Gojoseon, the first official kingdom of Korea, is most commonly believed to have been founded in 2,333 BC by Dangun Wanggeom, who is depicted as the grandson of Hwanin, the “Lord of Heaven.” A legend says his mother turned from a bear into a woman after surviving a hundred days on garlic and mugwort without sunlight. Gojoseon covered all of Korea and much of Liaoning, China, and Manchuria. With the fall of Gojoseon emerged the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje, established in 37 BC, 57 BC, and 18 BC, respectively. Silla and Baekje were located in South Korea and Goguryeo in North Korea of today. The three kingdoms, covering the entire Korean peninsula in addition to China and Russia, were significantly influenced by China and its culture and continued to battle one another for dominance over the nation of Korea. Goguryeo and Baekje took over most of the era, stopping multiple Chinese invasions along the way. However, Silla steadily rose in power and eventually overthrew the other two kingdoms, giving birth to the Unified Silla in 668 AD. This new dynasty lasted 267 years prior to King Gyeongsun’s submission to Goryeo in 935; a warlord by the name of Taejo Wang Geon defeated his rival and became ruler of the succeeding Goryeo Dynasty, from where the name “Korea” derives. This era introduced legitimate laws and a civil service system, and, with the impact of China, Buddhism became Korea’s predominant religion. In the thirteenth century, the Mongol Empire invaded Goryeo six times and overruled Goryeo for approximately eighty years, but Goryeo regained independence in 1350.
General Yi Seong-gye, or King Taejo, conquered Goryeo and became king, beginning the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. The king moved the capital to Hanseong, the present-day Seoul. Joseon held the entire Korean peninsula, but because Korea carried the impact of China and its culture, Koreans mainly remained Buddhists and abided by the teachings of Confucianism until missionaries from Europe came over and spread Christianity. In 1443, King Sejong created Hangul, the Korean alphabet; previously, Koreans wrote in modified Chinese characters, still taught in Korean schools today. Japan invaded Korea between 1592 and 1598; Admiral Yi Sun-sin, although killed at the end of the war, led Korea and pushed away the force of Japan. In the 1620s and 1630s, the Manchu Qing Dynasty invaded Joseon numerous times.
To this day, Korea, excluding North Korea of today, has never been the instigator of any battle. This 5,000-year history of Korea’s constantly being invaded yet preserving independence and the country’s own identity proves the persistence and pride of Korean ancestors. After Japan triumphed in both the First Sino-Japanese War from 1894 to 1895 and the Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905 for control over Korea, the Japanese invasion of Korea became inevitable; Japan annexed Korea from 1910 to 1945. During this time, Koreans were banned from speaking Korean or even learning about Korea, and Korean history became deliberately distorted. Whatever Koreans did had to be under the Japanese flag, and tens of thousands of Korean women were used as sex slaves to Japanese soldiers. The regime tortured or even murdered courageous Koreans who retaliated.
Prior to the intrusion, as Japan’s seizing Korea became apparent, many Korean families who lost hope immigrated to other parts of the world for a chance to lead greater lives and opportunities. Simultaneously, patriotic Korean men moved to mostly nearby countries to prepare a rebellion against and bring independence back to Korea from Japan. A handful immigrated to Kearney, Nebraska, to receive education and military training. This group of Korean nationalists worked as houseboys in exchange for room and board. In 1908, Yong-man Park, a renowned name in the Korean independence movement, enrolled in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while studying political and military science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. On a farm roughly a mile west of the Buffalo County Courthouse in Kearney, Park established The Young Korean Military School in June 1909, four years after the foundation of the Nebraska State Normal School at Kearney. This military school offered courses in English, Korean, history, and agriculture and military training to nationalistic Koreans willing to fight for the preservation of their roots. Hastings College, where Park went to school temporarily, lent him additional twenty acres of farm on which to train his student-soldiers.
Park met South Korea’s eventual first president, Syngman Rhee, in imprisonment, fighting for political reform. Park accepted an editor position for the Korean National Association in San Francisco, California, and asked Rhee to take over the military school. Rhee was pessimistic about Korea’s chances of escaping the Japanese colony and abandoned the school, which led to the school’s closing in 1915. Park was murdered on October 17th, 1928, in Tianjin, China. Henry Chung, another protagonist of this journey, attended Kearney High School and graduated from the Nebraska State Normal School at Kearney in 1914 with a degree in political science. He briefly partook in Park’s military school but primarily focused on academics. Ironically, he served as ambassador to Japan under Rhee’s presidency. Chur-hoo Park, a cum laude student out of the Nebraska State Normal School at Kearney, taught at Chosun Christian College upon his return to Seoul, South Korea. Ilhan New, the most respected businessman in Korea to date, immigrated to Kearney in 1904 at the age of nine from Pyongyang, North Korea. He enrolled in Park’s military school in 1909 and learned the history and mentality of Korean ancestors. He established La Choy Food Products in 1922 and the Yuhan Corporation in 1926 under the belief “only healthy citizens can seek sovereignty.” The latter company became the first to work for the benefit of all Korean citizens rather than its own.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” said William Faulkner. These ancestors may be gone physically, but their influence lives on. The freedom in which South Koreans live testifies to this; we breathe and taste independence because of the unconditional sacrifice of our ancestors for our future. Will we take pride and keep their legacy in the present or push this pivotal chapter back into a dusty past?