Every nation and country present today has had an interesting and varied history preceding it. Modern nations are the product of centuries and even millennia of change, adaptation, and revolutions. Kingdoms and empires have risen and fallen, dictatorships and democracies have been adopted and discarded, and leaders have been assassinated or successfully led their nations for decades. South Korea has developed a modern and thriving economy and culture. North Korea has become an isolated hermit kingdom. The two could not be more different today.
As expected therefore, the two Koreas of today are no different when it comes to their history. They didn’t just magic into existence, divided in two halves. So let’s take a journey through time, and examine the formation of some of the most interesting countries in existence today.
The Paleolithic And Neolithic Eras
Before the concept of countries, nations, and even borders existed, humanity lived in an era of relative simplicity. The Paleolithic Age, also referred to as The Stone Age, does not seem to have had much of an impact on the Korean peninsula. To date, no fossil has been discovered there that would prove the existence of the Homo genus in that era. However, artifacts relating to that time period have been unearthed. The Stone Age in the Korean peninsula remains shrouded in mystery, and what happened back then is anyone’s guess.
The Neolithic Era, sometimes referred to as The New Stone Age, was a period of advancement for our species. Animals were domesticated and the earliest forms of agriculture were taking root. Pottery has been dated back to as early as 8000 BCE in Korea. West-central regions of Korea have also yielded Jeulmun pottery, which marks a significant era of Korean history. Aside from that, evidence of ancient settlements having existed back then is also present.
The Mumun pottery period, another significant period of Korean history, is the era when Korean settlements of the time started to adopt and rely on agriculture. A variety of crops were cultivated during the 1500 – 850 BCE period, and societies with leaders and chiefs seem to have appeared around the 850 – 550 BCE time period. Around 700 BCE is when the production of Bronze materials and tools took root in these ancient settlements, and by 300 BCE, long-distance trading as well as local conflicts and infighting had become common.
The Gojoseon Kingdom And The State Of Jin
Historical Chinese records from around the early 7th Century BCE mention the Gojoseon Kingdom. Believed to be the first ever kingdom to have formed in Korea, ancient Korean books and texts from that time date the formation of this kingdom to 2333 BCE. The interesting bit of this kingdom’s history however, lies in the fact that people believed that its ruler – a certain Dangun – was a God King descended from Heaven.
By the 4th Century BCE, the Gojoseon Kingdom was well known in China. Apparently, much like today’s North Korea, the capital of this kingdom was the city of Pyongyang. As all kingdoms eventually do, the Gojoseon Kingdom soon ran into problems because of differences in ideologies between the leaders. Wiman, a former Chinese military leader from the Han Dynasty, was a refugee in the Gojoseon Kingdom. He was appointed by Jun of Gojoseon, but soon rebelled against him. The rebellion was successful and Jun fled to the Southern bit of the Korean peninsula.
In 108 BCE, Wiman Joseon – the kingdom as it had progressed since Wiman had taken over all those years ago – was defeated by the Han Dynasty itself, and the “Gojoseon” Kingdom was placed under Chinese rule via the help of four appointed commanderies.
Back in 300 BCE meanwhile, the state of Jin had arisen in the Southern part of the Korean peninsula. Though not much is known about this state today, it is believed it enjoyed good relations and trade with the Han Dynasty and Japan. Around 100 BCE, after the Han Dynasty had defeated Wiman Joseon, the state of Jin evolved into the Samhan confederacies.
The Proto-Three Kingdoms (image)
Before the rise of The Three Kingdoms of Korea – a very major part of Korean history and identity – was the period known as the Proto-Three Kingdoms period. After the fall of the Gojoseon Kingdom, several states formed from the remains of the fallen kingdom. Dongbuyeo and Bukbuyeo are considered to be the largest and most influential of these states.
The Three Kingdoms Of Korea
From 57 BC to 668 AD, most of Korea was divided in three major kingdoms. Other tribal states existed however, and some big states independent of the three kingdoms thrived as well. The three kingdoms were Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje.
The Kingdom Of Goguryeo
Founded in 37 BCE by Jumong, Goguryeo was the first ever Korean kingdom to adopt Buddhism as the state religion in the year 372. King Taejo is credited for centralizing the kingdom’s government, whereas King Sosurim is credited for the aforementioned adoption of Buddhism. This kingdom’s name is what today’s modern title of ‘Korea’ is derived from.
The Kingdom of Goguryeo had a long period where it fought with the Chinese for control of various territories. When the kingdom attacked a Chinese fortress to cut off its access to its territories in Korea, Cao Wei of The Three Kingdoms of China invaded and destroyed the fortress Hwando in retaliation. This had devastating effects on the Kingdom of Goguryeo’s economy; as its king fled and the kingdom lost control over the successful states of Okjeo and Ye.
The Kingdom of Goguryeo focused on rebuilding and stabilizing itself and only attempted to attack China again in the next century (the 4th Century specifically). This time the kingdom was successful, and this led to the end of Chinese presence and their limited rule in Korea. This success was short-lived however; as the kingdom was attacked and left devastated by the Xianbeis. The kingdom’s new capital (appointed after their previous defeat at the hands of China) was very much destroyed, prompting the king to again flee for his life. The kingdom struck back and won later under Gwanggaeto the Great.
The Kingdom of Goguryeo became a force to be reckoned with in the 5th Century under the rule of Gwanggaeto the Great and his son Jangsu. The kingdom took over large swathes of land and pacified and conquered both Baekje and Silla. This period saw all three kingdoms united as a very powerful empire and saw great strides and success in all fields of life.
In 642, a military dictator of the Kingdom of Goguryeo; Yeon Gaesomun, led a coup against the kingdom. He succeeded and gained control over the kingdom. Seizing this chance as a possible weakness within the kingdom, Emperor Tang Taizong of China tried to attack the Kingdom of Goguryeo, but was promptly defeated and sent home. When Emperor Tang died, his son allied with the Kingdom of Silla and tried to invade Goguryeo once again. The Kingdom of Goguryeo was once again successful in repelling the invaders.
When Yeon Gaesomun died in the year of 666, his sons and younger brother began to fight amongst themselves for rule of the kingdom. This left the kingdom quite weakened. Yeon’s younger brother defected to the Kingdom of Silla, while his eldest son defected to Tang. Tang and Silla allied to invade Goguryeo and were finally successful in the year 668. After the kingdom fell, the Tang-Silla alliance ended swiftly as they began to war amongst themselves for control of the region. The Kingdom of Silla won and took over most of Korea, while Tang took over some of Goguryeo’s former Northern territories. Tang was mostly expelled from these regions 30 years after the fall of Goguryeo, when Dae Joyeong, a general, founded the state of Balhae and fought back Tang.
The Kingdom Of Silla
The Kingdom of Silla is believed to have come about after the unification of six chiefdoms of the Jinhan confederacy in the year of 57 BCE. It mostly spanned over the Southeastern bit of Korea, and was a major sea power. The kingdom is also credited for destroying Japanese pirates out at sea due to its might over the oceans. Around the 2nd Century, the Kingdom of Silla was a very influential state and occupied many other territories and city-states. It annexed the Gaya confederacy in 562 and became an even greater power than before.
The Kingdom of Silla often went to war with the other kingdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje. Though the smallest and weakest of the three kingdoms, it used cunning means and tactics to war with the other kingdoms. Often allying with other states and kingdoms whenever it was profitable to do so. The Tang-Silla alliance comes to mind as an example of the Kingdom of Silla using pacts and alliances to its advantage and conquering foes when they were at their weakest.
The Kingdom Of Baekje
The Kingdom of Baekje was actually founded by the third son of the founder of the Kingdom of Goguryeo. Which means that, whatever may have happened later down the line, the two kingdoms were initially sisters. The Kingdom of Baekje was known for expanding fiercely into the rest of the Korean peninsula. It often battled with Goguryeo and Chinese forces for contention of land.
At the height of its power during the 4th Century, the Kingdom of Baekje had taken over all of the Mahan states and controlled most of the Western bit of the Korean peninsula. Baekje was known as a great maritime power, and through maritime contacts with Southern dynasties had acquired and adopted many aspects of Chinese culture. The Kingdom of Baekje is known to have played a great role in spreading Buddhism, and is credited for providing ancient Japan with a lot of cultural developments. Weakened by Gwanggaeto the Great, the Kingdom of Baekje was ultimately defeated by the Tang-Silla alliance, and saw its court retreat to Japan, where they disseminated more cultural norms amongst the populace.
The North And South States
After the period of The Three Kingdoms of Korea, other kingdoms and powers rose to fill the power gap left by the former kingdoms. They were called Later Silla and Balhae.
The Kingdom of Silla had long since set itself up for success due to its cunning and clever alliances and conflicts. After the Kingdom of Goguryeo had fallen due to the Tang-Silla alliance, the Tang Dynasty began to form its own communities and outposts in the conquered region. Silla ended the alliance as soon as it had squeezed it for every bit of power, and then attacked the Tang forces. Though the dynasty struck back a few years later, Silla handedly won and drove Chinese presence out of Korea. It was during this time that the Kingdom of Silla succeeded in unifying the Korean peninsula.
Later Silla is known as one of the most successful empires of all time. Multiple texts from that time period from other nations describe Silla’s and its cities’ beauty, its hardworking people, and the successful trade between Silla and the Abbasid Caliphate. Many extraordinary works of art, including architectural marvels of stunning beauty, exist today as well.
Later Silla continued Baekje’s trend of being a maritime power, and its people made communities overseas as well. Later Silla’s capital – Gyeongju – was the fourth largest city in the world at that time. Another testament to the fickle nature of humanity and its empires, Later Silla ran into political turmoil around the late 8th Century. Descendants of the Kingdom of Baekje reformed the kingdom under the name Hubaekje, while other rebels also succeeded in reviving Giguryeo. The Kingdom of Later Silla lasted 267 years, before it was surrendered to Goryeo in 935.
Founded in 698, 30 years after the fall of the Kingdom of Goguryeo, Balhae mostly occupied the Northern bit of the former Kingdom of Goguryeo at its inception. As mentioned above, Balhae had been formed by a former Goguryeo general by the name of Dae Joyeong. Balhae had inherited Goguryeo culture, though it also adopted parts of Chinese culture as well.
Though the Kingdom of Balhae flourished during peaceful times following its inception, it very easily fell to the Khitan Liao Dynasty which conquered it. Refugees from the now former Kingdom of Balhae flocked to Goryeo, including the last crown prince; Dae Gwang-hyeon. Unfortunately, no real record of the kingdom remains. It was never properly documented, and the Khitan Liao Dynasty did not leave any historical records of the kingdom.
The Later Three Kingdoms
Lasting from 892 – 936, the period of The Later Three Kingdoms refers to the era when the Kingdom of Later Silla and the revival Kingdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje existed. Later Goguryeo, the revived Kingdom of Goguryeo, was founded by Buddhist monk Gung Ye in the year of 901. The Kingdom was mostly focused in the North, consisting of large numbers of refugees from the former Kingdom of Goguryeo. This kingdom’s name was changed to Majin in 904, and Taebong in 911. In the year 918, a general of Goguryeo descent named Wang Geon overthrew the founder Gung Ye and established Goryeo in his place.
Later Baekje was founded by a general named Gyeon Hwon in the year 892. Based in the Southwestern regions of the former Kingdom of Baekje, Later Baekje attacked Gyeongju in the year 927. The attack on the capital of Later Silla was successful and a puppet ruler was placed on the throne. Gyeon Hwon was ousted by his own sons due to succession disputes and fled to Goryeo. He served as a general in Goryeo and was a part of the conquest against Later Baekje, essentially trying to take the kingdom he founded back by force for another.
The Goryeo Dynasty
The Goryeo Dynasty (mentioned above) was known for the spread of Buddhism and the art of pottery. Goryeo achieved many cultural breakthroughs, including the invention of the metal moveable type. In the year 1018 the Khitan Empire attacked Goryeo but was defeated. After this victory, Goryeo found almost a century of peace, in which learning was emphasized. Many books were printed and universities were founded. Goryeo produced many famous scholars and scientists during this time.
In the year 1231, the Mongols began to try to invade Korea. This pointless warring went on for 39 long years before the crown prince of Goryeo, tired of the useless warfare, went to the Yuan capital and swore allegiance to the Mongols. Kublai Khan, thankfully, found this suitable, and even married one of his daughters off to the Korean crown prince. The following 80 years saw the Korean and Yuan Empires coexist intimately and Korean kings made a tradition of marrying Mongol princesses.
In the 1350’s, the Yuan Dynasty began to decline due to internal squabbles, and the then king of Goryeo; King Gongmin, seized this opportunity to rid Goryeo of the Yuan presence once and for all. Pro-Mongol military officials and aristocrats were removed, two invasions by the Red Turbans were repelled, and the Yuan were defeated when they tried to attack Goryeo once again. Goryeo then used its new invention of naval artillery to destroy Japanese pirates once and for all, making the seas safe for traversing again. The Goryeo Dynasty lasted until the year 1392, when Taejo of Joseon took over after a coup and established the Joseon Dynasty in 1392.
Taejo had the dynasty’s capital moved to Hangyang (known today as the city of Seoul) and in the year 1934, adopted Neo-Confucianism as the official religion of the country. Taejo’s son and grandson would later on go to implement administrative, social, and economic reforms in the dynasty. Royal authority was also established.
The 15th and 16th Centuries saw a golden age of peace and prosperity, along with many inventions. The Korean alphabet – Hangul – was also created during this time. As always however, years of struggle followed soon after. The Japanese invasion of Korea from 1592 to 1598 also worsened the situation of the Joseon Dynasty. Repelling the Japanese invasion and subsequent invasions by the Manchu greatly affected the Korean psyche; and internal conflicts began to be settled using violence.
It wasn’t until the 18th Century and the rules of King Yeongjo and his grandson King Jeongjo that learning and education was revived. New tax reforms were set and many new books were published as well. The Inner Royal Library – also known as Kyujanggak – was established in the year 1776. After 1776 corruption began to take root in the Korean government. Soon after, in the 19th Century, the country gained the nickname “Hermit Kingdom” because of its insistence to remain isolated to curb external influence.
When the Joseon Dynasty was finally forced to open trade, it led the kingdom into an era of Japanese rule. When King Jeongjo died, his 10-year-old son ascended to the throne. It was during this time that administrative power fell into the hands of Kim Jo-sun. After this turning point in Korean history, corruption amongst the ruling class reached an all time high, and the working class was forced out of many basic rights.
The Division Of Korea
At the Cairo Conference of November 22, the United States, the United Kingdom, and China agreed that Korea shall become free and independent. In 1945, Soviet forces entered Korea and secured the North. Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces on the 15th of August, 1945, thereby ending its rule over Korea. On the 8th of September, 1945, Korea was divided in two due to shifts in global politics. This was supposed to be a temporary move until a single government could be arranged and the country could be returned to its people.
When the following years failed to provide a single government for Korea, the matter was handed to the United Nations. The U.N recognized the Republic of Korea as the legal government of the country. However, on the 25th of June in the year 1950, North Korea attempted to invade the South, and thus kicked off the Korean War. Around 3 million people died, and no solution was reached by the year 1954. It was a devastating war, with almost all major Korean cities destroyed. The following years saw autocratic governments ruling South Korea. Many beneficial economic policies came into play, world-renowned companies were born and education was given due importance. South Korea became a successful country in the following decades.
North Korea on the other hand established a hereditary succession of leadership. Kim II-Sung became the Supreme Leader of North Korea until his death in 1994, when his son Kim Jong-il took over. Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un took power later on, and North Korea’s economy has been tanking heavily for almost three decades. The country currently heavily relies on aid from China.