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History of Korea

Korea is a modern nation with a history of over 5,000 years. The history of its culture can be seen in the Korean art and architecture that remains today.

In Korean mythology there is a story of the birth of the Korean nation when a god named Hwanung comes from heaven and transforms a bear into a woman. He marries her and she gives birth to a son, Tangun. Tangun establishes the first capital of the Korean nation in 2333 B.C. and calls it Choson – Land of the Morning Calm.

Ko (Old) Choson is the kingdom that many Koreans believe was founded by Tangun. They probably lived in pit houses and had iron tools. Their walled-kingdom was near Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Prehistoric remains found throughout Korea indicate that early in the history of the Korean Peninsula sophisticated technologies were known by these inhabitants. These people believed that all objects had spirits, a belief known as animism. They also believed that some people had the power to communicate with these spirits and this is known as Shamanism. Farming at this time included growing rice. This was about 3,500 years ago at the start of the Bronze Age. Many farm tools have been found from this time.

There were many other nations in Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula during the Iron Age. In the 1st century B.C. Ko Old Choson gives way to three nations. The first is Koguryo (founded in 37 B.C) to the north which was in Manchuria and northern Korea. Koguryo becomes a buffer against the aggressive nations of China. Two other kingdoms developed, Silla (founded in 57 B.C.) in the south eastern corner of the peninsula, and Paekche (founded in 18 B.C.) in the south-western part of the peninsula. They become known as the “Three Kingdoms” although there was a fourth kingdom known as Kaya (founded in 42 A.D.).

Korea, being a peninsula and surrounded by the great powers of the Orient, has been subject to invasions throughout its history by warring nations from China and Manchuria to the north and from Japan to the east.

Being isolated from the north, Silla was the last kingdom to be influenced by foreign ideas. Due to this isolation, their art and architecture became distinctly Korean.

The cultures of the Three Kingdoms became very refined with an aristocratic society where the aristocrats became leaders. With the development of Silla and Paekche, friction developed between the three kingdoms.

Between 417 and 458 A.D. the Three Kingdoms accept Buddhism and this greatly expands their art and architectural culture. The Buddhist culture later extended to Japan and influences their culture.

With Buddhism the arts of building temples, creating stone Buddha’s, stone pagodas, and stone lanterns flourished. Huge bells are cast which are struck by logs hanging from two chains. Many monks composed and wrote literature in Chinese.

In the 7th century Silla conquered the other kingdoms and the Three Kingdoms are united by Silla except for the part of Koguryo in Manchuria. They are then able to form a nation under one government known as Unified Silla.

Many beautiful temples and shrines are built including Pulguksa Temple and the Sokkuram Buddhist Grotto, a technological as well as a sculptural masterpiece. Buddhist texts were printed with woodblocks. The oldest astronomical observatory in the world was also built in Kyongju, the ancient Silla capital.

The Silla rulers began to fight among each other and in 918 Wang Kon founded the Koryo Dynasty. This was where the name, Korea, was derived. The new laws were patterned after Chinese laws and Confucian and Buddhist beliefs. Buddhism became the official religion. The art of Koryo celadon pottery is developed which continues as an art today.

In the 12th century, Koryo underwent conflicts between the civilian and military structures and later in the 13th century Koryo was invaded several times by the Mongolians from the north. Koryo was also weakened by Japanese pirates.

In 1392 the Koryo Dynasty was taken over by the Choson Dynasty who had a Confucian form of government. The Choson Dynasty was ruled by the Yi family from 1392 to 1910. This was a government which promoted loyalty to their country and respect for parents. Choson founder King Taejo began the construction of Chongmyo Shrine in 1394 when the dynasty moved its capital to Hanyang, now Seoul. King Sejong the Great began his reign in 1418. In the early 1420 King Sejong also gathered many scholars to create a phonetic language which has 11 vowels and 17 consonants to form the Korean written language known as Han’gul. Until then, only a few scholars could read and write using Chinese characters. He also promoted education for all citizens and many scientific developments such as the sun dial and water clocks.

The Japanese attacked Korea in 1592-98 with destruction the of many buildings and the killing of many Koreans. Kobukson, the world’s first ironclad battleships, were built by Admiral Yi Sun-shin, which helped the Koreans prevent Japan from taking over Korea.
The Korean society changed as traders and merchants began to trade with Japan and the West. In the 1800’s the Choson leaders wanted to close Korea to foreigners, while the merchant class wanted to improve their economy and technology to deal with outside trade.

Japan began to grow stronger and in 1895 they defeated China during the Sino-Japanese War. Russia was defeated in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese War. Japan had become the military power in Northeast Asia. Japan annexed Korea as a Japanese colony in 1910.

For 35 years Korea was ruled by Japan. Koreans were not allowed to speak their own language or to learn about their history during this time in an effort to obliterate the Korean culture. Japan plundered land and food. On March 1, 1919 many Koreans were killed or put in prison nationwide as they protested the colonial rule. Koreans remember this day as a symbol of their patriotism. Koreans strove to keep their cultural heritage that we see today in their many historical sites.

On August 15th, 1945 Japan surrendered ending the Pacific War, but 10 days later Korea was divided into North and South Korea. The United States took control of surrendering Japanese soldiers south of the 38th Parallel while the Soviet Union took control of the north. The United Nations called for elections in 1947 but the North Koreans refused.

A communist form of government came into power in North Korea (known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). The United States turned its authority over to South Korea (the Republic of Korea) in 1948 and left a small group of military advisors.

South Korea was invaded by North Korea on June 25th, 1950. The United Nations sent military assistance. The Korean War lasted three years and inflicted terrible damage to Korea before a cease-fire ended the war in 1953. The 4 kilometre-wide area along the Military Demarcation Line which divides North and South Korea has become known as the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone. Over the 49 years since the Korean War there have been continual conflicts along the DMZ.

South Korea continues in its efforts to unify North and South Korea, with President Kim receiving the noble peace prize in 2000 for his efforts.