The Lower Paleolithic era in the Korean Peninsula began roughly half a million years ago. The earliest known Korean pottery dates to around 8000 BC, and the Neolithic period began after 6000 BC, followed by the Bronze Age by 800 BC, and the Iron Age around 400 BC.
According to the mythic account recounted in the Samguk Yusa, the Gojoseon (Old Joseon) kingdom was founded in northern Korea and Manchuria in 2333 BC. The Gija Joseon was purportedly founded in 12th century BC, and its existence and role have been controversial in the modern era. The written historical record on Gojoseon can be found from early 7th century BC. The Jin state was formed in southern Korea by the 3rd century BC. In the 2nd century BC, Gija Joseon was replaced by Wiman Joseon which fell to the Han China near the end of the century. This resulted in the fall of Gojoseon and led to succeeding warring states, the Proto–Three Kingdoms period that spanned the later Iron Age.
Since the 1st century, Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla grew to control the peninsula and Manchuria as the Three Kingdoms (57 BC – 668 AD) until unification by Silla in 676. In 698, Dae Jo-yeong established Balhae in old territories of Goguryeo, which led to the North South States Period (698–926). In the late 9th century, Silla was divided into the Later Three Kingdoms (892–936), which ended with the unification by Wang Geon's Goryeo dynasty. Meanwhile, Balhae fell after an invasion by the Khitan Liao dynasty and the refugees including the last Crown Prince emigrated to Goryeo. During the Goryeo period, laws were codified, a civil service system was introduced, and culture influenced by Buddhism flourished. However, Mongol invasions in the 13th century forced it into vassalage, which lasted until the mid-14th century, when the Yuan dynasty began to crumble.
In 1392, Yi Seong-gye established the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) after a coup in 1388. King Sejong the Great (1418–1450) implemented numerous administrative, social, and economical reforms, established royal authority in the early years of the dynasty, and promulgated Hangul, the Korean alphabet.
From the late 16th century, the Joseon dynasty faced foreign invasions, internal power struggle and rebellions. Support from China, particularly militarily, became increasingly important to maintaining rule, and the dynasty maintained a strict isolationist policy to all countries except China. By the 19th century, with the country unwilling to modernize, and the decline of China due largely to European powers, Korea became subject to foreign powers. After Japan defeated China, a brief period of independence and reform occurred. This was known as the Korean Empire (1897–1910). However this state was quickly dominated by Russia, and when Japan defeated Russia, they forced Korea to sign a protectorate treaty and in 1910 Japan annexed the Korean Empire, though all treaties involved were later deemed to be invalid.
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