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.


10. Birth of a Kingdom: Taejo of Goguryeo

What was the secret to Goguryeo’s early success? Some people would say that the mountainous land created a robust people that managed to withstand much and strike back with much force. This, combined with strong and intelligent early rulers like Jumong and Daemusin, guaranteed Goguryeo’s dominance of the northern region of the Korean peninsula. Others cite the geography made it easy for the Goguryeo people to grow in power. After all, the other stronger powers of the region- Silla, Gaya and Baekje- competed for space in the much more crowded  south, Goguryeo managed to occupy a vast region with few challenges to its existence. This allowed the budding kingdom to grow without being trampled on.

The stories that come from the early Goguryeo rulers makes the country sound like a Sparta, full of men who were trained from a young age to love warfare and despise culture. That’s not exactly accurate. Even at the early stages, Goguryeo did have a rich culture based on traditional spirit worship and shamanism. Early records of Goguryeo paint a picture of jovial people, who had many festivals involving singing, dancing, and the brewing of alcohol. One of the biggest artistic legacies of the kingdom is the tomb murals. Tombs of important people were filled with paintings of various religious and shamanistic symbols which show a not unskillful degree of artistic ability.

Source: Wikipedia

But food shortage was still an issue. The land was such that it required a lot of energy to plant crops with little yeild. Conquering lands was all well and good, there still needed to be a more sustainable way of governing. A more centralized reign would help distribute food and organize the people more efficiently, and that was the work of the 6th king of Goguryeo. The posthumous name given to the king is telling. His title “Taejo” means “Great Ancestor” and is generally given to the first or second kings of a dynasty. This seems to indicate that he is credited with making Goguryeo a well functioning state.

With the unexpected death of Daemusin, power passed on to his brother. That king only lasted 4 years before passing away, and the next king in line was Mobon. Mobon is a very contradictory figure, for although we hear of him distributing food to people in need, we also hear of him being a tyranical leader. He did not last long either, and was assassinated 5 years into his reign. Mobon’s crown prince was also denied the throne. So who next? The ministers looked at Mobon’s brother, Jaesa. The man declined, stating his old age as the reason why he could not rule. However, Jaesa did suggest his son. And so, with his mother as regent, King Taejo took the throne at 7 years old, where he would stay for an impressive (and disputed) 94 years.

Why was succession so complicated? There is a lot of controversy regarding Mobon’s reign, a controversy that started with King Yuri. Jumong’s family name and the name of his dynasty was ‘Go,’ and yet when Yuri took power, he changed the king’s name to ‘Hae.’ This is one of the reasons why some historians consider Yuri a usurper, since ‘Hae’ was the royal family name of the Buyeo kings. After Mobon’s death, though, Jaesa’s family switched back to ‘Go.’ Why the change of names? Was it really an issue of usurpation? It’s still a mystery.

Taejo’s rule saw even more expansion of Goguryeo’s territory. Taking the throne in 53 CE, he started absorbing neighboring states under his authority, starting with Eastern Okje in the year 56. In the next twenty years, a handful of states were now under Goguryeo control. The expansion went all the way down to the Salsu river, which shall have great significance to Korea at a later date. All this expansion is a great accomplishment for any kingdom, but Taejo went a step further to consolidate all the land and powers. He installed a bureaucratic system which would be followed by successive Korean kingdoms.

Local clans had always played a role in the politics of the court, and Taejo used them to centralize his rule. He re-organized the kingdom into five districts- North, South, East, West and Center- and had five local clans rule these districts. Taejo put himself in the center of this system, and now the court managed to keep a close eye on the aristocracy and the people. More than that, he also established a tributary relationship with other smaller tribes. Although the smaller states were under the rule of Goguryeo, they were left to their own devices as long as they paid tribute. In a sense, Goguryeo had become a small empire. No wonder Taejo is the ‘Great Ancestor’ of Goguryeo.

And so Taejo enjoyed a long rule. Incredulously long, since if we were to believe the claim that he had reigned for 94 years, that means he would have died at the age of 118. Some revision of the dating has placed Taejo’s reign at 68 years. This is still quite a long time for a monarch to stay in power,  a rule even longer than that of Queen Victoria’s.

It was a little too long for some people’s liking. By the (alleged) 80th year, Taejo’s brother Susong was already plotting. For the following years he and other potential contenders to the throne went on hunting trips, where they argued about what to do with this king that simply refuses to die. Susong bid his time, eliminating those contenders, while finally in the last year of Taejo’s reign, the younger brother had had enough.

Susong went on a hunting trip with his attendants, announcing that “His Majesty is old but he still does not die. But since I too am growing older; I cannot wait. All I wish is that you, my followers, would plan something for me.”

The king heard of this plan of rebellion. This could’ve been the beginning of a conflict between the two brothers, but Taejo made a decision which surprised his court. He decided to abdicate the throne and let his brother become king. The court tries to dissuade him. How could a rebel be given the throne so easily? Taejo tried to reassure them, but a councilor named Bokjang tried to reason with the king.

“Susong has a hard, ungracious disposition;” Bokjang said “If today he accepts Your Majesty’s abdication, then tomorrow he may harm Your Majesty’s descendants. Your Majesty perceives only that You are being kind to an ungracious younger brother and do not realize that You are bequeathing trouble to Your innocent descendants. I wish Your Majesty would think earnestly about this.” A perfectly logical plea, but Taejo would not change his mind.

Although well accomplished, Taejo might have been a little too rash in his decision to give kingship to Susong. As the minister had feared, trouble certainly was about to be bequeathed to the people.

Interlude 2: So You Think You Can Found A Dynasty?

So there you are, leader of a small clan surrounded by other city-states trying to get you to submit to their authority as well as hostile nomads raiding your storehouses of grain. Classic situation, am I right? But one day, you decide that you want something more for yourself and your clan. And, after negotiating or conquering the other tribes and city-states around you, you find yourself with a territory that extends into regions much larger than your own clan, regions you’ve probably never visited before. Congratulations, you’ve become the leader of a kingdom! What’s next?

You’ve probably founded your own dynasty. For the next years, decades or- if you’re lucky- centuries, your family members will be in charge of the place. And to help your dynasty’s odds of survival, there are a few things you need to do.

  1. Establish a Myth
    As a founder of the dynasty, you will become a god. You are the link between heaven and earth and the world of humans. Kings after you will perform ancestor rites and will have a visit to your grave for worship at least once during their reign, preferably at the beginning, to get your favor. That means you’d better have an impressive story to make people believe you’ve got a link to the supernatural world. We’ve seen the myths of Dangun, Jumong and Hyeogkeose, with their direct connection to the gods and the spirit world. The exception to this was Onjo, and that’s because Baekje worshiped Jumong as their ancestral founder.
    But your myth doesn’t have to be so explicitly otherworldly. In China, most founders of dynasties justified themselves by saying that natural disasters means Heaven was displeased with the way things were, and your success was Heaven’s sign of approval As time goes on, new founders would use more moral mythologies than anything purely supernatural.
  2. Build your court.
    You’ve built your kingdom by absorbing other tribes and city-states around you. This could involve warfare and conquest, but more often than not other means are used to achieve this goal. Sometimes village chieftains and clan leaders will submit to you in order to be part of your kingdom. Perhaps the most common way of getting people on your side is marriage. Jumong married Sosuneo to get the tribes on his side. And we shall see later that the founder of Goryeo will marry 29 women of different tribes in order to consolidate his power. Being the founder of a dynasty is a full time job.
    But once you’ve started your kingdom, you need a system to keep things running smoothly. That’s the function of your court, and the ministers in court have the privileged position of being able to advise you on what to do next. The court will have two branches: military and civil. At the beginning, a single minister will probably have to do both functions, but as your kingdom expands, the functions of court will become more complex and specialized. Beware though, the military and civil ‘literati’ court ministers do not like one another. This will have many repercussions in the future. But for now, there is a more pressing question: who should people your court?
    The leaders who submitted to your authority will expect things in return. That is to say, they want to become part of the court. Even chieftains of conquered tribes. And it is a good idea to let them. Since you’re still consolidating your kingdom, and people might be a little sore about losing their autonomy, any slights or insults could trigger rebellions or secession. A problem that most leaders will face at the beginning of their reign.
  3. Consolidating versus Expanding
    Your reign will probably start off a little rocky. There will be a lot to do. Most founders, who do things out of love of glory, will probably think that ‘doing a lot’ means expanding their kingdom and claiming as many people and territories as possible. Although expanding is an important part of the job, if you’re a little too enthusiastic about expansion, your kingdom will probably lose most of the land you’ve acquired after you pass away. Your heirs will simply not be able to keep the land without consolidation, as rebellions and revival movements (that is, people wanting to bring back the old rule) will overwhelm your kingdom that got too big too fast.
    Just because you’ve got a tribe on your side, doesn’t mean that things will be stable. There is a lot to nation building, and you need the people to become integrated into your kingdom. This will involve lots of projects, both physical and cultural.
    A common physical project that most rulers of vast territories will undertake is building roads or building canals. This seems like the most obvious thing: if people are disconnected from you and the capital, away from economic or cultural activity, frustrations arise. A more Machiavellian reason for networks is that you can send ministers loyal to your cause to preside over faraway villages, which has the double advantage of having the region under your control, and making sure a charismatic minister doesn’t have too much influence in court.
    As for cultural consolidation, this is a good time to exercise mercy. Have people loyal to your cause by granting favors and amnesties. If your kingdom has an official religion, like Buddhism will in the Goryeo or the later Three Kingdoms period, building temples and uniting the people with religious symbolism will help you a lot.
    Whatever your projects, make sure that it integrates the people both physically and symbolically, and that will drastically reduce the risks of rebellions causing strife across the land.
  4. Define the relationship
    In East Asia, the relationship between countries is a very important part of politics. The countries around you will fall under one of three kinds of relationships: tributary, equal, and barbarians. If you’re close to a strong country that has had a long lasting civilization, you might consider becoming a tributary of that state. What that means is that you will submit to the authority of that country. Which sounds crazy, why should you give up this country that you’ve fought so hard to establish? Subservience to the bigger state means that you will receive protection, help in times of need, and get connected to a larger network of countries that are also tributaries of that country. In return, you need to offer “tribute” by giving gifts (the country is obliged to return a gift much larger than what you’ve given) and visiting the emperor of that country and offering ritual submission, the infamous “kow-tow.” It’s a pretty good deal, all things considered. It goes without saying that China was the empire most countries paid tribute to for most of East Asian history, but these relationships, like many other things, was very fluid.
    Relationship of equals just means that you acknowledge the presence the other state, usually a neighbor, without offering tribute to it. This will involve a lot of trade and cultural exchange, as well as keeping up to date about the affairs of the state. Japan and Korea shared this kind of relationship. In fact, when Japan went into its period of isolation, the leaders relied on Korea to get news about the outside world.
    The rest? Barbarians. Culturally inferior people and nomads who are not worth acknowledging. Who cares about them? (Your descendants will care. A lot. Once these “Barbarians” realize they can also consolidate power and form their own states and empires.)
    What about having others be tributary to you? Then you’d want to declare yourself an empire. Tibet, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea have all declared themselves an empire at some point in history, mostly as a symbolic way of affirming their independence. Others  took up the mantle of empire, like the Jurchens, Manchurians, Khitans and Mongolians, as a way to signal their intention of invading China. The result was the Jin, Qing, Liao and Yuan dynasties. If you really want to start off your dynasty by antagonizing most of the known world, good luck. Most countries don’t even touch the ’empire’ issue until they’re well established.

With these few simple guidelines, you should ensure that your new kingdom will survive and even prosper for many years to come. Next time, let’s look at what will happen to the kings that will follow you.