Historical Overview

Prehistoric Period

Bronze Sword from Liaoning

Bronze Dagger, Bronze Age,
Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

During prehistoric times (30,000 BCE – 20,000 BCE), migrating people used the Korean peninsula as not only a home, but also as a land bridge between the Asian mainland and Japan. Early on these semi-nomadic peoples hunted and gathered food using primitive tools. Their dwelling sites are typically found near rivers and along the coasts.

By about 2,000 BCE farming communities began to emerge as people adopted technological advances like stone sickles. Early Chinese records reveal that numerous tribal states existed across Manchuria and in the Korean peninsula. These early societies practiced forms of native shamanism, a religion still widely practiced today, although somewhat changed. The first native Korean kingdom, Old Chosŏn, is said to have developed in 2,333 BCE.

Centuries later, China’s Han dynasty sent soldiers and their families to occupy the northern portion of the Korean peninsula, setting up the Four Han Commanderies. Although the Chinese occupied the area for a relatively short period of time (107 BCE – 303 CE), their cultural influence greatly affected subsequent generations.

Goguryeo tomb mural02

Hunting Scene, Tomb of Dancers, 5th Century,
Jilin Province, China, Courtesey of Park Ah-rim,
Sookmyung Women's University

Paikje golden incense burner

Incense Burner, 6-7th Century,
Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

Three Kingdoms Period (53 BCE – 668 CE)

In the first century BCE, three kingdoms emerged in Korea: Koguryŏ, Paekche, and Silla. These were military kingdoms that used rigid social structures to control the state. Society was divided into strict classes: the royal family, aristocracy (or nobility), and peasants.

In the north, the Koguryŏ Kingdom extended into Manchuria. Because it constantly had to fight off the Chinese and other invaders, Koguryŏ was a formidable warrior state. Ŭlchi Mundŏk, a Koguryŏ general, is said to have defeated hundreds of thousands of invading Chinese in the Battle of the Salsu River. Koguryŏ was also the first Korean state to accept Buddhism. Sundo, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, introduced the religion to the Koguryŏ court in 372 CE. 

The Paekche Kingdom, located in central Korea, occupied the most fertile agricultural areas. Paekche was heavily influenced by both Buddhism and Confucianism. It helped to spread both of these philosophies through trade and cultural interchange with Japan.

The Silla Kingdom, located in the southeast, started out relatively small, but eventually ruled most of the peninsula. Silla kings built large earthen mounds to honor deceased monarchs and filled these tombs with precious gems and gold crowns. Another kingdom, Kaya, existed in the southern portion of the peninsula. Known for their ironworking, Kaya was eventually absorbed into Silla.

Unified Silla Kingdom(668 – 918)


The Main Buddha Image, Sŏkkuram Grotto,
7th Century, Courtesey of Ahn Jang-heon

In the mid-seventh century Silla formed an alliance with China’s Tang dynasty. Together, they destroyed Paekche in 660 CE and much of the Koguryŏ Kingdom in 668. Hoping to defeat the Silla Kingdom, Tang turned on Silla, but was defeated in 676. Silla’s Hwarang warriors, an aristocratic warrior society, were pivotal in winning these battles. For the next three centuries, the Silla Kingdom would be the undisputed power on the peninsula.

During this time, art reached great heights. The Sŏkkuram Grotto with its intricate carvings and the Maitreya in Meditation are just two examples of the level of craftsmanship achieved by Silla artisans. Also, the multi-cultural influences displayed in the architecture of the grotto's domed ceiling and sculptures, as well as artifacts found in Kyŏngju's burial mounds, tell that the Silla Kingdom was also part of an expanding network of land and sea trade. Many consider the Silla capital, Kyŏngju, to be one of the last stops on the Silk Road. Silla remained a kingdom until 891.

Celadon Incense burner

Incense Burner, 12th Century,
Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

The Koryŏ Kingdom(918 – 1392)

In time, the Silla Kingdom fell and the Korean peninsula relapsed into a period labeled the Later Three Kingdoms period because of the brief reemergence of Paekche and Koguryŏ kingdoms. After decades of fighting, Wang Kŏn reunited the peninsula and became the first king of the newly established Koryŏ Kingdom (918 CE – 1392 CE). Koryŏ rulers established their capital in Kaesŏng and strongly endorsed Buddhism, but modeled the bureaucracy off of Confucian governing models.

In 1170, strife between civilian and military officials resulted in a military coup. The influential Ch’oe clan, a strong military family, controlled the key institutions of government, leaving the king as a figurehead. Their rule was interrupted during the Mongol invasions, which began in 1231. The court and main government fled to Kangwha Island for 29 years of resistance, where they would eventually give into Mongol demands. Members of the royal family were subsequently sent to the Yüan capital and frequently intermarried with Yüan princesses.

During these invasions, in an effort to petition Buddha for help against invaders, Korean Buddhist monks carved 81,258 woodblocks of Buddhist scripture. Although Korea was not rescued from its invaders, this collection, known as the Tripitaka Koreana, is the largest and oldest extant collection of Buddhist scripture.


Kosakwansudo (The Pondering Scholar), Kang Hŭiian,
15th Century, Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

The Chosŏn Kingdom(1392 – 1910)

Towards the latter half of the fourteenth century Yüan power began to wane as a newly risen force, the Ming dynasty, began to expel the Mongols out of China. Within the Koryŏ court two sides formed over the issue. Eventually the pro-Mongol forces won and sent General Yi Sŏngkye to march north against Ming forces stationed on the northern border of Korea. On his way to the Korean border Yi Sŏngkye perceived the attack as futile and marched his forces back to the Koryŏ capital, Kaesŏng.

Upon his arrival he took over the government and in 1392 declared himself king, ushering in the Chosŏn dynasty. Yi Sŏngkye moved the capital to Hanyang (modern day Seoul) and ordered the construction of three palace complexes, a royal shrine, and fortifications to surround the city.

Under Chosŏn rulers, Korea became the model Confucian state. Neo-Confucian schools spread throughout the country, a rigorous examination was set up, the royal court performed elaborate ceremonies in line with Confucian doctrine, and a renewed focus on Confucian ethics became a part of daily life.

King Sejong the Great (r. 1418 – 1450), perhaps the most well-known figure during this time, initiated drastic reforms to Confucianize Korea. He expanded and strengthened the borders; sponsored scholarship, the arts, music, agriculture, science, astronomy, and politics; and he invented a native Korean alphabet, Han’gŭl, his most significant accomplishment. The Korean alphabet has earned great respect internationally for its rational, simplicity, and unique origin.

After enjoying 200 years of relative peace, in the spring of 1592 Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea with hundreds of thousands of armed Japanese samurai and foot soldiers. The Japanese forces ravaged their way through the peninsula virtually unimpeded.

Two providential sources of aid would become saving graces to the Chosŏn court. The first and most well-remembered was Admiral Yi Sun-shin. Despite his small number of fleets, Admiral Yi successfully routed the Japanese navy and supply lines south of the Korean peninsula. His genius tactics, excellent administrative abilities, loyalty, and courage make him one of the most beloved Korean heroes of all time. The second source of aid was reinforcements from Ming China. These additional forces along with the volunteer Korean militia (Righteous Armies), helped rescue the peninsula from the Japanese onslaught.

It would take centuries before Korea regained the economic prosperity and well-being that it had experienced before the war. Ming China also suffered from effects of the war and fell to the Qing dynasty in 1644.

During the latter half of the dynasty Korea’s isolation grew stricter and its social structure became more stratified. While it enjoyed short periods of internal peace and growth, as in the cases of King Yŏngjo and Chŏngjo, the Chosŏn dynasty was frequently plagued by factional strife and oppression of the lower classes.

Because of Korea’s strict isolation it earned the name Hermit Kingdom. In the late 1700’s Catholic missionaries entered the country, but were met with fierce opposition from the Chosŏn court. It would take centuries before Korea would allow missionaries into the country. In 1866, Koreans burned the General Sherman, an American merchant schooner, when it sailed up the Taedong River. Eventually, in 1876, Japan forced Korea to sign the Kanghwa Treaty, giving it trading rights. Soon other imperialist powers also imposed treaties on Korea.

Japanese Occupation(1910 – 1945)

By the late 1800’s, the effects of the Meiji Restoration and Japan’s expanding military power were soon felt in Korea. After the Sino-Japanese War (1894 – 1895), and the Russo-Japanese War (1904 – 1905), Japan gained a free hand to expand into the Korean peninsula. In 1910, Japan formally annexed the Chosŏn Kingdom.

Japanese colonial rule lasted from 1910 to 1945. Traditionally the Japanese occupation is seen as an oppressive time. The actual reality of the occupation is however, much more dynamic. On the one hand the Japanese were seen as an imposing force striving to exterminate the traditional Korean way of life especially in the case of forced name changes and the “comfort women” (forced prostitution). On the other they were seen as modernizers who had come to lift Korea out of its feudal past. While there were individuals that greatly suffered and a few that greatly benefitted, most people simply tried get by. The Japanese Occupation still remains a controversial issue today.

The Japanese Occupation did give rise to a fervent independence movement. On March First, 1919 Korean nationalists declared independence, setting off widespread demonstrations against the Japanese rule. The movement was eventually quelled, but Korean exiles in China created a provisional government.

Liberation and Division(1945 – 1953)

Finally, on August 15, 1945, Korea was liberated when Japan surrendered to Allied forces at the end of World War II.

A scant few weeks prior to the surrender of Japan the Soviet Union joined the war against Japan. Fearing Soviet ambitions for Japan, the United States agreed with the U.S.S.R. to divide the Korean peninsula in roughly two halves along the 38th parallel. Both nations agreed that the occupation was a temporary trusteeship to help Korea become capable of self-governance.

It soon became evident that the two halves were drifting farther apart, with the communists in the north and the non-communists in the south. In spring of 1948, the United Nations held elections in the south. On August 15, 1948 the Republic of Korea (ROK) was established, with Syngman Rhee as president. Subsequently, Soviet-backed elections were held in the north and on September 9, 1948 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) formed, with Kim Il Sung as president.

True to their word, both Soviet and U.S. forces quickly pulled out of Korea. This absence of foreign presence from the Korean peninsula, however, would be short lived. On June 6, 1950, North Korean forces crossed into South Korea. The North Koreans pushed all the way to Pusan before United Nations forces prevented them from gaining any more ground. Within a few months, UN forces, made up of mostly America soldiers, pushed the North Koreans back up into the north and all the way to the Yalu River.

In a dramatic turn of events, hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers swarmed over the UN army and forced them back to the 38th parallel. Over the next two years, both sides met frequently to work out a ceasefire. At the same time their soldiers fought for minimal gains along the border. A ceasefire agreement was eventually reached in 1953, ending a war that cost upwards of two millions lives. The Korean peninsula is still divided today.