By Tim Lambert
By 4000 BC there were stone age farmers living in Korea. By 1000 BC they had learned to use bronze. By about 300 BC they had learned to use iron to make tools and weapons. At first, Korea was divided into tribes but eventually organized kingdoms emerged. There were 3 of them, Goguryeo in the north and Silla and Baekje in the south. According to legend Silla was founded in 57 BC by Bak Hyeokgeose, Jumong founded Goguryeo in 37 BC and Onjo founded Baekje in 18 BC. In reality, the 3 kingdoms emerged later between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. These 3 kingdoms were heavily influenced by Chinese civilization. By the 4th century, they were highly civilized.
The three kingdoms of Korea fought for supremacy. China tried to defeat the northern kingdom of Goguryeo twice. Both times they were defeated by General Eulji Mundeok. However the Chinese then made an alliance with the Silla kingdom against the other two. The Baekje kingdom was defeated by 660 AD and became part of Silla. Goguryeo followed in 668. Korea was then united under the Silla.
The Silla in Korea (668-935)
Although Korea was united under one monarch it was still largely a tribal society. This was underlined by the existence of the hwabaek. Originally they were a council of tribal leaders. Later they were a council of nobles and they had the power to decide who succeeded to the throne.
Korean society was strictly hierarchical. Most of the population were serfs and even the nobility was divided into ranks. Following the Chinese example, a university was formed where Confucian classics were taught. (You had to be of noble birth to study there). There were also civil service exams following the Chinese model. (Again only those of noble birth could take them).
Buddhism was introduced into Korea in the 4th century AD and soon many Buddhist temples were built.
In the late 8th century AD the Silla kingdom began to break down. There were fights over the succession to the throne. Moreover, local warlords began to break away from the government in the capital, Gyeongju, and formed their own states. One warlord called Wang Geon formed a state called Goryeo in 918. He defeated his rivals and in 935 became ruler of Silla.
The Goryeo in Korea (918-1392)
The Goryeo kingdom was faced with aggressive neighbors. A people called the Jurchens conquered north China and frequently fought the Koreans. Then China fell to the Mongols. They soon turned their attention to Korea and they invaded in 1231. The Korean royal family fled to the island of Ganghwa. The Mongols were unable to take the island but they were able to rampage throughout mainland Korea.
However the Koreans fought back and the Mongols were never able to completely subdue Korea. Finally in 1258 the Korean royal family surrendered. They were allowed to remain as puppet rulers.
In the 13th century the Chinese philosophy called Neo-Confucianism arrived in Korea. This was also an age when exquisite celadon pottery was made. A man named Kim Bu-sik wrote a history of Korea called Samguk sagi, The History of the Three Kingdoms. However the Goryeo dynasty was in decline. In 1392 a General named Yi Seong-gye was ordered to lead an army against the Ming rulers of China. Instead he turned against his own ruler. The general became the new king of Korea.