A History of Ancient Korea

By Tim Lambert

By 4000 BC stone age farmers were 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 a largely 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.