Early history and founding of a nation
Archeological finds of prehistoric toolmaking on the Korean Peninsula date back to 70,000 BC, and the first pottery is found around 8000 BC. Comb-pattern pottery culture peaked around 3500-2000 BC.
Legend has it that Korea began with the founding of Gojoseon (also called Ancient Chosun) (고조선, 古朝鮮) by the legendary Dangun in 2333 BC. Archeological and contemporaneous written records of Gojoseon as a kingdom date back to around 7th-4th century BC. Gojoseon was eventually defeated by the Chinese Han Dynasty and its territories were governed as four commanderies. The political chaos following the fall of the Han Dynasty in China allowed native tribes to regain control of Korea and led to the emergence of the Three Kingdoms of Korea (삼국시대, 三國時代), namely Goguryeo (고구려, 高句麗), Silla (신라, 新羅) and Baekje (백제, 百濟). Despite repeated attempts by China, namely the Sui Dynasty and later the Tang Dynasty, to conquer the Korean Peninsula, northern-based Goguryeo managed to repel them. Eventually, Goguryeo fell to a Silla-Tang alliance, which had earlier defeated Baekje, and unified Korea under the Silla Dynasty. A subsequent later invasion by Tang was repelled by Silla forces, thus maintaining Korea's independence. The remnants of Goguryeo would go on on to found another kingdom known as Balhae (발해, 渤海) in what is now Northeast China, which would last until A.D. 926 when it was conquered by the Khitans.
Unified Silla was replaced by the Goryeo Dynasty (also called Koryo) (고려, 高麗), from which the modern name "Korea" derives. One highlight of the Goryeo dynasty was that in 1234 the world's first metal movable type was invented by a Korean named Choe Yun-ui (200 years before Gutenberg's printing press). Goryeo was replaced by the Joseon Dynasty (also called Chosun) (조선, 朝鮮), after a coup by one of its generals. The Joseon dynasty ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, being one of the longest actively ruling dynasties in world history. It was during the early part of the Joseon dynasty that Korean technological inventions such as the world's first water clock, ironclad ship, and other innovations took place. During the rule of King Sejong the Great, the world's first rain gauge was invented and the Korean alphabet known as hangul was created.
Japanese occupation and division
Korea experienced a significant invasion by the Japanese led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century, which was eventually defeated by an alliance between the Joseon dynasty and China's Ming dynasty. This defeat along with the untimely death of Hideyoshi, forced the Japanese to pull out of Korea for the time being.
Later, Korea's status as an independent kingdom under the Chinese sphere of cultural influence (사대) ended in 1895 after China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War and the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Under the terms of the treaty, China was to recognize the severing of the several centuries-old, nominal elder-younger brother relationship between China and Korea, bringing Japan the window of opportunity to force Korea into its own growing sphere of influence. Although the elder-younger brother relationship between China and Joseon was a voluntary diplomatic formality assumed by Joseon's rulers in order to receive the benefits of advanced Chinese culture and trade, it was a symbolic victory for Japan to achieve the breakage of this link. It put Japan in position to take possession of Korea without fear of Chinese intervention. In 1910, Imperial Japan officially annexed Korea, thus beginning a 35-year occupation of the country. Despite numerous armed rebellions, assassinations and intellectual and cultural resistance, suppression and a cultural assimilation policy that included forcing Koreans to take Japanese names and forbidding them to speak the Korean language allowed Japan to maintain control of the peninsula.
After Imperial Japan's defeat in World War II, Soviet forces occupied the northern half of Korea while U.S. forces occupied the southern half. North and South Korea each declared independence as separate states in 1948, with Kim Il-Sung establishing a communist regime with the support of Soviet Union in the north, and Syngman Rhee establishing a capitalist regime with the support of the United States in the south. After antagonization from both sides, North Korea eventually invaded South Korea in 1950, starting the Korean War which subsequently destroyed much of the country. U.S. and other U.N. forces intervened on South Korea's side, while the Soviet Union and China supported the North. An armistice was signed in 1953 splitting the peninsula along a demilitarized zone, after the war had reached a stalemate with no significant territorial gains made by either side. However, as no peace treaty has ever been signed, the two Koreas technically remain at war with each other to this day.
Republic of Korea
Despite initially being economically outdone by its northern rival, South Korea eventually emerged from the ashes of the Korean war and achieved rapid economic growth starting in the 1960s under the iron-fisted rule of then-president Park Chung Hee (박정희). As one of the East Asian Tigers, the South Korean economy's industrialization and modernization efforts gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, with per capita income rising to 20 times the level of North Korea. In 1996, South Korea joined the OECD. Today, South Korea is an industrialized and developed economy with some of the world's leading high technology corporations such as Samsung and LG.
Demands for greater freedom of press and human rights led to nationwide demonstrations that led to democratic elections in 1987, just prior to the South Korean capital of Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
South Korea is now a liberal democracy and an economic powerhouse. In June 2000, a historic first summit took place between the South's President Kim Dae-jung and the North's late leader Kim Jong-il (Kim Dae-jung to be awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize for South Korea), however the peace process has since moved at a glacial pace. More recently the country elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye, in 2012.
In recent years, a phenomenon known as the "Korean Wave" (or Hallyu) in which the popularity of South Korean film, television, music, food and other culture aspects has swept most of Asia and many other parts of the world has brought more attention to the country.