Kingship in Goguryeo passed from the founding king Jumong to his prodigal son Yuri. When it came time for Yuri to pass the throne, however, there was a slight hiccup. The next in line for the throne had committed suicide as a result of palace intrigue. So when Yuri died in 18 CE, his third son, Muhyul, came to the throne. He was only 14 years old. Normally this situation spells hard times for a kingdom. Nonetheless, Muhyul getting the throne was perhaps the luckiest thing that could’ve happened to Goguryeo. His posthumous name, King Daemusin, tells it all. The name translates as “Great God of War,” and he was responsible for making Goguryeo a force to be reckoned with.
During his lifetime, King Daemusin conquered many states and expanded his kingdom’s territory. There are three stories that have captured the imagination of people for generations after. The most famous was a David and Goliath tale, the time when Goguryeo challenged East Buyeo.
As you may recall, Buyeo was divided into a Northern and an Eastern kingdom. And the two kingdoms were the great powers in the northern regions. Jumong himself had come from Eastern Buyeo, and it was the king of Eastern Buyeo, King Geumwa, who had brought Jumong’s mother to court. It was also King Geumwa’s sons who were responsible for forcing Jumong out of the kingdom. So when Geumwa’s eldest son took the throne as King Daeso, he set his sights on the little kingdom of Goryeo.
Near the end of Yuri’s reign King Daeso sent the following message: “Our late King was on good terms with your former ruler, King Tongmyong [another name for Jumong], but your ruler enticed our subjects away and brought them to where you are now, gathering enough people to set up his own realm. Now, among kingdoms, there are both great and less, just as among people there are elder and younger. It is proper for the less to serve the great, just as it is right for the young to serve their elders. If Your Majesty can show proper respect by serving Us, then Heaven is bound to protect you, and your kingdom could last for ever. Otherwise, you may find it hard to preserve your state, however much you want to do so.” *
King Daeso had given King Yuri an offer he couldn’t refuse. And Yuri knew that. Judging that his country was still too young to challenge a great power like Buyeo, he decided to submit. But Muhyul couldn’t let things leave without retaliating. “My late ancestor was a descendant of the gods,” Muhyul sent in reply, “moreover, he was a worthy man with many talents. Yet, being jealous, Your Majesty injured him with slander to Your father, then King, so that my ancestor was degraded to the wretched status of stable boy. This is why he was unhappy and left. Now, without taking Your own faults of former days into account, Your Majesty is relying solely on your great multitude of troops, treating our land with contempt. I request the envoy report this to Your Majesty: that now eggs are piled up here; if Your Majesty does not upset them, then I shall be able to serve You as subject, but not otherwise.”
This reply is impressive, if we consider the fact that Muhyul would have been 5 years old when he had thought of it. Most of us at that age would’ve probably just replied with “Your face!” Muhyul was known in the court to be something of a child prodigy, which was probably why King Yuri felt secure naming him as successor.
This kind of tit-for-that with King Daeso continued when Muhyul ascended the throne. 3 years into the rule of King Daemusin, there was a strange phenomenon in Buyeo. There was a red crow with two bodies attached to one head. One of the people told King Daeso “Crows are black, but this one has turned red. Moreover, it has one head and two bodies, it is an omen of the union of two kingdoms. Doesn’t this mean Your Majesty is going to annex Ko[Go]guryeo.” Daeso sent the crow as an elaborate warning to King Daemusin.
Daemusin, now at the ripe old age of 17, looked at this reverse Siamese crow and retorted “[…]Then again, a red crow is indeed a fortunate omen. Although Your Majesty obtained it, you no longer possess it since you have sent it to me. As to which of our two states will survive or perish, so far this cannot be known.” With this diss, war between the two countries had begun. And this is where the story turns from remotely plausible history into Lord of the Rings.
King Daemusin, on a divine horse which he found earlier, and his troops were marching towards East Buyeo when they stopped by the banks of a river. There they found a cooking vessel. The tripod was no ordinary cookware, however, since it could cook food without any fire. Soon after a man named Bujong appeared, saying that the vessel belonged to his family, and that his sister lost it. To show his gratitude, Bujong joined King Daemusin. Later one night, while camping in a forest, strange metallic sounds could be heard. The next day King Daemusin found various weapons, a sign from heaven.
Two more soldiers would join Daemusin, a master of the lance and a giant man with white face and glowing eyes named Koeyu. The giant, said to be 3 meters tall, loomed over the king and requested that he join the group. Daemusin was greatly pleased to have such a person on his side.
A year had passed, and in the spring, the army had reached the area of Eastern Buyeo. King Daemusin surveyed the land, and found the best place to build his camp. King Daeso emerged from his city, eager to finally attack the impudent king of an insignificant little country. He rode his horse to the Goguryeo camp and, to his horror, found he had fallen into a trap: King Daemusin had pithced his camp around muddy and uneven countryside. Stuck in the mire, the horse could not move any further, and King Daeso was helpless. Then a terrifying war cry was heard. Koeyu scrambled towards Daeso, and decapitated him. The Buyeo army continued to fight despite the grizzly sight, but it was clear that they had lost.
With such allies, how could King Daemusin not win against Buyeo? That’s probably what people at the time thought. The idea that a small country like Goguryeo could challenge East Buyeo was simply unthinkable. That a small country like Goguryeo not only challenged but also defeated East Buyeo could not possibly be explained without including half the cast of an epic blockbuster. The Great God of War had achieved the impossible.
The reality seems to be that the war was grim and the soldiers of Goguryeo suffered heavy losses. After the defeat of King Daeso, we find the army of Goguryeo making straw figures of soldiers outside their camp. This was to fool the enemy while Daemusin and his troops escaped back to their country. The Samguk Sagi says at this point the magical tripod and the divine horse were ‘lost,’ switching the frame back to reality: a starving and broken army that had to hunt wild animals on their way back home.
When King Daemusin arrived in the palace he arranged a banquet for his people. He told them, “It was because of my own shortcoming in attacking Puyo[Buyeo] too rashly that, although we killed their king, we still did not destroy their kingdom. Moreover, we lost many soldiers and military provisions; this is all my fault.” The king then left to personally tend to the wounded. He would not repeat the same mistake and let his kingdom suffer.
Although they did not destroy East Buyeo, after the death of King Daeso, the kingdom was living on borrowed time. Internal discord and battles of succession meant that soon the kingdom collapsed into itself. It was later absorbed into Goguryeo. Small fry no longer, Goguryeo now found itself a strong country.
That was far from the end of King Daemusin’s exploits.We find the king a couple of years later now wizened by his experience against East Buyeo. This time, a governor from the Han Empire, looking to find a way to make a name for himself, stepped up to challenge Goguryeo. His army surrounded the kingdom. Their plan was to lay siege. The last time an army from Han led a siege against a Korean kingdom, things did not end well.
King Daemusin gathered his ministers to find a way out of this situation. One of his ministers, Ultuji, came up with an idea. In warfare, sieges are costly and exhausting, and you only carry them out if you believe that the people walled up inside the fortress will soon run out of food and surrender. The region of Goguryeo was rocky, and the Han governor was hoping that the people will soon starve. So, Ultuji said, send the governor a carp from one of the palace ponds along with some alcohol. King Daemusin liked the plan and did so. As expected, the governor saw this meant that there was more than enough water and food in the Goguryeo fortress, and that a siege would be too costly to be worth it. He withdrew. The King was now able to win wars without even fighting.
The final tale that made King Daemusin famous involved his son. Prince Hodong was known to be handsome and charming. He went out hunting one day, where he knew that the prince would run into the leader of the Kingdom of Nangnang. This Nangnang was probably one of the Four Han Commanderies, though some historians think it was another kingdom that was loyal to China. The King of Nangnang was impressed by the prince, and the two hit it off. They hit it off so well, in fact, that the Nangnang monarch decided that Prince Hodong should marry into the family.
The princess of Nangnang was said to be equally as smitten with prince Hodong. But the prince acted distant. He went back to his country. The princess was likely confused by this, and became even more confused when she got a secret message from Prince Hodong. He told her to destroy the war drums and horns of the city. After that, he would come in at night and the two would be together forever. The drum and horn were the instruments used to warn the king of any approaching intruders.
This should’ve made the princess suspicious. But young teenagers, especially those in love, are anything but rational. She destroyed the drum and horn. The princess then waited for the embrace of her beloved. Instead, there was chaos.
King Daemusin had arranged for the meeting of the King of Nangnang and Prince Hodong. Prince Hodong was instructed to try and make his way into Nangnang’s good graces, and find a way into the city. The prince played on the princess’ love and had her bring ruin to her own country. The King of Nangnang surrendered, but not before killing his own daughter for her betrayal.
Not long after this incident, Prince Hodong committed suicide. This was probably due to court politics, but some have somehow decided that this suicide was due to the prince’s grief over losing the Princess of Nangnang. Strangely, the tale of Prince Hodong and the Princess of Nangnang, one of sorrow and betrayal for the poor princess, a cautionary tale at best, had over the years transformed into a tragic love story. The imagination of many future writers have worked in a Romeo and Juliet plot, when in reality there is nothing to indicate that Hodong had any feelings for the princess.
One person who did suffer real grief, though, was King Daemusin. He had seen his brother commit suicide because of scandals, and now his own son suffered the same fate. Some say this shock greatly weakened the king. In the year 44, at the young age of 40, the great god of war passed away. And although the Nangnang commandery was soon taken back by the Han Emperor, Goguryeo came out of King Daemusin’s reign much stronger and robust. Ready for more dynamic kings to come and expand the power of the kingdom.
Daemusin’s reign is a particular inspiration to Korean fantasy authors. Source: Naver News
War, political intrigue, loyal vassals of supernatural stature, adventure, romance, tragedy. It’s no wonder that King Daemusin has been the inspiration for many fantasy and martial arts novels in Korea. The story of Hodong and the Princess of Nangnang was enacted many times on screen and stage, including a ballet. In the 90’s a manhwa called The Kingdom of The Wind was released, depicting a fictitious account of the life of Daemusin and his era. This series spawned a drama and perhaps the greatest honor that computer game obsessed South Korea could bestow on King Daemusin, an MMORPG.
*All quotes come from the Academy of Korean Studies Press’ translation “The Koryo Annals of the Samguk Sagi”