History of Korea
The Korean Peninsula was inhabited from the Lower Paleolithic about 400,000-700,000 years ago. Gojoseon was the first Korean kingdom. The founding legend of Gojoseon states that the country was established in 2333 BC by Dangun, said to be descended from heaven. While no evidence has been found that supports whatever facts may lie beneath this, the account has played an important role in developing Korean national identity.
After the fall of Gojoseon, Buyeo arose in today’s North Korea and southern Manchuria. Its remnants were absorbed by Goguryeo in 494, and both Goguryeo and Baekje, two of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, considered themselves its successor.
Goguryeo was founded in 37 BC by Jumong. 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. 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. 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 (see Goguryeo–Tang War). 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.
Baekje's foundation by King Onjo in 18 BC 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. 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. Baekje was defeated by a coalition of Silla and Tang Dynasty forces in 660.
According to legend, the kingdom 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. 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. By the mid-sixth century, the Silla Kingdom had brought under its control all of the neighboring town-states within the Gaya Confederation. Through an alliance with the Tang Dynasty of China, Silla unified the Korean Peninsula in 668 and saw the zenith of its power and prosperity in the mid-eighth century. It attempted to establish an ideal Buddhist country. However, its Buddhist social order began to deteriorate as the nobility indulged in increasing luxury. Silla had repelled Tang attempts to subjugate Goguryeo and Baeche by 676. Then in 698, the former people of Goguryeo who resided in south-central Manchuria established the Kingdom of Balhae.
Balhae possessed an advanced culture which was rooted in that of Goguryeo. Balhae prosperity reached its height in the first half of the ninth century with the occupation of a vast territory reaching to the Amur River in the north and Kaiyuan in south-central Manchuria to the west. It also established diplomatic ties with Turkey and Japan. Balhae existed until 926, when it was overthrown by the Khitan. Many of the Balhae nobility, who were mostly Goguryeo descendants, moved south and joined the newly founded Goryeo Dynasty.
The Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) was founded by Wang Geon, a general who had served under Gungye, a rebel prince of the Silla Kingdom. Choosing his native town of Songak (present-day Gaeseong in North Korea) as the capital, Wang Geon proclaimed the goal of recovering the lost territory of the Goguryeo Kingdom in northeast China. Wang Geon named his dynasty Goryeo, from which the modern name Korea is derived. Although the Goryeo Dynasty could not reclaim lost lands, it achieved a sophisticated culture represented by cheongja or blue-green celadon and flourishing Buddhist tradition. 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 as a tributary ally of the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty in China. In the 1350s, the Yuan Dynasty declined rapidly due to internal struggles, enabling King Gongmin to reform the Goryeo government. 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.
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 and based on idealistic Confucianism-based ideology. 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. The Joseon rulers governed the dynasty with a well-balanced political system. A civil service examination system was the main channel for recruiting government officials. During the reign of King Sejong the Great (1418-1450), Joseon’s fourth monarch, Korea enjoyed an unprecedented flowering of culture and art. Under King Sejong’s guidance, scholars at the royal academy created the Korean alphabet Hangeul. It was then called Hunminjeongeum, or “proper phonetic system to educate the people.”
In 1592, Japan invaded the peninsula to pave the way for its incursion into China. At sea, Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598), one of the most respected figures in Korean history, led a series of brilliant naval maneuvers against the Japanese, deploying the geobukseon (turtle ships), which are believed to be the world’s first ironclad battleships. 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. In 1897, Joseon was renamed the Korean Empire, and King Gojong became Emperor Gojong. The imperial government aimed to become a strong and independent nation by implementing domestic reforms. But after Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) Korea effectively became a protectorate of Japan on 17 November 1905, the 1905 Protectorate Treaty having been promulgated without Emperor Gojong’s required seal or commission.
At the Cairo Conference on November 22, 1943, it was agreed that “in due course Korea shall become free and independent”; at a later meeting in Yalta in February 1945, it was agreed to establish a four-power trusteeship over Korea. On August 9, 1945, Soviet tanks entered northern Korea from Siberia. This 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 Uniontaking over the area north of the 38th parallel. 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. On December 12, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised the Republic of Korea as the sole legal government of Korea. 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. 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 became a developed economy by the 2000s. Due to the Soviet influence, North Korea established a communist government with a hereditary succession of leadership, with ties to China and Russia.
(Source: Flickr / koreanet)