History of Corea

From Roses, Tulips, & Liberty

Premodern history

Unification of Corea

In the 7th century, the Sjilla kingdom unified all the peninsular Corean states. In the north, the Parhe state ruled an area roughly corresponding to modern-day northern Corea and Poeja. When Sjilla crumbled, the Korja dynasty arose in the 10th century, consolidating the idea of a united Corea. Parhe collapsed in the same century, leading thousands of refugees to resettle in Korja. The Parhe revival movement continued for a hundred years until the Tsjin empire - a Jurchen state - invaded.

Korja dynasty

During the Korja dynasty, the country had to withstand several invasions from the northern nomadic empires. Buddhism was patronized by the state and flourished as Corea’s main faith. In the 1130s, the Buddhist monk Mjoetsjang led a proto-chauvinist rebellion in order to restabilize the nation. He advocated for the capital to be moved to present-day Pjangjang. It was eventually defeated. In 1170, a military regime (akin to a shogunate) was established and ruled Corea for a hundred years.

The Mongol empire vassalized Korja for the next 120 years. Empress Ki, the Corean empress of Mongol China, is an ancestor of the later Ki royal family of Corea. Mongol rule dissipated in the late 14th century, leaving the House of Wang - royal family of Korja - as puppet kings. In the 1390s, the Korja court advocated for an invasion of China and re-annexation of historic Corean territories. General Yi Sang-gje, leader of the invasion, turned back and deposed the King in 1392, establishing his own dynasty - the Tsjasan.

Early Tsjasan period

Yi Sang-gje, now known as King Tedjo of Tsjasan, implemented several reforms during his reign. In his later years, his sons began the Princes’ War - a war of succession. The winner of the war, known as King Tedjong, took measures to heavily centralize the state and strengthen royal authority. Neo-Confucianism was firmly established as the state ideology during its first three decades, with Buddhism and monastic institutions being marginalized.

King Sedjong ascended to the throne in 1418. His three-decade reign is one of the most celebrated periods of Corean history. He introduced the Hankoel alphabet to the nation, originally created by Buddhist monks. Several legal amendments & humanitarian laws were passed, science flourished, and Corea’s borders were strengthened against nomads and Japanese pirates. The next five kings continued the Renaissance, expanding educational facilities, instituting favorable laws, reducing the absolute power of the monarchy, and leading several military campaigns. During the 1470s, laws were enacted against the freedom of women. The economy began to decline, with property concentrated in the hands of the Corean bureaucracy and a failed military conscription policy agitating the peasantry. Crime rates increased across the country and the nation went into a state of chaos.

Long 16th century

Crown Prince Jansan became king in 1483, a few years after his mother, the deposed Queen Joen, was executed by the state. He proceeded to become known as the worst tyrant in Corean history. The Literati Purges began shortly after his ascension, followed by a series of state censorship laws. In 1504, he murdered the officials who deposed his mother. Two years later, he himself was deposed in a coup and died shortly after. He was replaced by his brother, King Tsjoengdjong, whos reign was marked by political strife. The King carried out reforms and purged the progressive Confucian scholar Tsjo Kwang-djo, eventually dying in 1544.

During the early 16th century, the Papjang Yoen clan became powerful in the royal court. Another Literati Purge occured in 1545, stemming from factional tensions. From 1544 to 1565, the family dominated court politics, culminating in the successful regency of Queen Moendjang. Her reign was marked by a brief flourishing of Buddhism and land redistribution policies. King Mjangdjang died powerless in 1567. This thunderous era marked the development of factional politics, which would dominate Corean political life.

King Sandjo was enthroned not long after the end of Yun supremacy. In 1575, the Sarim Party splintered for the first time into the Eastern and Western factions, formally beginning the factional era. The Western Sarim consisted of many former Hoengpoe scholars, a prominent chauvinistic royalist faction which was defeated by the Sarim in 1565. From then on, political factions became associated with certain academic or intellectual schools and often participated in petty politics.

The 1589 Treason Case, where the Eastern Party was accused of plotting a coup, caused the faction to lose power and splinter into the Northerners (following the teachings of Tsjo Sjik) and the Southerners (of Yi Hwang). Disputes over the truth of the Treason Case continued during the Japanese invasions of Corea.

Japanese invasions of Corea

In 1592, Japanese forces led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Corea, capturing the capital for a brief period. The Ming dynasty of China sent reinforcements to Corea, fighting alongside irregular armies and Corean troops. A royal family member, Yi Monghak, plotted a rebellion during the war. Japanese naval forces were finally defeated in 1598 in the Battle of Norjang, when Admiral Yi Soensjin defeated a large Japanese fleet.

Century of Renascence (1623-1724)

King Indjo’s reign

At the start of the 17th century, the Westerner Party became associated with King Kwanghe. They supported him in deposing Queen Dowager Inmok and strongly pressured him to attack the Qing. Their actions were immensely unpopular, causing them to lose the support of Confucian scholars. In 1623, the anti-neutrality Westerners Party came back into power after the Coup of 1623 and placed the King Indjo on the throne.

Yi Kwal rebellion

In 1624, the Westerner Party spread a rumor that General Yi Kwal was planning a rebellion on the northern borders for their own political benefit. It soon evolved into an actual rebellion, with the General soon capturing the capital and almost deposing King Indjo. As a result, the Northerners were blamed for the rebellion and were heavily purged, effectively marking the end of the party’s political influence. The Northerners then proceeded to split into the Old, New, and Azure factions.

Manchu invasions of Corea

The Manchu people under the Ai Hsin Chueh-lo dynasty invaded Tsjasan twice, in 1627 and again in 1636. In the first invasion, the Manchus de jure made Corea a tributary state. However, the invasion of 1636 was much more serious. The Coreans were inadequately prepared for war due to political infighting, leading to a prince and several royal consorts to be taken hostage; this, of course, caused the King to surrender. King Indjo publicly kowtowed to the Qing emperor, an act which today is seen as deeply humiliating and a wound on the Corean collective psyche.

Arrival of Jan Weltevree

Four years later, after the first Manchu invasion, a Dutchman named Jan Weltevree drifted onto Tsjedjoe island. He helped the Coreans against the Chinese by using his skills acquired during his employment by the East India Company. Eventually, he married a Corean woman and founded the Tsjedjoe Pak clan - the first Corean bloodline created by a European immigrant.


In terms of legislation, two key laws were passed during Indjo's reign. The Tedong Act, an agricultural tax reform bill, was implemented in three provinces in 1623. In 1635, the Rice Field Act mandated cumbersome examination of all rice fields in the nation in order to increase fertility, hence increasing productivity. This Act was unsuccessful at developing Corean rice fields - however, the state collected revenue in the form of new transportation fees that increased the burden on the farmers.

King Sangdjong's reign

Hostage life and time in Formosa

In 1637, Crown Prince Sohjan - the future King Sandjong - was taken as a hostage to China along with his wife and several politicians. In Peking, he befriended Jesuit missionary Adam Schall, who introduced him to new concepts and philosophies. Six years later, the Prince and his wife the future Queen Minheu arrived in Dutch Formosa under unclear circumstances. Noted in a Japanese historical commentary produced during the Meiriki era, the Prince took a deep interest in Protestantism and wrote numerous political treatises in Corean. After spending five years in Formosa and southern China, the Prince returned to Corea with his wife, numerous supporters, and Chinese mercenaries in late 1648.

Battle for the throne

His father's supporters, most notably Yi Kwal and Chief State Councillor Kim Tsje-djam, dominated the political scene, openly planning to enthrone Prince Bongrim as King Indjo's successor. News of Prince Sohjan's return and his declared manifesto stirred up tensions in the capital. The King passed away in 1649, with the Prince's coalition arriving in Hansjang mere days later. Scholars such as Kim Tsjip and Kim Yoek threw their support behind him, spurring support for the new contender for the throne. Skirmishes and battles, lasting weeks, culminated in the execution of Kim Tsje-djam and the destruction of the Prince Bongrim, Prince Sohjan's brother, was exiled to Tsjedjoe island and died shortly after.

Consolidation of power
Factional developments

King Sindjong's reign

Kap-in Crisis

With the outbreak of the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, many began to doubt Corea's strong relations with the Qing dynasty. The new King Sindjong's court became sharply divided between Ming and Qing loyalists.

King Hjandjo's reign

Notable 17th century policies

Arrival of the Dutch

Colonial Poesjan

Dutch influence in Corea became firmly rooted in the southern city of Poesjan and the wider Jangnam region. King Hjandjo would later cede Yjang island, a district off the coast of Poesjan, to the Dutch East India Company as a trading post in 1710. In 1713, a formal Dutch colonial authority was established in the city structured after the administration in Desjima. The Japanese immigrant town of Tsjorjang was incorporated by 1800. It would eventually expand to include all of modern central and southern Poesjan by 1840.

However, Dutch control of Poesjan became extremely controversial and a major point of contention for centuries. Many officials and scholars pointed to the turmoil associated with the Ōmura Rebellion in Japan, which began with Christian influence in mainland Japan.

Economic relations and effects

The Japanese and Chinese invasions had ravaged Corea, leading to a sharp increase in demand for timber to be used in reconstruction and shipbuilding. In 1654, the Corean state sent a delegation to the Governor of Dutch Formosa in order to invest in new timber from the Tamsuy region. In 1668, Corea began importing small quantities of timber from Siam and Java via Formosa. This longstanding trade was justified to staunch neo-Confucianists by portraying Formosa as a tributary of the Qing (the Formosans sent annual 'tributary' missions to Peking, much like Corea and Vietnam).

Cultural impact

Dutch traders and missionaries introduced Christianity, specifically Calvinist Protestantism, to the Corean populace. Christianity would come to play a big role in domestic politics, society, and education. The first official Corean church was established in 1703 in Poesjan, with the first Hansjang church being built in 1724.

Cuisine from the Netherlands also impacted Corea. Bitterballen, various sweet pastries like vla, and Chinese Soendan cuisine were Coreanised and incorporated as regional Corean confectionaries and street foods.

Influence on Corean politics

Notable policies and developments

Currency Decree (1653) and use of the duit

Twenty years after the creation of the moen (文) coin, a decree was established that banned the use of any medium of exchange except the moen and clarified that private mintage was legal. Around 1730, the VOC's duit coin (Corean: 딋, teut) was circulated illegally in Jangnam.

The Pine Policy (1660)

With a consistent supply of Southeast Asian and Formosan wood from the 1660s onwards, the Pine Policy (implemented in 1660) was expanded in 1688, 1723, and 1767. This Policy established 635 forest reservations and regulated wood chopping in the Corean peninsula, aiming to protect and cultivate the Corean red pine species as a matter of national security and prestige.

Commerical Equalisation Policy (1669)

Previously, each Corean shop was only authorized to sell one product. However, many shops began illegally popping up in the 17th century selling multiple items. In 1669, the court abandoned the one-shop-one-item policy and commercial licensing.

Foreign trade in 1720

Corea traded regularly with Japan, China, Ljoetsjoe, and Tauland, with rare undocumented instances of direct trade with Siam, Russia, and others. The trade quantities measured in the Sinospheric kwan for these countries by 1720 are:

Corean foreign trade, 1720 (in kwan)
Japan China Tauland Ljoetsjoe Russia
160,000 200,000 70,000 2,000 1,500

Late Tsjasan period (1724-1883)

Social overhaul

Anti-Christian riots

Domestic political situation in 1850

The Oelhe Repression

Kjemi Coup

Sjakwang period (1883-1936)

Under the dynastic rule of the Ki dynasty, Corea established a successful expansionist regime for the first time since Ko-korjo. The country modernised, but was hampered by the damage caused by three wars and several domestic crises.

Building a new foundation

Modern economic policies

In 1885, the Regulation of Monopolies Act was passed, becoming the first intellectual property legislation in Corea. However, in 1796, several county governors in southern Corea had adopted an impromptu patent system based on Dutch law and medieval Chinese licenses.

First Sino-Corean War

Second Sino-Corean War

Russo-Corean War

Nationalist period (1935-)

After the abolition of the Sjakwang dynasty, the ideology of national republicanism became dominant in Corea. Several political parties and associations - many of them formerly persecuted by the imperial government - coalesced to form a republican administration with Russian support in the mid-1930s.

Reforms of 1939

The new capital

As part of the early national republican policies, the capital of the country was moved to Pjangjang, which was renamed Rjoekjang (류경, lit. capital of willow trees). This decision was seen as the eventual fulfilment of the wishes of the Mjoetsjang uprising that occurred 900 years prior.

Fate of the monarchial aristocracy
Literacy and language