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Seoul - History


Seoul History

Neolithic sites discovered around Seoul point to human habitation as long ago as 4000 BC. The first official records relating to Korea are Chinese and date from the 1st century BC. At this time, a renegade general fled from China, and played a part in setting up a kingdom called Goguryeo - or 'Morning Freshness' - near the sight of North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. The kingdom, quickly overpowered by the Chinese, allowed Chinese influence to infuse the rest of the peninsula. Until 668 AD - the Three Kingdoms Period - the peninsula was ruled from three centres. During this period, the region of modern Seoul began to figure in Korean history, though it would be a long time before it would be known by its modern name.

The Baekje kingdom established its capital city at Wiryesong, now Songnam, on the outskirts of contemporary Seoul. For some time the area was dominated by another kingdom, the Silla, and Seoul lost its regional pre-eminence. By 918 a soldier from the northern Goguryeo kingdom assumed control of the whole region, founding the Goryeo kingdom, from which Korea takes its name. Even when the Mongols invaded in 1231 the Goryeo kingdom maintained its control, though the decline of the Mongols was matched by that of the Goryeo.

In 1392 a Korean general, Yi Songgye, sent to campaign against the Ming Chinese, threw his hand in with the enemy, turned back and overthrew the Korean king. Two years later he moved the capital to Hanyang-gun which became known as Seoul, the native Korean word for 'capital'. By 1404 the population had reached 100,000. Confucianism was preferred over Buddhism, and for almost 500 years Buddhist monks were banned from entering Seoul.

A Japanese invasion in 1592 led to the capture and partial destruction of Seoul. In the north a combined Korean-Chinese force defeated the Japanese and on the water Korea, led by Yi Sun-shin, also inflicted damages on the Japanese. In their retreat, the Japanese took with them many of Korea's top artisans and most temples and palaces were burnt to the ground. It was a move that resonates today for many Koreans who see this as the start of a hatred that continues to this day. Seoul was again ransacked in 1636 by invading Manchus. The Korean king signed over control to the Manchus and assisted them in their victorious campaign in China 30 years later.

After so much action, Korea withdrew into itself in the mid-17th century, becoming known as the Hermit kingdom. Two social events shook Korea from this period of insular peace. Christianity brought options to the disempowered peasant class and - once again - the Japanese invaded in 1894. Exerting influence over large parts of Korea, sentiment among the locals was still fervently anti-Japanese.

A Korean Empire was founded in 1897, but only lasted seven years before the Japanese took Korea as part of its war against Russia. In 1910 the complete annexation of Korea by Japan was announced and for the next 35 years the Japanese attempted to erase Korean culture.

After World War II the Koreans expected independence. Instead they were subject to dual 'trusteeship'; The US controlled the country below the 38th parallel, the USSR controlled the rest. As the cold war began to crisp up, an institutionalised split developed. In June 1950, 100,000 North Korean troops swept south. They took Seoul in three days. A UN force headed by US general MacArthur quickly cut off the northern force's supply lines and recaptured Seoul. Victory celebrations were short-lived. China's Mao Zedong sent one million 'volunteers' to help North Korea. When a truce was finally signed two years later, Korea lay in ruins. Seoul had changed hands four times in the conflict and much of the city was once again devestated.

Peace was to be relatively short-lived after the conflict with North Korea. After grossly rigged elections in 1960, students took to the streets, braving martial law to protest against President Syngman Rhee's government. Many protesters were killed in battles with the police before the government resigned and Rhee went into exile in Hawaii. The opposition didn't last long either, toppled by a bloodless military coup in 1961. The self-appointed leader General Park Chung-hee resigned from the army in 1963 and stood for election, winning the presidency. Educated in Japan, Park brought Japanese business notions to Korea, borrowing cash and technology from abroad and creating a nation of exporters.

Though economically progressive, Korea remained politically backward. The 1960s and, in particular, 1970s saw electoral fraud, more martial law, assassination attempts and press censorship. Park was assasinated in 1979 and in 1980 another military coup installed General Chun Doo-hwan as leader. He vowed to remain in power until 1988 - the year of the Seoul Olympics - then hand power over to democratic elections. The people weren't prepared to wait that long and took to the streets in 1987. Chun resigned in favour of Roh Tae-woo. Long-time opposition figures Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam formed an opposition party, however neither could decide who would lead. They both ran in the elections, split the opposition vote, and allowed Roh to win with 35% of the vote.

After clean elections in 1992, most of the student dissent evaporated, and Korea entered a period of economic and political stability virtually unseen in decades. After evidence surfaced in 1995 that both Roh and Chun had pocketed millions of dollars worth of 'campaign contributions,' however, a massive public outcry for investigation into that and their roles in the bloody Gwangju Massacre, part of the 1980 coup, brought both to trial. Roh was sentenced to 22 years in prison and Chun to death, but in 1997 President Kim Yung-sam granted both a presidential pardon.

A law allowing companies to lay off workers - unknown in a country where lifetime employment was expected - was also passed in 1997, and labor unions took to the streets in protest of President Yung-sam's policies. The strike worked and the law was tabled for two years. The Asian economic crisis didn't help the president's position, either, and in February 1998, Kim Dae-jung became president. The Asian economic crisis made life increasingly difficult for many Koreans, and the lay-off law seemed less important in the wake of many companies closing permanently.

Under Kim's leadership, Seoul has led Korea to a solid recovery, even as traditionally bitter relations with North Korea thawed considerably. On August 15, 2000, the 55th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japan, dozens of North Koreans were reunited with their southern families in Seoul. Though the event lasted only four days, it offers some hope that the 38th parallel may one day be used only for navigation.



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