The Korean peninsula was first populated by peoples of a Tungusic branch of the Ural-Altaic language family who migrated from the northwestern regions of Asia. Some of these peoples also populated parts of northeast China (Manchuria); Koreans and Manchurians still show physical similarities.
Koreans are racially and linguistically homogeneous. Although there are no indigenous minorities in North Korea, there is a small Chinese community (about 50,000) and some 1,800 Japanese wives who accompanied the roughly 93,000 Koreans returning to the North from Japan during 1959-62.
Korean is a Ural-Altaic language and is related to Japanese and remotely related to Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, and Mongolian. Although dialects exist, the Korean spoken throughout the peninsula is mutually comprehensible. In North Korea, the Korea alphabet (hangul) is used exclusively, unlike in South Korea, where a combination of hangul and Chinese characters is used as the written language.
Korea's traditional religions are Buddhism and Shamanism. Christian missionaries arrived as early as the 16th century, but it was not until the 19th century that they founded schools, hospitals, and other modern institutions throughout Korea. Major centers of 19th-century missionary activity included Seoul and Pyongyang, and there was a relatively large Christian population in the north before 1945. Although religious groups exist in North Korea, most available evidence suggests that the government severely restricts religious activity.
According to legend, the god-king Tangun founded the Korean nation in 2333 BC. By the first century AD, the Korean peninsula was divided into the kingdoms of Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche. In 668 AD, the Silla kingdom unified the peninsula. The Koryo dynasty--from which Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century derived the Western name "Korea"--succeeded the Silla kingdom in 935. The Choson dynasty, ruled by members of the Yi clan, supplanted Koryo in 1392 and lasted until the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910.
Throughout most of its history, Korea has been invaded, influenced, and fought over by its larger neighbors. Korea was under Mongolian occupation from 1231 until the early 14th century and was plundered by Japanese pirates in 1359 and 1361. The unifier of Japan, Hideyoshi, launched major invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597. When Western powers focused "gunboat" diplomacy on Korea in the mid-19th century, Korea's rulers adopted a closed-door policy, earning Korea the title of "Hermit Kingdom."
Though the Choson dynasty paid fealty to the Chinese court and recognized China's hegemony in East Asia, Korea was independent until the late 19th century. At that time, China sought to block growing Japanese influence on the Korean peninsula and Russian pressure for commercial gains there. This competition produced the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Japan emerged victorious from both wars and in 1910 annexed Korea as part of the growing Japanese empire.
Japanese colonial administration was characterized by tight control from Tokyo and ruthless efforts to supplant Korean language and culture. Organized Korean resistance during the colonial era--such as the March 1, 1919, Independence Movement--was unsuccessful, and Japan remained firmly in control until the end of World War II in 1945.
Japan surrendered in August 1945, and Korea was liberated. However, the unexpectedly early surrender of Japan led to the immediate division of Korea into two occupation zones, with the U.S. administering the southern half of the peninsula and the U.S.S.R taking over the area to the north of the 38th parallel. This division was meant to be temporary and to facilitate the Japanese surrender until the U.S., U.K., Soviet Union, and China could arrange a trusteeship administration.
At a meeting in Cairo, it was agreed that Korea would be free "in due course;" at a later meeting in Yalta, it was agreed to establish a four-power trusteeship over Korea. In December 1945, a conference convened in Moscow to discuss the future of Korea. A five-year trusteeship was discussed, and a joint Soviet-American commission was established. The commission met intermittently in Seoul but deadlocked over the issue of establishing a national government. In September 1947, with no solution in sight, the United States submitted the Korean question to the UN General Assembly.
Initial hopes for a unified, independent Korea quickly evaporated as the politics of the Cold War and domestic opposition to the trusteeship plan resulted in the 1948 establishment of two separate nations with diametrically opposed political, economic, and social systems and the outbreak of war in 1950 (see, under Foreign Relations, Korean War of 1950-53).