Being home to one of the oldest civilizations on earth, the Korean peninsula has been the focus of many conquests. Its nickname, “Land of the Morning Calm” is a poetic translation of the name of the Korean “Joseon” dynasty that ruled the peninsula 1392-1897. Many references are available as to the origin of the moniker, but the nickname was coined by Percival Lowell in his 1885 book “Chosen, the Land of the Morning Calm.”
Among the first inhabitants of the ancient land were web-footed birds that walked along the southern seacoast of the peninsula during the Cretaceous period 145 million years ago. Our favorite dinosaurs appeared during that time too, until their demise about 66 million years ago. The birds thrived in a relatively warm climate in shallow inland seas created by rising oceans, and left their mark on the land, along with fossilized dinosaur eggs, which were in well-preserved condition, according to information provided by the Goseong Dinosaur Museum in Sangjogam County Park in South Korea.
Fast forward to around 8,000 B.C., where Korean pottery was found throughout the peninsula. The Jeulmun Pottery era in Korean prehistory is named after decorated pottery that was collected in excavations from the period of 4,000 to 1,500 B.C. During the Mumun pottery period of 1,500 to 850 B.C., Korean people adopted dry-field and paddy-field agriculture. These are akin to the rice paddies we hear about in war stories of Korea and Vietnam.
Moving to more modern history, the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 ended the Sino-Japanese War between China and Japan. The treaty recognized the independence of Korea, which was renamed the “Korean Empire.” It became a protectorate of Japan in 1905 after Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Japan annexed Korea by the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty in 1910, repressed Korean traditions and culture, and implemented policies primarily for Japanese benefit. Among other things, Japan modified the school curriculum to eliminate teaching of Korean history, and banned Korean language. Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names. Korea remained annexed until Allied forces defeated Japan in August of 1945. That infrastructure was mostly destroyed during the Korean War (1950-1953).
At the end of World War II, Korea was divided into North and South. North Korea was assisted by communist Soviet Union, and South Korea by the United States. China became a communist regime in 1949, and in 1950 backed North Korea. In June that year, 75,000 North Korean soldiers, backed by Russian-made tanks, invaded South Korea, thus igniting the Korean War. That August, North Korean troops pushed United Nations forces south to what is known as the “Pusan Perimeter,” at the Naktong River, near where the web-feet birds traversed the landscape. U.N. forces held off the North Koreans, who on Sept. 15, withdrew to the north after being caught off guard of the amphibious counter attack landing at Inchon. Gen. Douglas MacArthur then ordered U.N. forces north to the Yalu River, which is the border between North Korea and China. China joins the Korean War in October and attacked the advancing U.N. forces with 180,000 soldiers, pushing them back to the 38th parallel after their advance into North Korea.
The war was in a stalemate. Peace talks began at Panmunjom in February, 1951. A truce was negotiated between North and South Korea in July, 1953, with the agreement of establishing a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to separate the two countries. The DMZ exists today as the most heavily defended border in the world.
Over time, South Korea developed into a world-class financial powerhouse, while North Korea became an isolated dictatorship, currently led by “Dear Leader” Kim Jung-Un. He is the grandson of Kim Il-sung, the first chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Un pursues his nuclear program, even with severe financial sanctions against his country.
The Pyeongchang Olympics seemed to provide a cooperative effort between the two Koreas, allowing North Korean athletes and support personnel to participate in the games, following a tradition of participation in prior games. This time however, with tension so high, it may be a milestone of trust and negotiations for a divided country to reach some sort of reconciliation. We shall see.
Having an up close and personal view of Korea during my army tour there in 1968-1969 proved to be a real eye opener. The people had families split between North and South. Being a very humble people, they conserved everything the best they could because they did not have much. Most of the country was “Third World,” but was rapidly developing an economy. Even in the capital city of Seoul, modernization and technology had not traversed time, and left an ancient civilization in conflict with the ever-advancing world. I’m sure all these years later they are used to indoor plumbing and electric appliances. However, I am still looking for a good bowl of kemchi, you know, made the old-fashioned way by burying cabbage and spices in a clay pot for a month. The artificial processing is just not the same.
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Jack Evensizer is a resident of Dalton Gardens