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The Three Kingdoms of Korea: Koguryo, Paekche & Silla

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Korean Peninsula is not currently a unified country, and this isn't for the first time in its history. In this lesson, we'll look at the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history and explore the different cultures that call Korea home.

The Three Kingdoms of Korea

To us in the 21st century, the idea of a divided Korea is already familiar. There's North Korea and South Korea, so we've got two Koreas right there. But where was the third Korea of the Three Kingdoms? In fact, the current division of the Koreas has nothing to do with historical divisions, and for most of Korean history the entire peninsula was united. But, this wasn't always the case. For a period from roughly 57 BCE to 668 CE, the Korean Peninsula was divided into the three independent kingdoms of Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla.

Korea during its Three Kingdoms period
Map of Three Kingdoms of Korea

History of the Three Kingdoms Period

Before exploring each of these kingdoms separately, let's talk about this earlier time period in general. Before Korea broke up into three kingdoms, it was one single state, a mighty kingdom called Gojoseon. Through a series of political entanglements, the Han Dynasty of China ended up invading and conquering part of Gojoseon around 108 BCE. As the Gojoseon kingdom lost power over the next century, it broke apart into several different federations of cities that came together for mutual strength. Three of these federations grew into powerful kingdoms of their own, and thus the Three Kingdoms period was established. For over 700 years, Korea remained divided, until in the 7th century, the kingdom of Silla allied with China to overthrow the others, ending the Three Kingdoms period. After a brief war to expel the Chinese, the Korean Peninsula was reunified into a single kingdom around 676 CE.

Koguryo

Let's start with the largest of the three kingdoms. Koguryo, sometimes written as Goguryeo, grew as a federation of cities in the area stretching from the northern Korean Peninsula into Manchuria. We don't know for sure, but it seems that this was the first of the three kingdoms to really solidify a firm base of power. Koguryo was a complex society with advanced technology, political systems, and culture. Due to its strength, Koguryo became the protector of the Korean Peninsula, guarding the smaller kingdoms against Chinese invasions and reclaiming parts of the former Gojoseon kingdom that had been captured by China. However, Koguryo's relationship with China was far from antagonistic. This Korean kingdom maintained very close political, economic, and cultural ties with China, even adopting Buddhism from China in the 4th century CE. Koguryo culture established many things to be considered traditionally Korean and, in fact, the name of the kingdom was later shortened to Goryeo or Koryo, the basis of the name Korea.

Buddhism entered Koguryo through China and became an important part of their culture and art
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Paekche

In the southwestern part of the peninsula, was the next of the three kingdoms. Paekche, sometimes written in our alphabet as Baekje, was generated from what was called the Mahan confederacy, a collection of Korean cities in that part of the peninsula. Due to its location, Paekche was closely connected with all of the major cultures of the area, including Koguryo, Silla, China, and Japan. Sometimes Paekche fought wars against these other cultures, but most often held a position as the cultural intermediary between the Asian kingdoms. It was through Paechke that Buddhism reached Japan from China, and through Paechke that Chinese characters spread across Asia. So, unsurprisingly, their culture was also strongly influenced by the Chinese, although it was equally influenced by Koguryo and helped standardize Korean customs.

Chinese depiction of an ambassador from Paekche
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