The first human beings on the Korean Peninsula can be traced as far back as the Paleolithic period (about 500,000 years ago). Researchers believe that Neanderthals lived here until Paleo-Asiatic people moved in around 40,000 B.C. Very little is known about the Paleo-Asiatics, but the tools and other relics they left behind suggest that they were hunter-gatherers who also fished. It is very likely that these early inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula moved to what is now Japan about 20,000 years ago, when the Korea Strait was narrower and easier to cross.

Archaeological remains suggest that nomadic Neolithic tribes migrated from central and northeast Asia (mostly Mongolia, China's Manchu region, and southeast Siberia) to the Korean coastline around 8000 B.C. These are the ancestors of modern Koreans, and they are responsible for the earliest versions of Korean culture and language (the Tungusic branch of the Ural-Altaic language group).


At around 3000 B.C. a larger wave of immigrants from the same areas brought more developed pottery and better tools. These new arrivals contributed to the founding of small villages of pit dwellings. With the domestication of animals and the development of farming, these tribes ventured farther inland and became increasingly less nomadic. Clans developed around the start of the Bronze Age.

However, the beginning of Korean history is generally considered to be the birth of King Dang-gun in 2333 B.C. Legend has it that Dang-gun was born of a son of Heaven and a woman from one of the bear-totem tribes (shamanism was predominant in ancient Korean religions). He established the Old Joseon Kingdom, which literally translates to the "Land of the Morning Calm." This walled kingdom was located near present-day Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

The Three Kingdoms


Ancient Korea was made up mostly of clan communities that combined to create small city-states. By the first century B.C., three dominant kingdoms had emerged on the peninsula and part of what is now Manchuria. The first and largest was Goguryeo (37 B.C.-A.D. 688), in the northern part of the peninsula, encompassing part of Manchuria and what is now North Korea. It served as a buffer against aggression from China. Baekje (18 B.C.-A.D. 660) developed in the southwestern part of the peninsula and Shilla (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) in the southeastern section. This time is known as the Three Kingdoms Period, even though a fourth, smaller kingdom, Gaya (A.D. 42-532), existed between Shilla and Baekje in the southern part of the peninsula.

Goguryeo was the first to adopt Buddhism in A.D. 372. The Baekje Kingdom followed in 384. Shilla was later and did not adopt the religion until 528. The three kingdoms had similar cultures and infrastructures, based on Confucian and Buddhist hierarchical structures with the king at the top. Legal systems were created, and Goguryeo annexed Buyeo and Shilla took over Gaya. The kingdoms became refined aristocratic societies and began competing with each other in development of Buddhist-Confucian power and an eye toward territorial expansion.

Unified Shilla


The Shilla Kingdom developed a Hwarang ("Flower of Youth") corps, a voluntary military organization for young men, in the 600s. This popular movement helped build up Shilla's military strength. The kingdom was also looking outward, learning from its neighboring kingdoms and building amicable relations with the Tang Dynasty China.

In the meantime, Goguryeo was in fierce battle with Tang China and the Sui emperor, with heavy casualties on both sides. Tang China eventually turned to Shilla for help. The Shilla-Tang forces were able to defeat Goguryeo and its ally Baekje, but Tang wasn't about to let Shilla have control of the land. Chinese officials took the Baekje king and his family to Tang and appointed a military governor to rule Baekje territory. Goguryeo's king and hundreds of thousands of prisoners were also taken to China. Shilla launched a counterattack against China and retook all of Baekje. In 674 China invaded Shilla, but the kingdom was able to defend itself, forcing the Tang army out of Pyongyang. Still, the Chinese forces were able to hold onto part of the Goguryeo kingdom, which is now Manchuria.

The Shilla Kingdom officially unified the peninsula in 668. Despite some turbulence, the Unified Shilla period (668-935) maintained close ties to China and its culture. Many Shilla monks traveled there to study Buddhism and bring back their cultural learnings. During this cultural flowering, there were new technological innovations, temples were built, and the world's oldest astronomical observatory was constructed in Gyeongju, the Shilla capital.


Goryeo Dynasty

At the end of the 9th century, the Shilla Kingdom had grown weak and local lords began fighting for control. It was a period of civil war and rebellion. In 918, Wang Geon, the lord of Songak (present-day Gaesong), defeated the other warring lords and established the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Goryeo, a shortened version of the former Goguryeo kingdom, is where the name Korea came from.

New laws were created based on Chinese law as well as Buddhist and Confucian beliefs. During a period of relative peace, culture flourished under the Goryeo aristocracy. Goryeo celadon pottery was developed; the Tripitaka Koreana, a set of more than 81,000 wood blocks used to print the Buddhist canon, was created; and movable type was invented. As the official religion, Buddhism flourished under Goryeo rule -- new temples were built, wonderful paintings were commissioned, and various manuscripts were created.


Unfortunately, peace didn't last long. Although Goryeo was able to thwart attacks early on, in the 12th century it suffered internal conflicts, with civilian and military leaders fighting for control. In the 13th century, the peninsula was invaded several times by the Mongolians. Luckily for Goryeo, Mongol power declined rapidly from the middle of the 14th century on, giving the kingdom some respite, though it did not quell the conflicts brewing internally. At the same time, Japanese pirates started becoming more sophisticated in their military tactics. General Yi Seong-gye was sent to fight both these pirates and the Mongols, and his victories helped him consolidate power. He forced the Goryeo king to abdicate and named himself King Taejo ("Great Progenitor"), the first emperor of the Joseon Dynasty.

Joseon Dynasty

When the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) was founded, King Taejo created a Confucian form of government that promoted loyalty to the country and respect for parents and ancestors, and in 1394 he moved the capital to what is now Seoul. His family, the Yis, ruled what was to become one of the world's longest-running monarchies.


Again, Korea flourished both artistically and culturally, and major advances in science, technology, literature, and the arts were made. One of the most celebrated emperors of the time was King Sejong, who took reign in 1418. He gathered a team of scholars to create Korea's first written language, Hangeul. From 1592 to 1598, Korea was attacked relentlessly by Japanese aggressors during what is called the Imjin Waeran and is sometimes referred to as the Hideyoshi Invasions. Successive attacks by its eastern neighbor and Qing China from the north led to the country's increasingly harsh isolationist policy. By the time Admiral Yi Sun-shin and his fleet of iron-clad ships had fended off the Japanese for good, Korea had shut itself off completely from the rest of the world. It became known as the Hermit Kingdom, and it managed to remain relatively untouched by outsiders until the 1800s.

Japanese Occupation

In the 19th century, Korea again became the focus of its imperialist neighbors, China, Russia, and Japan. By 1910, Japan, which had been exerting more and more control over Korea's destiny, officially annexed the country, bringing an end to the Joseon Dynasty. The Japanese tried to squelch Korean culture, not allowing people to speak their own language, and attempted to obliterate Korean history.


When King Gojong, the last of the Joseon rulers, died, anti-Japanese rallies took place throughout the country. Most notably on March 1, 1919, a declaration of independence was read in Seoul as an estimated two million people took part in rallies. The protests were violently suppressed, and thousands of Koreans were killed or imprisoned. But independence-minded Koreans were not deterred, and anti-Japanese rallies continued until a student uprising in November of 1929 led to increased military rule. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press were severely curbed by Japanese rule.

A Korean government in exile was set up in Shanghai and it coordinated the struggle against Japan. On December 9, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the exiled Korean government declared war on Japan. On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied forces, ending 35 years of Japanese occupation. Ten days later Korea became one of the earliest victims of the Cold War: It was divided in half, with the United States taking control of surrendering Japanese soldiers south of the 38th Parallel, while the Soviet Union took control of the areas north. The division was meant to be temporary, until the U.S., U.K., U.S.S.R., and China could come to an agreed-upon trusteeship of the country.

The Korean War


A conference was convened in Moscow in December 1945 to discuss the future of Korea. A 5-year trusteeship was discussed and the Soviet-American commission met a few times in Seoul, just as the chill of the Cold War began to set in. In 1947, the United Nations called for the election of a unity government, but the North Korean regime, dominated by the Soviet Union, refused to participate, and two countries were formally established in 1948.

But on June 25, 1950, North Korea, aided by the communist People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, invaded the South. The South resisted with help from United Nations troops, most of whom were American. Fighting raged for 3 years, causing much damage and destruction. The war has never officially ended, but the fighting stopped with the signing of a cease-fire on July 27, 1953.

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