Korean History

Notes for Korea Society Fellowship


Ancient Korea

900 BC-1259 AD

Ko-Chosun (Old Chosun) Period

900 B.C. - 108 B.C.

The Ko-Chosun or Old Chosun kingdom in the northern part of the Korean peninsula became so strong, it threatened the Chinese. The Chinese invaded and destroyed the Ko-Chosun kingdom in 108 B.C.

Buddha lives

563 BC - 483 BC

47% of modern South Koreans follow the teachings of Buddha, an Indian prince. Buddhists look within themselves for truth rather than pray to gods and follow a strict set of guidelines. They try do do away with wordly desires by following the Eightfold Path in search of nirvana.

Confucius Lives

551 BC - 479 BC

Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, influenced Korean culture heavily. He believed that relationships, respect, behavior, and social order were important and found that for the greater good, the people of a nation should function as members of a family. Respect for elders is extremely important, as is education.

The Three Kingdoms

313 - 668

The Koguryo (Goguryo), Paekche (Baekje), and Silla kingdoms rose to drive out the Chinese.
Koguryo: Warriors who drove out Chinese and captured Manchuria
Paekche: Peaceful traders with Japanese culture and traditions
Silla: Conquered Koguryo and Paekche with help of Chinese

Silla Kingdom

668 - 868

The Silla kingdoms conquered the Koguryo and Paekche kingdoms with the help of the Chinese. 200 years of peace and prosperity followed in which traditions such as Buddhism and Confucianism rose.

Koryo Kingdom

935 - 1259

The Koryo kingdom (for which Korea is named) conquered the Silla. They used movable type printing centuries before Gutenberg, produced blue-green pottery, and fended off attacks from Mongols. Internal struggles between the yangban (nobles), Buddhist monks, and military caused power to decline, resulting in conquest by the Mongols in 1259.

Cheju-do Invaded by Mongols


Cheju-do, an island about 50 miles out from the Korean peninsula, was invaded by the Mongols in the 1200's. The Mongols ruled for 100 years, and Mongol culture still separates Cheju-do from contemporary Korean culture. The dialect, customs, and clothing are all slightly different to this day. Cheju-do is a horse-breeding center, as the Mongols fought primarily on horseback, and the island is symbolized by its harabang, or grandfather stones carved from volcanic rock.

Chosun/Yi Dynasty

New land tenure system


General Yi Song-gye confiscated and burned all land registers, turning all farmland into a resource controlled by the Chosun. He then distributed the best and closest lands to his most dedicated subordinates, thus creating a bureaucracy loyal to the Chosun. Lands further away from the capitol were given to support the military, allowing for protection of the outer lands with a bureaucracy in the inner lands. Because landowners had previously been very powerful, this centralized the authority of the Chosun

Chosun dynasty

1392 - 1910

In 1392, General Yi Song-ye seized control over the Koryo, who drove out the Mongols in 1356. General Yi founded the Chosun dynasty. At this time, Korea established tribute status with China, meaning that Korea would give China money in return for military and cultural suport from China.

King Sejong the Great

1418 - 1450

King Sejong the Great created the Korean alphabet, hangul, in 1444. He wanted to free Korea of Chinese dependency and also believed all Koreans should be able to read and write. King Sejong had a group of experts create a phonetic alphabet. Hangul has 24 letters that represent sounds in the Korean language, making it much easier to learn to read and write than the complex system of characters used by the Chinese. South Korea today has a 98% literacy rate, and Hangul day is celebrated on October 9 of each year.

Japanese Invasion

1592 - 1598

The Japanese invaded Korea in 1592 with a powerful army. Admiral Yi Sunsin bolstered Korea's navy by covering his ships with iron plates, thus inventing the world's first iron-clad ships (called "turtle ships" by the Koreans). This fleet of ships cut off Japanese supplies and soldiers from landing in Korea.

Hermit Kingdom

1640 - 1800

After an invasion by Manchuria, the Chosun isolated the Korean peninsula from the world and banned all foreigners but the Chinese. In the 1630's, the Manchus were able to occupy seats of Korean government, and the king became more of a traditional role than an authoritative one. In 1640, the Chosun closed Korea to foreign trade with exception of China in an effort to preserve Korean culture.

Christians Arrive in Korea


49% of modern South Koreans are Christians. Christian missionaries arrived in Korea in 1794.

Koreans reopen trade


Like Japan, Korean isolation left the country without knowledge of many huge historical changes going on elsewhere in the world, such as the Enlightenment and the Age of Exploration. The Japanese reopened their ports in 1854 with the arrival of American Commodore Matthew Perry, and in 1866, the French tried to force a reopening of Korean ports. The French failed, as would the Americans in 1871, but the Japanese reopened trade with the Koreans in February 1876.

Wars for Control of Korea

1895 - 1905

The outcomes of both the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War were the rise of Japan in the East Asian political landscape. The modernization brought about by the Meiji restoration allowed the Japanese to wrestle control of East Asia from China and Russia and put that power in Japanese hands. The end of the Russo-Japanese War resulted in Japanese control over Korea.
Sino-Japanese War: Japan defeats China
Russo-Japanese War: Japan defeats Russia, forcing Korea to accept a protectorate treaty allowing Japan to control Korean foreign relations, police, army, and banks.

Japanese Occupation

The Japanese formally annexed Korea in 1910 and did not leave until 1945.

Modern Korea


Korea is divided

1945 - 2013

The Allies forced Japan out of Korea and divided it into North and South Korea. While the division was intended as a temporary solution to ease Korea back into independence, Korea remains divided today.

Territorial Disputes after WWII

1945 - 1947

The Japanese surrendered after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, ending WWII in Asia. The Soviets quickly gained a foothold in Korea north of the 38th parallel while US troops secured the southern end while sending the Japanese home. For two years, the USA and USSR tried to solve the territorial divison, eventually submitting the issue to the United Nations.

South Korea holds first elections

May 1948 - July 1948

South Korea elected a National Assembly in May, which drafted a constitution. The National Assembly elected Yi Sung-man (Syngman Rhee) as South Korea's first president in July.

Republic of Korea created

August 14, 1948

The Republic of Korea declares itself a sovereign state three years to the day that Korea had been liberated from the Japanese.

North Korea established

September 9, 1948

The Soviet Union established a communist government in North Korea less than a month after the Republic of Korea declared itself a sovereign nation.

USSR and US Troops Withdraw from Korea


Korean War

June 25, 1950 - 1953

North Korea invaded South Korea in hopes of reunifying the peninsula under a communist banner. Kim Il-Sung, a leader put in place by the Soviets, led the North against the smaller, less trained South Korean army. Troops from the United Nations came to aid the South, agreeing to provide "police action" since the North was the aggressor. The motion passed because the Soviet member of the security council was not there to vote against it.
The Chinese aided the North. War raged for three years, and although fighting is over, a peace agreement was never signed.

Political Unrest in South Korea

1960 - 1963

After the Korean War, many South Koreans were killed, wounded, or left homeless. The government grew weak and corrupt, and protests forced President Syngman Rhee out of office. The new president, Yun Po-Sun, and his prime minister, Chang Myon, struggled to control the unrest, and in 1961, General Park Chung-hee staged a coup that began 31 years of military rule. In 1963, General Park resigned from the military and was elected president.

President Park

1963 - 1979

President Park was a repressive leader, but he managed to bring back the South Korean economy from devastation. He was re-elected twice (in 1967 and 1971). He survived one assassination attempt (which killed his wife) but was ultimately assassinated in 1979.

Park's economic policies inlcuded five year plans to improve industry. First he focused on rebuilding the nation's roads, power plants, schools, homes, factories, etc. He then focused on building new factories and centers for research and development. Park's government also loaned money to South Koreans interested in developing businesses, as the nation's strongest resource was its well-educated and hardworking people. Businesses called chaebol, meaning family run corportations made up of smaller companies, were also leant money.

Military Dictatorship in South Korea

1979 - 1987

Chun Doo-hwan, a major general in the South Korean army, succeeded Park as president in 1981. In 1987, Chun Doo-hwan left office as students began to demand democratic elections.

Democracy in South Korea

1987 - 2013

In 1987, South Korea elected soldier Roh Tae-woo as president. Single term limits of five years were placed. In 1993, Kim Young Sam was elected as the nation's first civilian president. In 1997, Kim Dae-jung was the first opposition party leader to be elected president and began a 'sunshine party' effort to repair relations with North Korea. He visited North Korea in 2000 and won a Nobel Peace Prize for this work.

Financial Crisis


In the 1990's, four chaebol dominated South Korea's economy, making up nearly half of it. Smaller companies could not compete. When an economic crisis occurred in Asia in 1997, the chaebol were forced to make reforms to save the economy of the country. Chaebol no longer could rely on government favors or run up huge debts. The South Korean government also reformed its banking system. These changes helped South Korea become one of the first Asian countries to recover from the financial crisis.


Modern World Nations: South Korea


Salter, C. L. (2003). South Korea. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House.

South Korea


Harkrader, L. (2004). South Korea. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow.

Countries of the World: South Korea


Jackson, T. (2007). Countries of the world: South Korea. Washington, DC: National Geographic.