 arrested. Subsequently, Koreans were ordered to adopt Japanese names, to use only the Japanese language in schools, and to replace their native religions with Shintoism, the national religion of Japan. Koreans clung tenaciously to their traditions, however, and very few remnants of Japanese rule remained after its defeat. Discontent with Japanese rule also led to the emigration of thousands of Koreans to China (Manchuria and Shanghai), to Soviet Russia’s Pacific port of Vladivostok, and to the United States (including Hawaii).

It was among the immigrant communities abroad that a movement for Korean independence began in the 1910s and 1920s. The movement was continued by underground guerrilla forces active at home during World War II, when Japan was fighting on the side of Nazi Germany against the Allies. Among the nationalist activists at that time was Syngman Rhee, residing in the United States, who later became the first president of South Korea, and Kim Il Sung, head of a guerilla unit in Japanese-controlled Manchukuo (Manchuria), who later became the first president of North Korea.

During World War II, Korean nationalists abroad established a provisional government and an army that fought alongside the Allies in the Pacific theatre. When Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, Koreans welcomed the opportunity to restore an independent state, but they soon found themselves under the control of the Soviet military in the northern part of the country and the American military in the south. Korea had effectively become divided along the 38th parallel. In their respective zones, the two wartime Allies set up provisional governments that in 1948 became the pro-Western Republic of Korea in the south and the pro-Communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north. Discussions about unifying the country foundered with the onset of the Cold War and disagreement between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Backed by Communist China and the Soviet Union, the forces of North Korea launched an attack on South Korea in the summer of 1950, setting off a three-year struggle known as the Korean War. A coalition force under United Nations auspices and led by the United States came to the aid of South Korea. When a truce was finally signed in July 1953, Korea still remained divided but the country was devastated. An estimated four million soldiers were killed or wounded and approximately one million civilians died as a result of the conflict.

Both North and South Korea were quickly able to rebuild their economies. The industrialized north restored its pre-war production levels within three years through the adoption of a Communist-style centralized command economy with significant assistance from the former Soviet Union. The traditionally agricultural south evolved into an industrial society linked to the West and, by the 1980s, had become one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of automobiles and other advanced technological products.

In recent years North Korea has not been able to match the enormous economic growth of the south. By the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the north’s Gross Domestic Product had slipped to one-eighth the level of South Korea. Rigid political and economic policies have only worsened the economic status of North Korea and contributed to ongoing political alienation from South Korea. There have been periodical efforts at normalizing relations between the two parts of the country, but these have not been successful and both countries remain technically in a state of war. Nevertheless, all Koreans – north, south, and abroad – continue, despite their political and geographical differences, to share a common belief that they are one people who someday must be once again united in a single state.

An important aspect contributing to a sense of Korean unity has been a common culture and language. The Korean language belongs to the Ural-Altaic language group which also includes Turkish, Mongolian, and Japanese. Until the creation of their own script (Han’ gŭl) in 1443, Koreans borrowed Chinese characters for their tones and/or meanings, known as hyangchal and idu.

The Korean religious heritage is much more complex. Over the centuries, Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism were combined to form the Korean belief system. Later, Roman Catholicism in the sixteenth century and Protestantism in the nineteenth century were introduced by Europeans and accepted by a certain number of Korean converts. Since World War II, North Korea has been an officially atheistic country whose regime frowns on religious belief and practice. In South Korea (1994), where all religions are tolerated, the population is 40 percent Buddhist, 27 percent Christian (nearly fourth-fifths Protestant, the rest Roman Catholic), and 15 percent Confucian. Data on Shamanism is difficult to determine because of its lack of organizational structures, but shamanistic rituals take place throughout Korea and are a part of most people’s lives regardless of what other religion they may practise.