Dangun Wanggeom (c. 2350 BC─became a mountain god)
The son of Hwanung, king of the gods, and Ungnyeo, a bear from the Earth, Dangun Wanggeom was the founder of Gojoseon, the first Korean kingdom, in 2333 BC. As such, he is considered the mythical father of the Korean nation. Dangun Wanggeom is often known simply as Dangun. He is said to have ruled Gojoseon for 1,500 years and become a sinseon ─ meaning "sage" or "mountain god" ─ at the age of 1,908. There are several mountaintop altars dedicated to Dangun throughout the Korean peninsula. Korea celebrates National Foundation Day on October 3, supposedly the day on which Dangun founded Gojoseon. Subsequently, from about 57 BC for approximately 900 years, Korea was divided into three kingdoms ─ Silla, Goguryeo, and Baekje.
Bak Hyeokgeosae (69 BC─AD 4)
Bak Hyeokgeosae, the mythical founder of the Silla Kingdom (57 BC─AD 936), was said to have been born from an egg. He is considered the progenitor of all Bak families which exist today. (That name, also written "Pak" or "Park," is the third most common Korean surname.) The name "Bak" is said to have been derived either from the fact that the egg from which Hyeokgeosae was born was as big as a gourd ("bak" in Korean), or from the word balg (meaning "bright"), because his body shone so brilliantly when he was born. In any case, it is said that Hyeokgeosae was raised by the chieftains of six villages in present-day Gyeongsang Province, who revered him and made him their king when he was only 13. According to the legend, Hyeokgeosae's queen, the beautiful and refined Lady Aryeong, was born from the ribs of a dragon.
King Dongmyeong of Goguryeo, or Jumong (58─19 BC; r. 37─19 BC)
Jumong was the founding monarch of Goguryeo, the second and the northernmost of the Three Kingdoms in Korea. Like Hyeokgeosae, he also is said to have been born from an egg, as the son of Hae Mosu (the son of heaven) and Yuhwa (the daughter of the river god Habaek). Jumong was known for his exceptional skill in archery, which incited jealousy among the sons of King Geumwa of Dongbuyeo, for whom his mother was a concubine. He then established Goguryeo and became its first Supreme King.
Lady So Seo-no (67 BC─6 BC)
Lady So Seo-no, the second wife of Jumong, was a key figure in the founding of both Goguryeo and Baekje. Although Lady So's first son, Biryu, is traditionally recognized as the founder of Baekje, her second son, Onjo, became the first king of Baekje (and may also have been the founder). While Lady So had financially supported Jumong in founding Goguryeo, when Yuri, the son of Jumong and his first wife, Lady Ye, succeeded Jumong, Lady So left Goguryeo for the south with her two sons to found their own kingdoms.
According to a romantic legend, Queen Huh was a princess of the ancient Indian kingdom of Ayodhya. Hearing of her beauty, Prince Suro of the Gaya dynasty (a confederacy of territorial polities in southern Korea that was eventually annexed by Silla) went to India to marry her. She is said to have been instrumental in spreading Buddhism in Korea, as she brought with her 22 Buddhist monks and a stone pagoda. Many modern Koreans believe they may be descendants of the legendary queen.
Queen Seondeok (610─647)
Seondeok reigned as Queen of Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, from 632 to 647. She was Silla's 27th ruler and its first reigning queen. Legendary stories surround her perceptive intelligence and her unusual ability to foresee events before their occurrence. During her rule, Seondeok encouraged a renaissance in thought, literature and the arts. She also supported balance among Korean's divergent religious groups. Queen Seondeok's life has recently been portrayed in a TV drama named after her.
Empress Myeongseong (1851–1895)
Empress Myeongseong was the first official wife of King Gojong, the 26th and last independent king of the Joseon Dynasty. She was known as a highly intelligent woman who advocated modernism and strongly opposed Japanese entry into Korea. Her enormous political power posed a major obstacle for the Japanese in their efforts to subjugate Korea and expand in Asia, a problem that the Japanese military resolved by assassinating her. While there is some controversy over her judgments, many modern Koreans view her as a national heroine who strove diplomatically and politically to keep Korea free of foreign influence.
Sources: Seoul Selection Guides: Seoul, Robert Koehler, Seoul Selection, 2009A Concise History of Korea: From the Neolithic Period through the Nineteenth Century, Michael J. Seth, 2006Korea Old and New: A History, Carter Eckert, Korea Institute, 1991A New History of Korea, Lee Ki-baik, Harvard-Yenching Institute Publications, 2008