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Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > Pre-modern Korea
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Korea is one of the great civilizations of Asia, shaped by its position between mainland and sea, as well as the Chinese Empire, pre-modern Japan and Mongolia.

Understand

The historical extent of the Korean Goguryeo kingdom reaches far into present day China and Russia

The Korean peninsular consisted of many competing Korean kingdoms since ancient times. The unification of the nation is considered to have begun roughly around 1 AD when power was consolidated in the the 'Three Kingdoms' period of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. Eventually, the nation was unified in the 7th century when the Silla kingdom defeated the other two with the help of Tang China. However, remnants of the Goguryeo kingdom were to later establish a kingdom to the north of Silla in what is now northeast China known as Balhae. The Silla Dynasty was subsequently replaced by the Goryeo Dynasty, from which the English name "Korea" was derived.

The Kingdom of Joseon was founded in 1392 after a coup by one of Goryeo's generals and controlled the entire Korean peninsular for the next 5 centuries. It achieved most of the cultural achievements and language seen in both Korean nations today, although the end also saw an isolationist policy that led to it being called the "Hermit Kingdom".

The pre-modern period ended when Korea was occupied by Japan in 1910. At the end of World War II it was divided between north and south. The Korean War consolidated and perpetuated the division until this day.

Destinations

You may be told that Korea's great historical tradition and buildings were demolished firstly by the Japanese during their occupation, and secondly by devastation of the Korean War. Walking through a South Korean city you may think that there is nothing but concrete blocks over the entire country. Nevertheless there is actually a good deal of history to be found throughout the country of South Korea, either as ruins or reconstructions.

Map of Pre-modern Korea

China

Some parts of North Eastern China were once Korean territory, and historical ruins can still be found there today. They can be visited freely.

  • 1 Ji'an. Chinese city on the North Korean border with ancient ruins of fortresses and tombs of the Goguryeo kingdom

North Korea

North Korea does not have as much in terms of historical sites to visit, as a result of lack of funds for this kind of investment and general official disdain for the pre-Communist era. Nevertheless there are destinations of historical importance. Almost all visits to North Korea require a guided tour, with an itinerary set before your travel, so check around to see if your tour group includes the historical sites available.

  • 2 Baekdusan. The highest mountain on the peninsula, interestingly at the border between China and North Korea. Traditionally considered a sacred mountain, Dangun, the founder of the first Korean kingdom was believed to had been born here. Today it's also the alleged birthplace of Kim Jong-Il. It is easier to visit from the Chinese side of the border in Changbaishan National Nature Reserve.
  • 3 Complex of Goguryeo Tombs. A site of 30 tombs from the Korean Goguryeo kingdom near the modern city of Nampho.
  • 4 Kaesong. Capital of the Taebong and subsequent Goryeo kingdom, and site of preserved tombs that can still be visited today in North Korea

South Korea

South Korea has the greatest range of historical sites that are also well maintained and easy to visit. Bear in mind that for the most part much of what you see has a good chance of having been reconstructed in the past 50 years.

  • 5 Jongno. This central area of Seoul is packed with palaces, city gates and museums. When visiting the Gyeongbukgong, the largest and most important of the palaces, time your visit to coincide with the changing of guards (thrice daily).
  • 6 Gongju. - Original capital of the Baekje Dynasty
  • 7 Iksan. An important town of the Baekje kingdom, there are many ancient ruins and relics to be found here
  • 8 Gyeongju. Capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom and filled with burial mounds, museums and artefacts
  • 9 Jinju Fortress. became famous in 1592, when a force of just 3,800 Koreans held off an invading army of 20,000 Japanese. There are many historical sights around the fortress today.
  • 10 Haeinsa Temple (해인사, 海印寺). Home of the Tripitaka Koreana, an inscription of all the Buddhist scriptures on 81,350 wooden printing blocks, housed here since 1398 in the surroundings of the Gayasan National Park
  • 11 Gimhae. A capital of the ancient Gaya kingdom (AD42–532) has many historical ruins and burial mounds from that period
  • 12 Anti-Mongolian Historical Site (제주 항파두리 항몽 유적). A special defence unit of the Goryeo kingdom rebelled against the invading Mongolian army in 1270, and eventually retreated to Jeju Island for a last stand. They held off the Mongolian forces here for 2 years before they were all killed at a fortress built here.

See also

  • Korea - An overview of the modern Korean peninsular region
  • South Korea - The democratic economic powerhouse
  • North Korea - The last bastion of the Cold War
  • Yanbian - An automonous prefecture in China bordering North Korea, with the world's largest population of ethnic Koreans outside Korea.
  • Korean War - The civil war arising after independence from Japan, with North and South falling under the Soviet and American spheres of influence
  • Korean DMZ - The demilitarized zone separating the two countries
  • Korean language - spoken on the peninsula, and written in its own script, hangeul
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