And Now, The History

(As noted in the previous post, the brief history of Korea that I included in the article got cut when it was published. However, the joy of having a blog is being able to salvage things like this. So here are the paragraphs that got cut.)

I had heard the Korean Children’s Choir when I was growing up. And I’d seen the Korean War filtered through the wry wit of the TV series MASH. However, it wasn’t until I became friends with a number of Koreans that I realized how little I actually knew about the country behind the cuisine. It was time to learn more.

“Korea,” the Western name for the country, is derived from the Koryo dynasty, and means “High and Beautiful.” To Koreans, the land was Choson, “Land of the Morning Freshness.” Today, this name is still used in North Korea, while South Korea has as its official name Taehan (Great Han, Han being another name for Korea).

Korea’s is an ancient culture: all evidence points to pre-Stone Age settlement of the Korean peninsula. As ages passed and civilizations developed, Korea absorbed law, Confucianism, and fine art from its neighbor, China, but remained culturally distinct, maintaining its own language, creating its own alphabet, and adapting borrowed elements to suit its own tastes or needs.

During the 5,000+ years since the earliest settlers arrived in Korea, Koreans developed art, scholarship, and culture—and fought a lot, because everyone around them wanted their land. The first major Japanese invasion of modern times was in 1592. The Manchu invaded in 1627, but withdrew when promised tribute (and because they were busy overthrowing the Ming dynasty in China). In the mid-1600s, rice-based agriculture boomed and ginseng became an increasingly lucrative product for Korea. Trade expanded, extending to the Europeans who began to arrive. Unfortunately, political upheaval in the 1800s left the country vulnerable. China and Japan again started to gain control. By the beginning of the 1900s, Korea was Japan’s.

From simply depriving Koreans of freedom at the beginning of their rule, Japan escalated to trying to obliterate Korea, forcing people to adopt Japanese names—and to enlist in the Japanese army, when World War II broke out. But the Korean resistance movement remained strong; the Korean Restoration Army declared war on Japan in 1941. Japanese rule ended in 1945, with the end of W.W.II. Now it was China’s turn. Chinese and Soviet-trained North Korean troops invaded the south. Seoul fell on June 28, 1950, and most of South Korea’s army was destroyed. Outraged at this latest invasion, the U.S. decided to help keep South Korea free.

By the time the Korean War ended, Korea was in tatters. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. However, South Korea was free, and elections were soon held in the new republic. But being poor and surrounded by enemies is hard, and in 1961, there was a military coup that put General Park Chung Hee in charge. General Park put into motion a series of reforms that modernized villages, educated children, reduced sickness, built factories, trained workers, and basically turned Korea upside down. It required sacrifice and hard work on the part of everyone, but within one generation, Korea went from being one of the poorest to being one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Eventually, civilian government was restored, and South Korea was again a republic—but this time, with the wealth, education, and momentum to make it work.

One side effect of Korea’s recent history has been immigration to the U.S. Before 1965, demand for cheap labor in Hawaii and the outbreak of the Korean War fueled the influx. After 1965, the rise of the South Korean middle class and continued involvement of the United States with South Korea contributed to the trend. Between 1976 and 1990, approximately 30,000-35,000 Koreans immigrated to the U.S. each year. According to the 2000 Census, more than 46,000 of them have settled in the Chicago area—up nearly 10,000 from 1990.

Which explains the increased opportunities for all of us to enjoy Korean food.

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