There was a custom in the ancient kingdoms that kingship passed from brother to brother much more frequently than father to son. This was the source of many battles and intrigues, as ministers rallied behind different people they thought should be the next on the throne. This was the cause of many factions and internal strife. Although King Taejo tried to enact a law to make the kingship solely hereditary, his successors did not seem to get the message. His brother took over, and then when that brother was overthrown, a third brother ruled. That was King Sindae, and when he passed away he had enough sons that the whole drama would be reenacted in the following generation.
Sindae’s second son was chosen to be king. He tried his best to wrest power away from the five powerful families, and had a meritocratic streak that would fill the records. When he was about to appoint someone as the next prime minister, that man declined, saying that another was much more qualified. The king listened to his advice and chose Ulpaso to be the prime minister. The king and his minister were especially beloved by the people
A story recounts the king on a hunting expedition. On his way back he saw a person on the road crying. Asked about his troubles, the man said that he was from a poor family who would hire himself out to support his family. But the harvest was bad that year so he and his mother were left to starve. The king then implemented one of the most important reforms in society. He distributed food and clothes to the suffering people. A special agency was established to help people during the toughest times of the year, from the third to the seventh month. The agency was to lend out grains from the royal house to the people, which the people were to pay back on the 10th month after the harvest. It was a good safety net for the tough years, and the system worked so well that it was imitated in one form or another in the later dynasties of Korea as well.
The king died and was given the posthumous name of King Gogukcheon. On the night of the monarch’s death, his queen, the Lady U, was at a loss. Since she was not ready to relinquish power, she had to think of a way to make sure the succession would work to her advantage.
She did not tell anyone about the king’s death, and secretly visited the king’s older brother that night. The elder brother, Balgi, didn’t know that his brother had died. He refused to see his sister-in-law. He even went so far as to rebuke her for going into men’s homes so late at night. Needless to say, Lady U was not impressed.
When she visited her late husband’s second brother, Yonu, the reception was quite different. He got dressed up and invited her in. While having dinner, Lady U told the man everything, even the way Balgi had treated her. Yonu listened intently, so much so that while slicing pieces of meat, Yonu’s knife slipped and he cut his finger. Lady U tore off a bit of her skirt, grabbed his bleeding finger, and wrapped the cloth around his finger. The night went on, and she asked him to escort her back to the palace. The two spent the night together; Lady U had found her new king.
The next day the two made their union official and Yonu became king. Suddenly there was a great clamor and soldiers surrounded the palace. It was Balgi. “Come out quickly,” he roared, “and if you do not then I will exterminate even your wife and children.” Yonu and Lady U shut themselves in the palace. It took three days before Balgi relented.
Down but not out for the count, Balgi left Goguryeo and went to the Liaodong Peninsula. This was land occupied by Han China, the place where the commanderies were stationed. By 197, the peninsula and commanderies had become semi-autonomous from the rest of the Empire. A warlord family named the Gong, taking advantage of the chaos that was happening in Han, had taken over. Balgi visited the current warlord, Gongsun Du, and requested thirty thousand soldiers to aid him conquer his former land. Gongsun saw this was a great opportunity to expand his power, and so agreed.
Thus began a battle between Goguryeo and the army led by Balgi. Keeping it all in the family, Yonu had their third brother Gyesu personally deal with the matter. After Balgi’s army was defeated, Gyesu approached his older brother personally. Gyesu himself was conflicted about the whole situation. On the one hand, Balgi should have been made king, on the other hand, going to an enemy country to attack your own country was unforgivable.
Still, when Balgi appealed to his younger brother- “Can you bear harm your aging older brother?”- Gyesu couldn’t bring himself to execute his older brother. The Samguk Sagi* records the conversations that would follow the tragedy: Instead of a sword, Gyesu penetrated his older brother’s heart with an appeal: “Yonu, by not refusing to become King, committed an unrighteous act. But what sort of idea is this that because of your ephemeral anger you wanted to destroy your country? After you die, how can you face your deceased ancestors?”
The two brothers stood face to face. Hearing those words, Balgi’s anger dissipated. But when he snapped back to consciousness he had realized all the damage his actions had done. He was so overcome with shame that he took a knife and ended his life. Gyesu buried his brother in a makeshift tomb of grass, and returned home full of grief.
The King received his younger brother with a welcoming reception. He asked about the situation, and was quite offended that his brother still had doubts about Balgi’s crimes. He was especially not happy about the burial of their older brother.
Gyesu couldn’t restrain himself, and, tears in his eyes, he said “I would like to say one thing and then die.”
“What?” The King asked.
“Although the Queen adhered to the former King’s will and enthroned Your Majesty, that you did not follow precedent by declining is because there was no sense of brotherly respect… how could I know that this [burying their older brother] would cause Your Majesty to be angry? If Your Majesty can embrace humanity, forget your hatred, and follow mourning rituals to bury your older brother, who can accuse you of impropriety? Since I have said all that I wanted to say, even if I die, I will live on. I request that the state execute me.”
Just as his words earlier had pacified Balgi, Gyesu had now managed to appease his other brother. King and brother found the corpse of Balgi, and buried him according to royal rituals. Just like many family tragedies and civil wars, brotherly bonds came back too late.
This would not be the end of Yonu- later known as King Sansang-‘s dramatic life. In the twelfth year of his rule, in 208, and he and his queen had no heir. It was one winter that the king and his ministers were preparing a sacrificial ritual. The pig that was meant to be sacrificed escaped. Ministers followed the pig into the forest. There, they found a beautiful woman who had managed to outrun both of them and capture the animal herself. They were enthralled by her beauty and grace, and couldn’t stop talking about her. The King was naturally intrigued.
He managed to track down the woman in her village. They then started a secret romantic meeting. Lady U heard of this, and she was not pleased at all. She sent soldiers to kill the woman. The woman tried to escape by dressing up as a man. But when the soldiers caught her, they saw something that made them stop their mission right away. “You may kill me, but do you dare kill a prince?” She showed them her current state, pregnant with King Sansang’s child. The King was delighted when he heard this, and had the woman be his second wife back at the palace. Lady U was unable to harm the woman or her child, but the Lady was not pleased. She made the child- the future king-‘s life as miserable as she could, in fine wicked stepmother tradition.
Brotherly conflict, secret romances, and scandalous babies. The life of King Sansang was something out of a melodrama. His reign swelled with internal conflict, but when King Sansang passed away in 227, Goguryeo looked outward. It saw the landscape of the world around them had changed completely. This was a turning point, where the kingdom would be forced to redefine its own identity and its relationship to the countries around them. Goguryeo rushed towards great opportunities, but also danger that would be one of Goguryeo’s first great threats.