Korea is a geographic area composed of two sovereign countries, a civilization, and a former state situated on the Korean Peninsula in East Asia. It borders China to the north and west, and Russia to the east, with Mongolia situated farther to the northwest, and Japan to the east. The Korean Peninsula is divided into two separate states, North Korea and South Korea.

According to Samguk Yusa, the history of Korea began with the founding of Gojoseon in 2333 BC by the legendary Dangun. Limited linguistic evidence suggests probable Altaic origins of these people, whose northern Mongolian steppe culture absorbed migration and trade with the peoples of Manchuria and China. The adoption of the Chinese writing system ("Hanja" in Korean) in the 2nd century BC, and Buddhism in the 4th century AD, had profound effects on the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Baekje later passed on a modified version of these cultural advances to Japan.

Since the Goryeo Dynasty, Korea was ruled by a single government and maintained political and cultural independence until the nineteenth century, despite the Mongol invasions of the Goryeo Dynasty in the 13th century and Japanese invasions of the Joseon Dynasty in the 16th century.

In 1377, Korea produced the Jikji, the world's oldest existing document printed with movable metal type.

In the 15th century, the turtle ships were deployed, and King Sejong the Great promulgated the Korean alphabet Hangul to increase literacy among his people who could neither read nor write Hanja (Chinese characters).

During the latter part of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea's isolationist policy earned it the Western nickname the "Hermit Kingdom". By the late 19th century, the country became the object of the colonial designs of Japan and Europe. In 1910, Korea was forcibly annexed by Japan and remained occupied until the end of World War II in August 1945.

In 1945, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed on the surrender and disarming of Japanese troops in Korea; the Soviet Union accepting the surrender of Japanese weaponry north of the 38th parallel and the United States taking the surrender south of it. This minor decision by allied armies soon became the basis for the division of Korea by the two superpowers, exacerbated by their inability to agree on the terms of Korean independence. The two Cold War rivals then established governments sympathetic to their own ideologies, leading to Korea's current division into two political entities: North Korea and South Korea.

Names of Korea

The name "Korea" derives from the Goryeo period of Korean history, which in turn referred to the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo. Merchants of the Middle East called it Cauli (from the Chinese pronunciation), which then came to be spelled Corea and Korea. Korea is now commonly used in English contexts by both North and South Korea.

In the Korean language, Korea as a whole is referred to as Han-guk (abbreviation of Dae Han Min Guk) in South Korea, and Choson in North Korea. "The Land of the Morning Calm" is an English language nickname loosely derived from the hanja characters for Joseon, the name derived from the Joseon Dynasty and the earlier Gojoseon. (Choson and Joseon are two Romanizations of the same name.)


Prehistory and Gojoseon.

Korean Academy of Social Sciences discovered ancient human 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. 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.

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.

Proto-Three Kingdoms

The Proto-Three Kingdoms period, sometimes called the Several States Period, is the time before the rise of the Three Kingdoms of Korea and occurred after the fall of Gojoseon. This time period saw numerous states spring up from the former territories of Gojoseon. Among these states, the largest and most influential were Dongbuyeo and Bukbuyeo. 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.

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.

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.

Samhan refers to the three confederacies of Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan. The Samhan were located in the southern region of the Korean Peninsula. These three confederacies eventually become the foundations, at which Baekje, Silla, and Gaya were established. 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. The term "Samhan" is later used to describe the Three Kingdoms of Korea.

Three Kingdoms of Korea

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. Goguryeo was the most dominant power, Goguryeo reached its zenith in the fifth century, when reign of the Emperor Gwanggaeto and his son, Emperor 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 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.

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 562 AD. 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. Silla crown

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.

North South States Period

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 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.


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 invasion 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. It is due to this treaty that the Korean navy transported Mongol forces in the disastrous invasion of Japan, spawning both the Japanese idea of 'Divine Wind' and starting a cultural animosity between the two that still endures today. 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.

Joseon Dynasty

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. 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, which was developed by Zhu Xi. 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. Between 1592 and 1598, Japan invaded Korea. Toyotomi Hideyoshi led the forces and tried to invade the Asian continent through Korea, but was eventually repelled before even getting through Korea. 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 the Qing Court. During the Joseon dynasty, Koreans brought Roman Catholicism (and other forms of Christianity in Korea followed shortly thereafter) into Korea, at first in secret. Descendant to the Joseon throne, Hutsan Lee was dethroned and exiled out of Korea because of his unorthodox ruling methods.

Korean War

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.

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 a ceasefire agreement at approximately the Military Demarcation Line.

Division of Korea

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. Today, the Korean peninsula remains divided, the Korean Demilitarized Zone being the de facto border between the two states.

Culture of Korea

In ancient Chinese texts, Korea is referred to as "Rivers and Mountains Embroidered on Silk" and "Eastern Nation of Decorum". During the 7th and 8th centuries, the silk road connected Korea to Arabia. In 845, Arab traders wrote, "Beyond China is a land where gold abounds and which is named Silla. The Muslims who have gone there have been charmed by the country and tend to settle there and abandon all idea of leaving."

Korean festivities often showcase vibrant colors, which have been attributed to Mongolian influences: bright red, yellow, and green often mark traditional Korean motifs. These bright colors are sometimes seen in the traditional dress known as hanbok.

One peculiarity of Korean culture is its age reckoning system. Individuals are regarded as one year old when they are born, and their age increments on New Year's Day rather than on the anniversary of their birthday. Thus, one born on December the 31st would be aged two on the day after they were born. Accordingly, a Korean person's stated age will be one or two years more than their age expressed in the Western tradition.


Korean is the official language of both North and South Korea, and (along with Mandarin) of Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in Manchuria area of China. Worldwide, there are up to 80 million speakers of the Korean Language. South Korea has around 50 million speakers while North Korea around 23 million.

Other large groups of Korean speakers are found in the United States (around 0.9 million speakers), China (around 1.8 million speakers), the former Soviet Union (around 350,000), Japan (around 700,000), Canada (100,000), Philippines (70,000) and Australia (150,000). It is estimated that there are around 700,000 people scattered across the world who are able to speak Korean because of job requirements (for example, salespersons or businessmen with Korean contacts), marriages to Koreans or out of pure interest in the language.

The genealogical classification of Korean is debated. Some linguists place it in the Altaic language family; others consider it to be a language isolate. Korean is agglutinative in its morphology and SOV in its syntax. Like Japanese and Vietnamese, Korean has borrowed much vocabulary from the genetically unrelated Chinese or created vocabulary on Chinese models.

Modern Korean is written almost exclusively in the hangul script, which was invented in the 15th century. While hangul may appear logographic, it is actually a phonemic alphabet organized into syllabic blocks. Each block consists of at least two of the 24 hangul letters (jamo): at least one each of the 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Historically, the alphabet had several additional letters (see obsolete jamo). For a phonological description of the letters, see Korean phonology. Hanja (Chinese characters) and Latin alphabets are sometimes included within hangul texts, particularly in South Korea.

Korean Literature

Korean literature written before the end of the Joseon Dynasty is called "Classical" or "Traditional." Literature, written in Chinese characters (hanja), was established at the same time as the Chinese script arrived on the peninsula. Korean scholars were writing poetry in the classical Chinese style as early as the 2nd century BCE, reflecting Korean thoughts and experiences of that time. Classical Korean literature has its roots in traditional folk beliefs and folk tales of the peninsula, strongly influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

Modern literature is often linked with the development of hangul, which helped spread literacy from the aristocracy to the common people and women. Hangul, however, only reached a dominant position in Korean literature in the second half of the 19th century, resulting in a major growth in Korean literature. Sinsoseol, for instance, are novels written in hangul.

The Korean War led to the development of literature centered around the wounds and chaos of war. Much of the post-war literature in South Korea deals with the daily lives of ordinary people, and their struggles with national pain. The collapse of the traditional Korean value system is another common theme of the time.


Confucian tradition has dominated Korean thought, along with contributions by Buddhism, Taoism, and Korean Shamanism. Since the middle of the 20th century, however, Christianity has competed with Buddhism in South Korea, while religious practice has been suppressed in North Korea.

Throughout Korean history and culture, regardless of separation; the influence of traditional beliefs of Korean Shamanism, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism have remained an underlying religion of the Korean people as well as a vital aspect of their culture, all these traditions coexisted peacefully for hundred years to today despite of stronger Westernization from Christian missionary conversions in the South or the pressure from Communism's atheist government in the North.

According to 2005 statistics compiled by the South Korean government, about 46% of citizens profess to follow no particular religion. Christians account for 29.2% of the population (of which are Protestants 18.3% and Catholics 10.9%) and Buddhists 22.8%.

Koreans valued scholarship and rewarded education and study of Chinese classic texts; Yangban boys were highly educated in hanja. In Silla, the bone rank system defined a person's social status, and a similar system persisted through the end of the Joseon Dynasty. In addition, the gwageo civil service examination provided paths of upward mobility.

Islam in South Korea is comprised of about 45,000 in addition to some 100,000 foreign workers from Muslim countries.

Science and Technology


One of the best known artifacts of Korea's history of science and technology is Cheomseongdae, a 9.4-meter high observatory built in 634. It is considered to be one of the world's oldest surviving astronomical observatories.

The world's first metal mechanical movable type printing was developed in Korea in 1234 by Choe Yun-ui during the Goryeo Dynasty, modeled after widespread Chinese clay (Bi Sheng in 1041), several hundred years before Johann Gutenberg developed his metal letterset type (Cumings 1997: 65). Though the block printing was used much earlier, metal movable type printing press marked a significant development in printing allowing the same tools to be used for more diverse printings. The Jikji is the world's earliest remaining movable metal printed book, printed in Korea in 1377.

The world's earliest known surviving example of woodblock printing is the Mugujeonggwang Great Dharani Sutra. It is believed to have been printed in Korea in 750-751 CE which, if correct, would make it older than the Diamond Sutra. Goryeo silk was highly regarded by China, and Korean pottery made with blue-green celadon was of the highest quality in the world and sought after by even Arabian merchants. Goryeo had a bustling economy with a capital that was frequented by merchants from all over the known world.

During the Joseon period the Geobukseon (Turtle Ship) were invented, which were covered by a wooden deck, as well as other weapons such as the Bigyeokjincheolloe and the hwacha.

The Korean alphabet hangul was also invented during this time by Sejong the Great.


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