“Korea” is the modern spelling of “Corea”, a name attested in English as early as 1614. It is an exonym derived from Cauli, Marco Polo’s transcription of the Chinese 高麗 (simp. 高丽, MC Kawlej, mod. Gāolì). This was the Hanja for the Korean kingdom of Goryeo or Koryŏ (고려; 918–1392), which ruled most of the peninsula during the time of his travels. (Scholars who discount the historicity of Polo’s account instead derive it via Persian variations of the same Chinese name.) Goryeo’s name was a continuation of the earlier Goguryeo or Koguryŏ (고구려; 37 bc – ad 668), the northernmost of the Samguk (the Three Kingdoms of Korea), which was officially known by the shortened form Goryeo after the 5th-century reign of King Jangsu. The original name was a combination of the adjective go (“high, lofty”) with the name of a local Yemaek tribe, whose original name is thought to have been either *Guru (溝樓, “walled city,” inferred from some toponyms in Chinese historical documents) or *Gauri (가우리, “center”). With expanding British and American trade following the opening of Korea in the late 19th century, the spelling “Korea” appeared and gradually grew in popularity; its use in transcribing East Asian languages avoids the issues caused by the separate hard and soft Cs existing in English vocabulary derived from the Romance languages. The name Korea is now commonly used in English contexts by both North and South Korea.
In South Korea, Korea as a whole is referred to as Hanguk (한국, [haːnɡuk], lit. ”country of the Han”). The name references the Samhan—Ma, Jin, and Byeon—who preceded the Three Kingdoms in the southern and central end of the peninsula during the 1st centuries bc and ad. Although written in Hanja as 韓, 幹, or 刊, this Han has no relation to the Chinese place names or peoples who used those characters but was a phonetic transcription (OC: *Gar, MC Han or Gan) of a native Korean word that seems to have had the meaning “big” or “great”, particularly in reference to leaders. It has been tentatively linked with the title khan used by the nomads of Manchuria and Central Asia.
In North Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, and Chinese and Vietnamese-speaking areas, Korea as a whole is referred to as Chosŏn (조선, Joseon, [tɕosʰʌn],, (朝鲜), Cháoxiǎn, (朝鮮), Chōsen, Triều Tiên (朝鮮) lit. ”[land of the] Morning Calm”). “Great Joseon” was the name of the kingdom ruled by the Joseon dynasty from 1393 until their declaration of the short-lived Great Korean Empire in 1897. King Taejo had named them for the earlier Kojoseon (고조선), who ruled northern Korea from its legendary prehistory until their conquest in 108 bc by China’s Han Empire. This go is the Hanja 古 and simply means “ancient” or “old”; it is a modern usage to distinguish the ancient Joseon from the later dynasty. Joseon itself is the modern Korean pronunciation of the Hanja 朝鮮 but it is unclear whether this was a transcription of a native Korean name (OC *T[r]awser, MC Trjewsjen) or a partial translation into Chinese of the Korean capital Asadal (아사달),  whose meaning has been reconstructed as “Morning Land” or “Mountain”.
Main article: History of Korea
See also: History of North Korea and History of South Korea
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History of Korea
Bulguksa temple, Gyeongju
Gojoseon ?–108 BC
Buyeo Goguryeo Okjeo Dongye Samhan Ma Byeon Jin
Goguryeo 37 BC – 668 AD
Baekje 18 BC – 660 AD
Silla 57 BC – 935 AD
Gaya confederacy 42–562
Later Silla (Unified Silla) 668–935
Later Three Kingdoms
Later Baekje 892–936
Later Goguryeo (Taebong) 901–918
Later Silla 57 BC – 935 AD
Unitary dynastic period
Korean Empire 1897–1910
Japanese rule 1910–1945
Provisional Government 1919–1948
Division of Korea
Military Governments 1945–1948
North Korea 1948–present
South Korea 1948–present
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Korea Map.svg Korea portal
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Prehistory and Gojoseon Main articles: Prehistoric Korea and Gojoseon
The Korean Academy claimed ancient hominid fossils originating from about 100,000 bc in the lava at a stone city site in Korea. Fluorescent and high-magnetic analyses indicate the volcanic fossils may be from as early as 300,000 bc. The best preserved Korean pottery goes back to the paleolithic times around 10,000 bc and the Neolithic period begins around 6000 bc.
According to legend, Dangun, a descendant of Heaven, established Gojoseon in 2333 bc. In 108 bc, the Han dynasty defeated Gojoseon and installed four commanderies in the northern Korean peninsula. Three of the commanderies fell or retreated westward within a few decades, but the Lelang commandery remained as a center of cultural and economic exchange with successive Chinese dynasties for four centuries. By 313, Goguryeo annexed all of the Chinese commanderies.
Main article: Proto–Three Kingdoms of Korea
The Proto–Three Kingdoms period, sometimes called the Multiple States Period, is the earlier part of what is commonly called the Three Kingdoms Period, following the fall of Gojoseon but before Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla fully developed into kingdoms.
This time period saw numerous states spring up from the former territories of Gojoseon, which encompassed northern Korea and southern Manchuria. With the fall of Gojoseon, southern Korea entered the Samhan period.
Located in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, Samhan refers to the three confederacies of Mahan, Jinhan, and Byeonhan. Mahan was the largest and consisted of 54 states. Byeonhan and Jinhan both consisted of twelve states, bringing a total of 78 states within the Samhan. These three confederacies eventually developed into Baekje, Silla, and Gaya.
Three Kingdoms Main articles: Three Kingdoms of Korea, Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla
7th century Tang dynasty painting of envoys from the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla
The Three Kingdoms of Korea consisted of Goguryeo, Silla, and Baekje. Silla and Baekje controlled the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, maintaining the former Samhan territories, while Goguryeo controlled the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, Manchuria and the Liaodong Peninsula, uniting Buyeo, Okjeo, Dongye, and other states in the former Gojoseon territories.
Goguryeo was a highly militaristic state; it was a powerful empire and one of the great powers in East Asia, reaching its zenith in the 5th century when its territories expanded to encompass most of Manchuria to the north, parts of Inner Mongolia to the west, parts of Russia to the east, and the Seoul region to the south. Goguryeo experienced a golden age under Gwanggaeto the Great and his son Jangsu, who both subdued Baekje and Silla during their times, achieving a brief unification of the Three Kingdoms of Korea and becoming the most dominant power on the Korean Peninsula. In addition to contesting for control of the Korean Peninsula, Goguryeo had many military conflicts with various Chinese dynasties, most notably the Goguryeo-Sui War, in which Goguryeo defeated a huge force said to number over a million men. In 642, the powerful general Yeon Gaesomun led a coup and gained complete control over Goguryeo. In response, Emperor Tang Taizong of China led a campaign against Goguryeo, but was defeated and retreated. After the death of Tang Taizong, his son Emperor Tang Gaozong allied with the Korean kingdom of Silla and invaded Goguryeo again, but was unable to overcome Goguryeo’s stalwart defenses and was defeated in 662. However, Yeon Gaesomun died of a natural cause in 666 and Goguryeo was thrown into chaos and weakened by a succession struggle among his sons and younger brother, with his eldest son defecting to Tang and his younger brother defecting to Silla. The Tang-Silla alliance finally conquered Goguryeo in 668. After the collapse of Goguryeo, Tang and Silla ended their alliance and fought over control of the Korean Peninsula. Silla succeeded in gaining control over most of the Korean Peninsula, while Tang gained control over Goguryeo’s northern territories. However, 30 years after the fall of Goguryeo, a Goguryeo general by the name of Dae Joyeong founded the Korean-Mohe state of Balhae and successfully expelled the Tang presence from much of the former Goguryeo territories.
Seokguram Grotto from the Silla era, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The southwestern Korean kingdom of Baekje was founded around modern-day Seoul by a Goguryeo prince, a son of the founder of Goguryeo. Baekje absorbed all of the Mahan states and subjugated most of the western Korean peninsula (including the modern provinces of Gyeonggi, Chungcheong, and Jeolla, as well as parts of Hwanghae and Gangwon) to a centralised government; during the expansion of its territory, Baekje acquired Chinese culture and technology through maritime contacts with the Southern Dynasties. Baekje was a great maritime power; its nautical skill, which made it the Phoenicia of East Asia, was instrumental in the dissemination of Buddhism throughout East Asia and continental culture to Japan. Historic evidence suggests that Japanese culture, art, and language were influenced by the kingdom of Baekje and Korea itself; Baekje also played an important role in transmitting advanced Chinese culture to the Japanese archipelago. Baekje was once a great military power on the Korean Peninsula, most notably in the 4th century during the rule of Geunchogo when its influence extended across the sea to Liaoxi and Shandong in China, taking advantage of the weakened state of Former Qin, and Kyushu in the Japanese archipelago; however, Baekje was critically defeated by Gwanggaeto the Great and declined.
Although later records claim that Silla was the oldest of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, it is now believed to have been the last kingdom to develop. By the 2nd century, Silla existed as a large state in the southeast, occupying and influencing its neighboring city-states. In 562, Silla annexed the Gaya confederacy which was located between Baekje and Silla. The Three Kingdoms of Korea often warred with each other and Silla was often dominated by Baekje and Goguryeo. Silla was the smallest and weakest of the three, but it used cunning diplomatic means to make opportunistic pacts and alliances with the more powerful Korean kingdoms, and eventually Tang China, to its great advantage. In 660, King Muyeol ordered his armies to attack Baekje. General Kim Yu-shin, aided by Tang forces, conquered Baekje after defeating General Gyebaek at the Battle of Hwangsanbeol. In 661, Silla and Tang attacked Goguryeo but were repelled. King Munmu, son of Muyeol and nephew of General Kim Yu-shin launched another campaign in 667 and Goguryeo fell in the following year.
North-South States Period