The Korean Peninsula is an average-sized historical region in the world. On a landmass about as large as Britain, the recorded history of a distinct civilization, its languages, and the ancestors of some 85 million modern-day Koreans has unfolded for some 2,300 years. Already in the tenth century, a united monarchy had arisen, which, for the most part, enjoyed autonomy for a millennium. Only in the late modern era did Korea suffer prolonged foreign domination and political division. Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945; thereafter, the United States and the Soviet Union divided and occupied Korea for three years. Since 1948, two rival states have coexisted: the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as South Korea and North Korea (Map I.1). Since the devastating Korean War, North Korea has become an isolated totalitarian state. By contrast, South Korea has emerged as a vibrant democracy that is a significant player in the global political economy.
Thinking of (East) “Asia” as just China and Japan is a legacy of turn-of-the-twentieth-century colonialism. Before the impact of Western imperialism in the nineteenth century, China had been eastern Eurasia’s most influential civilization for some three millennia. Such neighboring lands as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam were participants in a distinct civilization whose epicenter was in historical China proper, which was far smaller than today’s People’s Republic of China (PRC), roughly the size of Europe or the United States. As the world’s longest continuing literate civilization, China has far outlived Rome, its western Eurasian contemporary during the classical period. By contrast, Japan’s prominence is a relatively recent phenomenon in global history, thanks to that archipelago nation’s reinvention of itself a century ago as a colonial power. Distinct from Northeast Asia, comprising China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, Southeast Asia is a region where, culturally and historically, Chinese influence was strong in Vietnam, and, farther west in the area, Indian influence from South Asia was stronger. To the north is Central Asia, or Inner Asia, an area from which various Turko-Mongolian groups shaped developments elsewhere in Eurasia throughout history. And predominantly Muslim Southwest Asia and, in Africa, Egypt constitute the Middle East, where South Korea has played a significant role since the 1970s in the region’s infrastructure development. And among these Middle Eastern counties, Iran also maintains close relations with North Korea.
Considering Korea’s importance in the global political economy, its past and present remain poorly understood, even among highly educated Westerners. For most native Anglophones, whose world view still reflects colonialism, the mainstream news media—interested mostly in the West, Russia, the Middle East, China, and Japan—offer only narrow, unbalanced coverage of Korea. One example of this is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons development has received much attention while South Korea remains ignored. Even within South Korea, historians overcame the Japanese colonial historiography of Korea only a generation or so ago, and the colonizer’s distortions remain pervasive among ordinary South Koreans. Accordingly, a logical place to begin exploring Korea’s past is the history of understanding that past.
Most surviving pre-twentieth-century works on Korean history reflect the Confucian perspective. Confucius (551–479 BCE) and the later thinkers who regarded themselves as followers of his tradition shared a set of convictions: (1) humans possess the innate capacity to develop morally; (2) moral development begins with moral self-cultivation; (3) through self-perfection, one helps to perfect the world; and (4) in antiquity, sages, who had perfected themselves, governed a harmonious society. Originating in early China and written in Literary Sinitic (“classical Chinese”), Confucian historiography regards history as a mirror for reflecting on the past to draw lessons for the present. Such respect for history committed the early states of East Asia to diligent record keeping. Official accounts of Korea and China in particular show the cyclical patterns of the past. A new dynasty’s early phase features effective governance, military victories, social harmony, secure livelihoods among the people, and cultural efflorescence. Eventually, the dynasty suffers from moral decay within its leadership, inviting natural disasters, foreign invasions, and internal rebellions. Confucian historiography regards the resulting dynastic change as a transfer of the Mandate of Heaven from one ruling family to another. State-centered Confucian historiography was standard in both Korea and China before the impact of imperialism.
Japanese colonial historiography then supplanted Confucian historiography as the dominant style of writing about Korea’s past. Propagated by apologists for Imperial Japan (1868–1945), Japanese historiography of Asia treated Japan as distinct from the rest of the continent and on an equal footing with the West while adopting the West’s negative, orientalist portrayals of Asia. Japanese colonial historiography of Korea used three main lines of argument to rationalize Japan’s takeover of Korea. First, “common ancestry theory” argued that Japan and Korea shared common origins. Accordingly, a natural bond existed between their peoples. Second, “stagnation theory” argued that Korea had not even entered the feudal or medieval phase of the normal societal development that the modern West and Japan had supposedly undergone. This meant that Korea needed Japan’s brotherly protection and tutelage. Third, according to “dependency theory,” Korea lacked independence and distinctiveness, as Japan and continental Asiatic forces had shaped its history.
In response, Korean nationalist historians wrote a Korean history centered around the minjok, the Korean nation ethnically or racially defined. In the early twentieth century, some intellectuals sought to promote national consciousness to resist Japanese domination. They declared that Korea’s history is the history of the Korean minjok, a distinct people descended from the mythical Tan’gun (Sandalwood King): a demigod and the founder of Korea’s first state, Kojosŏn (“Old Chosŏn”; fourth century?–108 BCE). Nationalist historians emphasized the large territories of Kojosŏn and other ancient Korean states, by which they judged the present state of the Korean nation. In doing so, they rejected Japanese colonial historiography, and also Confucian historiography, which they saw as advocating Korea’s subservience to China.
By contrast, positivist historiography, produced in the 1930s by the first generation of Korean scholars trained in modern research methodology, attempted to study history more objectively. Stressing empiricism, positivism regards certain, or “positive,” knowledge as that based on natural phenomena—their properties and relations—interpreted through logic and reason. Thus information acquired through sensory experience constitutes the source of true knowledge, and verified data, or “positive facts,” constitute empirical evidence. Trained at Japanese universities, the early group of Korean positivist historians produced detailed studies on various subjects, especially ancient Korea. Along with like-minded Japanese colleagues, they laid the foundations for the scholarship of subsequent generations of academic Korea historians, especially in South Korea, Japan, and the West.
Another important group of Korean scholars who received training in modern historical methodology in the 1930s in Japan produced Marxist historiography. Still influential, Marxist historians focus on social classes and economic factors in analyzing causality over time. This approach views the resolution of class conflict as producing social progress through distinct developmental stages: communal society, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and communism, the end state of history wherein the society is classless. Countering the Japanese colonial historians’ claim that precolonial Korea was stuck in the slave society phase, Marxist Korean historians sought to demonstrate that Korea had attained feudalism. While debating the extent to which capitalism developed in Korea before Western imperialism, such historians also desired to show paths toward national liberation from the Japanese. Subsequently, Marxist scholarship became the orthodox historiography in North Korea in a form that highlights Kim Il-sung (Kim Ilsŏng; 1912–94), the country’s founding leader, as the revolutionary who effected national triumph over both feudalism and colonialism.
In South Korea, modified Marxist historiography, “internal development theory,” has been influential since the 1960s. Countering colonial historiography, the internal development theory highlights a watershed in Korean history with the rise and triumph of a new socioeconomic force. Also, it sees the socioeconomic base for political participation becoming broader in the course of history. Although influenced by Marxism, the internal development theory initially shunned overt references to the concept of class conflict as South Korea’s authoritarian regimes abused the National Security Act of 1948 to prosecute anti-government activities, communist or not, until the nation’s democratization in 1988.
In the 1970s and 1980s, many progressive scholars in South Korea sought to understand and narrate history from the point of view of minjung (“popular mass”). As emphasized by scholars in history and such other disciplines as literature and theology, the minjung consists of those who are politically oppressed, socially marginalized, culturally despised, or economically exploited. In the South Korean context at the time, the minjung comprised victims of the country’s authoritarian regime, of its subservient position vis-à-vis the United States as a colonial power, or of economic injustice stemming from industrialization.
Since the 1980s in South Korea, some populist writers outside the academy have produced chaeya (“outsider”) historiography. They propagated the earlier nationalist interpretation of Tan’gun, redefining him as the Korean people’s historical ancestor and the founder of Korea’s first state rather than just a mythical figure. In doing so, the chaeya accused academic historians not only of denying Tan’gun’s alleged historicity but, more fundamentally, of perpetuating Japanese colonial historiography. Amateur historians at best, the chaeya date the beginning of Korean history farther back than evidence would warrant. Many even stake out a Korean historical racial space as expansive as the eastern half of Eurasia. In the 1980s, South Korea’s authoritarian regime and its supporters fanned the chaeya flame to check generally anti-government tendencies of intellectuals, including academic historians. Even since the country’s democratization, organized lobbying by the chaeya has affected the government’s funding decisions regarding various history-related projects.
By the 1970s, a small but growing number of scholars in Europe and North America were producing more purely empirical studies in Korean history. Careful, relatively microscopic analyses have challenged various claims made by the internal development theory and Marxist historiographies. In particular, Western scholars have presented strong evidence for the continuity of Korea’s ruling elite throughout much of the post-classical and early modern periods—as is true in other regions of Afro-Eurasia with a documented history and thus in no way suggesting Korea’s stagnation as stressed by Japanese colonial historiography. The Western scholarship tends to view modernity as a byproduct of particularities of Western European historical experience. Until recently, most Western-language works on Korea shunned such terms as “medieval” and “early modern,” regarding them as straight-jacketing non-Western history into a Eurocentric mold.
By the end of the 1980s, among Koreanists, skeptics of the empirical approach were pursuing postmodernist historiography. In critiquing more purely empirical scholarship, postmodernists have problematized such notions as truth, objectivity, teleology, determinism, grand narratives, universality, and essentialism. Seeing subjectivity as inherent in any purportedly objective scholarship, postmodernists utilize various critical theories in cultural studies. In doing so, their works devote more attention to groups deemed relatively neglected by older scholarship, including gender, racial, and ethnic minorities and popular culture.
Varieties of Korean historiography, as discussed here, are neither mutually exclusive nor unique to Korean historiography. More than ever before, scholars look at Korea’s past from an interdisciplinary perspective by combining multiple methodologies. Such long-established disciplines as archaeology, cultural anthropology, historical sociology, and historical linguistics indeed remain important. Still, an ever-expanding list of newer research areas, including deep history, LGBT studies, and haplogroup genetics, has introduced new perspectives on Korean history, if not the meaning of “Korea.” The following discussion uses findings from archaeology, linguistics, and genetics as ways of tracing Korean civilization’s origins.