3. Gojoseon Falls: King Ugeo

By the 4th century BCE, Gojoseon had reached its height of power, pushing its way north into Manchuria, thanks to a new super weapon that was about to shake the ancient world: iron. Although still not completely developed, it allowed not only new modes of fighting and improved weapons, but also changed society at home. The rulers of Gojoseon adopted the title of “king” which proved their political power at the time. The Chinese state of Yan got fed up with what they perceived to be Gojoseon’s arrogance, and they attacked, greatly weakening the country. It would take a few hundred years, but in the 2nd century BCE, King Ugeo found himself ruling a country that was regaining its lost power, thanks to the work of his grandfather and old enemies.

Although Yan managed to defeat Gojoseon, the state itself was part of a time of great upheval, and was eventually absorbed into the greater empire of Qin (where the word ‘China’ comes from). Great Empire that it was, it didn’t manage to hold power for more than a few decades, when it was overthrown by the Han. All this political turmoil meant that a lot of people were caught in intrigue, and scores of refugees were escaping the new Han Empire.

One such person observing the state of affairs was Gojoseon’s King Jun. He accepted a lot of these refugees into his kingdom as his subjects. He sent a general, Wiman, to fortify the borders against all this chaos. Wiman is said to have been a refugee from Yan, who had assimilated into Gojoseon, adopting the traditional dresses and top-knot style, but like most biographies of this era it is up for debate. Either way, Wiman’s power base of refugees had given him the opportunity to overthrow King Jun, who escaped at the southernmost parts of the Korean peninsula to a people called the Jin (not to be confused with Jin of China…or Jin of China again…or Jin of the Jurchens…or Later Jin of the Manchurians…Jin was an awfully popular name for a country). King Jun would have an important role to play in that country, but more on that later. For now, Wiman was in charge.

With his military capabilities and economic strength, Wiman invaded the tribes surrounding Gojoseon and began expanding right by the Han borders. By now iron became a mainstay in his power. The relationship between Gojoseon and Han was tense, to say the least, as the two did not enjoy being so close to one another. And this was the situation that Ugeo inherited when he became king.

Things continued on thier way, Wiman and his son ruled without much incidence, and then when King Ugeo reached the throne, his kingdom had grown so powerful that it blocked other tribes and countries from being able to trade with the Han Empire. The Emperor of Han, Wu, tried to find a way to appease this bothersome country, and sent an envoy called She-He to request an audience with King Ugeo. This audience would not happen, and She-He was escorted back to Han. He did go back, but not before killing his Gojoseon escort in frustration, a move that is generally frowned upon by most schools of diplomacy.

Emperor Wu showed similar lack of diplomatic skills when Gojoseon demanded that She-He be brought to justice. Instead, Wu gave She-He rewards and titles. This was too much, and King Ugeo would show just how he felt about this by sending troops to go and kill She-He. The situation had reached its end point, and the conflict between Han and Gojoseon, many decades in the making, had begun.

Emperor Wu’s plan was to overwhelm the Gojoseon forces from land and sea. 50,000 sailed towards the country, while another group were advancing through land. They were both led by two of Emperor Wu’s generals with a similar objective: to capture the Gojoseon capital of Wanggeom. King Ugeo sent his army to the mountains to stop the troops from reaching the country. Meanwhile, the ships had landed, and the troops marched towards the capital. They were quickly repelled and admiral fled. The first wave of attacks had failed.

The two countries attempted peace negotiations, but looking back at the She-He incident, its obvious that diplomacy was not the strong point of these two monarchs. The battle resumed, and Wanggeom was now under siege. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Emperor Wu sent another general to take command of the army and attacks became more powerful and more concentrated. King Ugeo and his soldiers were able to repel attack after attack, but things were already starting to crumble- politically speaking- on the inside. Some ministers in court suggested that surrender was the best option. The strain of a siege, and such a long war, no doubt had some terrible consequences to the people and the land. What’s more, Emperor Wu was a capable military leader who had expanded his empire and fought successfully many wars already. How much longer could they hold out?

Four ministers presented their case for giving up.Perhaps it was due to stubbornness, perhaps because he thought things had gone too far to turn back now, or perhaps because he believed they actually had a chance of winning the battle, King Ugeo refused surrender. The attacks on Wanggeom the king managed to fend off, but he ignored this new pro-Han faction at his peril. Because in 108 BCE, one of the pro-Han ministers had defected, and went back to Gojoseon in order to have the king assassinated.

King Ugeo was dead, but his ambitions lingered on. A minister named Seong gi took controls and continued the war. It was already too late by then. Seonggi was also assassinated and Wanggeom, the city named after Dangun Wanggeom, had fallen. In the year 108 BCE, Gojoseon was no more.

Emperor Wu did not invade the country. Instead, he set up four commanderies around the former lands of Gojoseon. These commanderies were major towns run by Han ministers who would report back tot he Emperor and keep an eye out on the activities of over tribes. One of the reasons they were set up was to make sure no other tribe or city would grow too powerful. They would eventually fail. But for now, the commanderies were part of the Korean peninsula, something the people of the land greatly resented.

With Gojoseon gone, other kingdoms in the peninsula were about to flourish. Jin, the country that housed King Jun after he escaped Wiman, had grown considerable in economic power, and transformed into the Samhan (Three Hans): Mahan, Jinhan and Byeohan. There was also the kingdom of Buyeo to the north as well as various other tribes and city states around these bigger political entities.

So with the four Han Commanderies, the Samhan, Buyeo, Okje and Ye in place, the land was ripe and ready for the next phase of Korean history known as the Three Kingdoms Period.

2. The King That Never Was: Gija

While we’re finding more and more archaeological evidence about the ancient society, most of Gojoseon remains unknown to us. And glimpses under the shroud of mystery reveal mostly myths and speculation. Last time we saw the mythical founder Dangun retiring from ruling after an impressive 1,500 years. The reason that Dangun left the throne, the myth continues, was that he gave the helm to another. This new ruler was supposed to have introduced the laws of society, including the 8 Prohibitions, the earliest known laws in the peninsula. The parts of the 8 Prohibitions that still remain are simple outlines prohibiting things like stealing and killing. This second phase of Gojoseon was considered the second half of the founding myth for a very long time. And yet this king has disappeared from public consciousness.

The ruler’s name was Gija. Mention that name to people and their reaction will be dismissive, angry, or they will just shrug. References to the king vanished from textbooks, and there is not going to be any TV series or dramas recounting his life anytime soon. What happened? There is no historical evidence for Gija and his rule, and research since the early 20th century has cast doubt upon the story. But Dangun’s fantastic 1,500 year rule is still part of the official narrative, even if in a more symbolic reinterpretation. So why has Gija disappeared? The reason lies in ideology as much as it does in history, because Gija, original name title Jizi, had come to the peninsula as a ruler of the people all the way from China.

The story begins in the 11th century BCE, where the last king of the Chinese Shang kingdom had imprisoned his uncle Gija. The king of a rival kingdom overthrew the Shang king, eventually bringing about the Zhou dynasty. The King of Zhou freed Jizi, who moved east and started his own kingdom. He became Gija, and traditional history divided old Joseon into three parts: Dangun Joseon, Gija Joseon, and the third Joseon which will be part of our next chapter. Gija introduced cultural and political practices to his kingdom, including the 8 Prohibitions mentioned above.

The court of Joseon (the later one) considered the story of Gija to be an important part of its cultural heritage. But why were the earlier Koreans so eager to adopt Gija as part of their founding myth? It wasn’t because of subservience, as some people interpret it, but because of ‘Culture.’ The concept of culture was very conservative, and people looked to the past for guidance. China prided itself on its culture because it considered its early dynasties, the above mentioned Shang, the earlier Xia, and the mythical ‘Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors’ to be peopled with sages and demigods. Jizi, the ‘Viscount of Ji’ was one of those people. In fact, he was called a sage by none other than Confucius himself. For the people of Joseon, heavily influenced by Confucian philosophy, having such a figure as part of their cultural ancestry came with an incredible amount of prestige.

These days the idea of culture is not so conservative, and people aren’t as Confucian as they used to be. Coupled with a growing nationalistic consciousness in the early 20th century, and Gija’s importance is suddenly diminished. The idea of a Chinese king coming and introducing culture to the Korean peninsula does not fit well with national identity, which is why Dangun’s status has been raised while Gija’s eventually disappeared.

Ideology aside, what does the history say? It is impossible to have any conclusive proof. Older records, both in China and Korea, do mention the ‘Viscount of Ji’ establishing a kingdom in Joseon, but even those records were written centuries after the event. There are some historians, instead of dismissing the story altogether, argue that Gija Joseon and Dangun Joseon were two completely different kingdoms that occupied different parts of north and north-east Asia. What’s interesting is that some families, like the SeonWoo of Taewon clan (which is a rare family name that has two syllables instead of one, like Park or Lee), count Gija as their ancestor, so the legend still continues, even if  in a smaller way.

Whether or not the Viscount of Ji was a real historical figure is still up for debate, but China’s growing influence will take us out of mythological time and move history along, to the rise and fall of the final phase of Gojoseon.

1. Ancient Ruler, Modern Symbol: Dangun Wanggeom


People have inhabited the Korean peninsula for a very long time. The archaeological evidence shows paleolithic tools from around half a million years ago. There has been a lot of pottery uncovered at later dates, showing different styles and patterns indicating that there were different people living in the area. The most famous of the pattern is the “comb” pottery for its distinct shape. Almost nothing is known of these people, but a lot of Korean shamanistic practices is said to come from this time. Time went on, and with the coming of the Bronze age, technology increased, as did the beginnings of hierarchy evidenced by the tombs known as dolmens. Interest in archaeology is strong these days, with new discoveries every day particularly in areas of Gyeonggi.

The earliest social groups were clans, which later became tribes as populations expanded. These tribes started forming towns and villages, which were separated from one another by walls. These ‘walled city-states’ are the first known political organization in Korea. Eventually through absorption or alliances, these walled cities started linking with one another, giving rise to confederacies. Sometimes confederacies became big and centralized enough to have kings ruling over them, turning into kingdoms. These political entities became large, as in the fourth century BCE, we find one of these kingdoms covering the northern parts of the Korean peninsula and parts of the Liáodong Peninsula (a tiny peninsula right next to Korea). This state was Joseon, renamed by later historians as Gojoseon (“Go” meaning “old”) to distinguish it from the later Joseon dynasty of the 14th-20th century. This Gojoseon is considered by traditional historical narratives to be the first Korean kingdom, with a starting date of 2333BC. The founder, Tangun, is part of the founding myth of Korea.

The story starts off with no other than the Lord of Heaven himself, called Hwanin in this tale. Hwanin had a son named Hwaneung, who wanted to live in the human world. So Hwaneung and 3000 of his followers, including deities like the gods of rain and harvest, descended to Mount Baekdu and founded Sinsi, the legendary City of the Gods. At that time, a tiger and a bear prayed to become human. So in true mythological fashion, Hwaneung gave the two animals a task: they were to spend 100 days in a cave away from the sun, eating cloves of garlic and mugwort every day. This proved to be too difficult for the tiger, who ran out of the cave before the time was over. The bear diligently kept on and at the end of her trials was transformed into a woman. Ungnyeo, the woman’s new name, went to a sandalwood tree to pray and make sacrifices to the god who gave her this form. Hwaneung descended from Mount Baekdu and together they had a child. This child became Dangun Wanggeom, and he went on to found the city of Joseon. After ruling for a thousand and five hundred years, the retired and became a mountain ascetic, withdrawing from the world.

Many historians have an interpretation for this story. They say the city of the gods represents the more modern bronze age people, while the tiger and bear were the older clans. In fact the bear is a popular symbol in many ancient shamanistic tribes, and the tiger has folkloric significance in Korea to this day. The marriage of Hwaneung and Ungnyeo puts a kinder spin on the new people assimilating the old. As for Dangun’s rather impressive 1500 year rule? It’s been suggested that ‘Dangun’ was a title given to the king of the country, who was revered as a god. When one Dangun died, another carried the divine mantle, ensuing a continuing divine rule. When Dangun withdrew into the mountains, that signaled a change in the political system.

Aside from the literal and historical reading of the myth, there is a symbolic importance to the figure of Dangun. It must be remembered that when we’re using the word “Korea” (or China or Japan or Manchuria for that matter) when talking about the past, it’s an anachronism used for the sake of convenience. Gojoseon was home to many different tribes and confederacies, there were people like the Yaemek and Han, and after the fall of Gojoseon we hear a myriad of names like Buyeo, Okje and Samhan. The peninsula was united into a political entity similar to modern day Korea at around the 10th century CE. That’s around the time we start seeing records of Dangun, and the myth has grown in importance since.When Goryeo was facing outside threats, a shamanistic religion with Dangun as its central god popped up. And again in the 20th century, with the shadow of colonialism looming, a religion known as Daejonggyo also placed Dangun as their god. The religion isn’t very popular these days, but the date it set for the founding of Korea, October 3rd, has now become a holiday known as Gaecheon “The Opening of Heaven.” There are still religious ceremonies held on that day.

Dangun is a foundation myth that gives the people of Korea a national identity, a feeling of unity, and that is what gives the symbol importance today. A place that especially relies on symbolism for its legitimacy is North Korea. So it should be no surprise that North Korea makes copious references to Mount Baekdu in its extravagant cult of personality, even claiming that the mountain was Kim Jong Il’s birthplace (it wasn’t.) Interestingly, North Korea calls itself not Korea (or “Han” like South Korea), but Joseon.

Foundation myths play an important part in the national identity of people. The ancient Mesopotamians had Gilgamesh, the various city states of Greece had their own demigods and heroes as founders. George Washington, though obviously a more historical person, takes on mythological significance in most of the United States. For Korea, Dangun and his mythological origin take this role. But some myths have more significance than others. And some myths just seem to disappear from history- mythological and actual- altogether. One such myth will be the subject of our next chapter.