Iron was widespread in Manchuria and the Korean peninsula around the second century B.C. Nations that used iron weapons enjoyed great success. In particular, it was due to the power of the iron civilization that Old Joseon was able to resist with fierce tenacity attacks from the Han Dynasty, that united China for more than a year.
After the fall of Old Joseon in 108 B.C. following attacks by Han China, Chinese forces were able to penetrate Manchuria and the Korean peninsula for some time. However, small and large political forces that had established power in several regions resisted Han China, and expanded their forces through the establishment of independent nations. Such nations were Buyeo, Okjeo, Eastern Ye, Samhan (Mahan, Jinhan and Byeonhan).
Buyeo used the Chinese appellation for king ‘( wang’) from as early as the first century and had direct contact with China. The kingdom of Goguryeo that emerged in the first century B.C. rapidly expanded forces by uniting with tribes near Apnok River (also known as Yalu River). It drove away the Han forces by confronting the Han dominion and incorporated the area into the Goguryeo territory. Meanwhile, in the east coast of the peninsula, states named‘ Okjeo’and‘ Eastern Ye’arose.
In the northern part of the peninsula, a tribe called Yemaek emerged as a central force. In the southern part, people from Yemaek who migrated from the northern area as well as the people of the Korean Han, who had been living in the southern area for an extended time, became the central forces in establishing various states.
Around the second century B.C., minor as well as significant political powers sprang up in the central southern part of the Korean peninsula. They joined forces with the state of Jin at the center and engaged in trade with China. Following the collapse of Old Joseon, Samhan, comprised of Mahan, Jinhan and Byeonhan, grew to form a tribal alliance.
Meanwhile, Goguryeo, which arose in the areas surrounding the Yalu River, absorbed the smaller surrounding states including Okjeo and Eastern Ye, and grew to become a major nation in Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean peninsula. Also, Baekje, which was one of the many states of Mahan, as well as Silla and Gaya, that arose from Jinhan and Byeonhan, grew significantly strong, ultimately becoming central figures in ancient Korean history for an extended period of time.
Old Joseon was the very first nation in Korea and became the prototype for states that followed. It is for this reason that the Korean people refer to themselves as ‘all descendents of Dangun Wanggeom’. Such beliefs originated from Samguk Yusa, a book on ancient Korean history that expounds on the foundation of Old Joseon by Dangun. The book states that Dangun was sired by Hwanung, the son of the god of heaven, and a bear turned into a woman. According to the book, Dangun ruled Old Joseon for 1,500 years and lived to be 1,908years old. All of these stories are legendary in nature.
The Korean people construe these stories from a historic perspective. The tribe that migrated at a later point in time joined with existing tribes to build a nation, and the tribe that worshipped the heaven (Hwanung) was united with a tribe that worshipped bears (Woongnyeo, the bear-turned woman) to establish a state.
The word ‘Dangun’refers to a chief priest while the word ‘Wanggeom’refers to a king. To the Korean people, Dangun is the very first king of a country that founded Old Joseon, and is more than just a legendary figure. Dangun and Old Joseon are the source of national pride for their long history. They also symbolize the development of a unique culture for the Korean people that is distinct from that of China or Japan.