I can't speak with much authority about North Korea – never been there, though I did once stand near the border and stare – but South Korea...well, South Korea's about to be the first country I've actually lived in (besides the US) that gets the full-on moonbatification treatment.
Join me, if you will, in the Cave of the Moonbat, where tonight the air smells of kimchi and the shot glasses of soju – and if those sound a little foreign, then perhaps the concepts of national unity, shared suffering, and ancient tradition that are also an integral part of the Land of the Morning Calm will be less so...
The Korean Peninsula comprises about 220,000 square kilometers (that and two Vermonts will get you a Colorado) of rugged East Asian landmass that juts into the cold ocean waters around 38° North latitude, 127° East longitude. To put that parallel in perspective, it also runs near Palermo and Messina, Sicily, Cordoba, Spain, and Washington DC, Cincinnati, and Colorado Springs (among many others) in the United States. It lies squarely in the temperate zone, which in Korea's longitudinal case means four seasons, with short, hot, rainy summers and long, dry, cold winters. There wasn't a whole lot of Korea-related stuff that M*A*S*H got right, but the images of people sweltering through outrageous heat and humidity, and only a couple of months later standing around fires lit in 55-gallon drums is (or at least was, as late as the mid-90s) for real.
One of the things M*A*S*H got most egregiously wrong (besides the water buffalos, of course) was in the area of terrain and vegetation. Korea resembles the mountainous parts of New England more than it does Southern California – mixed deciduous and coniferous forests cover a land that's 70% rolling hills and jutting mountains. The mountains figure prominently in the Korean spirit: some have been worshipped (or worshipped on) for over 5000 years, and the reverence continues to the present in the form of the lyrics to Aegukga (video link), South Korea's national anthem:
Until the East Sea's waves are dry, (and) Mt. Baekdusan worn away, God watch o'er our land forever! Our country forever!
Rose of Sharon, thousand miles of range and river land! Guarded by her people, ever may Korea stand!
Like that Mt. Namsan armored pine, standing on duty still, wind or frost, unchanging ever, be our resolute will.
In autumn's, arching evening sky, crystal, and cloudless blue, Be the radiant moon our spirit, steadfast, single, and true.
With such a will, (and) such a spirit, loyalty, heart and hand, Let us love, come grief, come gladness, this, our beloved land!
Note: Many translations exist, and they can vary widely – the "Rose of Sharon" line in the above translation is rendered by this one as "North to south bedecked with flowers, land of beauty rare/May God keep our country united and preserve our land," by way of example)
Also worthy of note: Life in Korea has a good collection of provincial maps and travel guides for the South.
The highest peak in all of Korea is Baekdu Mountain, a 2,744 m (9,003 ft) stratovolcano that lies on the border between North Korea and China and the legendary ancestral home of both the Koreans and the Manchus (South Korea's highest mountain, Hallasan, is a 1,950 m (6,398 ft) volcano that dominates the island of Cheju-do). Baekdusan remained a focal point of religious life in both countries: in China, the mountain's god was even promoted up to a somewhat-other-than-understated title: "the Emperor Who Cleared the Sky with Tremendous Sagehood" (開天宏聖帝). Today, China and North Korea share the summit and the 700-foot-deep Lake of Heaven that fills the caldera, but this hasn't been without issue – as recently as 1962, the two nations were still trying to hash out issues created by Sino-Japanese treaties from 100 years (and several governmental changes) ago, and in 2007, South Korean athletes at the Asian Winter Games attempted to create a stir during a medal ceremony by holding up a sign stating, "Baekdu Mountain belongs to Korea," which earned South Korean diplomats a trip to the Chinese carpet for a reminder that South Korea and China have no territorial disputes (nor, with nautical exceptions, borders) between them.
Also notable in Aeguka's lyric translation is the use of the term "East Sea." Many Korean maps do not – though some, rather embarrassingly, do – use the name "Sea of Japan" to refer to the arm of the Pacific that lies between the two nations, preferring instead a geographic designation relative to Korea's location – though, in fairness, some say it's a reference to the sea's location relative to the Asian landmass. There is no similar push, as far as I know, to get the world to go along with renaming the Yellow Sea the "West Sea," nor the East China Sea the "South Sea," but you never know: Koreans can get pretty passionate about issues of territorial integrity (see the bit about the Liancourt Rocks below).
With the exception of Baekdusan and a handful of others, most of Korea's mountains are not volcanic in origin, but the bulk of its 3400 islands are. Many are uninhabited (volcanoes tend not to hold the best of fresh-water springs); others have been lived on, or fought/ diplomatically contested over, for so long that they've developed their own cultures and ways of doing things – just check out the map in the January, 2008 New York times article One Eye on the Fish, the Other on North Korea for proof.
Most famous of Korea's islands is Cheju-do, 700 square miles of humid subtropical paradise off the south coast, as well as Korea's primary destination for young honeymooning couples. Cheju's remote location and different environmental conditions resulted in the development of a unique culture on the island, one of the more famous aspects of which being the women pearl divers (link goes to a weird little 3-minute video that looks like a trailer for a sci-fi film about traditional oyster-fishing on Cheju), who routinely dive, sans breathing equipment, to depths of 100 feet or more. Stories about these women, as related by a 16th-century Dutch shipwreck victim, may have contributed to the worldwide sense that there's mermaids in them-thar seas: this article, from womanthouartgod.com, certainly seems to think so. Another article claims that the oyster divers of Cheju-do were behind the largest scale campaign by women and the first struggle by fishermen against Japanese imperialism in 1931-32, although I must confess to not having followed this lead further.
The Republic of Korea (the South) is closing in on a population of 50,000,000, with nearly a quarter of that number living in the capital, Seoul - which, incidentally, comprises about 0.6% of the nation's total land area. The population of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (the North) is estimated at about 22.6 million; about 3.25 million of those live the capital of Pyongyang. In both cases, the populations are almost completely homogeneous – though there are small pockets of foreign workers, as well as an ethnic Chinese community of around 20,000 in the South, their numbers aren't enough to make a significant dent in the demographic figures; the North, um...doesn't exactly swarm with would-be immigrants.
North Korea is by far the more geologically blessed of the two nations - coal, lead, tungsten, zinc, graphite, magnesite, iron ore, copper, gold, pyrites, salt, and fluorspar are listed among its natural resources, while the South holds deposits of coal, tungsten, graphite, molybdenum, and lead. Both countries have hydropower potential, but neither has any proven petroleum reserves or an overabundance of arable land: about 17% of the South's land can grow stuff, compared to around 22% of the North's.
Since they share similar histories, climate, and topography, the differences between North and South Korea are most prominent in fields like freedom, politics, and economics. South Koreans enjoy the kind of societal religious tolerance of which our own Founders only dreamed, but our nation has never managed to implement – about 26% are Christian (19.7% Protestant, 6.6% Catholic), 23% Buddhist, and 50% other, non-, or traditional. In the recent funeral for former president Roh Moo-hyun - a suicide that has divided the nation - respects were paid by a choir of nuns, the chanting of monks, and a poetic reenactment of a traditional village funeral ceremony.
South Korea is a republican parliamentary democracy with a capitalist economic system and a penchant for those socialist structures favored by the governments and peoples of virtually every industrialized nation on Earth – yet despite the geographical disadvantage of being limited to the end of a relatively small, mountainous peninsula, not to mention the treasury-breaking horror that is the of providing universal health care, the Republic of Korea has carved out a place among the top dozen economies in the world. In the meantime, the ironically-named (in that way that only old-school Commies could seem to pull off) Democratic People's Republic of Korea has chosen instead the twin paths of dynastic Stalinist rule and Juche, a national ideology of self-reliance. These policies and leaders have created what is likely the most xenophobic and authoritarian state on the planet – and yet it has managed to humble president after US- and South Korean president while acquiring nuclear technology and pursuing a bombastic foreign policy.
Bone fragments and other archaeological evidence places hominids on the Korean Peninsula around 700,000 years ago. North Korea claims the number is more like 1,000,000, but given their penchant for nationalistic interpretations of history - something which the South occasionally dabbles in, as well – you have to take their figures with a grain of salt. By 8000 BCE, people were making pottery, and within a few thousand years after that, they'd moved out of pit-dwellings and into settled villages along the peninsula's river valleys. Things like bronze working, social organization centered around chieftains, and, later on, iron-working, began as early as 2500 BCE, and was well-established by 1500-1000 BCE (except for the iron, which was probably brought in from China around the 4th century BCE, though some evidence points to iron usage as early as 1200 BCE).
The first kingdom to arise in Korea was called Gojoseon. Occupying much of modern North Korea, Gojoseon was said to have been founded in 2333 BCE by Tan-Gun, the semi-mythic father of the Korean race. Tan-Gun himself was the son of the Lord of Heaven and the first human woman, who had been transformed from being a bear after spending 21 days in a cave, eating nothing but garlic cloves, and for a long time, his people flourished. Apparently this was true in the southern part of the peninsula, as well – there a little-known state called Jin conducted trade with Japan and China, but not much is known about them beyond that. Gojoseon (and presumably Jin) was profoundly affected by events and happenings in neighboring China, including a devastating Pyrrhic victory in repelling an attack by the Han Chinese around 109 BCE, and slowly broke apart over the course of long centuries. By the early 300s, Gojoseon had disintegrated into a rough bunch of warring fiefdoms.
Many kings and kingdoms emerged as various states struggled to fill the slow-leaking power vacuum, and in the end, only three were left.
In the north, Goguryeo (37 BCE-668 CE) controlled territory far into modern Manchuria, and absorbed and put its own Korean spin on a great deal of Chinese culture. Goguryeo had something of a love-hate relationship with its gigantic neighbor to the south: there were times when the nation expanded at China's expense, and others – especially during their wars with Sui and Tang - when Goguryeo was bled white defending her own borders from Chinese ambitions. Though resistance by Goguryeo was a contributing factor in the demise of the Sui Dynasty, it was not so with the Tang, whose repeated attacks weakened Goguryeo such that the latter could not withstand a succession challenge that came with the death of a popular but dictatorial general at the same time as it was being attacked by an alliance of Tang Chinese and the Silla, a rival Korean state.
That same Tang-Silla alliance had already destroyed the second of the Three Kingdoms: Paekjae (18 BCE-660 CE), which occupied much of what's now western South Korea. Paekje was economically and culturally powerful, and served as a conduit for Chinese cultural elements to make their way to Japan – it was through Paekje that Buddhism was introduced to the Land of the Rising Sun. The land also enjoyed a sophisticated (if rather repressive) form of feudal/aristocratic government that lasted a good long while, until the seemingly inevitable point at which the lords get more powerful than the kings.
It was the Silla, in southeastern South Korea, that emerged dominant from the centuries-long three-way struggle. Silla historians claimed the nation was founded in 57 BCE, but most modern researchers agree it was likely the last of the Three Kingdoms to establish a centralized government, and Silla culture and governance seems to have a lot more in common with the steppes of Mongolia than with their Chinese-influenced neighbors. Nevertheless, it was Silla's absorption/conquest of the neighboring state of Gaya in the early 6th century that set in motion the geopolitics that brought her to ultimate victory, for it caused Paekjae and Goguryeo to ally against Silla. Controlling Gaya meant that the Silla no longer needed Paekjae middlemen to contact the Tang for them, and they cut a deal to gain Chinese support against their Korean rivals. Once Paekjae and Goguryeo were out of the picture, Silla turned on their former Tang allies, and drove the Chinese out of the peninsula south of Pyongyang.
It was only three years after the fall of Goguryeo that the Silla attacked their Tang allies. A few years of see-saw fighting ensued, but by 676, the Tang were safely behind their own borders, and Silla could concentrate on post-unification things. Trade and commerce exploded. Buddhism took off in a big way, with major temples and works of art being constructed, especially in the area around the capital of Kyongju. The Unified Silla period was also one of artistic and scientific advancement – among Kyongju's architectural marvels is the Cheomseongdae Observatory and the Bulguksa Temple.
The Unified Silla period lasted until 935, but trouble had been brewing since the descendents of the last Baekjae and Goguryeo royalty re-established much smaller versions of their old kingdoms beginning in the late 700s. Goguryeo was re-founded in 901 by a monk named Gung Ye, but the success ended up going to his head: by 913, he had proclaimed himself a Buddha and started persecuting anyone who opposed him – including his wife and two kids. Five years later, his generals had had enough, Gung Ye was assassinated, and a military leader named Wang Geon ascended the throne. He renamed the kingdom Goryeo (from which the modern name is derived), faced down a refugee crisis when the remote Korean-rooted kingdom of Balhae was conquered by the Khitan in 926, and prosecuted a quick and bloody war of unification that brought the "Later Three Kingdoms" period to a close in 936.
Sorry to end this rather abruptly, but I'm afraid my commitments to the school year aren't over just yet – gonna have to pick up with the wonders of the Goryeo Dynasty next time, and finish up grading papers a little later tonight. In the meantime, feel free to ponder the nature of kimchi, reflect on the time you lived/traveled/were stationed in the Land of the Morning Calm, or, if you're especially daring, venture into a debate over who is the rightful claimant to control of Tok-Do/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks.
On second thought, maybe it's best to stay away from that last one, at least for now – there's time for Tok-Do next week.