A unified Korea first emerges from the 'Three Kingdoms' of Silla, Koguryo and Paekche in the 7th Century CE. (The word Korea is derived from Koguryo, later shortened to Koryo.)
Following a period of disorder, the unification is consolidated in the 10th Century under the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). The Choson Dynasty follows. It will last until 1910, with its capital located at Seoul.
Though their own culture is distinct and sophisticated, the Koreans are heavily influenced by the neighbouring Chinese, adopting Buddhist and Confucian philosophy, Confucian education methods, a Chinese-style bureaucracy and the Chinese written language.
From an early date Korean political culture is characterised by isolationism and a strong desire to maintain independence. China, though treated with deference, is kept at arm's length, and relations with other neighbours are discouraged. Among Westerners, Korea comes to be known as the 'Hermit Kingdom'.
Nevertheless, the country is unable to stop encroachment by its neighbours, although it does remain staunchly isolationist. The Japanese invade in the 16th Century, using Korea as a way into China, where they are soundly defeated and forced to retreat.
Early in the 17th Century, the Manchus encroach from the north, establishing relations between the Koreans and the Qing Dynasty established by the Manchus in China. Western influences also come into play during the 17th and 18th centuries as Roman Catholic missionaries spread European ideas and philosophies.
North Korea's independence starts to completely unravel in the 19th Century, beginning with the signing of a treaty with Japan in February 1876. Further treaties with the United States, Britain, Russia, Italy and other countries follow and China continues to meddle in Korea's affairs.
The Chinese influence is brought to an abrupt halt by the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and an accompanying rebellion in Korea. Japan sends troops to aid the rebels against Chinese forces stationed in Korea then declares Korea independent after the Chinese are defeated. A 50-year period of effective Japanese control over Korea now begins.
Reforms introduced by Japan overhaul Korea's social system. The Confucian education and bureaucratic systems are ended, traditional class distinctions are abolished, slavery is stopped and the economy and judiciary are modernised.
Korea is made a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and turned into a full colony of the growing Japanese Empire in 1910. By the 1940s there are about 700,000 Japanese in Korea, mostly working in government service. While the Japanese policies result in substantial economic growth, Koreans become second-class citizens in their own land.
- North Korea - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series