Origins of the Korean Nation

Origins of the Korean Nation

Koreans inhabit a mountainous peninsula protruding southward from the northeastern corner of the Asian continent and surrounded on three sides by water. Although Japan exercised decisive influence by the late sixteenth century, in ancient times the peoples and civilizations on the contiguous Asian continent were far more important. The peninsula is surrounded on three sides by other peoples: Chinese to the west; Japanese to the east; and an assortment of peoples to the north, including "barbarian" tribes, aggressive invaders, and, in the twentieth century, an expanding and deepening Russian presence. Koreans have emerged as a people influenced by the peninsula's internal and surrounding geography.

The northern border between Korea and China formed by the Yalu and Tumen rivers has been recognized for centuries. But these rivers did not always constitute Korea's northern limits; Koreans ranged far beyond this border well into northeastern China and Siberia, and neither Koreans nor the ancient tribes that occupied the plains of Manchuria (northeastern China) considered these riverine borders to be sacrosanct. The harsh winter climate also turned the rivers into frozen pathways for many months, facilitating the back-and-forth migration out of which the Korean people were formed.

Paleolithic excavations show that humans inhabited the Korean Peninsula half a million years ago, but most scholars assume that present-day Koreans are not descended from these early inhabitants. Neolithic age (from 4,000-3,000 B.C.) humans also inhabited the area, identified archaeologically by the ground and polished stone tools and pottery they left to posterity. Around 2,000 B.C., a new pottery culture spread into Korea from China. These people practiced agriculture in a settled communal life, and are widely supposed to have had consanguineous clans as their basic social grouping. Korean historians in modern times sometimes assume that the clan leadership systems characterized by councils of nobles (hwabaek) that emerged in the subsequent Silla period can be traced back to these neolithic peoples, and that a mythical "child of the sn," an original Korean, also was born then. There is no hard evidence, however, to support such beginnings for the Korean people.

By the fourth century B.C., a number of walled-town states on the peninsula had survived long enough to come to the attention of China. The most illustrious of these states was Old Chosn, which had established itself along the banks of the Liao and the Taedong rivers in southern Manchuria and northwestern Korea. Old Chosn prospered as a civilization based on bronze culture and a political federation of many walled towns; the federation, judging from Chinese accounts, was formidable to the point of arrogance. Riding horses and deploying bronze weapons, the Chosn people extended their influence to the north, taking most of the Liaodong Basin. But the rising power of the north China state of Yen (1122-255 B.C.) checked Chosn's growth and eventually pushed it back to territory south of the Ch'ngch'n River, located midway between the Yalu and Taedong rivers. As the Yen gave way in China to the Qin (221-207 B.C.) and the Han dynasties (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Chosn declined, and refugee populations migrated eastward. Out of this milieu, emerged Wiman, a man who assumed the kingship of Chosn sometime between 194 and 180 B.C. The Kingdom of Wiman Chosn melded Chinese influence, and under the Old Chosn federated structure--apparently reinvigorated under Wiman--the state again expanded over hundreds of kilometers of territory. Its ambitions ran up against a Han invasion, however, and Wiman Chosn fell in 108 B.C.

These developments coincided with the beginnings of iron culture, enabling the rise of a sophisticated agriculture based on implements such as hoes, plowshares, and sickles. Cultivation of rice and other grains increased markedly. Although the peoples of the peninsula could not yet be called "Korean," there was an unquestioned continuity in agrarian society from this time until the emergence of a unified Korean state many centuries later.

Han Chinese built four commanderies, or local military units, to rule the peninsula as far south as the Han River, with a core area at Lolang (Nangnang in Korean), near present-day P'yongyang. It is illustrative of the relentlessly different historiography practiced in North Korea and South Korea, as well as the projection backward of Korean nationalism practiced by both sides, that North Korean historians deny that the Lolang Commandery was centered in Korea. They place it northwest of the peninsula, possibly near Beijing, in order to de-emphasize China's influence on ancient Korean history. They perhaps do so because Lolang was clearly a Chinese city, as attested by the many burial objects showing the affluent lives of Chinese overlords and merchants.

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