Introduction to Part 2.

Korea and Koreans

Because our language differs from the Chinese language, my poor people cannot express their thoughts in Chinese writing. In my pity for them I create 28 letters, which all can easily learn and use in their daily lives.

King Sejong, in the preface to his new Korean Phonetic script, 1446

The bright can learn the [Korean writing] system in a single morning, and even the not-so-bright can do so within ten days.

Chong In-ji, in the postface to the explanation of the new phonetic script, 1446.

Korea is a small mountainous peninsula that juts southeastward from the huge Asian Continent at the northeast corner of China (map fig. 1-1, chap. 1). Its size, 219,020 sq km, is about the same as England or as Japan's main island, Honshu. At the north end of the peninsula, Korea borders on two provinces of China; otherwise, it is separated from China's Shandong peninsula to the west by the 190 km width of the Yellow Sea and from Japan's Tsushima Islands in the southeast by 55 km of the Eastern Sea or the Sea of Japan.

Because of its location Korea has long served as a bridge between China and Japan in more ways than one. For example, before the sea level had risen at the end of the last glacial period around 10,000 BC, people from Siberia in the north and from China in the west came to Korea, and some went on to Japan. In the 13th century, Mongols from northern Asia and China stormed southward into Korea to invade Japan, and in the 16th century the Japanese invaded the peninsula to obtain a base for northward advances to China. More importantly, early Chinese culture, e.g., Confucianism, Chinese texts, Chinese characters, Chinese words, Sinified Buddhism went to Japan after first having been absorbed by Korea.

Korean history can be traced back several thousand years to neolithic settlements. By about the 4th century BC the Han tribe established Old Choson in northern Korea. (The Korean Han is written in a different character from that for the Han Chinese.) Choson means "morning fresh" and is one name for Korea. In 194 BC Old Choson became Wiman Choson when it was overthrown by the leader of a group of Chinese refugees, Wiman. In 108 BC Wiman Chosøn itself was overthrown by the armies of the Chinese Han dynasty, which installed in northern Korea four administrative units or commanderies, one of which lasted as late as AD 313.

Meanwhile, the deposed Korean Han tribe migrated south to the Han River basin in the middle of the peninsula and split into three federations, two of which developed into kingdoms in the first century BC: Silla in the southeast and Paekche in the southwest. A third kingdom, Koguryo, which included part of Manchuria (now the northeast of China), emerged in the north. In 668 Silla unified the three kingdoms, but in 918 Unified Silla itself was replaced by the Koryo kingdom, which is the source of the name Korea. Koryo, in turn, was replaced in 1392 by the Choson kingdom, which ruled until Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910.

In 1945, at the end of World War II, Korea was liberated from Japanese rule and was divided into two along the 38th parallel. In territory N. Korea (120,540 sq km) is larger than S. Korea (98,480 sq km), but in population (22.6 million) it is only about the half the size of S. Korea (44.6 million). Both are populated by the same homogeneous ethnic group, the Koreans.

In 1948 two nations were established: the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north and the Republic of Korea in the south. The two have taken radically different political and economic paths. N. Korea in 1995 has the dubious distinction of being one of the few Communist countries left in the world. Its command economy, as in all the former and present Communist nations, has been weak, even dismal. By contrast, capitalist S. Korea has been industrializing at a dizzying speed and is now counted among the four newly industrialized nations or "four little dragons of Asia," along with Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Its per capita GNP (gross national product) is many times larger than that of N. Korea.

In spite of their differences in political and economic systems, South and North Korea share a common history (up to 1945) and many customs; most relevant to this book, the two share a language and scripts. Both have achieved a high rate of mass literacy. So if you wonder whether mass literacy is a sufficient condition for a nation's prosperity, just compare the two Koreas.

Table Part II-1 lists important events related to scripts and literacy that occurred during Korean history. These events will be elaborated in the rest of Part II.

Table Part II-1. Scripts and Literacy in Korean Kingdoms and Republics



Script and Literacy
Wiman Choson 194­108 BC A few Chinese characters arrive
Han commanderies 108­AD 313 More characters arrive
Three kingdoms Characters begin to be used
  • Koguryo
37 BC­AD 668 A stele bearing characters erected
  • Paekche
18 BC­AD 660 Characters transmitted to Japan
  • Silla
57 BC­AD 668 Chinese words adopted
Unified Silla 668­935 Many Chinese words adopted
Koryoe 918­1392 Civil service examination; printing; surviving history books
Choson 1392­1910 Phonetic script Han'gul invented; heavy use of characters persists
(Japanese rule) 1910­1945 Use of Korean and Han'gul suppressed
Republic of Korea 1948­present Universal primary education; high rate of literacy; limited use of characters
DPRK (N. Korea) 1948­present Universal primary education; high rate of literacy; characters taught but not used

Introduction to Part 1. Chinese | Introduction to Part 3. Japanese

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