Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Korea (Guest Post by Softdrink)

Jill of Fizzy Thoughts wrote this guest post, inspired by the Diversity Roll Call Around the World question. Thanks, Jill!

I am currently reading The Calligrapher’s Daughter. Written by the talented Eugenia Kim, it is set in Korea in the early 1900s, a politically turbulent time in Korea’s history.

Since I pretty much know squat about Korean history (other than the fact that M*A*S*H was set there during the Korean War), I decided to do a little research. Now granted, this research is mostly comprised of info from and Wikipedia, but hey…it’s a start.

Korea is located in Asia, just west of Japan:

It’s that small yellow country in the top right of the map. The one without a name. How rude.

Korea actually has a long history. And since I used to be a history teacher, I can’t resist the opportunity for a little history lesson.

Way back in 2333 BC Dangun united many of the warring tribes of the Korean peninsula to found Gojoseon. This date is generally regarded as the beginning of Korean history. Gojoseon fell in 313 and several smaller kingdoms emerged. In 918 Wang Geon united these kingdoms and founded the Goryeo Dynasty, from which the name Korea is derived. The Goryeo Dynasty marks the beginning of a tradition of a strong central government and political and cultural independence that survived until 1910.

In 1392 the Joseon Dynasty replaced the Goryeo Dynasty and introduced Confucianism as the guiding philosophy of the kingdom. Civil service exams allowed for social mobility and emphasized learning. In the 1400s court scholars created Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. Invasions by both the Japanese and the Manchurians were successfully repelled. By the 1800s Korea had become known as the “Hermit Kingdom” due to its resistance to demands for diplomatic and trade relations.

However, in 1910 Korea was forcibly annexed by Japan, which adopted a policy of cultural assimilation. It outlawed the Korean language and gave preference to Japanese for many jobs. On March 1, 1919 a peaceful demonstration for independence was brutally squashed. During this same period, many members of the Korean royal family died under suspicious circumstances and the Joseon Dynasty came to an end. Life only got rougher during WWII. Beginning in 1939 over 5 million Koreans were conscripted for labor. And over 200,000 Chinese and Korean women, known as “comfort women,” were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military.

After WWII North Korea was occupied by Soviet forces, while US forces occupied the South. The UN Commission planned general elections, but since the Soviet Union denied access to North Korea the elections were never held there. South Korea elected Syngman Rhee as its first president, while North Korea established a communist state under Kim Il-sung.

War broke out in 1950 when North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. After three years of fighting a cease fire was called and the peninsula remained divided into two countries. The demilitarized zone, or DMZ, marks the boundary between the two countries. It is still heavily patrolled by the military, including US forces. Today North Korea remains a communist state under the leadership of Kim Jong-il, the son of Kim Il-sung. It has a completely nationalized economy with a heavy focus on military and nuclear arms. South Korea is a democratic republic with a strong economy. It has focused on high-tech industries, although it also maintains a large army.

Flag of North Korea

Flag of South Korea:

Some additional facts:

  • In Korea, the family name is placed first.
  • Koreans are considered 1 year old when born.
  • In 1234, during the Goryeo Dynasty, the world’s fist moveable metal type was invented.
  • The yangban class was the traditional ruling class of the Joseon Dynasty. It exemplified the Confucian ideal of the “scholarly official” and relied on the slave labor of the lower classes to enjoy the life of scholarly gentlemen.
  • Despite the cease fire of 1953, a peace treaty was never signed. Therefore, North and South Korea are still officially at war.

Besides The Calligrapher’s Daughter, here are a few other novels set in Korea:

The Red Queen, Margaret Drabble

Jia, Hyejin Kim

Year of Impossible Goodbyes, Echoes of the White Giraffe and Gathering of Pearls, Sook Nyul Choi

And a non-fiction book that looks interesting:

Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, Simon Winchester


  1. In general I find that people named Jill write great posts!

    If anyone is interested in a book on the Korean War, my favorite is by Max Hastings. It's never boring!

  2. I always thought it kind of made sense that a baby's first birthday is when he's born. After all, it's been alive for almost a year inside the womb!

  3. I agree with that other Jill up there. ;-)

  4. Yea Jill! you rock! I learned so much here. Thank you.

  5. Great post, Jill! I did not know about the birthday thing. That is cool. Of course I would already be 30 and about to turn maybe I will just stick with this system. No need to be older than I have to be, lmao.

  6. I have my own system, which involves turning 39 for several years in a row.