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History of Korea

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Title: History of Korea  
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Subject: Korea, South Korea, Kisaeng, Korean garden, List of Goryeo people
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History of Korea

The Lower Paleolithic era in the Korean Peninsula began roughly half a million years ago.[1][2][3] The earliest known Korean pottery dates to around 8000 BC,[4] and the Neolithic period began after 6000 BC, followed by the Bronze Age by 800 BC,[5][6][7] and the Iron Age around 400 BC.

According to the mythic account recounted in the Samguk Yusa, the Gojoseon (Old Joseon) kingdom was founded in northern Korea and Manchuria in 2333 BC.[8][9][10] The Gija Joseon was purportedly founded in 12th century BC, and its existence and role have been controversial in the modern era.[11] The written historical record on Gojoseon can be found from early 7th Century BC.[12][13] The Jin state was formed in southern Korea by the 3rd century BC. In the 2nd century BC, Gija Joseon was replaced by Wiman Joseon which fell to the Han China near the end of the century. This resulted in the fall of Gojoseon and led to succeeding warring states, the Proto–Three Kingdoms period that spanned the later Iron Age.

Since the 1st century, Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla grew to control the peninsula and Manchuria as the Three Kingdoms (57 BC – 668 AD) until unification by Silla in 676. In 698, Dae Jo-yeong established Balhae in old territories of Goguryeo,[14][15] which led to the North South States Period (698–926). In the late 9th century, Silla was divided into the Later Three Kingdoms (892–936), which ended with the unification by Wang Geon's Goryeo dynasty. Meanwhile, Balhae fell after an invasion by the Khitan Liao dynasty and the refugees including the last Crown Prince emigrated to Goryeo.[16] During the Goryeo period, laws were codified, a civil service system was introduced, and culture influenced by Buddhism flourished. However, Mongol invasions in the 13th century forced it into vassalage, which lasted until the mid-14th century, when the Yuan dynasty began to crumble.

In 1392, Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) after a coup in 1388. King Sejong the Great (1418–1450) implemented numerous administrative, social, and economical reforms, established royal authority in the early years of the dynasty, and promulgated Hangul, the Korean alphabet.

From the late 16th century, the Joseon dynasty faced foreign invasions, internal power struggle and rebellions. Support from China, particularly militarily, became increasingly important to maintaining rule, and the dynasty maintained a strict isolationist policy to all countries except China. By the 19th century, with the country unwilling to modernize, and the decline of China due largely to European powers, Korea became subject to foreign powers. After Japan defeated China, a brief period of independence and reform occurred. This was known as the Korean Empire (1897–1910). However this state was quickly dominated by Russia, and when Japan defeated Russia, they forced Korea to sign a protectorate treaty and in 1910 Japan annexed the Korean Empire, though all treaties involved were later deemed to be invalid.[17]

Korean resistance was manifested in the widespread nonviolent March 1st Movement of 1919. Thereafter the resistance movements, coordinated by the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in exile, were largely active in neighboring Manchuria, China and Siberia. Figures from these exile organizations would become important in post WWII Korea.

After the defeat of Japan in 1945, the country was divided into a northern area, protected by the Soviets, and a southern area protected primarily by the United States of America. In 1948, when the powers failed to agree on the formation of a single government, this partition became the modern states of North and South Korea. The "Republic of Korea" was created in the south with the backing of the USA and Western Europe and the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" in the north with the backing of the Soviets and the communist "Peoples Republic of China" divided at the 38th parallel. The unresolved tensions of the division surfaced in the Korean War of 1950. While the war was quite costly and fortunes varied, ultimately the war concluded with the peninsula at its pre-war borders. The conflict ended with a cease-fire in 1953, but the two nations officially remain at war because a peace treaty was never signed. Both states were accepted into the United Nations in 1991.

While both countries were essentially under military rule after the war, South Korea eventually liberalized, and since 1987 the country has had a competitive electoral system. The South Korean economy has prospered, and the country is now considered to be fully developed with a similar per capita economic standing to Western Europe, Japan, and America.

North Korea has maintained military rule, but the system has evolved into a somewhat monarchical system with leadership passed hereditarily and a somewhat divine status is assigned to its rulers. Economically, North Korea has remained heavily dependent on foreign aid, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that aid fell precipitously, and the economic situation has been quite marginal since.


  • Prehistoric and Antiquity period 1
    • Paleolithic 1.1
    • Neolithic 1.2
    • Gojoseon and Jin State 1.3
      • Metallurgy 1.3.1
    • Proto–Three Kingdoms 1.4
      • Buyeo and other Northern states 1.4.1
      • Samhan 1.4.2
  • Three Kingdoms of Korea 2
    • Goguryeo 2.1
    • Baekje 2.2
    • Silla 2.3
    • Gaya 2.4
  • North and South States 3
    • Unified Silla (Later Silla) 3.1
    • Balhae 3.2
    • Later Three Kingdoms 3.3
  • Goryeo Dynasty of Korea 4
  • Joseon Dynasty of Korea 5
    • Political history 5.1
    • Culture and society 5.2
    • Foreign invasions 5.3
  • Modern history 6
    • Korean Empire (1897–1910) 6.1
    • Japanese rule (1910–1945) 6.2
    • Religion and ideology 6.3
    • Division and Korean War (1945–1953) 6.4
    • Divided Korea (1953–present) 6.5
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • Bibliography 9
    • Surveys 9.1
    • Historiography 9.2
    • Primary sources 9.3
    • Other books used in this page 9.4
    • C/J/K books 9.5
  • External links 10

Prehistoric and Antiquity period


Korean earthenware jar with comb pattern; made 4000 BC, Amsa-dong, Seoul, now in British Museum

No fossil proved to be Homo erectus has been found in the Korean Peninsula,[18] though a candidate has been reported.[2] Tool-making artifacts from the Palaeolithic period have been found in present-day North Hamgyong, South P'yongan, Gyeonggi, and north and south Chungcheong Provinces of Korea,[19] which dates the Paleolithic Age to half a million years ago,[6] though it may have begun as late as 400,000 years ago[1] or as early as 600,000-700,000 years ago.[2][3] The predominant view is that the Korean people of today are not the ethnic descendants of these Paleolithic inhabitants.[1][6]


The earliest known Korean pottery dates back to around 8000 BC,[4] and evidence of Mesolithic Pit-Comb Ware culture or Yungimun Pottery is found throughout the peninsula. An example of a Yungimun-era site is in Jeju-do. Jeulmun or Comb-pattern Pottery is found after 7000 BC, and pottery with comb-patterns over the whole vessel is found concentrated at sites in west-central Korea, where a number of settlements such as Amsa-dong existed. Jeulmun pottery bears basic design and form similarities to that of Mongolia, and the Amur and Sungari river basins of Manchuria and the Jōmon culture in Japan.[20][21]

Archaeological evidence demonstrates that agricultural societies and the earliest forms of social-political complexity emerged in the Mumun Pottery Period (c. 1500–300 BC).[22]

People in southern Korea adopted intensive dry-field and paddy-field agriculture with a multitude of crops in the Early Mumun Period (1500–850 BC). The first societies led by big-men or chiefs emerged in the Middle Mumun (850–550 BC), and the first ostentatious elite burials can be traced to the Late Mumun (c. 550–300 BC). Bronze production began in the Middle Mumun and became increasingly important in ceremonial and political society after 700 BC. Archeological evidence from Songguk-ri, Daepyeong, Igeum-dong, and elsewhere indicate that the Mumun era was the first in which chiefdoms rose, expanded, and collapsed. The increasing presence of long-distance trade, an increase in local conflicts, and the introduction of bronze and iron metallurgy are trends denoting the end of the Mumun around 300 BC.[22]

Gojoseon and Jin State

Korea in 108 BC
Korean Bronze Age sword. Seoul, National Museum of Korea

Gojoseon was the first Korean kingdom, located in the north of the peninsula and Manchuria, later alongside the state of Jin in the south of the peninsula.

The founding legend of Gojoseon, which is recorded in the Samguk Yusa (1281) and other medieval Korean books,[23] states that the country was established in 2333 BC by Dangun, said to be descended from heaven.[24] While no evidence has been found that supports whatever facts may lie beneath this,[25] the account has played an important role in developing Korean national identity. In the 12th century BC Gija, a prince from the Shang dynasty of China, purportedly founded Gija Joseon. However, due to contradicting historical and archaeological evidence, its existence was challenged in the 20th century, and today no longer forms the mainstream understanding of this period.

The historical Gojoseon kingdom was first mentioned in Chinese records in the early 7th century BC.[12][13] By about the 4th century BC, Gojoseon had developed to the point where its existence was well known in China.[26][27] and around this time, its capital moved to Pyongyang.[28][29]

In 194 BC, King Jun fled to Jin state after a coup by Wiman, who founded Wiman Joseon. Later the Han dynasty defeated the Wiman Joseon and set up Four Commanderies of Han in 108 BC. There was a significant Chinese presence in northern parts of the Korean peninsula during the next century, and the Lelang Commandery persisted for about 400 years until it was conquered by Goguryeo.

Around 300 BC, a state called Jin arose in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Very little is known about Jin, but it established relations with Han China and exported artifacts to the Yayoi of Japan.[30][31][32] Around 100 BC, Jin evolved into the Samhan confederacies.[33]

Many smaller states sprang from the former territory of Gojoseon such as Buyeo, Okjeo, Dongye, Goguryeo and Baekje. The Three Kingdoms refer to Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla, although Buyeo and the Gaya confederacy existed into the 5th and 6th centuries respectively.

Han dynasty destroys Wiman Joseon, establishing Lelang in northern Korean Peninsula.[34]


The Bronze Age is often held to have begun around 900-800 BC in Korea,[6] though the transition to the Bronze Age may have begun as far back as 2300 BC.[7] Bronze daggers, mirrors, jewelry, and weaponry have been found, as well as evidence of walled-town polities. Rice, red beans, soybeans and millet were cultivated, and rectangular pit-houses and increasingly larger dolmen burial sites are found throughout the peninsula.[35] Contemporaneous records suggest that Gojoseon transitioned from a feudal federation of walled cities into a centralised kingdom at least before the 4th century BC.[36] It is believed that by the 4th century BC, iron culture was developing in Korea as the warring states of China pushed refugees east and south.

Proto–Three Kingdoms

Proto–Three Kingdoms, c. 1 CE
Gold buckle of the Proto–Three Kingdoms period

The Proto–Three Kingdoms period, sometimes called the Several States Period (열국시대),[37] is the time before the rise of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, which included Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje, and occurred after the fall of Gojoseon. This time period consisted of numerous states that sprang up from the former territories of Gojoseon. Among these states, the largest and most influential were Dongbuyeo and Bukbuyeo.

Buyeo and other Northern states

After the fall of Gojoseon, Buyeo arose in today's North Korea and southern Manchuria, from about the 2nd century BC to 494. Its remnants were absorbed by Goguryeo in 494, and both Goguryeo and Baekje, two of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, considered themselves its successor.[38]

Although records are sparse and contradictory, it is thought that in 86 BC, Dongbuyeo (East Buyeo) branched out, after which the original Buyeo is sometimes referred to as Bukbuyeo (North Buyeo). Jolbon Buyeo was the predecessor to Goguryeo, and in 538, Baekje renamed itself Nambuyeo (South Buyeo).[39]

Okjeo was a tribal state that was located in the northern Korean Peninsula, and was established after the fall of Gojoseon. Okjeo had been a part of Gojoseon before its fall. It never became a fully developed kingdom due to the intervention of its neighboring kingdoms. Okjeo became a tributary of Goguryeo, and was eventually annexed into Goguryeo by Gwanggaeto Taewang in the 5th century.[40]

Dongye was another small kingdom that was situated in the northern Korean Peninsula. Dongye bordered Okjeo, and the two kingdoms faced the same fate of becoming tributaries of the growing empire of Goguryeo. Dongye was also a former part of Gojoseon before its fall.[41]


Sam han (삼한, 三韓) refers to the three confederacies of Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan. The Samhan were located in the southern region of the Korean Peninsula.[42] The Samhan countries were strictly governed by law, with religion playing an important role. Mahan was the largest, consisting of 54 states, and assumed political, economic, and cultural dominance. Byeonhan and Jinhan both consisted of 12 states, bringing a total of 78 states within the Samhan. The Samhan were eventually conquered by Baekje, Silla, and Gaya in the 4th century.[43]

Three Kingdoms of Korea


Goguryeo at its height, in 476 CE
An example of a Goguryeo tomb mural

Goguryeo was founded in 37 BC by Jumong (posthumously titled as Dongmyeongseong, a royal given title).[44] Later, King Taejo centralized the government. Goguryeo was the first Korean kingdom to adopt Buddhism as the state religion in 372, in King Sosurim's reign.[45][46]

Goguryeo reached its zenith in the 5th century, when King Gwanggaeto the Great and his son, King Jangsu, expanded the country into almost all of Manchuria and part of inner Mongolia, and took the present-day Seoul from Baekje. Gwanggaeto and Jangsu subdued Baekje and Silla during their times.[46]

Goguryeo later fought and defeated massive Chinese invasions in the Goguryeo-Sui War of 598 – 614, which contributed to Sui's fall, and continued to repel the Tang dynasty under several generals including Yeon Gaesomun and Yang Manchun (see Goguryeo–Tang War).[47][48]

However, numerous wars with China exhausted Goguryeo and it fell into a weak state. After internal power struggles, it was conquered by allied Silla-Tang forces in 668.[49]


Baekje's foundation by King Onjo in 18 BC[50] as stated in the Samguk Sagi, followed those of Goguryeo and Silla.

The Sanguo Zhi mentions Baekje as a member of the Mahan confederacy in the Han River basin (near present-day Seoul). It expanded into the southwest (Chungcheong and Jeolla provinces) of the peninsula and became a significant political and military power. In the process, Baekje came into fierce confrontation with Goguryeo and the Chinese commanderies in the vicinity of its territorial ambitions.

At its peak in the 4th century in the reign of King Geunchogo, it had absorbed all of the Mahan states and subjugated most of the western Korean peninsula (including the modern provinces of Gyeonggi, Chungcheong, and Jeolla, as well as part of Hwanghae and Gangwon) to a centralized government. Baekje acquired Chinese culture and technology through contacts with the Southern Dynasties during the expansion of its territory.[51]

Baekje played a fundamental role in transmitting cultural developments, such as Chinese characters, Buddhism, iron-making, advanced pottery, and ceremonial burial into ancient Japan.[52][53][54][55][56][57] Other aspects of culture were also transmitted when the Baekje court retreated to Japan after Baekje was conquered. Baekje was defeated by a coalition of Silla and Tang dynasty forces in 660.[58]


Down-sized replica of the famous 80 meter tall pagoda at Hwangnyongsa Temple which was destroyed by the Mongols

According to legend, the kingdom of Silla began with the unification of six chiefdoms of the Jinhan confederacy by Bak Hyeokgeose in 57 BC, in the southeastern area of Korea. Its territory included the present-day port city of Busan, and Silla later emerged as a sea power responsible for destroying Japanese pirates, especially during the Unified Silla period.[59]

Silla artifacts, including unique gold metalwork, show influence from the northern nomadic steppes, with less Chinese influence than are shown by Goguryeo and Baekje.[60] Silla expanded rapidly by occupying the Nakdong River basin and uniting the city-states.

By the 2nd century, Silla was a large state, occupying and influencing nearby city states. Silla gained further power when it annexed the Gaya confederacy in 562. Silla often faced pressure from Gougryeo, Baekje and Japan, and at various times allied and warred with Baekje and Goguryeo.

In 660, King Muyeol of Silla ordered his armies to attack Baekje. General Kim Yu-shin, aided by Tang forces, conquered Baekje. In 661, Silla and Tang moved on Goguryeo but were repelled. King Munmu, son of Muyeol and nephew of Kim, launched another campaign in 667 and Goguryeo fell in the following year.[61]


Gaya was a confederacy of small kingdoms in the Nakdong River valley of southern Korea, growing out of the Byeonhan confederacy of the Samhan period. Gaya's plains were rich in iron, so export of iron tools was possible and agriculture flourished. In the early centuries, the Confederacy was led by Geumgwan Gaya in the Gimhae region. However, its leading power changed to Daegaya in the Goryeong region after the 5th century.

Constantly engaged in war with the three kingdoms surrounding it, Gaya was not developed to form a unified state, and was ultimately absorbed into Silla in 562.[62]

North and South States

The term North-South States refers to Unified Silla and Balhae, during the time when Silla controlled the majority of the Korean peninsula while Balhae expanded into Manchuria. During this time, culture and technology significantly advanced, especially in Unified Silla.

Unified Silla (Later Silla)

After the unification wars, the Tang dynasty established outposts in the former Goguryeo, and began to establish and administer communities in Baekje. Silla attacked Tang forces in Baekje and northern Korea in 671. Tang then invaded Silla in 674 but Silla drove the Tang forces out of the peninsula by 676 to achieve unification of most of the Korean peninsula.[63]

Unified Silla was a time when Korean arts flourished dramatically and Buddhism became a large part of culture. During this period, long-distance trade between Unified Silla and the Abbasid Caliphate was documented by Persian geographer Ibn Khordadbeh in the Book of Roads and Kingdoms.[64] Buddhist monasteries such as the World Heritage Sites Bulguksa temple and Seokguram Grotto are examples of advanced Korean architecture and Buddhist influence.[65] Other state-sponsored art and architecture from this period include Hwangnyongsa Temple and Bunhwangsa Temple.

Silla began to experience political troubles in late 8th century. This severely weakened Silla and soon thereafter, descendants of the former Baekje established Hubaekje. In the north, rebels revived Goguryeo, beginning the Later Three Kingdoms period.

Unified Silla lasted for 267 years until King Gyeongsun surrendered the country to Goryeo in 935, after 992 years and 56 monarchs.[66]


Balhae stele at the National Museum of Korea

Balhae was founded only thirty years after Goguryeo had fallen. It was founded in the northern part of former lands of Goguryeo by Dae Joyeong, a former Goguryeo general.[67] Balhae controlled the northern areas of the Korean Peninsula, much of Manchuria (though it didn't occupy Liaodong peninsula for much of history), and expanded into present-day Russian Primorsky Krai. Balhae styled itself as Goguryeo's successor state. It also adapted the culture of Tang dynasty, such as the government structure and geopolitical system.[68]

In a time of relative peace and stability in the region, Balhae flourished, especially during the reigns of the third King Mun (r. 737–793) and King Seon. However, Balhae was severely weakened by the 10th century, and the Khitan Liao dynasty conquered Balhae in 926.[68] Tens of thousands of refugees, including Dae Gwang-hyeon, the last Crown Prince, emigrated to Goryeo.[16]

No historical records from Balhae have survived, and the Liao left no histories of Balhae. While Goryeo absorbed some Balhae territory and received Balhae refugees, it compiled no known histories of Balhae either. The Samguk Sagi ("History of the Three Kingdoms"), for instance, includes passages on Balhae, but does not include a dynastic history of Balhae. The 18th century Joseon dynasty historian Yu Deukgong advocated the proper study of Balhae as part of Korean history, and coined the term "North and South States Period" to refer to this era.[68]

Later Three Kingdoms

The Later Three Kingdoms (892 – 936 CE) consisted of Silla, Hubaekje ("Later Baekje"), and Taebong (also known as Hugoguryeo, "Later Goguryeo").[69] The latter two, established as Unified Silla declined in power, claimed to be heirs to Baekje and Goguryeo.

Taebong (Later Goguryeo) was originally led by Gung Ye, a Buddhist monk who founded Later Goguryeo. Gung Ye was actually a son of King Gyeongmun of Silla. When Gung Ye was born, there was an omen that he would be a cause of Silla's downfall, and thus Gyeongmun ordered his newborn to be killed. Gung Ye's nurse however, ran away with him and raised him.[70] The unpopular Gung Ye was deposed by Wang Geon in 918. Wang Geon was popular with his people, and he decided to unite the entire peninsula under one government. He attacked Later Baekje in 934 and received the surrender of Silla in the following year. In 936, Goryeo conquered Hubaekje.[71]

Goryeo Dynasty of Korea

Wang Geon (877-943), the founder of Goryeo dynasty
Celadon Incense Burner from the Korean Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), with kingfisher color glaze

Goryeo was founded in 918 AD and became the ruling dynasty of Korea by 936. "Goryeo" was named as Wang Geon deemed the nation as a successor of Goguryeo.[72] The dynasty lasted until 1392, and it is the source of the English name "Korea."[73][74]

During this period laws were codified, and a civil service system was introduced. Buddhism flourished, and spread throughout the peninsula. The development of celadon pottery flourished in the 12th and 13th century.[75][76] The publication of Tripitaka Koreana onto 81,258 wooden blocks[77] and the invention of movable-metal-type printing press attest to Goryeo's cultural achievements.

In 1231 the Mongols began their campaigns against Korea and after 25 years of struggle, Goryeo relented by signing a treaty with the Mongols. For the following 80 years Goryeo survived under the overlordship of the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty in China.[78][79]

In the 1350s, the Yuan dynasty declined rapidly due to internal struggles, enabling King Gongmin to reform the Goryeo government.[80] Gongmin had various problems that needed to be dealt with, including the removal of pro-Mongol aristocrats and military officials, the question of land holding, and quelling the growing animosity between the Buddhists and Confucian scholars.[81]

The Goryeo dynasty would last until 1392. Taejo of Joseon, the founder of the Joseon dynasty, took power in a coup in 1388 and after serving as a power behind the throne for two monarchs, established the Joseon dynasty in 1392.[82]

Joseon Dynasty of Korea

King Taejo's portrait
The Gyeongbokgung Palace
Korean plated mail

Political history

In 1392, the general Yi Seong-gye, later known as Taejo, established the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897), named in honor of the ancient kingdom Gojoseon[13][83] and based on idealistic Confucianism-based ideology.[84]

Taejo moved the capital to Hanyang (modern-day Seoul) and built Gyeongbokgung palace. In 1394 he adopted Neo-Confucianism as the country's official religion, and pursued the creation of a strong bureaucratic state. His son and grandson, King Taejong and King Sejong the Great, implemented numerous administrative, social, and economical reforms and established royal authority in the early years of the dynasty.[85]

Internal conflicts within the royal court, civil unrest and other political struggles plagued the nation in the years that followed, worsened by the Japanese invasion of Korea between 1592 and 1598. Toyotomi Hideyoshi marshalled his forces and tried to invade the Asian continent through Korea, but was eventually repelled by the Korean military, with assistance of the righteous armies and Ming China. This war also saw the rise of the career of Admiral Yi Sun-sin with the "turtle ship".[86]

As Korea was striving to rebuild itself after the war, it suffered from the invasions by the Manchu in 1627 and 1636. Different views regarding foreign policy divided the royal court, and ascensions to the throne during that period were decided after much political conflict and struggle.[87]

A period of peace followed in the 18th century during the years of King Yeongjo and King Jeongjo, who led a new renaissance of the Joseon dynasty, with fundamental reforms to ease the political tension between the Confucian scholars, who held high positions.[88][89]

However, corruption in government and social unrest prevailed in the years thereafter, causing numerous civil uprisings and revolts. The government made sweeping reforms in the late 19th century, but adhered to a strict isolationist policy, earning Korea the nickname "Hermit Kingdom". The policy had been established primarily for protection against Western imperialism, but before long Joseon dynasty was forced to open trade, beginning an era leading into Japanese rule.[90]

Culture and society

One of the earliest photographs depicting yangban Koreans, taken in 1863

Korea's culture was based on the philosophy of Neo-Confucianism, which emphasizes morality, righteousness, and practical ethics. Wide interest in scholarly study resulted in the establishment of private academies and educational institutions. Many documents were written about history, geography, medicine, and Confucian principles. The arts flourished in painting, calligraphy, music, dance, and ceramics.[91]

The most notable cultural event of this era is the promulgation of the Korean alphabet Hunmin jeongeom (later called hangul) by King Sejong the Great in 1446.[92] This period also saw various other cultural, scientific and technological advances.[93]

During Joseon dynasty, a social hierarchy system existed that greatly affected Korea's social development. The king and the royal family were atop the hereditary system, with the next tier being a class of civil or military officials and land owners known as yangban, who worked for the government and lived off the efforts of tenant farmers and slaves.

A middle class, jungin, were technical specialists such as scribes, medical officers, technicians in science-related fields, artists and musicians. Commoners, i.e. peasants, constituted the largest class in Korea. They had obligations to pay taxes, provide labor, and serve in the military. By paying land taxes to the state, they were allowed to cultivate land and farm. The lowest class included tenant farmers, slaves, entertainers, craftsmen, prostitutes, laborers, shamans, vagabonds, outcasts, and criminals. Although slave status was hereditary, they could be sold or freed at officially set prices, and the mistreatment of slaves was forbidden.[94]

This yangban focused system started to change in the late 17th century as political, economic and social changes came into place. By the 19th century, new commercial groups emerged, and the active social mobility caused the yangban class to expand, resulting in the weakening of the old class system. The Korea government ordered the freedom of government slaves in 1801. The class system of Korea was completely banned in 1894.[95]

Foreign invasions

Korean Embassy to Japan, 1655, attributed to Kano Toun Yasunobu; British Museum

Korea dealt with a pair of Japanese invasions from 1592 to 1598 (Imjin War or the Seven Years' War). Prior to the war, Korea sent two ambassadors to scout for signs of Japan's intentions of invading Korea. However, they came back with 2 different reports, and while the politicians split into sides, little proactive measures were taken.

This conflict brought prominence to Admiral Yi Sun-sin as he contributed to eventually repelling the Japanese forces with the innovative use of his turtle ship, a massive, yet swift, ramming/cannon ship fitted with iron spikes.[96][97][98]). The use of the hwacha was also highly effective in repelling the Japanese invaders from the land.

Subsequently, Korea was invaded by the Manchus in 1627 and again in 1636, after which the Joseon dynasty recognized the suzerainty of the Qing Empire. Though the Koreans respected their traditional subservient position to China, there was persistent Ming loyalty and disdain for the Manchus.

During the 19th century, Joseon tried to control foreign influence by closing the borders to all nations but China. In 1853 the USS South America, an American gunboat, visited Busan for 10 days and had amiable contact with local officials. Several Americans shipwrecked on Korea in 1855 and 1865 were also treated well and sent to China for repatriation. The Joseon court was aware of the foreign invasions and treaties involving Qing China, as well as the First and Second Opium Wars, and followed a cautious policy of slow exchange with the West.

In 1866, reacting to greater numbers of Korean converts to Catholicism despite several waves of persecutions, the Joseon court clamped down on them, massacring French Catholic missionaries and Korean converts alike. Later in the year France invaded and occupied portions of Ganghwa Island. The Korean army lost heavily, but the French abandoned the island.

The General Sherman, an American-owned armed merchant marine sidewheel schooner, attempted to open Korea to trade in 1866. After an initial miscommunication, the ship sailed upriver and became stranded near Pyongyang. After being ordered to leave by the Korean officials, the American crewmen killed four Korean inhabitants, kidnapped a military officer and engaged in sporadic fighting that continued for four days. After two efforts to destroy the ship failed, she was finally set aflame by Korean fireships laden with explosives.

This incident is celebrated by the DPRK as a precursor to the later USS Pueblo incident.

In response, the United States confronted Korea militarily in 1871, killing 243 Koreans in Ganghwa island before withdrawing. This incident is called the Sinmiyangyo in Korea. Five years later, the reclusive Korea signed a trade treaty with Japan, and in 1882 signed a treaty with the United States, ending centuries of isolationism.

In 1885, United Kingdom occupied Geomun Island, and withdrew in 1887.

Conflict between the conservative court and a reforming faction led to the Gapsin Coup in 1884. The reformers sought to reform Koreans institutionalized social inequality, by proclaiming social equality and the elimination of the privileges of the yangban class. The reformers were backed by Japan, and were thwarted by the arrival of Qing troops, invited by the conservative Queen Min. The Chinese troops departed but the leading general Yuan Shikai remained in Korea from 1885-1894 as Resident, directing Korean affairs. Korea became linked by telegraph to China in 1888 with Chinese controlled telegraphs. China permitted Korea to establish embassies with Russia (1884), Italy (1885), France (1886), United States, Japan. China attempted to block the exchange of embassies in Western countries, but not with Tokyo. The Qing government provided loans. China promoted its trade in an attempt to block Japanese merchants, which led to Chinese favour in Korean trade. Anti-Chinese riots broke out in 1888 and 1889 and Chinese shops were torched. Japan remained the largest foreign community and largest trading partner.[99]

After a rapidly modernizing Japan forced Korea to open its ports in 1876, it successfully challenged the Qing Empire in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). In 1895, the Japanese were involved in the murder of Empress Myeongseong,[100][101] who had sought Russian help, and the Russians were forced to retreat from Korea for the time.

Modern history

Korean Empire (1897–1910)

As a result of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki was concluded between China and Japan. It stipulated the abolition of traditional relationships Korea had with China, the latter of which recognised the complete independence of Joseon and repudiated the former's political influence over the area.

In 1897, Joseon was renamed the Independence Club also rallied to assert the rights of the Joseon people, but clashed with the government which proclaimed absolute monarchy and power.[102]

Russian influence was strong in the Empire until being defeated by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). Korea effectively became a protected state of Japan on 17 November 1905, the 1905 Protectorate Treaty having been promulgated without Emperor Gojong's required seal or commission.[103][104]

Following the signing of the treaty, many intellectuals and scholars set up various organizations and associations, embarking on movements for independence. In 1907, Gojong was forced to abdicate after Japan learned that he sent secret envoys to the Second Hague Conventions to protest against the protectorate treaty, leading to the accession of Gojong's son, Emperor Sunjong. In 1909, independence activist An Jung-geun assassinated Itō Hirobumi, former Resident-General of Korea, for Ito's intrusions on the Korean politics.[105][106] This prompted the Japanese to ban all political organisations and proceed with plans for annexation.

Japanese rule (1910–1945)

In 1910 Japan effectively annexed Korea by the Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty, which along with all other prior treaties between Korea and Japan was confirmed to be null and void in 1965. While Japan asserts that the treaty was concluded legally, this argument is not accepted in Korea because it was not signed by the Emperor of Korea as required and violated international convention on external pressures regarding treaties.[107][108] Korea was controlled by Japan under a Governor-General of Korea until Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces on 15 August 1945, with de jure sovereignty deemed to have passed from the Joseon dynasty to the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea.[105]

After the annexation, Japan set out to repress Korean traditions and culture, develop and implement policies primarily for the Japanese benefit.[105] European-styled transport and communication networks were established across the nation in order to extract the resources and labor; these networks were mostly destroyed later during the Korean War. The banking system was consolidated and the Korean currency abolished. The Japanese removed the Joseon hierarchy, destroyed much of the Gyeongbokgung palace and replaced it with the Government office building.[109]

After Emperor Gojong died in January 1919, with rumors of poisoning, independence rallies against Japanese invaders took place nationwide on 1 March 1919 (the March 1st Movement). This movement was suppressed by force and about 7,000 were killed by Japanese soldiers and police.[110] An estimated 2 million people took part in peaceful, pro-liberation rallies, although Japanese records claim participation of less than half million.[111] This movement was partly inspired by United States President Woodrow Wilson's speech of 1919, declaring support for right of self-determination and an end to colonial rule for Europeans.[111] No comment was made by Wilson on Korean independence, perhaps as a pro-Japan faction in the USA sought trade inroads into China through the Korean peninsula.

The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was established in Shanghai, China, in the aftermath of March 1 Movement, which coordinated the Liberation effort and resistance against Japanese control. Some of the achievements of the Provisional Government include the Battle of Chingshanli of 1920 and the ambush of Japanese Military Leadership in China in 1932. The Provisional Government is considered to be the de jure government of the Korean people between 1919 and 1948, and its legitimacy is enshrined in the preamble to the constitution of the Republic of Korea.[112]

Continued anti-Japanese uprisings, such as the nationwide uprising of students in November 1929, led to the strengthening of military rule in 1931. After the outbreaks of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and World War II Japan attempted to exterminate Korea as a nation. The continuance of Korean culture itself began to be illegal. Worship at Japanese Shinto shrines was made compulsory. The school curriculum was radically modified to eliminate teaching in the Korean language and history.[105] The Korean language was banned, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names,[113] and newspapers were prohibited from publishing in Korean. Numerous Korean cultural artifacts were destroyed or taken to Japan.[114] According to an investigation by the South Korean government, 75,311 cultural assets were taken from Korea.[114][115]

Some Koreans left the Korean peninsula to Manchuria and Primorsky Krai. Koreans in Manchuria formed resistance groups known as Dongnipgun (Liberation Army); they would travel in and out of the Sino-Korean border, fighting guerrilla warfare with Japanese forces. Some of them would group together in the 1940s as the Korean Liberation Army, which took part in allied action in China and parts of South East Asia. Tens of thousands of Koreans also joined the Peoples Liberation Army and the National Revolutionary Army.

During World War II, Koreans at home were forced to support the Japanese war effort. Tens of thousands of men[116] were conscripted into Japan's military. Around 200,000 girls and women, some from Korea, were engaged in sexual services, with the euphemism "comfort women". Previous Korean "comfort women" are still protesting against the Japanese Government for compensation of their sufferings.[117][118][119]

Religion and ideology

Korean nationalist historiography, centered on minjok, an ethnically or racially defined Korean nation, emerged in the early twentieth century among Korean intellectuals who wanted to foster national consciousness to achieve Korean independence from Japanese domination. Its first proponent was journalist and independence activist Shin Chaeho (1880-1936). In his polemical New Reading of History (Doksa Sillon), which was published in 1908 three years after Korea became a Japanese protectorate, Shin proclaimed that Korean history was the history of the Korean minjok, a distinct race descended from the god Dangun that had once controlled not only the Korean peninsula but also large parts of Manchuria. Shin and other Korean intellectuals like Park Eun-sik (1859–1925) and Choe Nam-seon (1890–1957) continued to develop these themes in the 1910s and 1920s. They rejected two prior ways of representing the past: the Neo-Confucian historiography of Joseon Korea's scholar-bureaucrats, which they blamed for perpetuating a servile worldview centered around China, and Japanese colonial historiography, which portrayed Korea as historically dependent and culturally backward. The work of these prewar nationalist historians has shaped postwar historiography in both North and South Korea. Despite ideological differences between the two regimes, the dominant historiography in both countries since the 1960s has continued to reflect nationalist themes, and this common historical outlook is the basis for talks about Korean unification.

Protestant (Evangelicalist) Christian missionary efforts in Asia were nowhere more successful than in Korea. American Presbyterians and Methodists arrived in the 1880s and were well received. In the days Korea was under Japanese control, Christianity became in part an expression of nationalism in opposition to the Japan's efforts to promote the Japanese language and the Shinto religion.[120] In 1914 out of 16 million people, there were 86,000 Protestants and 79,000 Catholics; by 1934 the numbers were 168,000 and 147,000. Presbyterian missionaries were especially successful. Harmonizing with traditional practices became an issue. The Protestants developed a substitute for Confucian ancestral rites by merging Confucian-based and Christian death and funerary rituals.[121]

Division and Korean War (1945–1953)

Liberation of Korea
American Marines climbing a sea wall in Incheon during a decisive moment in the timeline of the Korean War

At the Cairo Conference on November 22, 1943, it was agreed that "in due course Korea shall become free and independent”;[122][123] at a later meeting in Yalta in February 1945, it was agreed to establish a four-power trusteeship over Korea.[124] On August 9, 1945, Soviet tanks entered northern Korea from Siberia, meeting little resistance. Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces on August 15, 1945.

The unconditional surrender of Japan, combined with fundamental shifts in global politics and ideology, led to the division of Korea into two occupation zones effectively starting on September 8, 1945, with the United States administering the southern half of the peninsula and the Soviet Union taking over the area north of the 38th parallel. The Provisional Government was ignored, mainly due to American perception that it was too communist-aligned.[125] This division was meant to be temporary and was first intended to return a unified Korea back to its people after the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and Republic of China could arrange a single government.

In December 1945, a conference convened in Moscow to discuss the future of Korea.[126] A 5-year trusteeship was discussed, and a joint Soviet-American commission was established. The commission met intermittently in Seoul but deadlocked over the issue of establishing a national government. In September 1947, with no solution in sight, the United States submitted the Korean question to the United Nations General Assembly.

Initial hopes for a unified, independent Korea quickly evaporated as the politics of the Cold War and opposition to the trusteeship plan from anti-communists resulted in the 1948 establishment of two separate nations with diametrically opposed political, economic, and social systems. On December 12, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised the Republic of Korea as the sole legal government of Korea.[127]

In June 25, 1950 the Korean War broke out when North Korea breached the 38th parallel line to invade the South, ending any hope of a peaceful reunification for the time being. After the war, the 1954 Geneva conference failed to adopt a solution for a unified Korea.

Divided Korea (1953–present)

Beginning with Syngman Rhee, a series of oppressive autocratic governments took power in South Korea with American support and influence. The country eventually transitioned to become a market-oriented democracy in 1987 largely due to popular demand for reform, and its economy rapidly grew and became a developed economy by the 2000s. Due to Soviet Influence, North Korea established a communist government with a hereditary succession of leadership, with ties to China and the Soviet Union. Kim Il-sung became the supreme leader until his death in 1994, after which his son, Kim Jong-il took power. Kim Jong-il's son, Kim Jong-un, is the current leader, taking power after his father's death in 2011. After the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991, the North Korean economy went on a path of steep decline, and it is currently heavily reliant on international food aid and trade with China.

See History of North Korea and History of South Korea for the post-war period.

See also


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Books are sorted by author FAMILY name, called last-name in English... and the first coming part of a Korean name.


  • Association of Korean History Teachers (2005a). Korea through the Ages, Vol 1 Ancient. Seoul:  
  • Association of Korean History Teachers (2005b). Korea through the Ages, Vol. 2 Modern. Seoul:  
  • Buzo, Adrian. The Making of Modern Korea (Routledge, 2002) online
  • Cha M. S.; Kim N. N. "Korea's first industrial revolution, 1911–1940," Explorations in Economic History (2012) 49#1 pp 60–74
  • Connor, Mary E. (2002). The Koreas, A global studies handbook. ABC-CLIO. p. 307.  
  • Eckert, Carter J.; Lee, Ki-Baik (1990). Korea, old and new: a history. Korea Institute Series. Published for the Korea Institute, Harvard University by Ilchokak. p. 454.  
  • Hoare, James; Pares, Susan (1988). Korea: an introduction. New York: Routledge.  
  • Hwang, Kyung-moon (2010). A History of Korea, An Episodic Narrative. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 328.  
  • Lee Ki-baik (1984). A new history of Korea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  
  • Lee, Kenneth B. (1997). Korea and East Asia: the story of a Phoenix. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group.  
  • Lee, Yur-Bok and Wayne Patterson. One Hundred Years of Korean-American Relations, 1882-1982 (1986) online
  • Lee, Hyun-hee; Park, Sung-soo; Yoon, Nae-hyun (2005). New History of Korea. Paju: Jimoondang.  
  • Lee, Hong-yung; Ha, Yong-Chool; Sorensen, Clark W., eds. (2013). Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945. University of Washington Press. p. 379.  
  • Nahm, Andrew C.; Hoare, James (2004). Historical dictionary of the Republic of Korea. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.  
  • Nelson, Sarah M. (1993). The archaeology of Korea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 1013.  
  • Pratt, Keith (2007). Everlasting Flower: A History of Korea. Reaktion Books. p. 320.  
  • Robinson, Michael Edson (2007). Korea's twentieth-century odyssey. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.  
  • Seth, Michael J. (2006). A Concise History of Korea. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.  
  • Seth, Michael J. (2010). A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 520.  
  • Sin, Hyong-sik (2005). A Brief History of Korea. The Spirit of Korean Cultural Roots 1 (2nd ed.). Seoul:  
  • Yang, Sung-chul (1999). The North and South Korean political systems: A comparative analysis. Seoul: Hollym.  


  • Em, Henry H. (2013). The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea. Duke University Press. p. 272. Examines how Korean national ambitions have shaped the work of the country's historians.
  • Hong Sung-gi. "Trends in Western historiography on Korea," Korea Journal (1999) 39#3 pp 377
  • Kim, Duol, and Ki-Joo Park. " A Cliometric Revolution in the Economic History of Korea: A Critical Review," Australian Economic History Review (2012) 52#1 pp 85–95
  • Yuh, Leighanne (2010). "The Historiography of Korea in the United States". International Journal of Korean History 15#2: 127–144. 

Primary sources

  • Lee, Peter H. and Wm. Theodore De Bary, eds. Sources of Korean Tradition (1997) 472 pages online

Other books used in this page

  • Scholarly study of how food reflects Korea's history
  • Studies of on modernization under Park, 1961–1979.

C/J/K books

  • Byeon Tae-seop (변태섭) (1999). 韓國史通論 (Hanguksa tongnon) (Outline of Korean history), 4th ed. (in 한국어). Seoul: Samyeongsa.  

External links

  • Korean History online, Korean History Information Center
  • Timeline of Korean Dynasties
  • Kyujanggak Archive, pdf files of Korean classics in their original written classical Chinese
  • Korean History :Bibliography, Center for Korean Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • History of Korea, KBS World
  • History of Corea, Ancient and Modern; with Description of Manners and Customs, Language and Geography by John Ross, 1891
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