Korea has a long tradition of preserving historical records that dates back to the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.~668 A.D.). This tradition flourished during the Goryeo (918~1392) and Joseon (1392~1910) Dynasties, resulting in the production of great historical works, including The History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk sagi), The History of Goryeo (Goryeosa), and The Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty (Joseon wangjo sillok).
The historical records of the Joseon Dynasty were written by scholar-officials, collectively called “historiographers” (sagwan), attached to the Office of the Annals Compilation (Chunchugwan). The historiographers tried to keep records of the daily affairs taking place in the royal court as accurately as possible with a sense of mission to provide a “mirror for reflection” to future generations. Consequently, they left behind a large corpus of valuable historical records that modern-day historians regard to be highly reliable.
The National Institute of Korean History (NIKH) is a modern institution which inherits the tradition of the Office of Annals Compilation of the Joseon Dynasty. It was established in March 1946 when a group of Korean historians trained in Western historiographical methodology set up an Office of National History (Guksagwan) inside the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul for the purpose of writing history textbooks as well as compiling historical materials for the Korean people who had just recently been liberated from the Japanese colonial rule in August 1945.
The name and status of the Office of National History underwent a major change following the establishment of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 1948. The ROK government inaugurated the “National History Compilation Committee” (Guksa pyeonchan wiweonhoe)—referred to as the “NIKH” in English since 2000—as a part of the Ministry of Culture and Education at the expense of the Office. In this newly inaugurated Committee, the Minister of Culture and Education assumed the chairmanship.
The NIKH launched a project of publishing traditional historical sources in order to promote scholarly research on Korean history. As a result, it published a set of photoreprint copies of The Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty in forty-eight volumes 1955. In 1965, the ROK government introduced a new system of appointing a professional historian as the full-time chairman (“president” after 2000) of the NIKH. Under the leadership of a series of competent chairmen of scholarly background, the NIKH expanded the scope of its research into the modern and contemporary periods while increasing the number of staffs and acquiring equipment needed for compiling historical source materials during the late 1960s and the 1970s. Initially, the office of the NIKH was located within the compound of the Ministry of Education and Culture compound, but it was moved to other places in downtown Seoul later.
The year of 1987 marked a milestone in the history of the NIKH. The office of the NIKH moved into a newly constructed building located in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, and the Law on Collection and Preservation of Historical Materials was enacted. The enactment of this law had the effect of providing the NIKH with a firm legal ground for its official status as the leading governmental agency in charge of collection, preservation, and compilation of historical materials.
The NIKH started digitalizing the historical materials that it had collected and compiled from the 1990s. Almost simultaneously, it began collecting historical materials relevant to the study on contemporary history from various places inside and outside the country. It began emphasizing the popularization of Korean history from 2006 when the Law on Collection and Preservation of Historical Materials and Popularization of Korean History was promulgated. It embarked on an ambitious project of translating The Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty into English in 2012.
The NIKH came into being in 1946 as a major governmental institution to collect, compile, and publish Korean historical materials. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it spearheads the movement to digitalize, popularize, and globalize the Korean historical resources.