History of Korea

History of Korea
History of Korea
Bulguksa temple, Gyeongju
This article is part of a series
Jeulmun period
Mumun period
Gojoseon ?–108 BCE
Wiman Joseon 194 BCE–108 BCE
Proto–Three Kingdoms 300–57 BCE
Buyeo, Goguryeo, Okjeo, Dongye
Jin state, Samhan (Ma, Byeon, Jin)
Four Commanderies of Han
Three Kingdoms 57 BCE–668
Goguryeo 37 BCE–668
Baekje 18 BCE–660
Silla 57 BCE–935
Gaya 42–562
North and South States 698–926
Unified Silla 668–935
Balhae 698–926
Later Three Kingdoms 892–936
Taebong, Hubaekje, Silla
Goryeo Dynasty 918–1392
Joseon Dynasty 1392–1897
Korean Empire 1897–1910
Colonial Korea 1910–1945
Provisional Gov't 1919–1948
Division of Korea 1945–present
North, South Korea 1948–present
By topic
List of monarchs
Linguistic history
Science and technology history
Art history
Military history
Naval history

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The Korean Peninsula was inhabited from the Lower Paleolithic about 400,000-500,000 years ago. Archeological evidence indicates that the presence of modern humans in northeast Asia dates to 39,000 years ago [1]. The earliest known Korean pottery dates to around 8000 BC, and the Neolithic period began before 6000 BC, followed by the Bronze Age around 800 BC [2][3], and the Iron Age begins around 400 BC. Korea is considered to be one of the oldest countries in the world.[2]

In the legend, the Gojoseon (Old Joseon) kingdom was founded in northern Korea and Manchuria by 2333 BC [4][5]. The Gija Joseon was founded in 12th century BC, whose existence became a controversy today[6]. The Jin state forms in southern Korea in the 3rd century BC. Gojoseon was invaded by Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC which resulted in the fall of Gojoseon later led to successor warring states, Proto–Three Kingdoms period spans the later Iron Age. Since 1st century, Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla grew to control the peninsula and Manchuria as the Three Kingdoms (57 BC – 668 AD) until the unification by Silla in 676. In 698, Dae Jo-yeong established Kingdom of Balhae, 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 of the Goryeo Dynasty. During the Goryeo period, laws were codified, a civil service system was introduced, and Buddhism flourished.

In 1392, general Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) after a coup. 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.

In 18th century, Korea was faced with internal strife, power struggles, international pressure, and rebellions at home, and the Joseon Dynasty declined rapidly in the late 19th century. In 1897, Korean Empire (1897–1910) succeeded Joseon Dynasty. However, Imperial Japan forced the Korean Empire to sign the Eulsa Treaty and in 1910 annexed the Korean Empire.[7]

Korean resistance was manifested in the widespread nonviolent March 1st Movement of 1919 during the occupation. Thereafter the greater resistance movements, coordinated by the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in exile, was largely active in neighboring Manchuria, China and Siberia.

After the liberation in 1945, the partition of Korea created the modern two states of North and South Korea. In 1948, new governments were established, the nominally Capitalist South Korea ("Republic of Korea") and Communist North Korea ("Democratic People's Republic of Korea") divided at the 38th parallel. The unresolved tensions of the division surfaced in the Korean War of 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea.



Korean earthenware jar with comb pattern. 4000 BC, Amsa-dong, Seoul. British Museum.

No Homo erectus has been found in the Korean Peninsula [8]. However, 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.[9], which dates the Paleolithic Age to half a million years ago.[3] However, the predominant view is that the Korean people of today are not the ethnic descendants of these Paleolithic inhabitants.[10]

Jeulmun Pottery Period

The earliest known Korean pottery dates back to around 8000 BC or before, 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 when a number of settlements such as Amsa-dong existed. Jeulmun pottery bears basic design and form similarities to that of the Russian Maritime Province, Mongolia, and the Amur and Sungari river basins of Manchuria and the Jōmon culture in Japan.[11][12]

Mumun Pottery Period

Archaeological evidence demonstrates that agricultural societies and the earliest forms of social-political complexity emerged in the Mumun Pottery Period (c. 1500–300 BC).[13]

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 Mumun ceremonial and political society after 700 BC. The Mumun is the first time that villages rose, became large, and then fell: some important examples include Songguk-ri, Daepyeong, and Igeum-dong. 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.[13]


Korea in 108 BC.
Korean stone dagger and stone arrowhead, 7th–6th century BC

Gojoseon was the first Korean kingdom. The founding legend of Gojoseon, which is recorded in the Samguk Yusa (1281) and other Korean medieval books,[14] states that the country was established in 2333 BC by Dangun, said to be descended from the heavens.[15] However, no evidence has been found that supports whatever facts may lie beneath this myth.[16]

The first kingdom of Gojoseon in the historical records is Gija Joseon, which was founded in 12th century BC by Chinese Shang dynasty descendants named Gija and ended in 195 BC. The relative records can be found in Records of the Grand Historian in 91 BC, Book of Han in AD 111, Book of the Later Han in 5th century and Records of Three Kingdoms in 3rd century.

The historical existence of Gojoseon kingdom probably arose around the 8th century BC in Liaoning.[17] By about the 4th century BC, the kingdoms of Gojoseon had developed to the point where their existence was known even in China[18], and around 400 BC moved its capital to Pyongyang, the capital of modern North Korea.[19][20]

In 194 BC, King Jun fled to Jin state after a coup by Wiman. Later the Han Dynasty defeated the Wiman Joseon and set up Four Commanderies of Han in 108 BC, and Jin later evolved into the Samhan confederacies.[21]

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 5th and 6th centuries respectively.


The Bronze Age is often held to have begun around 900-800 BC in Korea.[3] Bronze daggers, mirrors, 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.[22] Contemporaneous records suggest that Gojoseon transitioned from a feudal federation of walled cities into a centralised kingdom at least before the 4th century BC.[23]

It is believed that by the 3rd century BC, iron culture was developing and the warring states of China pushed refugees eastward and south. Around this time, 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.[24]

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)[25] , 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.[26]

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).[27]

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.[28]

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.[29]


Samhan (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.[30] The Han 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.[31]

Three Kingdoms Era

An example of a Goguryeo tomb mural.


Goguryeo at its height, in 476 CE.

Goguryeo was founded in 37 BC by Jumong (posthumous name Dongmyeongseong).[32] Later, King Taejo centralized the government. Goguryeo was also the first Korean kingdom to adopt Buddhism as the state religion in 372, under King Sosurim's reign.[33][34]

Goguryeo reached its zenith in the 5th century, when reign of the King Gwanggaeto and his son, King Jangsu expanded into almost all of Manchuria and part of inner Mongolia, and took the Seoul region from Baekje. Gwanggaeto and Jangsu subdued Baekje and Silla during their times.[34]

Goguryeo later fought and defeated massive Chinese invasions in the Goguryeo-Sui War of 598 – 614, contributing to Sui's fall, and continued to repel the Tang dynasty under several important generals including Yeon Gaesomun and Yang Manchun (see Goguryeo–Tang Wars).[35][36]

However, numerous wars with China exhausted Goguryeo and it fell into a weak state. After internal power struggles, it was conquered by an allied Silla-Tang forces in 668.[37]


Baekje's foundation by King Onjo in 18 BC[38] as stated in the Samguk Sagi, followed those of its neighbors and rivals, 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, 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.[39]

Baekje played a fundamental role in transmitting cultural developments, such as Chinese characters, Buddhism, iron-making, advanced pottery, and ceremonial burial into ancient Japan.[40] 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.[41]


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

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, and Silla later emerged as a sea power responsible for destroying Japanese pirates, especially during the Unified Silla period.[42]

Silla artifacts, including unique gold metalwork, show influence from the northern nomadic steppes, with less Chinese influence than are shown by Goguryeo and Baekje.[43] Silla expanded rapidly by occupying the Han River basin and uniting the city states.

By the 2nd century, Silla existed as a large state, occupying and influencing nearby city states. Silla began to gain power when it annexed Gaya confederacy in 562. Silla often faced pressure from 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 General Kim launched another campaign in 667 and Goguryeo fell in the following year.[44]


Gaya was a confederacy of chiefdoms 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 to other countries was possible and agriculture flourished. In early centuries, Confederacy led by Geumgwan Gaya in Gimhae region. However, its leading power was changed by Daegaya in 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 ultimately absorbed into Silla in 562.[45]

North and South States

The term North-South States refers to Unified Silla and Balhae, during the time when Silla controlled 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 territories in the former Goguryeo, and began to administer and establish communities in Baekje. Silla attacked the Chinese in Baekje and northern Korea in 671, China then invaded Silla in 674 but Silla defeated the Chinese army in the north. Silla drove the Tang forces out of the peninsula by 676 to achieve unification of most of the Three Kingdoms. [46]

Unified Silla was a time when Korean arts flourished dramatically and Buddhism became a large part of Silla culture. Buddhist monasteries such as the temple Bulguksa are examples of advanced Korean architecture and Buddhist influence. State-sponsored art and architecture from this period include Hwangnyongsa Temple, Bunhwangsa Temple, and the World Heritage Site Seokguram Grotto.[47]

Silla began to experience political troubles in 780. 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, under King Gyeongsun, it was defeated by Goryeo in 935. [48]


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.[49] 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 Maritime Province. Balhae styled itself as Goguryeo's successor state. It also adapted the culture of Tang Dynasty, such as the government structure and geopolitical system.[50]

In a time of relative peace and stability in the region, Balhae flourished, especially during the long reign of the third Emperor 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.[50]

No historical records from Balhae have survived, and the Liao left no histories of Balhae. Goryeo absorbed some Balhae territory and received Balhae refugees, including the crown prince and the royal family, but 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.[50]

Later Three Kingdoms

The Later Three Kingdoms (892 – 936 CE) consisted of Silla, Hubaekje ("Later Baekje"), and Taebong (also known as Hugoguryeo, "Later Goguryeo").[51] The latter two, established as Unified Silla declined in power, were viewed as heirs to the earlier Three Kingdoms of Korea.

Taebong (Later Goguryeo) was originally led by Gung Ye, a Buddhist monk who founded Later Goguryeo. The unpopular Gung Ye was deposed by Wang Geon (877–943) 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.[52]


Celadon Incense Burner from the Korean Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), with kingfisher color glaze.

Goryeo was founded in 918 AD and by 936, replaced Silla as the ruling dynasty of Korea. "Goryeo" was named as Wang Geon deemed the nation as a successor of Goguryeo.[53] The dynasty lasted until 1392, and it is the source of the English name "Korea."[54][55]

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.[56] The publication of Tripitaka Koreana onto 80,000 wooden blocks[57] and the invention of movable-metal-type printing press attest to Goryeo's cultural achievements.

In 1231 the Mongols began its campaigns against Korea and after 25 years of struggle, the royal family relented by signing a treaty with the Mongols. For the following 80 years Goryeo survived, but became a vassal of the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty in China.[58]

In the 1350s, the Yuan Dynasty declined rapidly due to internal struggles. King Gongmin was free at last to reform a Goryeo government.[59] Gongmin had various problems that needed to be dealt with, which included 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.[60]

The Goryeo dynasty would last until 1392. Taejo of Joseon, who was the founder and the first king of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, would easily take power in a coup and establish the Joseon Dynasty.[61]


The Gyeongbokgung Palace
One of the earliest photographs depicting yangban Koreans, taken in 1863.

Political history

In 1392, the general Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) named in honor of the ancient kingdom Gojoseon[62] and its idealistic Confucianism-based politics.[63]

King 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. The following monarchs, 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.[64]

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 ordered the forces and tried to invade the Asian continent through Korea, but was eventually repelled by righteous armies, Admiral Yi Sun-sin and assistance from Ming China. This war also saw the rise of the career of Admiral Yi Sun-sin with the "turtle ship".[65]

As Joseon was striving to rebuild itself after the war, it once again suffered from the invasions by the Manchu in the 1620s and 1630s. 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.[66]

A long period of peace followed 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 mainly held high positions.[67][68]

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 Joseon the nickname "Hermit Kingdom". The policy had been established primarily for protection against Western imperialism, but before long Joseon was forced to open trade, beginning an era leading into Japanese colonial rule.[69]

Culture and society

Joseon'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.[70]

The most notable cultural event of this era is the promulgation of the Korean alphabet Hangul by King Sejong the Great in 1446.[71] This period also saw various other cultural, scientific and technological advances.[72]

During Joseon, 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 Joseon. 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, soldiers and criminals. Although slave status was hereditary, they were sold at officially set prices, and the mistreatment of slaves was strictly forbidden.[73]

This yangban focused system started to change in the late 17th century as many 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 Joseon government ordered the freedom of official slaves in 1801. The class system of Joseon was completely banned in 1894.[74]

Foreign invasions

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

Joseon 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 any signs of Japan's intentions of invading Korea. However, they came back with 2 different reports, and while the politicians split into sides and fought, no proactive measures were taken.

This conflict brought prominence to Admiral Yi Sun-sin as he repelled the Japanese forces with his invention, and innovative use of the turtle ship, a massive, yet swift, ramming/cannon ship fitted with iron spikes and, according to some sources, an iron-plated deck[75][76][77]). 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 (see the First Manchu invasion of Korea) and again in 1636 (see the Second Manchu invasion of Korea), after which the Joseon dynasty recognized the suzerainty of the Qing Empire.

During the 19th century, Joseon Korea 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 Korean officials. Several Americans who were shipwrecked on Korea in 1855 and 1865 were also treated well and sent to China for repatriation. The Joseon court which ruled Korea was well 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, the Korean court clamped down on the illicit French missionaries, massacring French Catholic missionaries and Korean converts alike. That same year France invaded and occupied portions of Ganghwa Island in the fall of 1866. The Korean army lost heavily, but the French abandoned the island.

The General Sherman, a British-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 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, the USS General Sherman was finally set aflame by Korean fireships laden with explosives.

In response, the United States confronted Korea militarily in 1871, killing 243 Koreans then 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 several centuries of isolationism.

In 1885, United Kingdom occupied Geomun Island until 1887.

By 1876, a rapidly modernizing Japan forced Korea to open its ports and successfully challenged the Qing Empire in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). In 1895, the Japanese were involved in the murder of Empress Myeongseong,[78] who had sought Russian help, and the Russians were forced to retreat from Korea. (Though they came back at the beginning of the 20th century.)

Korean Empire

Mugo, drum dance depicted in the picture titled "Gojong Imin Jinyeon Dobyeong" (Painting screen folder illustrating the feast for Korean Emperor Gojong in Imin year (1902) alt text
Drum dance at a feast for Korean Emperor Gojong (1902)

As a result of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the 1895 Maguan Treaty (Treaty of Shimonoseki) was concluded between China and Japan. According to Article I of this treaty, which stipulated the abolision of traditional relationships with China, Joseon became an independent state and was freed from political influences of China.

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; strengthening military forces, developing commerce and industry, and surveying land ownership. Organizations like the Independence Club also rallied to assert the rights of the Joseon people, but clashed with the government which proclaimed absolute monarchy and power.[79]

Russian influence was strong in the Empire until being defeated by Japan in the 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.[80][81]

Following the signing of the treaty, many intellectuals and scholars set up various organizations and associations, embarking on patriotic movements for independence. In 1909, independence fighter An Jung-geun assassinated Itō Hirobumi, the Resident-General of Korea, for Ito Hirobumi's role of intruding on the internal affairs of Korean politics,[82][83] This prompted the Japanese to ban all political organisations and proceed with plans for annexation.

Japanese rule

In 1910 Japan effectively annexed Korea by the Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty. While the legality of the treaty is still asserted by Japan, it is generally 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.[84][85] 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 Joseon Dynasty to the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea.[82]

After the annexation, Japan set out to repress all Korean tradition and culture, develop and implement reforms for their benefit.[82] European-styled transport and communication networks were established across the nation in order to extract the resources and labor of the Korean people; these networks were almost all destroyed later during the Korean War. The banking system was consolidated and the Korean currency abolished. The Japanese removed the Joseon hierarchy, destroyed the palace of Gyeongbokgung and replaced it with office buildings.[86]

After Emperor Gojong died in January 1919, with a rumor 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.[87] An estimated 2 million people took part in peaceful, pro-liberation rallies although Japanese records claim less than half million.[88] 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.[88] 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 an 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 the period 1919 to 1948, and its legitimacy is enshrined in the preamble to the constitution of the South Korea.[89]

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 within Korea.[82] The Korean language was banned and Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names,[90] and newspapers were prohibited from publishing in Korean. Numerous Korean cultural artifacts were destroyed or taken to Japan.[91] According to an investigation by the South Korean government, 75,311 cultural assets were taken from Korea.[91][92]

Some Koreans left the Korean peninsula to Manchuria and Primorsky Krai. Koreans in Manchuria formed resistance groups known as Dongnipgun (Liberation Army) which would travel in and out of the Korean-Chinese boundary, fighting guerrilla warfare with the Japanese forces. These guerilla armies would come together in 1940s as Korean Liberation Army and the Liberation Army 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 were forced to support the Japanese war effort. Tens of thousands of men[93] were conscripted into Japan's military. Around 200,000 girls and women, mostly from Korea and China, were conscripted into sexual slavery, with the euphemism "comfort women". Previous Korean "comfort women" are still protesting against the Japanese Government for compensation of their sufferings.[94][95][96]

The division of Korea

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

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 misconception that it was too communist-aligned.[97] This division was meant to be temporary and was first intended to return a unified Korea back to its people until the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and Republic of China could arrange a trusteeship administration.

At the Cairo Conference on November 22, 1943, it was agreed that Korea would be free: "in due course Korea shall become free and independent”;[98] at a later meeting in Yalta in February 1945, it was agreed to establish a four-power trusteeship over Korea.[99] On August 9, 1945, Soviet tanks entered northern Korea from Siberia, meeting little to no resistance. Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces on August 15, 1945.

In December 1945, a conference convened in Moscow to discuss the future of Korea.[100] 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 UN 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 Korean anti-communists resulted in the 1948 establishment of two separate nations with diametrically opposed political, economic, and social systems. On June 25, 1950, the Security Council of the United Nations recognised the Republic of Korea as the sole legal government of Korea.[101] In June 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 a Geneva conference failed to adopt a declaration for a unified Korea. Beginning with Syngman Rhee, a series of oppressive autocratic governments took power in South Korea, initially with American support and influence. The country eventually transitioned to become a market-oriented democracy in the 1980s, largely due to popular demand for reform. Due to the Soviet occupation of North Korea, post-independence North Korea established a communist government, with ties to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and China.

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

See also


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  3. ^ a b c Mary E. Connor, "The Korea, A global studies handbook", 2002, pp. 9
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  7. ^ Forced Annexation
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  10. ^ Carter J. Eckert, el., "Korea, Old and New: History", 1990, pp. 2
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  13. ^ a b Sarah M. Nelson (1993, pp. 110–116)
  14. ^ See also Jewang Ungi (1287) and Dongguk Tonggam (1485).
  15. ^ Kyung Moon hwang (2010), A History of Korea: An Episodic Narrative, p. 2.
  16. ^ Mary E. Connor, "The Korea, A global studies handbook", 2002, pp. 10
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  18. ^ Carter J. Eckert, el., "Korea, Old and New: History", 1990, pp. 11
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  20. ^ Timeline of Art and History, Korea, 1000 BC-1 AD, Metropolitan Museum of Art
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  22. ^ Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites, UNESCO
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  27. ^ (Korean) Buyeo at Encyclopedia of Korean Culture
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  86. ^ (Korean) After the reconstruction Gyeongbok Palace of 1865–1867 at Doosan Encyclopedia
  87. ^ March 1st Movement
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  91. ^ a b Kay Itoi; B. J. Lee (2007-10-17). "Korea: A Tussle over Treasures — Who rightfully owns Korean artifacts looted by Japan?". Newsweek. http://www.newsweek.com/id/48765/output/print. Retrieved 2008-06-06. 
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  93. ^ Keizo Yamawaki (山脇 啓造) (1994). Japan and Foreign Laborers: Chinese and Korean Laborers in the late 1890s and early 1920s (近代日本と外国人労働者―1890年代後半と1920年代前半における中国人・朝鮮人労働者問題). Tokyo: Akashi-shoten (明石書店). ISBN 4750305685. 
  94. ^ Japan court rules against 'comfort women', CNN, 2001-03-29.
  95. ^ Congress backs off of wartime Japan rebuke, The Boston Globe, 2006-10-15.
  96. ^ Comfort-Women.org
  97. ^ Michael Edson Robinson (2007, pp. 107–108)
  98. ^ Lee Hyun-hee (2005, p581);Cairo Conference is held, Timelines; Cairo Conference, BBC
  99. ^ Yalta Conference
  100. ^ Moscow conference
  101. ^ Resolution 195, UN Third General Assembly


  • Byeon Tae-seop (변태섭) (1999). 韓國史通論 (Hanguksa tongnon) (Outline of Korean history), 4th ed.. Seoul: Samyeongsa. ISBN 89-445-9101-6. 
  • Miriam T. Stark (2005). Archaeology Of Asia. Boston: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1405102128. 
  • Andre Schmid (2002). Korea Between Empires, 1895–1919. New York: Columbia University Press.  10-ISBN 0231125380/13-ISBN 9780231125383; 10-ISBN 0231125399/13-ISBN 9780231125390; OCLC 48618117
  • Sarah M. Nelson (1993). The archaeology of Korea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521407834, 9780521407830. 
  • S.C.Yang (1999). The North and South Korean political systems: A comparative analysis. Seoul: Hollym. ISBN 1-56591-105-9. 
  • Michael J. Seth (2006). A Concise History of Korea. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0742540057, 9780742540057. 
  • Andrew C. Nahm, James Hoare (2004). Historical dictionary of the Republic of Korea. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810849496, 9780810849495. 
  • Ki-Baik Lee (1984). A new history of Korea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 067461576X, 9780674615762. 
  • James Hoare, Susan Pares (1988). Korea: an introduction. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0710302991, 9780710302991. 
  • The Academy of Korean Studies (2005). Korea through the Ages Vol 1 & Vol. 2. Seoul: The Editor Publishing Co.. ISBN 89-7105-544-8. 
  • Lee Hyun-hee,Park Sung-soo,Yoon Nae-hyun (2005). New History of Korea. Paju: Jimoondang. ISBN 89-88095-85-5 93910. 
  • Michael Edson Robinson (2007). Korea's twentieth-century odyssey. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824831748, 9780824831745. 
  • Marshall Cavendish Corporation (2007). World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish. ISBN 0761476318, 9780761476313. 
  • Kenneth B. Lee (1997). Korea and East Asia: the story of a Phoenix. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 027595823X, 9780275958237. 

Specialized studies

  • Kim, Byung-Kook, and Ezra F. Vogel, eds. The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea (Harvard University Press; 2011) 744 pages studies of on modernization under Park, 1961–1979.

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