The Korean are the people that live in the Korean peninsula, in the Northeast of mainland Asia, in front of the main Japanese islands. They also inhabit several small islands near the peninsula, notably Ulleung-do in the East, Jeju-do in the Southwest and Muui-do in front of Seoul-Incheon. They have a sovereignty dispute over the tiny Dokdo islands with Japan. On some occasions, when invading forces entered the peninsula, the Korean ruling caste sought refuge on one of those islands near Incheon. The western extreme of the peninsula is mountaineous on its border with mainland Asia in Manchuria; there you can find the sacred volcano and crater lake of Changbaishan (Baekdu in Korean), now between the People’s Republic of China and North Korea.
The Korean peninsula is now almost totally culturally homogeneous, but it was not like that in the past. There was a time, B.C. and for the first centuries A.D., when several kingdoms competed for supremacy in the peninsula. Koguryo or Goguryeo in the North, Paekche or Baekje in the Southwest, Silla in the Southeast and the small Kaya, Kara or Gaya, Gara in the South. Some of these peoples were probably closely related to the Tungusic peoples of Manchuria and some of them were also close relatives of the Yayoi culture that crossed over to Japan. So, in a way, the Korean peninsula served as a cultural bridge between the Altaic peoples of mainland Asia and the Japanese islands. Some linguists propose that the people of Gaya spoke a sister language of ancient Japanese, as well as the ruling class of Paekche and the people of Koguryo in the North had languages that, although scarcely attested, have been proved to be directly related to Japanese. However, the Silla kingdom allied itself with the Tang dinasty of Imperial China and took over almost the whole peninsula. The language of the Silla people is said to be Old Korean, which is most probably also distantly related with Japanese and Altaic languages. The final unification of the peninsula came with a dinasty originally rooted in the North, and they named themselves Koryo after the old Koguryo kingdom: that is the origin of the word Korea in foreign languages.
Imperial China always considered the Korean kingdom a vassal state and treated it as such. Korea received much Chinese influence since very old times. Elements of Chinese folk religion became common in Korean culture, such as the animals of the cardinal points, the Chinese zodiac, the characters of the book Journey to the West, etc. Korean sometimes argue that these were originally Korean and permeated Chinese culture. More importantly, Buddhism found its way to the Korean peninsula, and Korean monks spread it to Japan too. Together with the Buddhist scriptures the Chinese writing system arrived in both Korea and Japan, where it is still used, but not officially in either South Korea or North Korea; a very regular and easy phonemic alphabet devised by a Korean king is now used (called Hangeul), first imposed in the North in order to alphabetise the people as soon as possible, as it was not until the 90s that South Korea finally discarded the Chinese letters entirely.
The teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius influenced deeply the politics and mentality of the Korean and the Joseon-ruled Korea was the only ever Confucianist state in the world. Confucianism favours social hierarchy, scholarism and it is generally regarded as a strict meritocracy. This is today still evident in North and South Korea.
Korea endured frequent invasions by Chinese forces, Japanese samurai armies, Mongolian hordes, Manchu soldiers, etc. so it became very distrusful of neighbours and enclosed in itself. It was not until the 19th century that the Joseon king proclaimed itself emperor in a time when Imperial China was very weak. Shortly after, Imperial Korea was invaded by Imperial Japan which severely repressed the local population, using Korean women as prostitutes, banning any form of Korean culture and forbiding spoken or written Korean, imposing Japanese language as the only official one in government and education.
After the disintegration of the Japanese Empire, Korea suffered a civil war in which one side was backed by the Soviet Union and the other by the United States, which had just occupied Japan. The war ended in a truce and separation of North Korea and South Korea is a reality: both societies have been evolving apart from each other for the last half century. South Korea was the least prosperous one in the beginning, but experienced an economic boom after Japan’s economy grew too. While North Korea has been ruled by the same family since the War, now only supported by the People’s Republic of China, South Korea went through Fascist regimes (backed by the United States) until now that has achieved a capitalist democracy in which company clusters, like Samsung or Daewoo, have most of the real power. Throughout its history South Korea criminalised student movements and banned any ideology that may resembled Socialism, for the sake of self-defence against North Korean interference.
The economic power of South Korea was perhaps too fast in its growth, unprecedent in history, and its development was quite unequal. It seems that their main goal has been competing and surpassing Japan economically, in a kind of vengeance for their long enmity. Nonetheless, relationship of both countries is smooth these days and South Korean society frequently seeks a model in modern Japan, at the same time that Korean fashion enters Japan and the rest of Asia with its blend of American and Asian influences.
Most Koreans dream of reunification, but even if political differences disappear, both societies are dramatically different and it will not be an easy task, especially as the People’s Republic of China would not favour such a powerful state in its vicinity and may prevent reunification entirely. About 2 million Koreans live in the People’s Republic of China, mostly in the Autonomous Korean Prefecture of Yanbian, not far from the North Korean border. Korean diaspora is also found in Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) where they were forcibly moved by Soviet authorities.
Nowadays South Korea is one of the most Christian countries in Asia, with about 40% of the population believing in Christianism (about half of them Catholic and the other half Protestant), effectively making it the first religion in the country. They send missions to other Asian countries to christianise them, for example in Mongolia, Southeast Asia and Central Asia.
Koreans have always lived in a perilous balance between external powers and opposing cultural influences, and it seems that they have tried to find their own middle way, not always successfully.