20. Expanding of Territories: King Gwanggaeto The Great


Source: Wikipedia

Korea has awarded the title “The Great” to only two kings in its history. And there is an appropriate symmetry between the two. The later Great King, Sejeong of Joseon, was the philosopher king, wise ruler and inventor, creator of the Korean alphabet. The other, Gwanggaeto of Goguryeo, the great expander of territories, the victor of many battles and one of the first to unify- however temporary- the peninsula, was the warrior king.

Gwanggaeto assumed the throne in 392. Goguryeo was already experiencing a revival thanks to the reforms of the previous king Sosurim. But the kingdom still had scores to settle with their enemies in the North, the Yan dynasty of the Murong Xianbei, and their enemies in the South, Baekje.

Almost immediately after becoming king, Gwanggaeto seized Baekje’s fortresses in a push towards the south. He took over Gwanmi fortress, an important location just north of the Han river. The loss caused turmoil within Baekje and the kingdom’s King Jinsa ended up being either deposed or killed in a hunting accident (anyone familiar with East Asian history knows that there is no contradiction between the two, and “died in a hunting accident” is usually a synonym of a coup in the palace). Baekje’s next king, Ansin, tried to take back the fortress but failed. This would be the beginning of a long series of conflicts between Ansin and Gwanggaeto, with the latter always emerging victorious.

The next big battle between Baekje and Goguryeo was in 395 at a location named Paesu river. Baekje was defeated. Not being one to give up or learn a lesson, Ansin attempted another attack in the 11th month of the year, but his troops were stopped by a snowstorm. Another year, another attack. But this time Gwanggaeto not only defeated Ansin’s troops, but forced the Baekje king to sign a treaty, a treaty heavily in the favor of Goguryeo. Things were set to be stable, until in 399 Gwanggaeto received a distress call from his only ally in the south: Silla.

Silla had been watching Baekje’s growing power with concern. The alliance between Baekje, Gaya, and the Wa of Japan was a major threat to Silla, and the king sent an emissary in 392 to Goguryeo in hopes of forming an alliance of their own. After Baekje’s humiliating defeat and treaty, the kingdom called upon its allies and attacked Silla. Gwanggaeto responded, and the joint Baekje-Wa-Gaya army lost the battle. In the year 400, Baekje and Gaya were subdued, and Gwanggaeto’s troops stayed behind in Silla. The Wa and Baekje tried successive attempts at warding Goguryeo, but it was futile at that point. The influence of Goguryeo over the peninsula meant the first time a single power occupied the region which would later be called Korea.

Gwanggaeto’s influence would reach far beyond that. While moving southward, the king was also engaged in a series of campaigns in the north, sometimes within the same year as a Baekje attack. He fought against the Yan dynasty, and at a certain point the Yan split into smaller kingdoms, one of which, Northern Yan, was ruled by a descendant of one of the Goguryeo hostages that the Murong Xianbei had taken off with earlier. The king, Go-un, recognized Goguryeo as the parent country and formed a peace treaty. Gwanggaeto then took over Eastern Buyeo- because at this point, why the hell not?- which meant that by the time Gwanggaeto died at the age of 39, no doubt from sheer exhaustion caused by all the campaigns, Goguryeo had reached a size that would never be rivaled by future Korean dynasties again.


Goguryeo after Gwanggaeto and his son Jangsu were done. Source: Wikipedia

Gwanggaeto and his campaigns are the stuff of legends. Korea today, looking to a past where the country was stronger, more powerful, still romanticizes the warrior king in a series of novels, legends and TV shows. The cult around Gwanggaeto, however, started almost immediately after his death. Spearheaded by his son, King Jangsu, a steele was built in 414 to honor Gwanggaeto’s exploits. This stele, a giant monument recounting the reign of Gwanggaeto, is located so far north outside of current Korean borders that later generations assumed it belonged to a king from another country. It was only in the 19th century that the stele was rediscovered, and with enormous consequences.

The steele starts off with the founding myths of Goguryeo- from Jumong to Daemusin– and then about the wars Gwanggaeto fought and won. The controversial line describes the state of the southern peninsula in 396, and the stele says something along the lines of “the Wa crossed the sea and occupied Baekjan (a derogatory word for Baekje) and Silla.” This gave credibility to the Imperialist project of 19th century Japan, which had claimed that Korea during the three kingdoms era was part of Japanese territory, a claim they used to justify their occupation. Scholars to this day still grapple with the inscription and the meaning behind it, They have come up with many theories in the following years.


The Stele. Source: Wikipedia

 One of the earlier response was, typically, to create a conspiracy theory. The argument was that the stele inscription concerning Wa’s invasion was a forgery, inscribed in the 19th century by Japanese archaeologists. This theory has gone into disrepute, since no evidence of tampering has been found. Another theory argues over semantics, or rather syntax. The subject of the sentence “crossed the waters,” they say, does not refer to Wa, since the phrasing of the sentence is a bit obscure and some words are missing. Instead, Goguryeo is the subject of the sentence. This is yet more proof of the epoch-making importance of grammar. Award for most imaginative justification has to go to the theory, apparently popular in North Korea, that there were actually two three kingdoms (six kingdoms?): one set on the peninsula, and the other on the Japanese islands. So, the theory says, Wa invaded Silla and Baekje of Japan, not Korea. Right.

Probably the most popular theories these days explains it this way: Jangsu engaged in a bit of hyping and myth-making. This is not entirely implausible, considering the stele itself. The monument refers to Gwanggaeto’s rule with its own era name, Yeongnak (Eternal Pleasure). Era names were the privilege of emperors, who, mostly from China, were the ones who got to name the calendar of their rule, and other countries usually followed the same era name. So, it seems that at Gwanggaeto and Jangsu’s time, Goguryeo saw itself as an empire. And empires have historically  always used stories to legitimize the expansion of their power. Imperialist Japan would ironically use the stele to engage in the same tactic in the 19th century. So, while it’s known  that the Wa did live in the peninsula, as they had trading posts around the region, it would make sense that those trading posts were seen as threats the region, and a legitimate excuse to invade. Baekje and Silla, the weaker nations, needed the strong power of the Goguryeo Empire to protect it from the Wa invaders, the stele seems to be telling us.

Who knows, maybe the army of Goguryeo expected to be greeted as liberators by the people of Baekje and Silla.

Interlude 1: Fringe Histories and Conspiracy Theories

When it comes to ancient history, the lack of records is both fascinating and frustrating. It’s no wonder that the times BCE have been the source of so many myths, legends and theories. There is a mysterious aura surrounding the early people and the first kingdoms of the world. This allure of the unknown, coupled with the nationalism found in the 19th century that still stubbornly persists, has led to many different kinds of fringe historical theories, from the various myths about the lost tribes of Israel and Atlantis to the latest “Ancient Astronauts” theory. This is especially common with cultures that have a very long history, where some of the more nationalistic groups develop an “Everything comes from …” narrative. So you have the “Everything comes from Greece” histories, “Everything comes from India” histories, and the one that’s causing great annoyance to most of Asia: the “Everything comes from China” histories. Korea is another culture that has been around for a long time, so the fringe and nationalist historians have not neglected the country,

Most of what we know about the early Korean kingdoms come from two sources, the Samguk Sagi “Records of the Three Kingdoms” and Samguk Yusa “Miscellanies of the Three Kingdoms”. The latter is notorious for including a lot of mythology and folklore into its historical narratives (including the story of Dangun)- though the Sagi itself doesn’t shy away from recording omens and moral injunctions- but most accept their general outline of the events at the time. In the story of Dangun, Dangun’s father was said to preside over the “City of the Gods.” What if the city was not only a mythological golden age, but an actual place? What would happen if the city of the gods actually ruled the world?


Source The supplementary editio

Meet the Hwandan Gogi, Korea’s very own “Everything comes from…” history.The book is divided into four parts, the Samseonggi, Dangun Segi, Bukbuyeogi and Taebaek Ilsa. It’s a book that pushes back Korea’s history back to 7197 BCE, and puts two kingdoms before Gojoseon. These are the Hwanguk and Baedal kingdoms. It also lists 47 different Danguns who have ruled Gojoseon. The book has had a bit of a following in the fringe history community, and was a best seller in the 70s. Various interpretations and communities have popped up surrounding the Hwandan Gogi, which is where the fun truly begins.

So, not being satisfied with making Korea the second oldest civilization in “history” (the first, of course, being Atlantis at 10,000 BCE), what else does this community believe? Well, for starters, Sumeria was actually part of the Baedal kingdom! The kingdom was  in charge of twelve countries covering most of Asia and beyond, including Mesopotamia. The justification for this is that some ancient Mesopotamian words are similar to modern Korean words and that the fall of Sumeria coincides with the fall of the Baedal (according to the book’s timeline).

Most of the already mythological Three Sovereigns of China were also Korean, cause why not? One of the Emperors of Baedal was the god of war who had iron weapons before anyone else. Obviously, he managed to defeat the Yellow Emperor, one of the most popular of the legendary Five Emperors. The fact that Egypt, South America and various other countries had pyramids “proves” that they were part of the Baedal kingdom…somehow. Oh, they also had democracy. In a word, the entire history of all peoples of the world come from Hwanguk, Baedal and Gojoseon.

The book was published in the 70s but, in conspiracy theory fashion, claims to have been a text from an earlier date and had been hidden. The book became a hit when it first appeared in this plane of existence. There has recently been a revival of interest in the Hwandan Gogi and other fringe histories, probably in response to China’s revisionist historians who try to claim Gojoseon and Goguryeo as part of Chinese history. There is a website covering all the events in the book, as well as lecturers going around Korea talking about the amazing discoveries of the Hwandan Gogi and beyond. You can find the book in the bestseller table of most major bookstores in Seoul. It, as well as commentaries, have been translated into English. Though that is not to say it is all in any way accepted by  the mainstream. You won’t find many people who believe the claims, though some will sigh and exclaim that they wish it were real.

the purpose behind fringe histories like the one mentioned above is to give Korea a “Golden Age” narrative. I hope this blog will show that Korean history is amazingly rich and complex in itself. It is full of victories and tragedies, ups and downs, domination and subservience. It has been and continues to be a player in a World history, and has produced works of philosophy, literature, art and politics that should be better known. Korean history does not need an “Everything comes from…” myth to be worthy of studying.