History Files
 

Far East Kingdoms

East Asia

 

Hugoguryeo (Majin / Taebong) (Korea)
AD 901 - 918

Out of the Samhan confederacies of late antiquity Korea, the 'Three Kingdoms' of Baekje, Gaya, and Silla emerged, although not entirely directly in most cases. Despite the fact that they replaced the preceding confederacies rather than evolving directly from each of them, the 'Samhan' term remained in use in regard to them. The Tang Chinese also frequently referred to the collective Korean kingdoms as 'Samhan'. The northern kingdom of Koguryo became a 'Samhan' kingdom too, despite being located outside the former confederacy's territory.

Yang Gil headed up a rebel force during the first days of the 'Later Silla' kingdom, while it was gradually decaying from within. Such groups were not at all unusual by this time. His leading general was Gung Ye, reputedly a son of either King Heonan or King Gyeongmun. Gung Ye increased his own power to the level that he was able to break away and found his own state in the central Korean peninsula after 898. He proclaimed himself king of his territories in 901, thereby founding Goryeo, or what historians know as Hugoguryeo or 'Later Goryeo' to differentiate it from the earlier Koguryo which it possibly hoped to emulate in terms of territory. The term 'Samhan' was appropriated by Hugoguryeo to refer to all of Korea.

Only the presence of the vast territories of Barhae to its north prevented any fuller recreation of the old Koguryo kingdom. Hubaekje similarly prevented it from expanding across the south-western section of the Korean peninsula, giving this period the name 'Later Three Kingdoms' in reference to the earlier three kingdoms period. Its founder renamed his state in 904, from Goryeo to Majin, and then again to Taebong in 911. When Gung Ye was overthrown and replaced in 918 the name Goryeo was restored under this fresh ruling dynasty in a different capital city.

South Korea's flag

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Jane Portal (Matsutaro Shoriki Chair, Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, Museum of Fine Arts Boston), from Pacific northeast Asia in prehistory: hunter-fisher-gatherers, farmers, and sociopolitical elites, C Melvin Aikens (WSU Press, 1992), from Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Volume I: To 1800, Patricia Ebrey & Anne Walthall (Cengage Learning, 2013), from A New History of Korea, Lee Ki-baik (1984, supplied by Michael Welles, but excluding Koguryo), from History Of Korea, Roger Tennant (Routledge, 1996), and from External Links: Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and Academic Kids Encyclopaedia, and History of Manchuria, and Kings of Korea (in Korean), and Korea Information - History (Korean Cultural Center NY), and Enacademic.)

901 - 918

Gung Ye 'Taebong'

Son of a king of Unified Silla. Founded kingdom. Overthrown.

904 - 905

Gung Ye changes the name of his new state from Goryeo (Hugoguryeo to historians) to Majin, and moves his capital in the following year from Songak to the mountainous fortress of Cheorwon (now on the southern side of the border between North Korea and South Korea, and pretty much equidistant between either coast). He also expands his territory into the north of what had been Baekje to make up for the lack of a viable town around Cheorwon.

Map of East Asia AD 915
Later Silla's throne never seemed to be entirely secure, the succession never entirely certain, and the accession of Queen Jinseong in 887 saw a collapse of public order (click or tap on map to view full sized)

911

In searching for a way to unite the people of his new kingdom and draw them away from looking to Silla as the established Korean state, Gung Ye has been delving into Buddhism since 905. Now he renames the kingdom again, to Taebong.

918

Becoming increasingly paranoid in his later years, Gung Ye has already executed one of his wives and two of his three sons (in 915). Now he is overthrown by four of his generals, worried that the king will destroy his own newly-founded state. He is forced to flee the capital and is soon killed, perhaps having been mistaken for a robber.

The generals replace Gung Ye with Wang Geon, the kingdom's prime minister and an aristocratic descendent of a Koguryo clan. The kingdom itself, Taebong, is essentially replaced by a new structure and a new dynasty, the Goryeo dynasty, which relocates in 919 back to Gaegyeong.

Goryeo Dynasty of Hugoguryeo (Koryo) (Korea)
AD 918 - 1392

Korea in the tenth century AD was a troubled place, undergoing stagnation and decay in its single unifying kingdom of Unified Silla and gradually fracturing into rival states. A rebel leader - one of many - during the later days of the Silla kingdom who was known as Yang Gill was overthrown by one of his own generals. General Gung Ye was reputedly a son either of King Heonan or King Gyeongmun of Silla. He increased his own power to the level that he was able to break away and found his own state in the Korean peninsula after 889. He proclaimed himself king of his territories in 901, thereby founding Hugoguryeo in the centre of today's Korean peninsula.

This new kingdom effectively incorporated the northern sections of the modern state of South Korea and, eventually, all of North Korea. Only the presence of the vast territories of Barhae to its north prevented any immediate fuller recreation of the old Koguryo kingdom which had ruled the entire ancient Korean north (which stretched well beyond today's northernmost border). In time though, Goryeo was able to inch towards at least the modern northern Korean border.

The kingdom's founder changed its name twice in quick succession, from Goryeo to Majin in 904, and to Taebong in 911, as he sought a way of uniting his people and former Sillan subjects. Paranoia troubled him towards the end of his life, resulting in unnecessary murders in the royal court. The leading generals soon realised that something had to change, so Gung Ye was overthrown and replaced in 918. The king's prime minister was raised to the throne to found the Goryeo dynasty and to reintroduce the name of Goryeo. An earlier twentieth century translation of the Korean characters which designated this name was Koryo. Gung Ye, though, had mustered popular support for his work in establishing the kingdom and a unified society, and many rebelled against this usurpation. Some groups even defected to the rival Hubaekje kingdom, while Taejo Wang Geon's first act was to reclaim and repopulate the abandoned capital of Koguryo, Pyongyang.

The term 'Samhan' which had been applied to three early first millennium AD confederacies out of which emerged Baekje, Gaya, and Silla was appropriated by the Goryeo kings to refer to all of Korea. As they gradually gained more of what is recognised as being parts of today's Korea, along with territory to the north which was either initially part of Barhae or which later fell to the Khitan, a true single Korea emerged under the command of Goryeo. The names of kings are shown below in their twentieth century forms first, followed by more recently revised interpretations.

South Korea's flag

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Jane Portal (Matsutaro Shoriki Chair, Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa, Museum of Fine Arts Boston), from Pacific northeast Asia in prehistory: hunter-fisher-gatherers, farmers, and sociopolitical elites, C Melvin Aikens (WSU Press, 1992), from Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Volume I: To 1800, Patricia Ebrey & Anne Walthall (Cengage Learning, 2013), from A New History of Korea, Lee Ki-baik (1984, supplied by Michael Welles, but excluding Koguryo), from History Of Korea, Roger Tennant (Routledge, 1996), from Everlasting flower: a history of Korea, K Pratt (Reaktion Books, London, 2006), and from External Links: Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and Academic Kids Encyclopaedia, and History of Manchuria, and Kings of Korea (in Korean), and Korea Information - History (Korean Cultural Center NY), and Enacademic, and Mongol recognition of Goryeo's kingship in the subjugation period (in Korean), and Ancient tomb with murals discovered in north China (Archaeology News Network), and Tomb Murals Show Life of the Khitans (Ancient Origins).)

918 - 943

T'aejo I / Taejo Wang Geon

Former prime minister of Hugoguryeo. Dynasty founder.

926

The steppe nomads of Manchuria and Outer Mongolia have been growing in strength for some time. Tartar tribes have already encroached on Tang China's borders to found several of their own dynasties. Now the Khitan invade Barhae, with the capital at Sanggyeong being taken after a ten day siege.

Map of East Asia AD 927
In 927 a number of the remaining members of Barhae's royalty, military, and general populace founded the independent successor enclave of Later Barhae out of the core of its eastern territories (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Following the kingdom's fall and King Aeje's capture, his son, Crown Prince Dae Gwang-hyeon, leads a swathe of the nobility south into Goryeo. Other nobles are transported by the Khitan into their core territory by the Liao dynasty rulers of China, but sections of the Korean population flee into Goryeo. The Khitan establish the Dongdan kingdom in Barhae's former territory.

927

The army of Hubaekje sacks Silla's capital at Gyeongju. King Gyeongae of Silla is found enjoying a party at the lavish Poseokjeong pavilion near Namsan in Gyeongju. Rather than surrender he commits suicide. Gyeon Hwon of Baekje places Gyeongsun on Silla's throne and returns to his own kingdom.

In the same year, although the Khitan have been attempting to capture and execute members of the Barhae royal family who remain in Dongdan, some of them band together to create an independent enclave which is centred on Holohan fortress in the eastern centre of the former Barhae lands. This independent state is known as Later Barhae

Taejo Wang Geon of Goryeo
Gyeon Hwon of Hubaekje made perhaps his greatest blunder by setting up a new king of Silla instead of annexing the territory - just eight years later it would be handed over without a fight to this man, Taejo Wang Geon of Goryeo

935

Silla's surviving territory is a shadow of its former greatness. Gyeongsun abdicates in favour of Goryeo's King Taejo Wang Geon. Probably to sweeten the deal, Taejo's daughter, Princess Nangrang, marries Gyeongsun and he gains the position of sasim-gwan, the first such holder in Goryeo's new system. Gyeongsun dies in 978, while Silla is fully absorbed into Goryeo.

936

Occupied Dongdan in the north is annexed directly under Liao control, but what had been Barhae's eastern territory apparently remains independent. The people of Barhae are staunch in their opposition to their new Khitan rulers, and numerous revival movements take place during the next century. The first of these, Later Barhae, has already undergone a regime change and is now known as Jeongan.

944 - 945

Hyejong

Son. Endured conspiracies by his brothers.

c.946

The volcanic eruption of Paektu Mountain in Manchuria around this time (give or take a few years) may deal a fatal blow to Jeongan's ambitions to remain independent. This violent 'Volcanic Explosivity Index' Level 7 event briefly alters Manchuria's climate (the event is comparable to the explosion of Thera around 1470 BC which had ended Minoan civilisation). Surviving records indicate mass population movements by Koreans into the Khitan-controlled Liaodong peninsula and into Goryeo.

Paektu Mountain, which exploded around AD 946
Paektu Mountain exploded with tremendous force around AD 946, triggering a regional climate catastrophe which resulted in the Korean population evacuating west and south in large numbers, no doubt weakening Jeongan in the process

946 - 949

Chongjong I / Jeongjong I

Brother. Pushed aside Hyejong's son.

947

Despite having ensured his own succession at the expense of the rightful heir, Hyejong's son, Jeongjong serves to improve the kingdom by building a fortress in Pyongyang and making the citadel and surrounding settlements the state's western capital. His brother and successor is forced to concentrate on unifying the various strands of nobility from each of the conquered Korean kingdoms, mainly through arranging marriages between the houses.

950 - 975

Kwangjong / Gwangjong

Brother and chosen successor (instead of Jeongjong's son).

959 - 960

The death of the Zhou Emperor Shizong sees his six year-old son ascend the throne. The army, which is heading towards the northern border, instantly rebels. The troops select their own commander, Zhao Kuangyin, to be emperor. Zhao turns the army around and marches back towards the capital to found the Song dynasty. His abandonment of the northern border, though, leaves the Khitan and Jurchen unopposed, much to the chagrin of Gwangjong.

He is forced by events to reorganise the kingdom's military forces. They are expanded in number, while twelve new garrisons are added to the northern borders. All of this effort makes it easy to expand the northern borders at the same time, crossing the River Chongchon to the north of Pyongyang and closing in on the River Amrok (Yalu to the Chinese), the modern border of North Korea.

North Korean military parade
Despite being an intensely secretive and sealed state, today's North Korea still guards a great deal of early Korean history and some important ruins which were part of Goryeo and earlier Korean states

976 - 981

Kyongjong / Gyeongjong

Son. Failed to concentrate on the kingdom.

981 - 997

Songjong I / Seongjong I

Cousin & brother-in-law. An able emperor.

986

The destruction of Barhae's reinstated rump state of Jeongan triggers another mass migration of the region's Korean population into Goryeo where they are welcomed with open arms. At least two further restoration attempts take place after this date, one in the eleventh century which is known as Heungyo, and another in 1116 called Daebalhae (information about it seems to be unavailable in English). Nothing lasting is achieved and further Korean migrations take place.

The majority of the Mohe population remains behind to be dominated by the Khitan for two centuries before founding their own Jin dynasty to control China. The loss and subsequent abandonment of Korea's far north territories heralds its southwards compression below the River Amrok and the formation of a Korean peninsula which survives to this day (albeit divided in two).

993

Goryeo has long harboured a natural enmity towards the Khitan and their Liao dynasty thanks to the destruction of Barhae and its subsequent offshoot of Later Barhae. Now the Goryeo-Khitan Wars (which last until 1019) are triggered when Seongjong receives intelligence that they are about to invade the kingdom.

A Khitan mural of musicians
Farmers in Inner Mongolia's autonomous region in 2020 unearthed a series of Khitan murals of the Liao dynasty period, with this one depicting musicians

The first Khitan campaign swarms across the northern countryside, to be met by the much smaller numbers of Goryeo's professionally-trained soldiers. They use a mixture of battlefield tactics, retreats, and guerrilla skirmishes to halt the Khitan advance, making it clear that any furtherance of the invasion is pointless as the casualty rate would be far too high. A peace is obtained through some brilliant negotiation on Goryeo's part, in which it actually gains all of the territory up to the River Amrok as the inheritor and successor of Koguryo and Barhae.

997 - 1009

Mokshong / Mokjong

Son of Gyeongjong. Deposed, exiled, and murdered.

1010 - 1032

Hyongjong I / Hyeonjong I

Grandson of Taejo. Raised by General Gang Jo.

1019

Following a further failed attack in 1010, the Liao now launch a more concerted effort as they attempt to wrest back Goryeo's northern territories. Unfortunately for them, the Battle of Kwiju sees the Khitan forces being subjected to heavy losses by Korean forces which now know how to handle them. The Liao Khitan withdraw without having achieved any of their ambitions. In fact, their losses are heavy enough to dissuade them from ever returning.

1029 - 1030

Dae Yeon-rim, direct descendant of the kings of Barhae, with all of his supporters and subjects, pronounces the creation of an independent restoration state by the name of Heungyo (with limited support from Goryeo itself).

The Liao response sees several of Heungyo's castles captured and destroyed until the only one which remains standing houses Dae Yeon-rim and his immediate forces. The would-be king is betrayed by one of his own commanders, Yang Sang-se, who opens the doors to the Liao. The castle is captured and the restoration attempt is quashed.

Map of East Asia AD 1029
Eleventh century Korea in the south and centre of the peninsula was united under the single rule of Goryeo, but an attempt was made to restore at least part of the lost kingdom of Barhae when a relative of its kings pronounced the state of Heungyo (click or tap on map to view full sized)

1032 - 1035

Tokjong / Deokjong

Son. Fortified northern frontier.

1035 - 1047

Chongjong II / Jeongjong II

Brother. Continued fortification process.

1037

From the start of his reign Jeongjong is intent on continuing the process of fortifying the northern border. The necessity is underlined by an invasion of Goryeo of the northern Khitan tribes, those which are not part of the Liao empire. The invasion is repulsed and the building work continues.

1047 - 1083

Munjong I / Munjong I

Brother. Secured the Amrok & gained River Tumen.

1083

Sunjong

Son. Died suddenly aged 36/37.

1084 - 1095

Sonjong / Seonjong

Brother. Strongly furthered the cause of Buddhism.

1095

Honjong I / Heonjong

Son. Fell ill and surrendered the throne.

1096 - 1105

Sokjong / Sukjong

Uncle.

1104

Having already founded the nation's southern capital at Namgyeong (today's Seoul), Sukjong is now faced with an invasion by the northern Jurchen tribes. His own initial attempts to expel them from Goryeo prove unsuccessful, so he hands command to General Yun Gwan. The general succeeds by forming three main divisions which the Jurchen are unable to oppose. The troops make use of what may be gunpowder-ignited flamethrowers, although detail is lacking, making them amongst the earliest gunpowder weapons to be used anywhere.

Jurchen warrior fights a Chinese warrior
Two warriors locked in combat, one Chinese and one Jurchen in this Jurchen (Jin dynasty) mural

1106 - 1122

Yejong I / Hyejong I

Son. Politically placated the Liao & appeased the Jin.

1114

With the Liao fading as a great regional power and now suffering at the hands of the increasingly assertive Jurchen, they send a request for help to Goryeo. The royal court assures the Liao of its lasting loyalty, while the required aid is denied.

1123 - 1146

Injong I

Son. Accepted Jin vassal status but kept independence.

1127

The siege of Kaifeng begins, heralding the fall of the Northern Song. The city attempts to hold out, offering bribes of silver and riches to the Jurchen who are attacking it, but in time the food runs out and conditions deteriorate. When it falls, thousands are seized and taken north, where they die in captivity. The emperor's brother flees south across the Yangtze to found the Southern Song dynasty, but the Song have been displaced as China's main power by the recently-created Jin dynasty.

Injong himself plays a delicate game of negotiation with the triumphant Jin, eventually accepting vassal status under them but still retaining Goryeo's independence in all but name. Goryeo also provides refuge to several thousand Jurchen who disagree with the Jin domination of their tribes (descendants of Mohe people who had already formed parts of the population of several Korean kingdoms).

1135 - 1136

Despairing at the lack of an anti-Jin policy at home or any apparent desire to set up Goryeo as the dominant regional force, elements within the state now rebel. Myo Cheong is an influential Buddhist monk at the royal court who has been pushing his own more aggressive foreign policy in opposition to the majority of court officials who are happy to be less assertive and play the long game.

Myo Cheong
Myo Cheong, a Buddhist monk who had extensive influence in the royal court took matters into his own hands in 1135 regarding the perceived threat posed by the Jin, rebelling against Goryeo's ruler

1135 - 1136

Myo Cheong

Buddhist monk & rebel. Founded Daewi. Killed by troops.

He and his supporters move to Pyongyang where they declare their own state of Daewi or Taewi (the pronunciation would be unchanged) and find considerable local support. Myo Cheong, though, is soon abandoned by many of his followers and is murdered by his own troops. The rebellion is put down but the generals head towards effective control of the royal court, and therefore the country.

1147 - 1170

Uijong / Euijong

Son. Difficult and often drunk. Deposed.

1170 - 1197

Myongjong / Myeongjong

Brother. Subservient to the generals. Exiled by a general.

1198 - 1205

Sinjong

Brother. Subservient to the generals. Fell ill and abdicated.

1205 - 1211

Huijong / Heuijong

Son. Attempted to remove the most powerful general. Exiled.

1212 - 1213

Kangjong / Gangjong

Son of Myeongjong. Subservient.

1213 - 1259

Kojong I / Gojong I

Son. Subservient until the Mongol invasion.

1217 - 1218

The Mongols first raid into Goryeo, although at this stage their attempts are little more than scouting missions while Chingiz Khan battles against the Jin and focuses on destroying the Qara-Khitaï.

1231 - 1232

The first major Mongol invasion into Goryeo experiences mixed results. Being forced to undertake siege warfare against Goryeo's considerable fortresses proves frustrating, so the main Mongol force bypasses them and lunges south to capture the capital. A slave army destroys both itself and a major Mongol force in a battle of annihilation in central Goryeo, and Gojong is forced to accept (temporary) Mongol suzerainty. His withdrawal to the heavily-defended Ganghwa Island in western Goryeo's Bay of Gyeonggi initiates a fresh attack but this is neutralised.

Mongol warriors
A modern depiction of Mongol warriors in the twelfth century, when Chingiz Khan led them across vast swathes of Asia to encounter and conquer much of what they saw

1235 - 1257

Having heavily attacked the Southern Song and completing the work of destroying the Jin in 1234, the Mongols invade Goryeo for the second time between 1235-1238 with the serious intent of conquering it instead merely of raiding it. Again the Mongols are unable to take Gyeonggi Island, so they burn crops and mass-execute prisoners but to little avail. Goryeo remains unbowed while feigning nominal surrender. Further Mongol invasions take place in 1247, 1253, 1254, 1255, and 1257.

1258

Gojong finally removes the head of the militaristic faction in the royal court and sues for peace with the Mongols. The details essentially result in Goryeo retaining its independence in fact, if not in name, although Goryeo's king must marry a Mongol princess and accept a position of subservience to the Mongols. The Mongols are quietly conceding that Goryeo cannot be conquered and pacified.

1260 - 1269

Wonjong / Weonjong

Son. Mongol vassal. Deposed by Im Yon.

1269

Weonjong is deposed by his brother, Im Yon, who has frequently served the state as an envoy to the Mongol Yuan court in China. Kublai Khan dispatches a force of three thousand men to restore Weonjong, although the fate of Im Yon seems to be unrecorded in the available sources. From this point it gradually becomes apparent within Goryeo that it is the Mongols who hold ultimate authority in the state.

First Mongol invasion of Japan
This illustration of the first Mongol attempt to invade Japan in 1274 shows the Mongol fleet being smashed to pieces by the 'divine wind' which saved the Japanese

1269

Im Yon / Yeongjong

Brother and usurper. Quickly removed.

1269 - 1274

Wonjong / Weonjong

Restored by Kublai Khan. Effectively the last 'emperor'.

1275 - 1308

Ch'unguyol / Chungnyeol

Son. First to be entitled 'wang' ('king'). Mongol vassal.

1294

With the death of Kublai Khan, the Yuan dynasty survives under his successor, but the Mongol empire effectively ceases to exist. There are no further khakhans (great khans), and command of the empire's territory is now permanently divided into four distinct and fully independent kingdoms: the Golden Horde (made up of the Blue Horde and White Horde), the Il-Khanate, Mughulistan, and Yuan China, which incorporates Mongolia and much of southern Siberia, along with governing Tibet through the institution of the Xuanzheng Yuan, and with Goryeo as a tributary state.

1309 - 1314

Ch'ungson / Chungseon

Son (grandson of Kublai Khan). Mongol vassal. Abdicated.

1314 - 1330

Ch'ungsuk / Chungsuk

Son. Mongol vassal. Abdicated in favour of his son.

1330 - 1332

Ch'unghye / Chunghye

Son. Mongol vassal. Mainly licentious. Deposed by the Yuan.

1332 - 1339

Ch'angsuk / Chungsuk

Mongol vassal. Restored by the Yuan. Died.

1340 - 1344

Ch'unghye / Chunghye

Mongol vassal. Quelled coup attempt. Restored. Arrested.

1344 - 1348

Ch'ungmok / Chungmok

Son. Mongol vassal.

1349 - 1351

Ch'unajong / Chungjeong

Brother. Acceded aged 12. Mongol vassal. Deposed.

1340s

The Red Turban Army is created as a result of opposition to the faltering and unpopular Yuan Mongol rulers by the followers of the White Lotus sect of Buddhism. Kuo Tsu-hsing founds the army, named after the red turbans its members wear and the red banners they carry. The rebellion starts slowly, with Yuan officials being assaulted, but it blossoms, although overtures towards Goryeo are repulsed militarily by Chungjeong's generals (the young king himself is little more than a puppet in the royal court).

Red Turban warrior fighting a Mongol
A Mongol warrior defends himself against a Red Turban Army warrior of Goryeo, with his characteristic red headband

1351 - 1374

Kongmin / Gongmin / Buyantumur

Son of Chungsuk. Assassinated.

1372/1373

Yuan Khan Ayushiridara asks Gongmin (Buyantumur or Buyan Temur, his Mongolian name) for assistance in the fight against the Ming. As a former Mongol vassal, he is acclaimed as a fellow descendant of Chingiz Khan, and will therefore be happy to work together with the Yuan in their current reduced state. However, Gongmin's reforms have already cut many ties with the Yuan in favour of the Ming, and not only does he refuse to help, he actively pursues a policy of reconquering territory which had been annexed by the Great Khans in the 1270s.

1374

The pro-Mongol faction at court, which is led by Yin In-im, kills Gongmin. Immediately, they send envoys to the Mongols at Liaoyang, and Khan Ayushiridara quickly recognises the legitimacy of the king's successor, the young Sin U, despite the boy being a puppet of Yin In-im. Even so, when Ayushiridara repeats his request for military assistance, the Korean court declines.

1374 - 1389

Sin U

Son. Crowned aged 11 by court official, Yi In-im. Puppet.

1388

The court's pro-Mongol faction reigns supreme. King U is coaxed into taking action against the Ming, so he takes the extraordinary step not only of offering support to the Yuan but planning an invasion of Ming territory in China itself.

The Ming have already crossed the River Amrok to establish a foothold in the northern territories, but when a Korean army under General Yi Seong-gye catches sight of them - and more especially the sheer number of troops there - the general turns around and heads back to the capital. He deposes King U and takes command of the throne. The king's son is placed on the throne as a puppet. Both are killed using poison a year later.

Hongwu emperor
The Hongwu emperor (also known by his posthumous temple name, Tàizǔ) came to power amid violence, and his Ming dynasty reign remained fragile in its early years

1389

Sinch'ang / Chang

Son. Acceded aged 8. Puppet. Assassinated.

1389 - 1392

Kongyang / Gongyang

Direct descendant of Sinjong (1198). Puppet. Assassinated.

1392

With the Mongols defeated in China, and Goryeo's pro-Mongol faction also defeated, Goryeo's ruling dynasty has been living on borrowed time. General Yi Seong-gye has dominated the government and the throne since his rebellion in 1388. Now he removes the last major supporter of Goryeo's kings and then removes the last Goryeo king too. He takes full control as the first king of the Joseon dynasty.

Yi / Joseon (Chosun) Dynasty of Goryeo (Korea)
AD 1392 - 1910

Tenth century AD Korea had been a troubled place. The Unified Silla state was gradually fracturing into rival states, which spawned a central Korean peninsula kingdom by the name of Hugoguryeo. This new kingdom effectively incorporated the northern sections of modern South Korea and, eventually, all of North Korea. Only Barhae to its north prevented any immediate fuller recreation of the old Koguryo kingdom. Once that had fallen, the new state was able to expand in steps towards today's River Amrok border.

The kingdom had its name changed three times between 904 and 918, finally settling on Goryeo following a regime change. It became the only surviving Korean kingdom in 936, having fully unified the south, and while supporting a small Barhae restoration state in the north called Later Barhae. That state was eventually overrun, in 986, but Goryeo provided limited support to at least one more such revival, called Heungyo before it was confirmed as the sole remaining Korean kingdom. Then it had to weather a storm of attacks by the Khitan dynasty of Liao and the Jurchen dynasty of Jin (resurrecting an old Korean use of Jin). The coming of the Mongols presented a much more serious obstacle to independence however. In the end, vassal status was probably the only way of preserving any autonomy, but the rifts this caused in the royal court eventually spelled the end of the Goryeo dynasty.

It was General Yi Seong-gye who took action to end the rift. He deposed one king, controlled two others, defeated the court's pro-Mongol faction, and then pronounced the formation of his own dynasty. He established his capital at Hanyang (modern Seoul), with both he and his successors redistributing land which had been concentrated in the hands of a few high-ranking bureaucrats. In a break with the past he made neo-Confucianism the state religion, replacing Buddhism. The Joseon dynasty name was selected in tribute to Korea's earliest-known (and semi-legendary) organised state, Old Chosen. The 'Yi' name is used less often in reference material, but is taken from the general's family or clan name and therefore represents the ruling house.

The Yi or Joseon dynasty (Chosun in older works) serves as a symbol of Korean submission to Chinese hegemony - a direct opposite of Korea's 'Three Kingdoms' period in which Koguryo, Baekje, and Silla (plus their early historical antecedent of Wiman Choson) resisted Chinese domination. Relationships with China were now structured by the ritual of the Ming tributary system. By acknowledging Korea's ritual subordination Joseon's founder solved, for the most part, the problem posed by the constant Chinese military threat while legitimating his own rule. However, Joseon subordination later created a psychological problem for twentieth century Korean nationalists who saw it as being shamefully subservient in light of their own fight against Japanese Annexation and the subsequent division of Korea in 1953.

Joseon's kings had temple names which ended in 'jo' or 'jong'. 'Jo' was given to the first kings of new branches of the royal family within the dynasty, with the dynasty's founder having the special name, 'taejo', meaning 'great progenitor'. 'Jong' was given to all other kings, although two were so disgraced in the eyes of later official historians that they were deprived of their temple names after their reigns had ended (Yeonsangun and Gwanghaegun). The names of kings are shown below in their twentieth century forms first, followed by more recently revised interpretations.

South Korea's flag

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, from Pre-Modern East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Volume I: To 1800, Patricia Ebrey & Anne Walthall (Cengage Learning, 2013), from A New History of Korea, Lee Ki-baik (1984, supplied by Michael Welles, but excluding Koguryo), from History Of Korea, Roger Tennant (Routledge, 1996), from Everlasting flower: a history of Korea, K Pratt (Reaktion Books, London, 2006), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and History Extra, and The Koguryo Controversy, National Identity, and Sino-Korean Relations Today, Peter Hays Gries (available as a PDF via ResearchGate), and Academic Kids Encyclopaedia, and 'On this day' by @historycentric (Instagram), and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and History of Manchuria, and Kings of Korea (in Korean), and Korea Information - History (Korean Cultural Center NY), and Enacademic.)

1392 - 1398

T'aejo II / Taejo

Former Gen Yi Seong-gye of Goryeo. Abdicated. Died 1408.

1398

Immediately following the death of his second wife, the queen, Taejo's bickering sons conspire to outdo each other in seeking out the king's favour and the right to succeed him. Jeong Do-jeon actively conspires to pre-emptively kill Grand Prince Yi Bang-won and his brothers in order to secure his own position at court.

King Taejo of Joseon
General Yi Seong-gye of Goryeo rebelled against his king after being sent to fight the massed Ming army and declining, and it was not long before he felled Goryeo's waning dynasty to replace it with his own Joseon dynasty

Yi Bang-won beats him to it, raiding the royal palace and killing him, his followers, and two of the late queen's other sons. This event is known as the 'First Strife of Princes'. The exhausted and dismayed king abdicates the throne and hands it to another son, Yi Bang-gwa, to be crowned as King Jeongjong.

1398 - 1400

Chongjong III / Jeongjong III

Son. Abdicated in favour of Yi Bang-won.

1401 - 1418

T'aejong / Taejong

Brother (Yi Bang-won). Abdicated. Still powerful. Died 1422.

1418 - 1450

Sejong the Great

Son. Declined in later years.

1419

Recent events have involved various incidents being initiated by Japanese pirates - wokou - who are based on Tsushima Island, midway between Korea and Japan (and still a bone of contention to this day). The latest concerns a wakou raid on Ming China which has stopped off along the way to raid two Korean counties. Sejong arranges a retaliatory raid on the island but Taejong, still involved in court affairs as the king's military advisor, favours stronger tactics. He goes so far as to declare war on the island, claiming it for Joseon.

Known as the Ōei Invasion by Japanese historians based on the imperial period, and the Gihae Expedition to Koreans, it achieves its objectives. Several hundred pirate boats and villages are burned, and pirates are killed, although the Korean forces suffer similar casualty rates. Joseon withdraws its claim on the island, and better relations are established between the two.

1433

Sejong orders General Kim Jongseo north to attack the post-Jin dynasty Jurchen, reduced in power following their crushing defeat at the hands of the Mongols. The subsequent campaign captures several forts, expanding Joseon's territory some four hundred kilometres further north to the line of the River Songhua (just inside the border of today's Heilongjiang Province in north-eastern China).

Wokou pirates
Wokou pirates operated without restriction for a time in the early fifteenth century, until Joseon was able to pin them back quite substantially for a time

1450 - 1452

Munjong II

Son. Regent from 1442. Died of disease.

1452 - 1455

Tanjong / Danjong

Son. Throne usurped by uncle. Exiled and killed.

1456 - 1468

Sejo

Uncle. Usurper, but an able ruler.

1468 - 1469

Yejong II

Son. Acceded aged 18. Died aged 20. Son did not inherit.

1468 - 1469

Geonghui / Geonghee

Mother, dowager queen, & regent. Power behind throne.

1470 - 1494

Songjong II / Seongjong II

Nephew of Yejong. Acceded aged 12.

1470 - 1477

Geonghui / Geonghee

Grandmother. Resumed controlling position. Died 1483.

1491

Seongjong orders several campaigns to be conducted against the Jurchen. Despite Joseon's territory having reached the River Songhua in today's Heilongjiang Province of north-eastern China, there is still a Jurchen presence around the River Amrok area. This campaign pushes those Jurchen who are led by Udige to the north of the river.

1494 - 1506

Yonsan Gun / Yeonsangun

Son. Able administrator & tyrant. Deposed. Exiled. Died.

1506

Although an able administrator in his early years, Yeonsangun also exhibits dangerous signs of instability when he kills a tutor. He goes on to slaughter many others who oppose him until leading figures in the royal court organise a coup to dethrone him. He is sent into exile and dies soon afterwards.

1506 - 1544

Chungjong / Jungjong

Half-brother. Struggled to throw off coup leaders' power.

1506

Yeonsangun's replacement - Jungjong - is generally dominated by the coup leaders, while Joseon's outer defences gradually weaken through inattention. Jurchen raids in the north become the norm, and wokou piracy flares up again. The next two kings are also largely ineffective, while Seonjo even reduces the armed forces, sure that this long period of peace will continue.

King Seonjo of Joseon
King Seonjo of Joseon was convinced that the long peace in his kingdom would continue, so the army was reduced in size and savings were made

1544 - 1545

Injong II

Son. Often ill. Died after a year on the throne.

1546 - 1567

Myonjong / Myeongjong

Brother. Acceded aged 12.

1546 - 1565

Munjeong

Mother, dowager queen, regent, & true power. Died.

1567 - 1608

Sonjo / Seonjo

Half-nephew. Distracted by opposing political opinions.

1592 - 1598

Japan invades Korea in 1592 but is pushed back and stalled by 1596 (the Imjin Disturbance) and again in 1598 (the Chongyu War). Toyotomi Hideyoshi dies on 18 September 1598, and the Council of Five Elders keeps it a secret until they can withdraw the army from Korea. The dream of invading China is over, and Toyotomi's son, the infant Toyotomi Hideyori now faces the threat posed by the powerful Tokugawa Ieyasu.

(Note that it is three years after this latter event - in 1601 - which provides the setting for the popular Korean-language Netflix zombie series of 2019-2021, Kingdom. The Imjin War against Japan is specifically mentioned as the initial reason for raising a temporary 'crop' of zombies!)

1609 - 1623

Kwan Naegun / Gwanghaegun

Son and nominal ruler before 1609. Deposed. Died in 1641.

1619

Gwanghaegun's attempts to strike a balance in relations between the equally powerful Ming and the Manchu stumble and fall, with the Battle of Sarhū being the final straw. Having annoyed both sides with his attempts at appeasement he is forced into sending ten thousand troops to aid the Ming, but the battle is an overwhelming Manchu victory. Gwanghaegun negotiates an independent peace with the Manchu.

1623

Gwanghaegun is dethroned in a night-time coup which is launched by the pro-Ming faction at court, providing echoes of the unstable political situation which had brought down the Goryeo dynasty. This blind adherence to the failing Ming cause results in two major Manchu invasions of the kingdom and an attempted coup in 1624.

Manchu invasion of Korea
A long peace with the Manchu and their Jurchen predecessors was broken in the 1600s, with a weakened Joseon riven by factional in-fighting as two major schools of thought (and several sub-groups) struggled to control foreign policy

1623 - 1649

Injo

Grandson of Seonjo. Puppet of the pro-Ming camp.

1624

Prince Heungan

Proclaimed by coup leader, Yi Gwal. Removed.

1627

The 'Later Jin Invasion' of Joseon is led by Prince Amin of the Later Jin, with the invasion spurred on by continued fighting against the Ming and by survivors of the coup attempt of 1624 having fled to the Jin court. Three months of fighting follow, with the Later Jin establishing Joseon as a submissive state (but not a vassal until an attempt in 1636).

1636

It is the attempt by the newly-established Qin dynasty Manchu to alter their relationship with the submissive Joseon into a fully-fledged vassal status for the Korean kingdom which triggers the 'Qin Invasion'. Continued, and not so secret, Korean support for the Ming fans the flames.

Khan Hong Taiji first tests his warriors in a raid on the Ming capital, where they are able to get as close as the Marco Polo bridge before being repelled. This proves the weakness of Ming defences. Then in the late autumn he sends a sizeable force into Joseon. Despite its forts generally holding up well to siege warfare, Taiji's numbers are overwhelming and highly manoeuvrable. King Injo is forced to surrender and kowtow in submission.

1644

Pei-ching (Beijing) is occupied by rebels, the Ming emperor commits suicide, and the rebels are thrown out by the Manchu. A Manchu Qin dynasty occupation begins in the north of China, while an independent remnant of the Ming survive in the south as the Southern Ming. With the Ming removed as a distraction, relations between the Qin and Joseon begin to noticeably improve.

Ming empire troops
With the troops of the Ming empire defeated, the Ming were forced to withdraw to southern and central China while the Manchu claimed the north and prepared to complete their conquest

1650 - 1659

Hyojong

Son. Qin vassal. Expanded military.

1653 - 1666

Hendrick Hamel and thirty-five shipmates survive the destruction of their Dutch trading vessel during a storm. Following almost a year in imprisonment on southern Jodeon's Jeju Island they are transported to the capital. Until 1657 they are given freedom to roam within the kingdom's borders but in return are reputedly required to construct the country's first muskets. Several of them - Hamel included - escape to the Dutch trade mission at Nagasaki in 1666.

1654 - 1658

Joseon's new, expanded army - created with the intention of attacking the Qin - is instead put to use in aiding the Qin to defeat a Russian expedition to the far north. The Russians are defeated at the Battle of Hutong (today's Yilan in far north-western China). A second Russian expedition into Qin lands in 1658 is similarly ejected by combined Qin and Joseon forces.

1660 - 1675

Hyonjong II / Hyeonjong

Son. Qin vassal. Continued military expansion.

1675 - 1720

Sukchong / Sukjong

Son. Qin vassal. Successfully navigated political tensions.

1720 - 1724

Kyonjong / Gyeongjong

Son. Qin vassal. Suffered from weak health. Died with no heir.

1725 - 1776

Yongjo / Yeongjo

Brother. Qin vassal. Pushed through much-needed reforms.

1758

The Catholic Church is beginning to make inroads into converting the Confucian Koreans to Catholicism, especially in two of the central provinces. Yeongjo takes steps to prevent this by outlawing the religion, classifying it as an evil religion.

War of the Austrian Succession
Catholic missionaries roamed Korea in search of converts, having come from a Europe which was rife with warfare conducted to a largely unspoken rulebook in which borders and allegiences changed regularly

1777 - 1800

Chongjo / Jeongjo

Grandson & vassal. Kings here on are posthumous emperors.

1801 - 1834

Sunjo

Son. Acceded aged 10. Qin vassal. Died aged 44.

1801 - 1805

Jeongsun

Step-great-grandmother, dowager queen, & regent. Died.

1834 - 1849

Honjong II / Heonjong

Grandson of Sunjo. Acceded aged 7. Qin vassal. Died aged 21.

1834 - 1841

Sunwon

Grandmother, dowager queen, & regent.

1849 - 1864

Ch'oljong / Cheoljong

Second cousin. Qin vassal. Died without an heir aged 34.

1849 - 1852

Sunwon

Grandmother, dowager queen, & returning regent. Died.

1864 - 1907

Kojong II / Gojong II

Jap vassal (1904). Emperor. Forced abdication. Died 1919.

1864 - 1873

Sinjeong

Grandmother, dowager queen, & regent until majority.

1894 - 1895

With the Qin rapidly losing the age-old Chinese influence in Korea to a newly-resurgent Japan, tensions are high. A decade of peace between the two over Korea comes to an end when the pro-Japanese Korean leader of the 1884 coup, Kim Ok-kyun, is lured to Shanghai and is assassinated. Japanese public opinion is outraged by the subsequent treatment of his body. The peasant-led Tonghak Uprising breaks out in Korea in the same year, and Chinese attempts to reinforce the Korean king are met with military opposition by Japan.

The First Sino-Japanese War is triggered. Japan's modern military forces entirely outmatch the more numerous but outdated forces of China. By March 1895 the Japanese have successfully invaded Shandong Province and Manchuria as a whole, and have fortified posts which command the sea approaches to Beijing. China sues for peace. In the Treaty of Shimonoseki, China recognises the independence of Korea and cedes to Japan the island of Taiwan, the adjoining Pescadores, and the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria.

Empress Myeongseong of Joseon
Joseon's Empress Myeongseong, wife of King Gojong, was assassinated in 1895, removing what the Japanese had seen as a major obstacle to increasng their control over Korea

In October of the same year (1895), Empress Myeongseong is assassinated. She had been seen as a major obstacle against the expansion of Emperor Mutsuhito's Meiji era Japanese empire, having long rejected contact with Japan and even favouring alliance with Russia in order to curb Japanese ambitions. The assassination is carried out by a squad of samurai who break into the palace, and Gojong and the crown prince flee the court to seek Russian protection, largely until 1905.

1897

Gojong is persuaded and pressured to return to Deoksugung, the royal palace in Seol, to pronounce the formation of the empire of Korea. The name Joseon is replaced by this new title, while some of Joseon's later kings - from Jeongjo onwards - are posthumously raised to the rank of emperor. The declaration also has the effect of formally breaking obligations with the Qin Chinese, its initial intended purpose.

1904

Japan occupies large areas of Korea during the Russo-Japanese War, with the result that a protectorate is formed to oversee these areas. Japanese resident-generals are appointed to 'manage' the country with the Korean emperor remaining in charge in name only.

1907

Gojong sends delegates to the Hague Peace Conference (the Hague Convention of 1907), where they appeal to the world to end Japan's dominance over Korea. Instead the prevailing trend of colonial administration of 'lesser' nations persuades the convention to endorse Japan's dominance. As a result of the failed attempt, Gojong is forced to abdicate by his controllers.

Hague Conference of 1907
The 'Second Hague Conference' was held in 1907, but Korea's hopes of finding support there were dashed by self-interest and mutual mistrust, mainly by European nations against each other and the perceived threat posed by Britain and the USA

1907 - 1910

Sungjong / Sin Ch'aeho / Sunjong

Son. Japanese vassal. Held captive during Annexation.

1910

Japan annexes Korea on 22 August 1910, ending the pretence of the Korean monarchy remaining in charge of the country. Sunjong is held in his palace in Seoul as a virtual prisoner for the rest of his life. However, he does write a Korean history which consists of victorious struggles against foreign imperialism, beginning with the resistance of Koguryo to Sui Chinese dominance. The hope is that it will serve to create pride in the past for Koreans in order to help them resist the Japanese. As for Korea, it is ruled by a Japanese Annexation system.

Japan-Korea Annexation
AD 1910 - 1945

General Yi Seong-gye of the pan-Korean kingdom of Goryeo had ended the post-Mongol political rift in the united kingdom by overthrowing Goryeo's ruling dynasty. In its place he established his own Yi dynasty of Joseon, establishing his capital at Hanyang (modern Seoul). In a break with the past he made neo-Confucianism the state religion, replacing Buddhism. The Joseon dynasty name was selected in tribute to Korea's earliest-known (and semi-legendary) organised state, Old Chosen, but for much of its existence Joseon accepted vassal status to the stronger Ming and Qin dynasties of China.

With Japan growing in power at the end of the nineteenth century, Korea declared its own empire to throw off external domination. That simply encouraged Japan to occupy large areas of it during the Russo-Japanese War, then establishing a protectorate. The 'First Japan-Korea Convention' was signed between the two countries on 22 August 1904, effectively forcing Joseon dynasty Korea into its new role as a protectorate. The emperor of Korea was now highly monitored and his access to external diplomatic channels controlled. This act was quickly followed on 17 July 1905 by the Taft–Katsura Agreement, which set out some ground rules between Japan and the USA and which encouraged Japanese influence in Korea for the sake of general peace. In September of the same year, Japan and Russia signed the Treaty of Portsmouth, ending the Russo-Japanese War and confirming Japan's dominance in Korea. The Korean emperor was forced to abdicate in 1907, to be succeeded by his son, but the final act came in 1910. The short-lived Korean empire was formally annexed to the growing Japanese empire on 22 August 1910.

The 'Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea' which began in 1919 was based in Shanghai, China. Although today's South Korean government insists on being its successor to assert legitimacy, and indeed some countries including China recognised the Japanese-controlled provisional government, it was not internationally recognised by all great powers. It was terminated in 1948 but, in practice, the Japanese governors-general wielded real power in Korea. The deposed king of Joseon now holds the title 'King Yi' to reflect his royal house, but he holds no power at all. Subsequent successors to Korea's lost throne are shown below with shaded backgrounds.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from A Concise History of Modern Korea: From the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present, Michael J Seth, from A New History of Korea, Lee Ki-baik (1984, supplied by Michael Welles, but excluding Koguryo), from History Of Korea, Roger Tennant (Routledge, 1996), from Everlasting flower: a history of Korea, K Pratt (Reaktion Books, London, 2006), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Academic Kids Encyclopaedia, and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and History Extra, and The Koguryo Controversy, National Identity, and Sino-Korean Relations Today, Peter Hays Gries (available as a PDF via ResearchGate), and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and Kings of Korea (in Korean), and Korea Information - History (Korean Cultural Center NY).)

1910 - 1916

Terauchi Masatake

General in the Japanese army. First governor-general.

1910 - 1926

Sunjong / 'King Yi'

Deposed king of Joseon. Retained title. Died.

1914

With the First World War already underway in Europe, Japan declares war on Germany on 23 August 1914. The principle motive is to take advantage of Europe's confusion - especially Germany's - to expand its own sphere of influence in China and the Pacific.

Japanese troops in Korea
Japan's occupation of Korea was viewed with some unease by the western powers but was generally accepted as being necessary to ensure peace and stability in the region

1916

Terauchi Masatake's term of office, first as resident-general before 1910 and then as governor-general of Korea, comes to an end when he becomes prime minister of Japan, the eighteenth such incumbent (although half of these have been repeated terms of office). He has been instrumental in overseeing the introduction of a large number of schools across Korea which have Japanese culture and language at the centre of their curriculum. Land reforms which really do improve a previously chaotic system still result in many lower class landholders or partial landholders losing out, adding to a sense of bitterness at the Japanese takeover.

1916 - 1919

Hasegawa Yoshimichi

Field marshal and general chief of staff. Died 1924.

1919

The Sam-il Movement embodies a growing resistance to Japanese occupation of Korea. On 1 March 1919, a group of activists read a Korean declaration of independence before signing it and sending a copy to the governor-general. The movement's leaders subsequently hand themselves in to the police, but a student reads the declaration in public. Mass demonstrations follow, increasing in size until a panicked Japanese military uses force to resolve things. Massacres and various atrocities follow, resulting in thousands of dead and injured.

Korea's Sam-il Movement
Korea's spontaneous Sam-il Movement generated mass demonstrations against Japanese occupation, but elicited violent repercussions as the Japanese authorities gradually saw their authority decline

1919 - 1927

Saitō Makoto

Admiral.

1926 - 1945

Crown Prince Uimin / Yi Un

Brother of Sunjong. Retained title but exiled after 1948. Died.

1927

Ugaki Kazushige

Former Japanese minister of war.

1927 - 1929

Yamanashi Hanzō

Former Japanese general and army minister.

1929 - 1931

Saitō Makoto

Second term of office.

1931 - 1936

Ugaki Kazushige

Former minister of war again. Second term of office.

1936 - 1942

Minami Jirō

Former general.

1942 - 1944

Koiso Kuniaki

Former general and government minister.

1944 - 1945

Abe Nobuyuki

Former prime minister.

1945 - 1948

On 6 August 1945, an atom bomb is dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima by the US bomber, 'Enola Gay'. A further bomb dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August brings a declaration of surrender from Japan on 2 September. Japan also surrenders its empire, including territory in China and Korea. Korea is occupied by the victorious Second World War allies, with Russia controlling the northern half and the USA the southern half.

Japanese troops surrendering at Guadalcanal
Japanese evacuation from Guadalcanal was largely successful thanks to bombing attacks on the US fleet, with very few Japanese troops surrendering to the Allies, but it marked the beginning of a series of setbacks for Japan

1948

A republic is created in the form of South Korea, to be administered by the USA, while North Korea becomes a hard-line communist state under the direction of Soviet Russia and administered by a local client ruler.

Modern South Korea
AD 1948 - Present Day

Modern Korea is a divided nation thanks to a succession of events which began with Japanese Annexation at the start of the twentieth century and ended with the Korean War of 1950-1953. Today, having supplied much of the territory for two of Korea's historical 'Three Kingdoms', Baekje and Silla, along with the lesser, tribal confederation of Gaya, South Korea is now divided from North Korea along a border which was initially supplied by the thirty-eighth parallel, and then the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which effectively cuts the Korean peninsula in half. Across Korea Bay to the west is China, with Japan to the south and east, across the Korea Strait and the Sea of Japan.

Bearing a name which is said to descend from that of Koguryo (Koryŏ), Joseon Korea was annexed to Japan in 1910. It remained a satellite territory until the conclusion of the Second World War. Japan's defeat in 1945 saw Korea occupied by the allied powers for three years until summit meetings which were held after the conclusion of the war decided that Korea would be divided along the thirty-eighth parallel. The USA would administer the southern half from a capital at Seoul - although US General Douglas MacArthur in fact controlled the south from his headquarters in occupied Tokyo - while Soviet Russia would do the same in the north. The situation in the south was chaotic, with the American-backed administration under Syngman Rhee openly stating its intent to reunify Korea by force. The Americans greatly limited the amount of military equipment available to him, leaving the republic of the south with little more than a lightly-armed gendarmerie.

In the north Russia placed a client ruler in charge in the form of Kim Il-sung before withdrawing in 1948. With the south vocal but toothless, he created the North Korean People's Army. Russia insisted that the north was sovereign over all of Korea. When that proved not to be the case and the south declared its own sovereign status, war was almost inevitable in the febrile post-Second World War political climate. Following just two years of increasingly hostile small-scale actions along the thirty-eighth parallel, North Korea's forces attacked South Korea on 25 June 1950. North Korean troops swept south, capturing most of the country. Under United Nations authorisation, a multinational force made up primarily of troops from the USA, Britain, and the British Commonwealth nations (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India), pushed back the North Koreans, prompting the Chinese to intervene. More troops poured in and peace was only ensured when a ceasefire was agreed in July 1953. Since then the dividing line between the two Koreas has remained heavily militarised, possibly one of the most militarised borders in the world.

South Korea's flag

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from A Concise History of Modern Korea: From the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present, Michael J Seth, from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, from The making of modern Korea, Adrian Buzo (Taylor & Francis, 2007), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Post War History (since 1945) (Japan-Guide.com), and BBC Country Profiles, and Maj-Gen A L Lerch dies in Korea at 53 (The New York Times), and South Korea Removes President Park Geun-hye (The New York Times), and Timeline on North Korea's Nuclear Program (The New York Times), and Park Geun-hye sentenced to 24 years in jail (The Guardian).)

1945 - 1948

On 6 August 1945, an atom bomb is dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima by the US bomber, 'Enola Gay'. A further bomb dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August brings a declaration of surrender from Japan on 2 September. Japan also surrenders its empire, including annexed territory in China and Korea. Korea is occupied by the victorious Second World War allies, with Russia controlling the northern half (soon to be known as North Korea) and the USA the southern half.

1945

Archibald V Arnold

US military governor, Sep-Dec. Retired 1948.

1945 - 1970

Crown Prince Uimin / Yi Un

Retained Annexation-period title but exiled until 1963. Died.

1945 - 1947

Archer L Lerch

US military governor, Dec-Sep. Died in office aged 53.

1947 - 1948

William F Dean

US military governor, Oct-Aug. PoW (1950-1953). Died 1981.

1948 - 1949

Charles G Helmick

US military governor, Aug-Jun. Handed over to Rhee.

1948

South Korea holds a constitutional assembly in May, and a constitution is adopted, heralding the start of the country's 'First Republic'. Given the country's main external influence (the USA), it is unavoidable that a presidential form of government is selected, with a four-year term of office for the presidency. An indirect presidential election is held in July according to the provisions of the constitution. Syngman Rhee becomes head of the new assembly, assuming the presidency and proclaiming the republic of Korea (South Korea) on 15 August 1948.

South Koreans of Jeju
One of the new republic's first acts under the dictatorial Syngman Rhee was to exterminate at least 30,000 civilians on the South Korean island of Jeju for resisting his US-supported governance of a strongly anti-communist country

1950 - 1953

After two years of increasingly hostile small scale actions along the thirty-eighth parallel, North Korea's forces attack South Korea on 25 June 1950. North Korean troops sweep south, capturing most of the country. Under United Nations authorisation, a multinational force made up primarily of troops from the USA, and Britain and the Commonwealth nations (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India), pushes the North Koreans back to the Manchurian border (Major-General William F Dean, former US military governor of South Korea, commands the 24th Infantry Division during the war, and is captured at the retreat from Taejon in 1950 as the advance of the invaders is slowed down).

This prompts communist China to intervene, pouring troops across the frontier and taking Korea as far south as Seoul. By 1951 the allies have stabilised a front line around the thirty-eighth parallel and the remainder of the Korean War consists of heavy fighting in this region, until a ceasefire is agreed in July 1953.

1952

South Korea's elected president, Syngman Rhee, orders a mass arrest of opposition politicians so that he can force through an amendment to the constitution which allows him to be re-elected by direct popular vote. He wins a normally-unlikely 74% of the vote.

1952 - 1960

Syngman Rhee

'President' following rigged elections. Then president for life.

1956

Soon after an easy third election win, Syngman Rhee amends the constitution again so that he can run for an unlimited number of elections instead of the three originally stipulated. This places him into the category of would-be dictator.

1960 - 1961

Rhee wins 90% of the vote in his fourth election - a margin of victory normally only witnessed in dictatorships. Rhee also gets his own man elected to the post of vice-president with an apparent landslide victory. Finally the populace are stirred up enough to protest, leading to some of them being shot at a demonstration in Musan. The resultant April Revolution forces Rhee to resign his office on 26 April 1960. A weak government is elected the following year at the start of the 'Second Republic' period, and this is quickly disposed of in a coup led by General Park Chung-hee on 16 May 1961.

April Revolution in South Korea of 1960
The April Revolution of 1960 saw mass demonstrations on the streets of Seoul, leading to the fall of the 'strongman' government of Syngman Rhee

1961 - 1979

Park Chung-hee

Military 'president' following a coup. Assassinated.

1962 - 1963

South Korea's economy begins a thirty year spurt of massive growth which leaves it amongst the world's richest nations by 1995. However, its position alongside ever-hostile North Korea ensures that it also has one of the world's top ten defence budgets. The start of the Park-Chung-hee government with him as 'president' in 1963 also signals the start of the 'Third Republic' period. Two more republics come and go - the fourth in 1972 and the fifth in 1981 - before the 'Sixth Republic' begins in 1988.

1968

The 'Blue House Assault' at the height of the Cold War sees North Korea send a team of thirty-one commandos from Pyongyang to assassinate South Korea's President Park Chung-hee. They are stopped just a hundred metres from the presidential Blue House. Gunfights erupt and more than ninety South Koreans are killed, including many civilians on a bus. Only two of the commandos survives; one flees to the north and one is captured. A later assassination attempt on the president succeeds.

1970 - 2005

Yi Gu

Son of Yi Un. Retained unspoken claim to throne. Died 16 Jul.

1979 - 1987

Chun Doo-hwan

Military 'president' following a coup.

1987 - 1988

The despotic 'presidency' of former general Chun Doo-hwan comes to a voluntary end following the death by torture of a university student. Chun is pressured into allowing direct presidential elections which are narrowly won by Roh Tae-woo of his own Democratic Justice Party, thereby handing over the reigns of power to his democratically-elected successor. The commencement in 1988 of the administration of the Roh Tae-woo government also heralds the start of the 'Sixth Republic' period in South Korea which survives to the present day.

1990

North Korea accepts a proposal for exchange between the two Koreas, which leads to high-level talks and cultural and sporting exchanges. A joint communiqué in 1991 covering denuclearisation is agreed, and the two Koreas simultaneously become members of the UN.

UN accession in 1991 by the two Koreas
Prime Minister Chung Won-shik of South Korea (right) with Prime Minister Yon Hyong-muk of North Korea in Seoul, after signing a pact of reconciliation between their countries, in December 1991

2005 - Present

Hereditary Prince Imperial Yi Won

Grandnephew of Sunjong. Current recognised head of Yi.

2005

Yi Won is the son of Yi Gap, himself the son of the late King Sunjong's brother, Prince Imperial Ui. In the last days of the preceding head of the House of Yi, he had been adopted by the incumbent claimant, Yi Gu. Following Yi Gu's death a few days later, Yi Won is recognised as the head of the house and first in line for the throne should it ever be restored.

2005 - 2020

Empress Yi Haw-won

Half-aunt and rival claimant. Outlived all her children.

2005

The late adoption and Yi Won's suitability to lead the House of Yi is contested by his half-aunt, Yi Hae-won. Her closer family insists on crowning her as empress of Korea (even if in name only), even though Yi Won's position is generally acknowledged both by the majority of the family and outside of it. Her claim and any other rival claims are shown in green text in order to differentiate them from the accepted claim. Having outlived all four of her children, her claim would seem to have died with her on 16 July 2020.

2013 - 2017

Park Geun-hye is the first female president of South Korea, daughter the Park Chun-hee who had taken power by force in 1961. Her reputation, whilst initially good, is hampered by a degree of incompetence in the handling of the Sewol ferry disaster. A subsequent major scandal leads to her being impeached in December 2016. To a background of some of Korea's largest-ever public protests she is forced out of office in 2017.

President Park Geun-hye
Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president and the daughter of former dictator, Park Chung-hee, left office in 2017 only to be arrested on charges of corruption in March 2017 and sentenced to twenty-four years in prison in April 2018

Yi Kwon

Son of Yi Won. Born 1998. Heir apparent.