Korea’s history dates back to 2333 B.C. This section follows the history of Korea from the prehistoric age to the modern era.
Archaeological findings have indicated that the first settlements on the Korean Peninsula occurred 700,000 years ago.
According to legend, the mythical figure Dan-gun founded Gojoseon, the first Korean Kingdom, in 2333 BCE. Subsequently, several tribes moved from the southern part of Manchuria to the Korean Peninsula.
The Three Kingdoms Period refers to the period from the early 4th to mid-7th centuries CE marked by the struggle of three rival kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla) over territory spanning the Korean Peninsula and part of Northeastern Asia.
An ancient state of the Korean Peninsula, Goguryeo occupied the largest territory among the Three Kingdoms. Founded in 37 BCE by Jumong (later become King Dongmyeong), Goguryeo prospered on a vast area encompassing the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and south-central Manchuria. The kingdom expanded its territory in fierce battles against Chinese kingdoms, but fell to an alliance of Silla and Tang forces in 668 CE.
Silla was originally founded by King Park Hyeokgeose in the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula. The kingdom lasted for 992 years, from 57 BCE to 935 CE It conquered Baekje and Goguryeo, one after the other, by joining forces with the Tang Empire of China. Following the unification of the Three Kingdoms, the Tang Empire was no longer seen as an ally, but an invader. Silla joined forces with the people of Goguryeo and Baekje to drive out Tang forces, and founded the first unified state in the history of Korea in the territory south of the Daedonggang River and Wonsanman.
Baekje (18 BCE – 660 CE) was founded by King Onjo, the son of the king of Goguryeo, in the southwestern part of the Korean Peninsula. The kingdom witnessed the flowering of the elegant and delicate Baekje culture, which in particular influenced Japanese culture. In 660 CE, Baekje was defeated by the coalition troops of Silla and Tang of China.
The Goryeo Dynasty was established in 918 by King Wang Geon. Buddhism became the state religion during this time and greatly influenced politics and culture. Famous items produced during this time include Goryeo celadon and the Daejanggyeongpan, the Tripitaka Koreana (Memory of the World Register). The world's first movable metal type was developed in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty. Jikjisimcheyojeol, a Buddhist scripture printed using the metal type, is at least 78 years older than the first Gutenberg Bible. The Goryeo Dynasty's strength decreased gradually in the latter half of the 14th century and finally perished due to the dynastic revolution.
The Joseon Dynasty was formed at the end of the 14th century. Goryeo General Lee Sung-gye brought down Goryeo to found Joseon, and designated Seoul as the capital. Confucianism became the state ideology and exerted a massive influence over the whole of society. Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, was invented in 1443 during the reign of King Sejong.
In 1876, the Joseon Dynasty was forced by Japan to adopt an open-door policy. Then, in 1910, Japan concluded its annexation of Korea. Koreans suffered under Japanese colonial rule until the end of World War II, with the surrender of Japan in 1945.
Korea was liberated from Japanese colonization on August 15, 1945, but it soon faced the tragic division of North and South along the 38th Parallel. Both regions were placed under temporary military rule by the U.S. and Soviet armies, respectively. On May 10, 1948, with the help of the United Nations, South Korea elected Dr. Rhee Syngman as its first president. On August 15th of the same year, an official declaration announced the birth of the South Korean government. In the north, North Korea formed the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea, led by Kim Il-sung, in February 1946. On September 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was officially founded.
In the early hours of June 25, 1950, North Korea attempted a forcible unification of North and South Korea by crossing the 38th Parallel and invading South Korea. Military help from over 16 nations under the leadership of U.N. Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur helped defend South Korea against the threat of communism. China and the Soviet Union lent their military might to North Korea. The war continued over the next three years until coming to an end on July 27, 1953, with an armistice signed at Panmunjeom, located in the DMZ. Not only did the war ravage the Peninsula, it also heightened hostile feelings between the North and South, making reunification a difficult task.
Beginning in 1954, the Rhee Syngman Government focused on developing an anti-communist politics. In 1960, students forged an anti-government movement, the 4.19 Revolution against the illegitimately pro-longed reign of Rhee Syngman Government, and overturned the government. On July 23, 1960, a new election law was enacted, and Yun Bo-seon was elected president. However, the Yun Bo-seon Government was toppled by a military coup on May 16, 1961.
In 1963, the acting president, Park Chung-hee was officially elected president, and ruled with a controversial iron fist for the next 17 years. President Park Chung-hee's 'Saemaeul Undong' (New Community Movement, an effort to modernize Korea that began in 1970) brought about much progress in South Korea, and the systematic approach to economic development also yielded increased exports and positive returns.
However, as the influence of citizens who were against such extended reign and democratic movements began to increase in power, Park Chung-hee’s reign finally came to an end with his assassination in 1979. Choi Kuy-hah, served as a prime minister in Park’s era, became the next president of South Korea after Park’s death. But, he left office after eight months due to pressure from a political force organized by Chun Doo-hwan and his political partners. In 1980, Chun Doo-hwan came to power and continued to lead the nation with an authoritarian rule, as had been the case with former presidents. In the end, he accepted a constitutional amendment creating a direct presidential election system according to the nation’s desire revealed through the democratic movement and stepped down from politics in 1988 as his last year in the president.
In 1988, the Roh Tae-woo government started off the year on a good note by successfully hosting the 1988 Seoul Olympics. His government went on to join the UN in 1991.
The Kim Young-sam Government, which began in 1993, implemented a new system in which people were required to use their real names when making financial transactions, a much needed reform at the time.
In 1998, Kim Dae-jung was elected president. He threw his efforts into overcoming the IMF financial catastrophe that hit Asia in 1997, and also hosted the 17th FIFA World Cup in 2002. President Kim Dae-jung was also the winner of the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his Sunshine Policy regarding North Korea.
The Roh Moo-hyun Administration, which came into office in 2003, aspired to be a participatory government where public engagement played a key role. Key outcomes of the Roh Administration included a human resources policy targeting young and open-minded people, the liquidation of authoritarianism, and growth of the civil society. The second round summit talks between South and North Korea also took place under his administration.
President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008 as the 17th president. His administration pursued change and pragmatism, and actively undertook the privatization of public corporations and passage of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The administration successfully hosted the G20 Seoul Summit, the Nuclear Security Summit, and other major events.
In North Korea, Kim Jong-il died in December 2011 after 17 years in power. His son Kim Jong-un took power.
Since the signing of a South-North joint communique regarding the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on July 4, 1972, South and North Korea have continued their efforts towards a peaceful coexistence and reunification, including North Korea’s opening of Geumgang Mountain to South Korean tourists in 1998, and the two rounds of South-North summit meetings in 2000 and 2007, respectively.
On February 25, 2013, Park Geun-hye took oath and was inaugurated as the 18th president of Korea. She is the first female president since the establishment of the Korean government. She is also a daughter of the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th president, Park Chung-hee. The Park Geun-hye Government places a top priority on establishment of fair trade as well as political, legislative, and prosecution reform. It also focuses on reducing households’ debt, developing measures to deal with youth unemployment, and improving welfare.
Last updated in July 4th, 2013