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Source:  Korea Culture and Information Service


(Prehistoric Times – Gojoseon)

The history of the Korean nation began in Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula when people started settling there 700,000 years ago. Representative historic sites associated with the people of the Paleolithic Age, who used tools made of animal horns and chipped stone tools, include Geomeunmoru Cave in Sangwon, Pyeongannam-do Province; Jeongok-ri in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi-do Province; Seokjang-ri in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do Province; and Durubong Cave in Cheongju, Chungcheongbuk-do Province. The early inhabitants of the peninsula survived by hunting for animals and collecting edible plants in groups.


In Korea, the Neolithic Age began around B.C.8,000. People started farming, cultivating cereals such as millet, and used polished stone tools. They started settling down permanently in places and formed clan societies. One of the most representative features of the Neolithic Age is combpatterned pottery, examples of which have been found all across the Korean Peninsula, including Amsa-dong, Seoul; Namgyeong, Pyeongyang; and Suga-ri, Gimhae.

Hand Axe - This multifunctional tool dates back to the Paleolithic period, it was discovered in Jeongok-ri, Yeoncheon-gun, Gyeonggi-do.

The Bronze Age started around the 10th century BC on the Korean Peninsula and the 15th century BC in Manchuria. Historic sites associated with the Bronze Age are found in Liaoning and Jilin Provinces, China and across the Korean Peninsula. With the development of the Bronze culture, a society emerged in which the head of a clan exercised great influence. The strongest clan leaders started merging many clans into one, and these groups very gradually developed into early states.


The tribes that played a central role in the establishment of Gojoseon, which emerged as the first recognizable state of the Korean people, believed in the King of Heaven and worshipped bears. The two factions jointly upheld Dangun Wanggeom as their chief priest and political leader. Gojoseon fostered an independent culture in Liaoning, China and along the Daedonggang River. By the 3rd century BC, kings such as King Bu and King Jun had become powerful and bequeathed the throne to their sons. They established a solid system of rule, backed by high-ranking retainers and military officers.

Comb-pattern Pottery - This object with a pointy bottom was discovered in Amsa-dong, Seoul, a representative historic site of the Neolithic Age.

Towards the end of the 3rd century, the Qin Dynasty was replaced by the Han Dynasty in China, creating a period of social upheaval. Many people moved southward to Gojoseon. Their leader, Wiman, acceded to the throne in B.C.194 and Gojoseon expanded its territory under his rule. By this time, Gojoseon had adopted iron culture, developed agriculture and various handicrafts, and increased its military strength. It tried to monopolize profit, while serving as an intermediate in the trade between the Korean Peninsula and China, taking advantage of its geographical proximity to China. This led to confrontation between Gojoseon and Han China. Han attacked Gojoseon with a large number of ground and naval forces. Gojoseon defiantly resisted the attack and won a great victory in the early stage of the war, but its capital at Wanggeomseong Fortress fell after a year of war, and Gojoseon collapsed in B.C.108.



The Seven Wonders of the World include sites such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Great Wall of China, and Stonehenge in England among others. However, Korea’s dolmens are no less mysterious. About half of all the dolmens in the world or around 40,000 dolmens are found on the Korea Peninsula.


Diverse artifacts, including human bones, stone objects, and jade and bronze artifacts, have been unearthed from the dolmens, although how such large stones were transported and built at that time still remains a mystery.


In the past, the dolmens in Korea used to be classified into two categories: the northern type (table type), which includes the dolmens located north of the Hangang River, and the southern type (go-table type). However, after go-table dolmens were found north of the Hangang River, and tabletype dolmens were found south of the river, the northern/southern-type appellations were dropped. Meanwhile, other scholars have added new types to this system of classification.

Dolmens are often referred to as tombs, but it is difficult to make this claim with any certainty. Yi Gyu-bo, a great scholar of Goryeo in the 12th century, left the following remarks about dolmens: “People say that the saints put the dolmens there in the olden days. It is indeed a wonderful technique (that enabled men to position such huge rocks in that way).”

Table-type Dolmens in Bugeun-ri, Ganghwa

In the early 20th century, American missionary Horace Grant Underwood claimed that dolmens were not tombs but rather that they were put there for sacrificial rituals offered to the gods of the earth. A Korean folklorist named Son Jin-tae pointed to a folktale in which dolmens were believed to be the houses of witches (Mago halmeoni in local legends).

Dolmen Park in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do

Dolmens are rarely found in China, except for Manchuria, or Japan, yet many thousands of them can be seen across the Korean Peninsula. They were erected over many thousands of years, but this process stopped sometime before Christ. There are many unsolved mysteries surrounding the dolmens, such as the reason for their concentration in such great numbers on the Korean Peninsula in Northeast Asia and their connectivity with those found in Europe or India. UNESCO’s acceptance of the South Korean government’s application for registration of the dolmens in Ganghwa, Hwasun, and Gochang in 2000 as a world cultural heritage attests to the world’s growing interest in their importance in the field of cultural anthropology.


Towards the end of the Gojoseon Period, tribal states came into being one after another in Manchuria and on the Korean Peninsula. Buyeo was established in the plains along the Songhuajiang River in Manchuria and Jilin. The people of Buyeo grew crops and raised livestock, including horses. They also made furs. By the early 1st century AD, they started calling their main leader the King and actively engaged with other countries, even entering into diplomatic relations with China. By the end of the 3rd century, Buyeo had been incorporated into Goguryeo. The people of Buyeo held an annual festival called Yeonggo in December. During the festival, they held a sacrificial rite for heaven, sang and danced together, and released prisoners. 

The Kingdom fell apart during the establishment of the regional confederation, but the factions that founded Goguryeo and Baekje took pride in their status as the inheritors of Buyeo. Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) states that Gojumong, who founded Goguryeo in B.C.37, was originally from Buyeo. Goguryeo prospered greatly in areas close to Baekdusan Mountain and along the Amnokgang (Yalu) River. Right after its foundation, the Kingdom conquered a number of small states in the area and moved its capital to Gungnaeseong (Tonggu) near the Amnok. Through many wars, it drove away the factions loyal to Han Dynasty and expanded its territory as far as Liaodong in the west and to the north of the Korean Peninsula in the east. It became a powerful state, exerting control over Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.

There were also a number of small states, such as Okjeo and Dongye,in present-day Hamgyeong-do Province and the north of Gangwon-do Province along the East Coast of the Korean Peninsula. Located in outlying areas, they did not develop very rapidly. Okjeo offered tributes, such as salt and fish, to Goguryeo. The people of Dongye held a sacrificial rite for heaven called Mucheon in October, building a spirit of collaboration by singing and dancing together. Their specialty products included an archery bow, known as a dangung, and the gwahama (a horse small enough to pass unhindered beneath fruit trees). These two states were also incorporated into Goguryeo.

The area to the south of Gojoseon was occupied by a large group of small states including Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan. Mahan was a confederacy of fifty-four small states (composed of 100,000 households in total) located in present-day Gyeonggi-do, Chungcheong-do, and Jeolla-do Provinces. Byeonhan was located in an area that included present-day Gimhae and Masan. Jinhan was located in an area that included present-day Daegu and Gyeongju. Each of the latter two was composed of 40,000 – 50,000 households. The three mini-states were collectively known as Samhan (Three Han States). The people of Samhan held rites of sacrifice for heaven in May and October. On such occasions, they gathered together to enjoy liquor, food, singing and dancing. 

Along with the spread of iron culture and the development of farming skills, powerful states such as Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla gradually became established in Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula.

Goguryeo was the first of the three Kingdoms to firmly establish itself as a sovereign country. It started expanding its territory in the late 1st century and adopted a system centered on the King by the late 2nd century. By the early 4th century, King Micheon of Goguryeo had driven away factions loyal to Han Dynasty from the Korean Peninsula. 

The Three Kingdoms and Gaya (5th Century AD)

In 372 (the 2nd year of King Sosurim’s reign), Goguryeo adopted Buddhism and announced a code of laws in an effort to establish a proper ruling system. It also established the Taehak, a Confucian educational institute. King Gwanggaeto the Great, a son of King Sosurim, drove away the Khitan, Sushen, Dongbuyeo and expanded his territory into Manchuria. He also captured many of Baekje’s fortresses in the south and helped Silla overcome a crisis by driving away Wako invaders.

Baekje was established in B.C.18 jointly by the people who lived along the Hangang River, people originating from Buyeo and Goguryeo, and migrants from elsewhere. By the mid-3rd century, during the reign of King Goi, the Kingdom had seized complete control over the areas along the Hangang River and established a solid system of political governance by accommodating the advanced culture of China. By the mid-4th century, King Geunchogo occupied Mahan and expanded the territory as far as the south coast of present-day Jeollanam-do Province. Along the northern border, Baekje confronted Goguryeo in a bid to take control of present-day Hwanghae-do Province. It also exerted control over Gaya in the south. At that time, Baekje’s territory included present-day Gyeonggi-do Province, Chungcheong-do Province, Jeolla-do Province, the middle reaches of the Nakdonggang River, Gangwon-do Province, and Hwanghae-do Province.

Stele for Great King Gwanggaeto (Goguryeo; 5th Century)
King Gwanggaeto the Great, the 19th king of Goguryeo, expanded the territory of his Kingdom into Manchuria and the Maritime Provinces of Siberia. In 414, his son King Jangsu set up a stele (6.39m high, 37 tons) in present-day Jian, Jilin Province, China to commemorate his father’s great achievements. The inscription, comprising 1,775 characters, explains how Goguryeo was founded and how it expanded its territory.

Silla originated in Saroguk, one of the mini states of Jinhan. It was established as a Kingdom in B.C.57 by the natives of present-day Gyeongju and people from other regions. Those with the family names Park, Seok, and Kim acceded to the throne in turn. By around the 4th century, the Kingdom occupied most of the areas east of the Nakdonggang River. During the reign of King Naemul, Silla allowed Goguryeo troops to remain within the Kingdom to help drive away Wako invaders. It also adopted Chinese culture and civilization through Goguryeo.

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Gold Crown of Gaya: This crown was unearthed in Goryeong, Gyeongsangbuk-do. It features upright decorations and curved jade pendants.
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A Painting of Hunting Scenes in the Tomb of the Dancers (Goguryeo; 5th Century)
Dynamic hunting activities of the people of Goguryeo (37 BCE-668 CE)

In Byeonhan, located along the lower reaches of the Nakdonggang River, the Gaya Confederation emerged, with Geumgwan Gaya playing a leading role. The confederation developed an iron culture and exerted considerable influence on areas along the Nakdonggang River. Mini states of Gaya started rice farming early on and traded actively with Wa (Japan) and Lelang, taking advantage of locally produced iron and convenient sea routes.

Great Gilt-bronze Incense Burner of Baekje (6th Century)
This precious object has helped researchers broaden their understanding of the production skills, handicrafts, artistic culture, religion, and ideas of Baekje.

Unification of the Three Kingdoms under Silla 

By the 5th century, each of the three Kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla) on the Korean Peninsula was committed to a policy of territorial expansion under a firmly established ruling apparatus centered on the King. In Goguryeo, King Jangsu, a son of King Gwanggaeto, moved the capital to Pyeongyang in 427. He occupied Hanseong (present-day Seoul), the capital of Baekje, and areas along the Hangang River, expanding his territory down to present-day Jungnyeong Pass (Danyang and Yeongju) and Namyang-myeon, Gyeonggi-do Province. Thanks to this territorial expansion, Goguryeo emerged as a power to be reckoned with in Northeast Asia.

Looking at Baekje, the Kingdom moved its capital to Ungjin (present-day Gongju) in 475, after yielding the areas along the Hangang River to Goguryeo. It strived to rebuild its strength to regain the lost territory. King Dongseong confronted Goguryeo by reinforcing the alliance with Silla. King Muryeong reinforced local control in an effort to lay the foundation for prosperity. King Seong, a son of King Muryeong, relocated the Baekje capital to Sabi (presentday Buyeo), strove to reform the ruling system, and regained control over areas along the Hangang River in an alliance with Silla. 

As for Silla, Saroguk changed its name to Silla in the early 6th century, reformed its political system, and reorganized its administrative zones, including the capital, during the reign of King Jijeung. King Jijeung incorporated Usanguk (composed of present-day Ulleungdo and Dokdo) into Unified Silla and Balhae (8th Century) the territory of Silla in 512. King Beopheung stabilized the ruling system by proclaiming laws, setting rules about official robes, and adopting Buddhism as the official state religion. He also incorporated Geumgwan Gaya in a drive to expand the territory. King Jinheung reorganized Hwarangdo into a national organization and expanded the territory considerably. He seized lands along the Hangang River from Baekje, conquered Dae Gaya in Goryeong, wrested areas along the Nakdonggang River, and expanded the territory as far as Hamheung along the East Coast. 

In 612, Sui China, which unified all of mainland China into one state, attacked Goguryeo, mobilizing more than a million troops. General Eulji Mundeok of Goguryeo drowned most of the Chinese invaders in the Salsu (present-day Cheongcheongang River). The Sui Dynasty sustained enormous damage due to the failure of the campaign and fell to the Tang Dynasty in 618. Tang China also attacked Goguryeo several times, but failed at each attempt. 

In the meantime, Baekje frequently attacked Silla. Silla unsuccessfully sought the assistance of Goguryeo, and then invaded in an alliance with Tang China. Silla troops led by Kim Yu-sin defeated an elite force of Baekje troops commanded by Gyebaek in Hwangsanbeol and marched to Sabi, the capital of Baekje. Troops of Tang China invaded Baekje through the estuary of the Geumgang River. Finally, Baekje surrendered to the Silla-Tang forces in 660. 

The Silla-Tang forces then attacked Goguryeo, once the most powerful Kingdom in Northeast Asia. However, Goguryeo had depleted its resources in two large-scale wars against the two dynasties of China, and fell in 668.

Upon conquering Baekje and Goguryeo in alliance with Silla, Tang China attempted to exert control over the entire Korean Peninsula, including Silla. Silla waged a war against Tang, defeated its navy in Gibeolpo near the estuary of the Geumgang River, and drove all of Tang’s forces out of the peninsula, thus accomplishing the important feat of unifying the Korean Peninsula in 676.


Unified Silla and Balhae

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Unified Silla and Balhae (8th Century)

With the unification of the three Kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula in 668, Silla enjoyed a marked expansion of both its territory and population. Unified Silla entered a period of dazzling economic development. It mended fences with Tang China. 

The two countries saw vigorous exchanges between traders, monks, and Confucian scholars. Silla exported gold/silver handiworks and ginseng to Tang and imported books, chinaware, satin silk fabric, clothes, and craftwork products. Goods from Central Asia were introduced to Silla, and traders from that region paid visits to Silla via the Silk Road and sea routes.

Sacred Bell of Great King Seongdeok (Unified Silla; 8th Century). Weighing 18.9 tons, this is the largest bell in the country. It is also called the Emille Bell.
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The Flying Apsaras in the picture on the right displays the exquisite decorative skills of Silla.

The major ports of Silla included Ulsan and Danghangseong (present-day Hwaseong, Gyeonggi-do Province), through which numerous goods from Central and Southern Asia were imported. In the early 9th century, General Jang Bo-go of Silla established a forward base in Cheonghaejin (presentday Wando, Jeollanam-do Province) to deal with the pirate menace and encourage trade with nearby countries including China and Japan. In the meantime, the survivors of the fallen Kingdom of Goguryeo resisted Tang China’s rule. In 698, a group of them led by Dae Jo-yeong, jointly with the Mohe, founded Balhae near present-day Dongmiaoshan in Jilin Province, China. The new Kingdom would eventually confront Silla in the south. 

Balhae started expanding its territory and regained control over most of the former territory of Goguryeo. During the reign of King Mu, Balhae controlled northern Manchuria. King Mun reformed the system of governance and moved the capital to Sanggyeong (present-day Ningan-xian, Heilongjiang Province) in about 755.

The people of Balhae took pride in their Goguryeo inheritance. Letters held in Japan show that the kings of Balhae referred to themselves as the Kings of Goguryeo. Balhae eventually grew so large and strong that the people of Tang China called it Haedong seongguk (“prosperous country in the east”), but it fell in 926 as a result of the devastation caused by an eruption of Baekdusan Mountain and an invasion of the Khitan.


By the late 8th century, Silla had been weakened by an internal struggle for power among the nobility; and, by the 10th century, leaders of powerful local factions, such as Gyeon Hwon and Gungye, had established their own regimes. In 892, Gyeon Hwon established a Kingdom named Later Baekje, with Wansanju as its capital, and gained control of present-day Jeolla-do Province and Chungcheong-do Province. 

In 901, Gungye, a member of the Silla royal family, founded Later Goguryeo, exerting control over present-day Gangwon-do Province and Gyeonggi-do Province. He expanded the territory, reformed the ruling system, and relocated the capital to Cheorwon. He also changed the name of the country to Taebong. Gungye lost popularity among his people while exerting control over local leaders and strengthening his claim to the throne. In 918, he was driven away by Wang Geon, a local leader from Songak. Wang Geon changed the name of the country to Goryeo, announced that the country would inherit Goguryeo, and moved the capital to Songak. Goryeo remained hostile to Later Baekje and adopted a policy of positive engagement with Silla. In 935, Unified Silla was peacefully incorporated into Goryeo. Following a power struggle among leaders in Later Baekje, Gyeon Hwon surrendered to Wang Geon. In 936, Later Baekje fell to Goryeo. Thus, Wang Geon unified the Later Three Kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula. 

Goryeo adopted Confucianism as its political ideology and established an effective education system by founding the Gukjagam (a national higher education institution) and numerous hyanggyo (local private schools). Buddhism also exerted a considerable influence on Goryeo society in general. The Kingdom adopted a more tolerant approach towards the acceptance of other religions, as indicated by the Yeondeunghoe (Lotus Lantern Festival) and Palgwanhoe (Festival of the Eight Vows), rites in which prayers were offered for blessing, based on a syncretic mix of folk religions and Buddhism.

Goryeo engaged in brisk trade with many countries, including Song China. Many traders from Song China, Central Asia, Arabia, Southeast Asia and Japan travelled to Byeongnando, the gateway to the capital, Gaeseong. 

Celadon Prunus Vase with Inlaid Cloud and Crane Design (Goryeo; 12th Century). The jade green celadon ware represents the ceramics of the Goryeo period. The exquisite patterns on these objects were created by inlaying white and black clay into grooves etched on their surface. Inlaid designs such as this are recognized as a unique skill.
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Jikji (Goryeo; 14th Century), the oldest extant text printed with movable metal type
Goryeo (11th Century)

Traders from Song China sold satin, silk and medicinal herbs, while traders from Goryeo sold hemp cloth and ginseng. Gems such as ivory, crystal, amber were imported from Arabia. And, finally, the name ‘Korea’ originated from Goryeo during this period. The Goryeo Kingdom gave birth to a splendid culture. The inlaid designs found on Goryeo jade-green porcelain attest to a unique artistry unparalleled elsewhere in the world at that time. The Tripitaka Koreana (a Korean collection of the Tripitaka, or Buddhist scriptures, carved onto 81,258 wooden printing blocks), which was made during the Goryeo Period, is the essence of Buddhist culture and the pinnacle of achievement of wooden printing block technology. The world’s first metal printing types were also invented during the Goryeo Period. According to the pertinent records, the people of Goryeo invented metal printing types more than 200 years before Johannes Gutenburg in Europe. A book entitled Jikji (Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings) was printed in 1377 with metal printing types, 78 years ahead of its European homologue printed in 1455. Jikji is kept at the National Library of France and was registered as a Memory of the World in 2001. 


War with the Mongols


In the early 13th century, the situation in China changed abruptly. The Mongols conquered the Jin Dynasty of China and expanded their influence into the Korean Peninsula. They invaded Goryeo seven times between 1231 and 1259. In an effort to resist these attacks, Goryeo moved its capital to Ganghwa. Even ordinary people and slaves fought the invaders. In 1259, a peace agreement was signed between the two countries. The Yuan Dynasty of China established by the Mongols accepted Goryeo’s six conditions for peace, including a guarantee of the continued existence of the Goryeo Dynasty and Mongol troops’ immediate withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula. The agreement was a result of Goryeo’s persistent resistance to the Mongols’ plan to bring Goryeo under its direct control. 

Despite the agreement with the Mongols, a group of Goryeo troops continued to fight them, moving their base of operations to Jindo and then to Jejudo. They continued to fight until 1273. Their forty-two-year campaign of resistance against the Mongols, the world’s strongest power at that time, attests to their perseverance and indomitable spirit. However, the national land was devastated and people’s lives were destroyed due to the long years of war. The Mongols destroyed many precious cultural heritages, including the nine-tier pagoda at Hwangnyongsa Temple. 

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