Pre-modern Korea

Korea is one of the great civilizations of Asia, shaped by its position between mainland and sea, as well as Imperial China, pre-modern Japan and the Mongol Empire.


The historical extent of the Korean Goguryeo kingdom reaches far into present day China and Russia

The Korean Peninsula consisted of many competing Korean kingdoms since ancient times. The first centralised state to be founded in the Korean Peninsula was Gojoseon, and while its origins are unclear, historical records have shown that it had become the dominant power in the peninsula by the 4th century B.C. In the 2nd Century B.C., Gojoseon was eventually defeated by the Chinese Han Dynasty, which occupied the northern half of the peninsula until they were driven out by the kingdom of Goguryeo in the 4th century A.D. The unification of the nation is considered to have begun roughly around A.D. 1 when power was consolidated in the Three Kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. Eventually, the nation was unified in the 7th century when the Silla kingdom defeated the other two with the help of Tang China. However, remnants of the Goguryeo kingdom were to later establish a kingdom to the north of Silla in what is now northeast China known as Balhae. The Silla Dynasty was subsequently replaced by the Goryeo Dynasty, from which the English name "Korea" was derived.

The Joseon Dynasty, known as the Korean Empire from 1897 onwards, was founded in 1392 after a coup by Yi Seong-gye, one of Goryeo's generals, and controlled the entire Korean Peninsula for the next 5 centuries. It achieved most of the cultural achievements seen in both Korean nations today, including the creation of the hangul alphabet, although the end also saw an isolationist policy that led to it being called the "Hermit Kingdom". It lasted until Japanese annexation in 1910, which marks the end of pre-modern Korea as covered in this article.

Korea regained its independence again at the end of World War II in 1945, only to be quickly divided between north and south by the new Cold War powers. The ensuing Korean War consolidated and perpetuated the division until this day.



You may be told that Korea's great historical tradition and buildings were demolished firstly by the Japanese during their occupation, and secondly by devastation of the Korean War. Walking through a South Korean city you may think that there is nothing but concrete blocks over the entire country. Nevertheless there is actually a good deal of history to be found throughout the country of South Korea, either as ruins or reconstructions.

Map of Pre-modern Korea



Some parts of Northeast China were once Korean territory, and historical ruins can still be found there today. The kingdom of Goguryeo had its first capitals in the area before later moving to what is today Pyongyang. The area is still home to about 2 million ethnic Koreans, who have been officially recognised as an ethnic minority by the Chinese government. The Korean language is co-official with Mandarin in the areas with significant ethnic Korean communities, and you will see bilingual signs in these areas.

  • 1 Ji'an. Chinese city on the North Korean border with ancient ruins of fortresses and tombs of the Goguryeo kingdom Ji'an (Q1016720) on Wikidata Ji%27an,_Jilin on Wikipedia

North Korea


North Korea does not have as much in terms of historical sites to visit, as a result of lack of funds for this kind of investment and general official disdain for the pre-Communist era. Nevertheless there are destinations of historical importance. Almost all visits to North Korea require a guided tour, with an itinerary set before your travel, so check around to see if your tour group includes the historical sites available.

  • 2 Baekdusan. The highest mountain on the peninsula, interestingly at the border between China and North Korea. Traditionally considered a sacred mountain, Dangun, the legendary founder of the first Korean kingdom is said to have been born here. Today it's also the alleged birthplace of Kim Jong-Il. It is easier to visit from the Chinese side of the border in Changbaishan National Nature Reserve.
  • 3 Complex of Goguryeo Tombs. A site of 30 tombs from the Korean Goguryeo kingdom near the modern city of Nampho.
  • 4 Kaesong. Capital of the Taebong and subsequent Goryeo kingdom, and site of preserved royal tombs that can still be visited today.

South Korea


South Korea has the greatest range of historical sites that are also well maintained and easy to visit. Bear in mind that for the most part much of what you see has a good chance of having been reconstructed in the past 50 years.

  • 5 Jongno. This central area of Seoul is packed with palaces, city gates and museums. When visiting the Gyeongbokgong, the grandest and most important of the palaces, time your visit to coincide with the changing of guards (thrice daily).
  • 6 Gongju. - Original capital of the Baekje Dynasty
  • 7 Buyeo. - Final capital of the Baekje Dynasty before it was conquered by Silla
  • 8 Iksan. An important town of the Baekje kingdom, there are many ancient ruins and relics to be found here
  • 9 Gyeongju. Capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom and filled with burial mounds, museums and artefacts
  • 10 Jinju Fortress. became famous in 1592, when a force of just 3,800 Koreans held off an invading army of 20,000 Japanese. There are many historical sights around the fortress today.
  • 11 Haeinsa Temple (해인사, 海印寺). Home of the Tripitaka Koreana, an inscription of all the Buddhist scriptures on 81,350 wooden printing blocks, housed here since 1398 in the surroundings of the Gayasan National Park
  • 12 Gimhae. A capital of the ancient Gaya kingdom (AD42–532) has many historical ruins and burial mounds from that period
  • 13 Anti-Mongolian Historical Site (제주 항파두리 항몽 유적). A special defence unit of the Goryeo kingdom rebelled against the invading Mongolian army in 1270, and eventually retreated to Jeju Island for a last stand. They held off the Mongolian forces at the fortress here for 2 years before they were all killed.
  • 14 Hahoe and 15 Yangdong. World Heritage listed folk villages from the Joseon dynasty where there is a lot of traditional culture to be showcased.
  • 16 Namhansanseong. Emergency capital of the Joseon dynasty. Namhansanseong (Q562529) on Wikidata Namhansanseong on Wikipedia
  • 17 Hwaseong Fortress. This world heritage listed fortress near Suwon was built by King Jeongjo from 1794 to 1796 to serve it as a military purpose. Its walls are nearly 6 kilometres long, and it houses a collection of over 48 monuments that are preserved and found inside. Hwaseong Fortress (Q482423) on Wikidata Hwaseong Fortress on Wikipedia
  • 18 Jeonju. Has one of the best preserved Joseon-era old towns in South Korea. Jeonju (Q42140) on Wikidata Jeonju on Wikipedia
  • 19 Namyangju. Features the preserved birthplace and tomb of Jeong Yak-yong, who was one of the first Koreans to convert to Catholicism. Another site is the disclosed tomb of Princess Hwahyeop, where the Korean people used cosmetic products during that era. Namyangju (Q42084) on Wikidata Namyangju on Wikipedia

See also

  • Korea - An overview of the modern Korean peninsular region
  • South Korea - The democratic economic powerhouse
  • North Korea - The last bastion of the Cold War
  • Yanbian - An autonomous prefecture in China bordering North Korea, with the world's largest population of ethnic Koreans outside Korea.
  • Korean War - The civil war arising after independence from Japan, with North and South falling under the Soviet and American spheres of influence
  • Korean DMZ - The demilitarized zone separating the two countries
  • Korean language - spoken on the peninsula, and written in its own script, hangeul
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History of Korea