daehan minguk – an introduction – part one

August 16, 2006

Daehan minguk (Great Han republic), known in English as Korea, or more precisely, South Korea, is located to the immediate west of Japan, at the end of a small peninsula at the eastern end of the Asian continent. Though small geographically right now, being about the size of indiana or illinois, and only officially about 60 years old, both its population and its history give it a heft way beyond the weight of its meager land mass and shortlived reign.

Daehan minguk evolved from the Daehan jeguk (Great Han empire), barely known in English as anything, but more importantly from the dynasty before that, the Joseon era of the Yi (sometimes spelled Lee or Rhee – all different spellings of the character – (i hope you have chinese language capability on your computer. if not, just click on the gobbledy gook). the Yi family, whose surname is now the most popular in Korea, ruled the peninsula for 500 some years. that is a number that needs a bit of thought and reflection. The United States government is roughly 200 years old. Arguably the oldest date in American history 1492, is still a century later than the founding date of the dyanasty that ruled Korea until roughly 1900.

This looks like a statue of a Buddha, but it isn’t. It’s a statue of Taejo, Yi Songgye, the founder of the Joseon dynasty in 1392, but obviously influenced by Buddhist imagery. Yi was in fact a Buddhist, though he presided over a dynasty that systematically destroyed Buddhist influence in favor of what would become the strictest Confucian state in the world.

In 1392, General Yi Songgye was sent on a warpath to attack the Ming Dynasty. But instead of following his orders, the General turned his troops around and led a revolt against the 400 year old and dying Goryeo dynasty, founded by a member of the Wang family 王. Together the Joseon and Goryeo constitute almost a milenium of continuous history, representing one of the oldest state histories in the world. Add to that older histories of the Silla (in the south) and Balhae dynasties (in the north, up to and including Manchuria) from approx. 600 – 900 CE, along with the even older Baekje and Gogureo dynasties, 100 BCE – 600 CE, and it is clear that Korea has some extremely deep historical roots.

The Japanese and Chinese, while grand and certainly old, cannot match the level of centralization or longevity of reigns of the Koreans and many Koreans would argue, they are as such “newer” in terms of a nationalist sentiment. Obviously, there were neither “Koreans” “Chinese” or “Japanese” up until very recently, with the advent of the modern state system. But the idea of a single government and single people occupying a singular area in perpetuity, this proto-nationalism, was perhaps most possible specifically in the dense confines of the Korean peninsula.

Goguryeo horsemenThe Goguryeo centered around the central and northern part of the peninsula until the 7th century of the common era. With Buddhism as a state religion, they were instrumental in solidifying the religion’s influence in East Asia.

These 50,000,000 folks reside now mostly in Seoul, the Joseon capital for the past 500 or so years and the capital of South Korea. Nearly 20,000,000 people live in the Seoul environs, inluding the famous seaside city of Incheon, site of the landing of both MacArthur and now thousands of flights per year at its international airport, recently named one of the best in the world. They sit just a stone’s throw from the DMZ, some 20 or so miles away from a battery of artillery and tanks, all aimed in their direction and awaiting the directive to turn the city into a “sea of fire.” Oddly enough, I’d say that in some sense, this fact weighs heavier on the minds of American’s than it does South Koreans. That’s been my personal experience, at least. Obviously, the effects of any conflagration would be catastrophic first and foremost for Seoul (at least in the south, obviously Pyeongyang the northern capital would also feel quick pain).

But these days, at least according to opinion polls, the sense a North Korean threat is articulated far more in the U.S. than in South Korea. This is obviously a keen sticking point between the U.S. and Korea, and between individual Americans and Koreans. From the American standpoint, South Korea owes its very existence to the sacrifice and protective generosity of the US. Many South Koreans agree with this and show their appreciation clearly, in both their friendliness to Americans as well as their loyalty to the nation and its historical cause, both capitalist and Christian. Others are thankful but ready to move on to a more equal posturing, while the most radical are convinced of the ever-present ulterior motives of a world great power once again meddling in Korea’s internal affairs (following the Chinese, Japanese, and Russians). Overall, the majority of South Koreans want the US military to stay in Korea for the time being, to protect not only against North Korea, but to balance out the tension between China and Japan as well. South Korean’s are proud of their development into a true world power, creating the 10th largest economy in the world, towering 20 times larger than the North. But the sting of history and the immensity of the Chinese and Japanese are daunting.

to be continued. . .


One comment

  1. Very interesting, Matty. I’ll certainly be looking forward to the next installment. Love, Mom

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