Korean History – The Basics

How have the three dynasties of Korea, its foreign invasions, and Chinese contacts influenced Korea’s historical development?
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

Cheomseongdae is an astronomical observatory in Gyeongju, South Korea. Cheomseongdae means star-gazing tower in Korean. Cheomseongdae is the oldest surviving observatory inv East Asia. It dates to the 7th century to the time of kingdom of Silla, which had its capital in Gyeongju. It is representative of the impressive contributions to world culture and science made by the Korean people throughout their 2000 year history.
Cheomseongdae is an astronomical observatory in Gyeongju, South Korea. Cheomseongdae means star-gazing tower in Korean. Cheomseongdae is the oldest surviving observatory inv East Asia. It dates to the 7th century to the time of kingdom of Silla, which had its capital in Gyeongju. It is representative of the impressive contributions to world culture and science made by the Korean people throughout their 2000 year history. (Gyeongju, South Korea, 2015.)

Basic Korean Geography

 Korea is located on the Korean Peninsula in Northeast Asia. To the northwest, the Amnok River (Yalu River) separates Korea from China and to the northeast, the Duman River (Tumen River) separates Korea from China and Russia. The peninsula is surrounded by the Yellow Sea to the west, the East China Sea and Korea Strait to the south, and the East Sea.

Three and Three

In ancient history, Korea was divided into three kingdoms, the Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla.  These were unified by the Silla kingdom in the late seventh century.  The Silla became the first of three royal dynasties in Korean history, later followed by the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties.

The Three Kingdoms

The three kingdoms of ancient Korea.
The three kingdoms of ancient Korea.

The Three Kingdoms of Korea (Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje) dominated the peninsula and parts of Manchuria at beginning of the 1st century AD. They competed with each other both economically and militarily.

Goguryeo was the most dominant power; it reached its zenith in the 5th century, when reign of the Gwanggaeto the Great and his son, Jangsu expanded territory into almost all of Manchuria (in the north of modern China) and part of inner Mongolia, and took the Seoul region from Baekje.

Founded around modern day Seoul, the southwestern kingdom Baekje expanded far beyond Pyongyang during the peak of its powers in the 4th century. It had absorbed all of the Mahan states and subjugated most of the western Korean peninsula to a centralised government. Baekje acquired Chinese culture and technology through contacts with the Southern Dynasties during the expansion of its territory. Historic evidence suggests that Japanese culture, art, and language was strongly influenced by the kingdom of Baekje and Korea itself.

Although later records claim that Silla, in the southeast, was the oldest of the three kingdoms, it is now believed to have been the last kingdom to develop. By the 2nd century, Silla existed as a large state, occupying and influencing nearby city states. The three kingdoms of Korea often warred with each other and Silla often faced pressure from Baekje and Goguryeo but at various times Silla also allied with Baekje and Goguryeo in order to gain dominance over the peninsula.

Unified Silla (668–935 AD)

 In the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries, Silla’s power gradually extended across the Korean Peninsula. By the 660s, Silla formed an alliance with the Tang Dynasty of China to conquer Baekje and later Goguryeo. After conquering Baekje and Goguryeo, Silla waged the war against the Tang Dynasty of China. In AD 676, Silla won the war with the Tang Dynasty of China and accomplished the unification of the Korean Peninsula.  It was during this time that Confucianism and Buddhism were introduced to Korea, competing and blending with Korean shamanistic traditions like geomancy. 


Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 AD)

The country Goryeo was founded in 918 and replaced Silla as the ruling dynasty of Korea. “Goryeo” is a short form of “Goguryeo” and the source of the English name “Korea”. The dynasty lasted until 1392.

During this period laws were codified, and a civil service system was introduced. Buddhism flourished, and spread throughout the peninsula. The development of celadon ceramics industry, for which Korea is still famous, flourished in 12th and 13th century and was traded along the Silk Road. The publication of Tripitaka Koreana onto 80,000 wooden blocks and the invention of the world’s first movable-metal-type printing press in 13th century attest to Goryeo’s cultural achievements.

The dynasty was threatened by Mongol invasions from the 1230s into the 1270s, but the dynastic line continued to survive under the overlordship of the Yuan dynasty as a semi-autonomous vassal state and compulsory ally of the Yuan for about 80 years.


In 1350s, King Gongmin was free at last to reform a Goryeo government. Gongmin had various problems that needed to be dealt with, which included the removal of pro-Mongol aristocrats and military officials, the question of land holding, and quelling the growing animosity between the Buddhists and Confucian scholars.

Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910 AD)


In 1392, the general Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) with a largely bloodless coup. He named it the Joseon Dynasty.

King Taejo, third king of the Joseon, moved the capital to Hanseong (modern-day Seoul) and built the Gyeongbokgung palace. In 1394 he adopted Confucianism as the country’s official religion, resulting in much loss of power and wealth by the Buddhists. 

Joseon experienced advances in science and culture. King Sejong the Great(1418–50) invented and promoted hangul, the Korean alphabet. The period saw various other cultural and technological advances as well as the dominance of neo-Confucianism over the entire peninsula. Slaves, nobi, are estimated to have accounted for about one third of the population of Joseon Korea with the privileged Yangban making up the hereditary ruling class.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Built in 1395, it is located in modern Seoul, South Korea. The largest of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon dynasty, Gyeongbokgung served as the home of Kings of the Joseon dynasty, the Kings’ households, as well as the government of Joseon. 

Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Gyeongbokgung Palace. (Seoul, South Korea, 2015.)

Gyeongbokgung continued to serve as the main palace of the Joseon dynasty until the premises were destroyed by fire during the Imjin War and abandoned for two centuries. However in the 19th century, all of the palace’s 7,700 rooms were restored. 

Traditionally clad guards at the Gyeongbokgung Palace stand in stark contrast to the modern skyline of Seoul. (Seoul, South Korea, 2015.)

Christianity in Korea

Roman Catholicism was first introduced to Korea during the late Joseon Dynasty period. In 1603, Yi Gwang-jeong, Korean diplomat, returned from Beijing carrying several theological books written by Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China.  He began disseminating the information in the books and the first seeds of Christianity were sown. In 1758 King Yeongjo of Joseon officially outlawed Catholicism as an evil practice.  Joseon nobility saw the new religion as a subversive influence and persecuted its earliest followers in Korea, culminating in the Catholic Persecution of 1866, in which 8000 Catholics across the country were killed, including nine French missionaries.   The opening of Korea to the outside world in the following years brought religious toleration for the remaining Catholics and also introduced Protestantism. 

As of 2014, about 30% of South Korean population identifies as Christian, the largest percentage in Asia outside of the Philippines.

Final years of the Joseon

Between 1592 and 1598, the Japanese invaded Korea. Toyotomi Hideyoshi tried to invade the Asian continent through Korea, but was completely defeated by a Righteous army, Admiral Yi-Sun-sin, and assistance from Ming China.  The war was bloody, however, and Japanese warriors brought back to Japan as war trophies an estimated 100,000–200,000 noses cut from Korean victims.  In the 1620s and 1630s Joseon suffered invasions by the Manchu.

After invasions from Manchuria, Joseon experienced a nearly 200-year period of peace.

However, during the last years of the Joseon Dynasty, Korea’s isolationist policy earned it the name the “Hermit Kingdom,” primarily for protection against Western imperialism before it was forced to open trade beginning an era leading into Japanese imperial rule.


  1. Create a timeline detailing the key dynasties, events, transitions, and innovations in Korean history.  Create a color coded key to denote each of these, and compose a summary that analyzes Korea’s cultural significance – what makes this nation and its history unique?
  2. Plot a one week travel itinerary through South Korea that focuses on historically and culturally significant sites reflecting Korea’s ancient history.  Where will you go?  How will you travel between attractions?  Where will you stay?  What will you eat for each meal?  Be sure to explain why each of your stops is significant enough to be included in your itinerary.
  3. What happens next?  Continue this survey of Korean history into the modern day.  Research and analyze the significant events to compose a history of Korea’s 20th century, beginning with the Japanese Occupation, and continuing through World War II, the partition of Korea, the Korean War, life in North Korea, and the economic, democratic, and cultural resurgence of South Korea in the latter half of the century.  Be certain to highlight key events and figures, along with notable cultural contributions and technological innovations.


In addition to its millennia of history and culture, the Korean peninsula is a naturally beautiful place.  Many of its most striking shrines and historical sites could easily double as nature parks. (Gyeongju, South Korea, 2015.) 

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

A Guided Tour of South Korea is a curated photo essay for use in middle and high school social studies classrooms.  The essay offers a brief, completely non-comprehensive overview of South Korean historical and cultural sites circa 2015 and is meant to present these and related topics in an unconventional way – that is, as if the student were travelling through, wandering, and exploring South Korea on their own.  From the glistening towers of Seoul to the DMZ, from the bustle of downtown to the sanctuary of its Buddhist monasteries – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.