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Travel Guide

Korea Travel Guide - Korea History

Korea claims a 5,000+ year history, dating from the country's foundation by Tangun. Its history is full of foreign invaders and various factions vying for power. Korean history is broken down into the following periods:

Three Kingdoms (57 B.C. - A.D. 668)
Silla (668 - 935)
Goryeo (918 - 1392)
Joseon (1392 - 1910)
Japanese Occupation (1910 - 1945)
Republic of Korea (1945 - present)

South Korea came into being after World War II, the result of a 1945 agreement reached by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference, making the 38th parallel the boundary between a northern zone of the Korean peninsula to be occupied by the USSR and southern zone to be controlled by U.S. forces. (For details, see Korea, North)

Elections were held in the U.S. zone in 1948 for a National Assembly, which adopted a republican constitution and elected Syngman Rhee as the nation's president. The new republic was proclaimed on Aug. 15 and was recognized as the legal government of Korea by the UN on Dec. 12, 1948.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean Communist forces launched a massive surprise attack on South Korea, quickly overrunning the capital, Seoul. U.S. armed intervention was ordered on June 27 by President Harry S. Truman, and on the same day the UN invoked military sanctions against North Korea. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was named commander of the UN forces. U.S. and South Korean troops fought a heroic holding action, but by the first week of August they were forced back to a 4,000-square-mile beachhead in southeast Korea. There they stood off superior North Korean forces until Sept. 15, when a major UN amphibious assault was launched deep behind Communist lines at Inchon, the port of Seoul.

By Sept. 30, UN forces were in complete control of South Korea. They then crossed the 38th parallel and pursued retreating Communist forces into North Korea . In late October, as UN forces neared the Sino-Korean border, several hundred thousand Chinese Communist troops entered the conflict, pushing MacArthur's forces back to the border between North and South Korea. By the time truce talks began on July 10, 1951 , UN forces had crossed over the parallel again and were driving back into North Korea. Cease-fire negotiations dragged on for two years before an armistice was finally signed at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953, leaving a devastated Korea in need of large-scale rehabilitation. No official peace treaty has ever been signed between the former combatants.

President Syngman Rhee, after 12 years in office, was forced to resign in 1960 amid rising discontent with his autocratic leadership. Po Sun Yun was elected to succeed him, but political instability continued. In 1961, Gen. Park Chung Hee seized power and subsequently began a program of economic reforms designed to stimulate the nation's economy. The U.S. stepped up military aid, strengthening South Korea's armed forces to 600,000 men. Park's assassination on Oct. 26, 1979, by Kim Jae Kyu, head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, brought a liberalizing trend as new president Choi Kyu Hah freed imprisoned dissidents.

The release of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung in Feb. 1980 sparked antigovernment demonstrations that turned into riots, which were brutally suppressed by authorities. Kim, the most visible leader of the opposition, was imprisoned again. Choi resigned on Aug. 16. Chun Doo Hwan, head of a military Special Committee for National Security Measures, was the sole candidate when the electoral college confirmed him as president on Aug. 27. In 1986-1987, South Korea's opposition demanded that the president be selected by direct popular vote. After weeks of protest and rioting, Chun agreed to the demand. A split in the opposition led to Roh Tae Woo's election on Dec. 16, 1987.

In Aug. 1996 Roh was convicted on bribery charges, and Chun was convicted for bribery as well as his role in the 1979 coup and the 1980 crackdown on rioters. In 1997, an accumulation of corrupt business practices and bad loans led to a series of bankruptcies and a massive devaluation of South Korea's currency. The political instability that followed helped former dissident Kim Dae Jung become the first South Korean president ever to be elected from the political opposition.

In 1998 the Asian economic crisis bottomed out in South Korea. The nation began rebounding in 1999, the only sizable Asian economy to do so.

Antagonism between North and South Korea erupted into open aggression in 1998 and 1999. Tensions eased dramatically in June 2000, when President Kim Dae Jung met with the North's president, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang. The summit marked the first-ever meeting of the countries' leaders. President Kim Dae Jung won the Nobel Peace Prize in Oct. 2000 for his Sunshine Policy, which included initiating peace and reconciliation with North Korea.

Roh Moo Hyun of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party became president in February 2003 and promptly faced daunting problems. His vow to pursue his predecessor's Sunshine Policy toward North Korea was put to the test as the North continued to taunt the world with boasts about its nuclear capabilities. In addition, many South Koreans had begun to resent U.S. influence over their country. In March 2004, the conservative National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to impeach Roh, claiming he had violated election laws. More than 70% of the public, however, condemned the move, and thousands of his supporters took to the streets to protest. South Koreans showed their disapproval of Roh's impeachment at the polls in April, when they gave the liberal pro-Roh Uri Party a majority in the National Assembly. The Constitutional Court dismissed the impeachment in May, and Roh was reinstated as president.

In September 2004, officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency that in 2000, a group of rogue scientists had produced a small amount of weapons-grade uranium, a violation of several treaties.

Researchers, led by Hwang Woo-suk, stunned the world in May 2005, when they announced they had devised a new procedure to produce human stem-cell lines from a cloned human embryo. The country's reign as the leader in the field of cloning was brief. In January 2006, a Seoul National University panel reported that Hwang had fabricated evidence for his cloning research. His downfall was a blow to the entire nation. Indeed, he had become a national hero and had received millions in research money from the government.

After four days of inter-Korean talks in May, officials from South Korea agreed to send North Korea 200,000 tons of fertilizer, and the two sides agreed they would "cooperate for the peace on the Korean Peninsula." In July, China hosted a fourth round of disarmament talks with the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia. The talks ended in a deadlock.

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