Lewis Hamilton knocked Red Bull off pole position for the first time this season with a brilliant lap in Korea.
McLaren's 2008 champion edged out Red Bull's double world champion Sebastian Vettel by 0.222 seconds.
Jenson Button lines up third for McLaren alongside Mark Webber's Red Bull with the Ferraris fifth and sixth.
It is Hamilton's first pole since last year's Canadian Grand Prix but he was subdued after qualifying and did not celebrate the achievement.
McLaren told Hamilton over the pit-to-car radio: "Great news, you are on pole, great job." Hamilton did not respond.
He has said this weekend that he wants to bring his run of poor form to an end but that it would take some time to put a difficult season behind him.
Asked for his response to taking his first pole for 16 months, he said: "I'm very happy. I'm very proud of what the team has achieved over the last two races.
"It's one of the first positives I've had for a while. To be back on pole is a great feeling. I've had some difficult races in the past and we'll try and redeem ourselves (in the race) tomorrow."
Hamilton had stretched clear of his rivals from the first phase of qualifying and sealed his 19th career pole with a lap of one minute 35.820 seconds.
Hamilton added: "The team have worked incredibly hard all year to catch up the deficit we had to the Red Bulls.
"In the last few races Jenson has been massively quick and has been able to compete with them and constantly be on the podium but not finishing ahead of him [Vettel] too often.
"Fortunately after the last race and here today we've had some competitiveness and hopefully tomorrow we will continue with that performance."
He said the team had made a "big change to the set-up compared to the last race" following his struggle to fifth place in Japan, where Button won.
Vettel was the penultimate man out on track as eight cars took to the Yeongam circuit in a frantic final 90 seconds.
But the 24-year-old, who sealed a second world title last weekend, could not reel Hamilton, who has been strong in the wet and dry conditions thrown at him this weekend.
Vettel was investigated but not penalised by the stewards after he cut a corner on one of the laps on which he was coming into the pits in final qualifying.
The move appeared to come after he had been warned over the radio to do a "quick in-lap" to ensure he had enough time for a final lap, but it was decided that the German did not gain an advantage.
Button was nearly half a second slower than Hamilton despite setting the fastest time through the first section of Yeongam's challenging circuit.
"It's not perfect but congratulations to Lewis as he's been tough to hold onto all weekend," said Button, who won six days ago in Japan.
"We can race very well from here. We haven't got a clue what's going to happen with tyre degradation on high fuel but I'm looking forward to the challenge.
"I don't know how the race will go but you'd think it will be between us and the Red Bulls but I don't think Ferrari are that far behind.
"As a team we're disappointed we couldn't get this performance earlier in the year."
Red Bull would have broken the record for number of pole positions won in a season had Vettel or Webber taken the honours but an unusual qualifying strategy suggested the team had already turned their attention to the race.
Both drivers took the unusual step of starting qualifying on a new set of super-soft tyres, which are usually reserved for the final phase when the top grid positions are settled.
Pirelli have provided the soft and super-soft compounds in Korea and Red Bull have chosen to save all their unused sets of soft tyres for a race where tyre wear will be key.
"We saved all our prime tyres which is the difference and will be crucial for tomorrow," said Vettel.
"We are in a good position. It's not a long way down to the first corner, tyre wear will be crucial, Jenson did a good job in the last race, so that again will be important again.
"McLaren were very competitive on Friday. I know the [wet] conditions were different but they were a fair chunk ahead of us and once again we pushed them very hard and got closer than expected."
Felipe Massa out-qualified Ferrari team-mate Fernando Alonso, who was running with a new front wing, to claim sixth on the grid.
Alonso later admitted that he had made a mistake at the start of his lap.
"I lost a few tenths at the first corner and after that, I could not make up the time, so I decided not to complete the lap," he said.
Massa has now out-qualified Alonso at three of the five races since F1 returned from its summer break.
Paul di Resta lines up in ninth ahead of his Force India team-mate Adrian Sutil after the team again chose not to set a fastest lap in the last stage of qualifying to save tyres for the race.
Michael Schumacher had the track to himself in the middle section of qualifying but the 42-year-old still couldn't eke out enough pace to challenge for a top-10 place and he lines up 12th for Mercedes.
Schumacher had complained on the pit-to-car radio that he was feeling vibrations in the car but carried on regardless.
Williams left it late to send their drivers out of the garage in the first phase of qualifying and Rubens Barrichello ended up being knocked out by his own team-mate Pastor Maldonado.
"The tyres gave up a little bit on me and we decided to stop," explained the 39-year-old, who is fighting to keep his place in Formula 1 in 2012.