Legend has it that the earliest empire of Korea was founded by Dangun, a celestial being. This empire, called the Gojoseon, is said to have been founded in about 2333 BC. While the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, a collection of Korean myths and legends, corroborate the date, the archaeological findings of the Gojoseon Empire have led historians to believe that the empire existed in around 1500 BC. What is certain is that between 800 BC and 300 BC, the Gojoseon Empire was a mighty kingdom in Korea with its capital in Liaoning until about 400 BC, when it moved to Pyongyang. References to the Gojoseon Empire are found in Chinese literature.
In about 300 BC, the Jin Kingdom rose to prominence in the southern parts of Korea. Though no historical records are available from the period, Japanese records of the Yayoi show that the Jin Kingdom was adept in metallurgy. The Jin also seem to have maintained healthy trade ties with the Han Empire in China.
In 108 BC, the Chinese king of the Han Dynasty defeated the Gojoseon Emperor, thus bringing about the fall of the empire. The period that followed is referred to as the Proto-Three Kingdoms Era. This period was characterized by the rise of many small independent states in Korea.
Proto-Three Kingdoms Era
King Jun of Gojoseon fled from his empire in 194 BC following a coup by Wiman Joseon, a Han refugee from China. His grandson, King Ugeo, in turn faced an attack of the Han Dynasty and was forced to abdicate. The Han lords of China established four commanderies in Korea, but these soon fell to the Goguryeo. Several states then replaced the erstwhile empire. Among them, Baekje, Buyeo, Dongye, Goguryeo, and Okjeo became prominent.
Three Kingdom Era
By the beginning of the first century AD most of the small states of the Proto-Three Kingdom Era were absorbed by three states that grew in political and economic clout. The kingdom of Baekje reached the peak of its extent by the fourth century AD. The state encompassed the Mahan states and occupied most of west Korea. The state is known to have had rich cultural and trade exchanges with Japan and south China. The kingdom of Baekje centered on modern day Seoul.
Dongye, Okjeo, and Buyeo were absorbed by the rising state of Goguryeo. Goguryeo was the most powerful of the three states of the Three Kingdom Era. The two kings who brought much pride and renown to the kingdom were Gwanggaeto and Jangsu of the fifth century AD.
Silla, the last of the three kingdoms, was located to the southeast of Korea. Developing in around 200 BC, Silla soon became a dominant power. Although often at war with Goguryeo or Baekje, Silla also had cultural exchanges with the two states. By 667 AD, Silla conquered both Goguryeo and Baekje and became the sole power in Korea. This state formed by Silla upon annexation of the other two kingdoms faced internal revolts. By 935 AD, the Goryeo state emerged under the leadership of King Gyeongsun and defeated Silla to achieve supremacy in the region.
The Goryeo Dynasty ruled Korea from 935 AD until about 1392 AD. By 1231 AD, the Korean Empire faced the onslaught of Mongol attacks by the Yuan Dynasty of China. The Yuan Dynasty was founded by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, the renowned Mongol emperor. From 1231 to around 1350, the Goryeo Dynasty ruled Korea as a vassal state of the Chinese Empire. By 1350, King Gongmin was fairly independent, and dealt with the administration of his country as a sovereign ruler, but the end of the Goryeo Dynasty was near. In 1392, Taejo of Joseon dethroned the Goryeo king and took over the empire, thus founding the Joseon Dynasty.
The Joseon Empire
In 1392, having taken over the empire, Taejo set out to administer a number of reforms for the welfare of the people. With the movement of the capital to Hanyang, modern-day Seoul once again became the center of political power in Korea. During the reign of King Taejo the Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in Seoul.
The empire faced repeated invasions; first Japan and then Manchu attacked and invaded Korea in 1592 and 1620. When King Yeongjo came to power in 1724, he brought the land much stability, but the kingdom again fell into corruption and social vices. The Joseon Kingdom followed a policy of isolation. After 1866, Korea was subject to a wave of colonial invasions by France and by Britain, leading up to an onslaught of Japanese invasions.