Korea has such a long and interesting history. It goes back more than five thousand years. Learning about the history of a country is one of the best ways to get to know about its culture and people. And, I am certain it will help you enjoy Korean dramas and movies even more. Let’s go over Korean history from the beginning of the country to the colonial period. I divide it into seven periods to help you understand.
Gojoseon (고조선) and Other Tribal State Kingdoms
Korean history started from Dangun Joseon in BC 2333. The legend says Dangun is the son of Hwanwoong (son of 솓 heaven) and Woongnyeo (a bear woman). The period has ‘Go’ in its name, which means ‘old,’ in order to distinguish it from the Joseon dynasty later. A few tribal-state kingdoms such as Buyeo, Okjeo, Dongye, and Samhan also started in Korean Peninsula and around Manchuria during this time.
Three Kingdoms Period (삼국시대)
After Gojoeson period, the three kingdoms, Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla, came. Goguryeo started and settled in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria, and the kingdom had the largest territory among the three kingdoms. Jumong (you may have heard of this name from a popular Korean Drama), the founder of Goguryeo, has a legend that his father was a heavenly prince and his mother gave birth to an egg, which Jumong was born from.
Baekje was situated in the southwestern part of the Korean Peninsula, around the current Jeolla-do province and Chungcheong-do province area. Onjo, the founder of Baekje, was the son of Jumong. He left Goguryeo and founded Baekje with his mother Soseono after Jumong picked Yuri, Jumong’s once lost son from another marriage, as a crown prince. Yes, the family feud has a long history.
Silla found its base in the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula, the current Gyeongsang-do area. Silla had its own beginning unrelated to Goguryeo or Baekje. It started as a tribal state and Bahk Hyeokgeose was the first King of the kingdom. He is also said to be born from an egg. We can guess people wanted to believe the founder of a country should be special compared to normal people and that made mythologies throughout Korean history that their kings are related to heaven or born in mysterious ways.
Unified Silla (통일신라) and Balhae (발해)
All three kingdoms had their own heydays and thrived, but, in the end, the final winner was Silla. Silla defeated Baekje and Goguryeo in 660 and 668 respectively and unified all three kingdoms. But It was not a perfect unification. Silla got help from the Dang Dynasty to win the wars against Baekje and Goguryeo, and it had to pay the price to the Dang Dynasty. As the result, Unified Silla’s territory did not cover even the Korean Peninsula.
Dae Joyoung, the founder of Balhae, was a noble of Goguryeo. He established the country with refugees from Goguryeo and Malgal tribes. Balhae was located in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, Manchuria, and part of Russia. Balhae was hostile to Silla since it stood for succeeding Goguryeo.
Later Three Kingdoms (후삼국시대)
Just like other historical kingdoms and dynasties, Unified Silla started waning and two new kingdoms rised. Gyeonhwon, a general of Silla, founded Hubaekje claiming to succeed Baekje. Gungye, a forsaken prince of Silla, founded Taebong and later changed its name to Hugoguryeo claiming to succeed Goguryeo. When Gungye became troubled later due to mental problems, his people overthrew him and crowned Wang Geon, a high noble and Goguryeo descendant. Wang Geon changed the kingdom’s name to Goryeo.
Goryeo Dynasty (고려시대)
Silla kept failing continually and Balhae fell as well. Wang Geon implemented a generous refugee policy for refugees from Balhae. He accepted them and gave them land. Also, he restored their social positions back to what they used to have in Balhae. Balhae’s crown prince was even granted the last name Wang. Silla also surrendered voluntarily to Goryeo after it had a hard time fighting with Hubaekje. As the last part of the unification of the Korean Peninsula, Goryeo had to fight with Hubaekje. It finally defeated Hubaekje thanks to Hubaekje’s internal conflicts between the founder Gyeonhwon and his sons. Gyeonhwon surrendered to Goryeo after he was dethroned by his son, which helped Goryeo to defeat Hubaekje. Remember I told you that family feud has a long?
Goryeo had an imperial system. Kings used emperor titles and ran the country accordingly until it was defeated to the Mongols in 1270. Goryeo could not recover to use emperor titles and system until it was fallen by Yi Seonggye, the founder of Joseon.
Joseon Dynasty (조선시대)
Yi Seonggye, the general of Goryeo, led his successful coup and became the most powerful man in Goryeo. After four years since the coup, he declared a new dynasty (and the last dynasty of Korean history), Joseon, by claiming to succeed Gojoseon and ascended the throne. He moved the capital to Hanyang, Seoul’s old name. Joseon followed a central bureaucracy system instead of feudalism and replaced Gyoreo’s official religion, Buddhism, with Confucianism.
Joseon prospered, especially during the reign of King Sejong. The most well-known achievement of King Sejong would be the creation of Hangul, Korean letters. Also, he encouraged science and supported many scientists. However as the dynasty went through many more reigns, the bureaucracy became corrupted and the Sarim, equivalent to current political parties, was divided and tried to get their own powers rather than to think about the good of the country. Joseon had to endure several wars and power games between nobles and royals until Japan invaded the peninsula and it lost its governance to Japan in 1910.
Korea was under the rule of Japan between 1910 and 1945. Koreans resisted Japan in various ways and many people participated in the independent movement. The Korean Provisional Government was established in Shanghai in 1919 and it could help independent movements with a better system. Korea could be finally independent after Japan lost World War II in 1945.
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