The Korean Academy of North America discovered ancient hominid fossils originating from about 100,000 BC in the lava at a stone city site in Korea. Fluorescent and high-magnetic analyses indicate the volcanic fossils may be from as early as 300,000 BC. The best preserved Korean pottery goes back to the paleolithic times around 10,000 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 until the fall in 108 BC, although no evidence has been found that supports whatever facts may lie beneath this myth.
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 the Four Commanderies of Han in the area of the northern Korean Peninsula and part of the Liaodong Peninsula. By 75 BC, three of those commanderies had fallen, but the Lelang Commandery remained as a center of cultural and economic exchange with successive Chinese dynasties until 313, when it fell to Goguryeo.
The Proto–Three Kingdoms period, sometimes called the Several States Period, is the earlier part of what is commonly called the Three Kingdoms Period, following the fall of Gojoseon but before Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla fully developed into kingdoms.
This time period saw numerous states spring up from the former territories 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. Okjeo and Dongye of northern Korea were eventually absorbed into the growing Goguryeo.
Located in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, Samhan refers to the three confederacies of Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan. Mahan was the largest and consisted of 54 states. Byeonhan and Jinhan both consisted of twelve states, bringing a total of 78 states within the Samhan. These three confederacies eventually developed into Baekje, Silla, and Gaya.
The Three Kingdoms of Korea (Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje) dominated the peninsula and parts of Manchuria at beginning of the 1st century AD. They competed with each other both economically and militarily.
Goguryeo united Buyeo, Okjeo, Dongye and other states in the former Gojoseon territory. Goguryeo was the most dominant power; it reached its zenith in the 5th century, when reign of the Gwanggaeto the Great and his son, Jangsu expanded territory 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. After the 7th century, Goguryeo was constantly at war with the Sui and Tang dynasties of China.
Founded around modern day Seoul, the southwestern kingdom Baekje expanded far beyond Pyongyang during the peak of its powers 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 ofHwanghae and Gangwon) to a centralised government. Baekje acquired Chinese culture and technology through contacts with the Southern Dynasties during the expansion of its territory. Historic evidence suggests that Japanese culture, art, and language was strongly influenced by the kingdom of Baekje and Korea itself.
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. By the 2nd century, Silla existed as a large state, occupying and influencing nearby city states. Silla began to gain power when it annexed the Gaya confederacy in AD 562. The Gaya confederacy was located between Baekje and Silla. The three kingdoms of Korea often warred with each other and Silla often faced pressure from Baekje and Goguryeo but at various times Silla also allied with Baekje and Goguryeo in order to gain dominance over the peninsula.
In 660, King Muyeol of Silla ordered his armies to attack Baekje. General Kim Yu-shin (Gim Yu-sin), aided by Tang forces, conquered Baekje. In 661, Silla and Tang moved on Goguryeo but were repelled. KingMunmu, son of Muyeol and nephew of General Kim launched another campaign in 667 and Goguryeo fell in the following year.
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 partially unified 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 - 926) 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.
The country Goryeo was founded in 918 and replaced Silla as the ruling dynasty of Korea. ("Goryeo" is a short form of "Goguryeo" and the source of the English name "Korea".) The dynasty lasted until 1392.
During this period laws were codified, and a civil service system was introduced. Buddhism flourished, and spread throughout the peninsula. The development of celadon industry flourished in 12th and 13th century. The publication of Tripitaka Koreana onto 80,000 wooden blocks and the invention of the world's first movable-metal-type printing press in 13th century attest to Goryeo's cultural achievements.
Their dynasty was threatened by Mongol invasions from the 1230s into the 1270s, but the dynastic line continued to survive until 1392 since they negotiated a treaty with the Mongols that kept its sovereign power.
In 1350s, King Gongmin was free at last to reform a Goryeo government. 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.
In 1392, the general Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) with a largely bloodless coup. He named it the Joseon Dynasty in honor of the previous Joseon before (Gojoseon is the first Joseon. "Go", meaning "old", was added to distinguish between the two).
King Taejo moved the capital to Hanseong (formerly Hanyang; modern-day Seoul) and built the Gyeongbokgung palace. In 1394 he adopted Confucianism as the country's official religion, resulting in much loss of power and wealth by the Buddhists. The prevailing philosophy was Neo-Confucianism.
Joseon experienced advances in science and culture. King Sejong the Great (1418–1450) promulgated hangul, the Korean alphabet. The period saw various other cultural and technological advances as well as the dominance of neo-Confucianism over the entire peninsula. Slaves, nobi, are estimated to have accounted for about one third of the population of Joseon Korea.
Between 1592 and 1598, the Japanese invaded Korea. Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered the forces and tried to invade the Asian continent through Korea, but was completely defeated by a Righteous army, 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". In the 1620s and 1630s Joseon suffered invasions by the Manchu.
After invasions from Manchuria, Joseon experienced a nearly 200-year period of peace. King Yeongjo and King Jeongjo led a new renaissance of the Joseon dynasty.
However, during the last years of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea's isolationist policy earned it the name the "Hermit Kingdom", primarily for protection against Western imperialism before it was forced to open trade beginning an era leading into Japanese colonial rule.
Beginning in the 1870s, Japan began to force Korea out of the Manchu Qing Dynasty's traditional sphere of influence into its own. As a result of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Qing Dynasty had to give up such a position according to Article 1 of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which was concluded between China and Japan in 1895. That same year, Empress Myeongseong was assassinated by Japanese agents.
In 1897, the Joseon dynasty proclaimed the Korean Empire (1897–1910), and King Gojong became Emperor Gojong. This brief period saw the partially successful modernisation of the military, economy, real property laws, education system, and various industries, influenced by the political encroachment into Korea of Russia, Japan, France, and the United States.
In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War pushed the Russians out of the fight for Korea. In Manchuria on October 26, 1909, An Jung-geun assassinated the former Resident-General of Korea, Itō Hirobumi for his role in trying to force Korea into occupation.
In 1910, an already militarily occupied Korea was a forced party to the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty. The treaty was signed by Lee Wan-Yong, who was given the General Power of Attorney by the Emperor. However, the Emperor is said to have not actually ratified the treaty according to Yi Tae-jin. There is a long dispute whether this treaty was legal or illegal due to its signing under duress, threat of force and bribes.
Korean resistance to the brutal Japanese occupation was manifested in the nonviolent March 1st Movement of 1919, where 7,000 demonstrators were killed by Japanese police and military. TheKorean liberation movement also spread to neighbouring Manchuria and Siberia.
Over five million Koreans were conscripted for labour beginning in 1939, and tens of thousands of men were forced into Japan's military. Close to 400,000 Korean labourers lost their lives due to the war.Approximately 200,000 girls and women, mostly from China and Korea, were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. In 1993, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged the terrible injustices faced by these euphemistically named "comfort women".
During the Japanese Colonial rule, the Korean language was suppressed in an effort to eradicate Korean national identity. Koreans were forced to take Japanese surnames, known as Sōshi-kaimei. TraditionalKorean culture suffered heavy losses, as numerous Korean cultural artifacts were destroyed or taken to Japan. To this day, valuable Korean artifacts can often be found in Japanese museums or among private collections. One investigation by the South Korean government identified 75,311 cultural assets that were taken from Korea, 34,369 in Japan and 17,803 in the United States. However, experts estimate that over 100,000 artifacts actually remain in Japan. Japanese officials considered returning Korean cultural properties, but to date this has not occurred. Korea and Japan still dispute the ownership of the Liancourt Rocks, islets located east of the Korean Peninsula.
There was a significant level of emigration to the overseas territories of the Empire of Japan during the Japanese colonial period, including Korea. By the end of World War II, there were over 850,000 Japanese settlers in Korea. After World War II, most of these overseas Japanese repatriated to Japan.
With the surrender 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.
In June 1950 North Korea invaded the South, using Soviet tanks and weaponry. During the Korean War (1950–1953) millions of civilians died and the three years of fighting throughout the nation effectively destroyed most cities. Around 125,000 POWs were captured and held by the Americans and South Koreans on Geojedo (an island in the south). The war ended in an Armistice Agreement at approximately the Military Demarcation Line.
The aftermath of World War II left Korea partitioned along the 38th parallel, with the north under Soviet occupation and the south under the occupation of other allied countries. Consequently, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a Soviet-style socialist regime, was established in the north while the Republic of Korea, a Western-style republic, was established in the south. The Korean War broke out when Soviet-backed North Korea invaded South Korea, though neither side gained much territory as a result. The Korean Peninsula remains divided, the Korean Demilitarized Zone being the de facto border between the two states.
Since the 1960s, the South Korean economy has grown enormously and the economic structure was radically transformed. In 1957 South Korea had a lower per capita GDP than Ghana, and by 2008 it was 17 times as high as Ghana's.
The North Korean famine began in 1995 and peaked in 1997. According to South Korea intelligence agency, an internal report by North Korea's Public Security Ministry estimates North Korea lost 2.5 million to 3 million lives from 1995 to March 1998.
Tensions continue to this day, but the political arena is a far more complicated one. Recently both China and Russia have expressed concerns over South Korea's provocation of North Korea by carrying out military drills on the island of Yeonpyeong, which itself lies on a disputed sea border between the two countries.