Prehistory and Gojoseon

Main articles: Prehistoric Korea and Gojoseon

The earliest known Korean pottery dates to around 8000 BC, and the Neolithic period begins around 6000 BC. Gojoseon's founding legend describes Dangun, a descendent of heaven, as establishing the kingdom in 2333 BC. [6] Archaeological and contemporary written records indicate it developed from a federation of walled cities into a centralized kingdom sometime between the 7th and 4th centuries BC.
Goguryeo roof tile
Goguryeo roof tile

The original capital may have been at the Manchuria-Korea border, but was later moved to what is today Pyongyang, North Korea. In 108 BC, the Chinese Han Dynasty defeated Wiman Joseon and installed four commanderies in the area of Liaoning and the northern Korean peninsula. Subsequent Chinese immigrations from Yan and Qi brought elements of Chinese culture to the peninsula. By 75 BC, three of those commanderies had fallen, but the Lelang Commandery remained under successive Chinese control until 313 AD.

Three Kingdoms

Main article: Three Kingdoms of Korea

The Three Kingdoms of Korea in the 5th century.
The Three Kingdoms of Korea in the 5th century.

The Three Kingdoms of Korea (Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje) dominated the peninsula and parts of Manchuria during the early Common Era. They competed with each other both economically and militarily. Goguryeo united Buyeo, Okjeo, Dongye and other states in the former Gojoseon territory, in addition to destroying the last Chinese commandery.[7] Goguryeo was the most dominant power, but was at constant war with the Sui and Tang dynasties of China. Founded around today's Seoul, the southwestern kingdom Baekje expanded far beyond Pyongyang during the peak of its powers in the 4th century. Although later records claim that Silla, in the southeast, was the oldest of the three kingdoms, it is now believed to have been the last kingdom to develop.

Unified Silla and Balhae

Main articles: Unified Silla and Balhae

Silla crown
Silla crown

In the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, Silla's power gradually extended across the Korean Peninsula. Silla first annexed the adjacent Gaya confederacy. By the 660s, Silla formed an alliance with the Tang Dynasty of China to conquer Baekje and later Goguryeo. After repelling Chinese forces, Silla unified most of the Peninsula, beginning a period often called Unified Silla.

In the north, former Goguryeo General Dae Joyeong led a group of Goguryeo refugees to the Jilin area in Manchuria and founded Balhae (698 AD - 926 AD) as the successor to Goguryeo. At its height, Balhae's territory extended from northern Manchuria down to the northern provinces of modern-day Korea. Balhae was destroyed by the Khitans in 926.

Unified Silla fell apart in the late 9th century, giving way to the tumultuous Later Three Kingdoms period (892-935). Goryeo unified the Later Three Kingdoms and absorbed Balhae refugees.


Main article: Goryeo

The Goryeo Dynasty was established in 918, and united the Later Three Kingdoms in 935. Two of this period's most notable products are Goryeo pottery — the famous Korean celadon pottery — and the Tripitaka Koreana — the Buddhist scriptures (Tripitaka) carved onto roughly 80,000 wooden blocks which have been perfectly preserved. Goryeo also created the world's first metal-based movable type printing press in 1234. Their dynasty was threatened by Mongol invasion from the 1230s into the 1270s, but the dynastic line continued to survive until 1392 since they were kept on Ganghwa Island during the Mongol onslaught.

Joseon dynasty

Main article: Joseon dynasty

Paldochongdo, a 1531 map of Korea
Paldochongdo, a 1531 map of Korea

In 1392, the general Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) with a largely bloodless coup. The Joseon Dynasty is believed to have been the longest-lived actively ruling dynasty in East Asia. King Sejong the Great (1418-1450) promulgated Hangul, the Korean written alphabet, and this period saw various other cultural and technological advances, as well as the dominance of neo-Confucianism over the entire peninsula. Between 1592 and 1598, Japan invaded Korea, but was eventually repelled. This war also saw the rise of the career of Admiral Yi Sun-shin and his "turtle ship" or gobukseon. In the 1620s and 1630s Joseon suffered invasions by the Manchu who eventually also conquered the Chinese Ming Dynasty. After that, the Joseon dynasty swore allegiance to Qing Dynasty. During the Joseon dynasty, Koreans brought Roman Catholicism (and other forms of Christianity in Korea followed shortly thereafter) into Korea, at first in secret.

Japanese occupation

Go Fishing, Georges Ferdinand Bigot, Tobae, February 1887.
Go Fishing, Georges Ferdinand Bigot, Tobae, February 1887.

Main article: Korea under Japanese rule

Beginning in the 1870s, Japan began to force Korea to move out of China's sphere of influence into its own. Japan forced Korea to engage in foreign trade through the Treaty of Ganghwa in 1876. In 1895, Empress Myeongseong of Korea was assassinated by the Japanese under Miura Gorō's directive (Kim et al. 1976).[8] In return, An Jung-geun assassinated the former Resident-General of Korea, Itō Hirobumi on 26 October 1909, which determined the fate of Korea. In 1910, Japan forced Korea to sign the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty, although it was executed by Korean ministers and advisors as full-powered attorney assigned by Sunjong of Korean Empire.[9] The treaty was never ratified by the Korean Emperor and was missing the Korean Imperial seal. Korean resistance to the brutal [10][11][12] Japanese occupation was manifested in the nonviolent March 1st Movement of 1919, where 7,000 demonstrators were killed by Japanese police and military.[13] Thereafter the Korean liberation movement was largely active in neighboring Manchuria and Siberia.

Over five million Koreans were conscripted for labor beginning in 1939[14] and tens of thousands of men[15] were conscripted into Japan's military. Approximately 200,000 girls and women,[16] mostly from Korea and China, were pressed into work as sex slaves,[17] euphemistically called "comfort women".[18]

The Korean language was banned from official documents and Koreans were obligated to adopt Japanese names.[19] Traditional Korean culture suffered heavy losses, as numerous Korean cultural artifacts were destroyed[20] or taken to Japan.[21] To this day, valuable Korean artifacts can often be found in Japanese museums or among private collectors.[22] One investigation by the South Korea government identified 75,311 cultural assets that were taken from Korea, 34,369 of which are in Japan, and 17,803 of which are in the United States.[23]

Korean War

Main article: Korean War

The earliest surviving depiction of the flag was printed in a U.S. Navy book Flags of Maritime Nations in July 1882.
The earliest surviving depiction of the flag was printed in a U.S. Navy book Flags of Maritime Nations in July 1882.

With the defeat of Japan in 1945, the United Nations developed plans for a trusteeship administration, the Soviet Union administering the peninsula north of the 38th parallel and the United States administering the south. The politics of the Cold War resulted in the 1948 establishment of two separate governments, North Korea and South Korea.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), millions of civilians died and the United States waged a bombing campaign over North Korea that effectively destroyed most cities.[24] The war ended in a ceasefire agreement at approximately the same boundary.

Both Korean states proclaim eventual reunification as a goal.

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