Koreans often use the proverb “when whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken” to describe their country’s victimization at the hands of larger, more powerful neighbors. China, as the largest and most technologically and culturally advanced society in East Asia, exerted the most important outside influence on Korea until modern times. In the twentieth century, Korea became the focus of rival interests among neighboring China, Japan, and Russia as well as the more distant United States. But for well over a thousand years, until colonization by Japan in the early twentieth century, successive kingdoms on the Korean peninsula were able to maintain a society with political independence and cultural distinctiveness from the surrounding nations.
KOREA BEFORE THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Settled, literate societies on the Korean peninsula appear in Chinese records as early as the fourth century BCE. Gradually, competing groups and kingdoms on the peninsula merged into a common national identity. After a period of conflict among the “Three Kingdoms”—Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast—Silla defeated its rivals and unified most of the Korean peninsula in 668 CE. Korea reached close to its present boundaries during the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), from which its Western name “Korea” is derived. The succeeding Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) further consolidated Korea’s national boundaries and distinctive cultural practices.