Map of Korea in 204 Source: Wikipedia
In the year 220, the Han Empire- the Empire that ruled China and which had subjugated most of its neighbors, engaged in the war that ultimately destroyed Gojoseon, and set up the Commanderies which were still in place in the Korean peninsula- fell. Warlords from different parts of the Empire drew their bows and arrows at one another, trying to become heirs of the next Empire. When the Roman Empire fell, it more or less dissolved into a series of states that became their own countries. In China’s case, the philosophy that the Emperor is the ruler of all under heaven, and that Heaven’s mandate can only go to one ruler, was so strong that every time a dynasty fell another took its place. In this situation, though, it would take time for the next Empire to show up. The tumultuous series of events surrounding the fall of Han is immortalized in the novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” which has spawned countless stories, plays, movies, comics, TV shows, and several long running video game series.
For Korea, the fall of a Chinese Empire was a major event. The succession of dynasties will have a big influence on the politics of Korea, which had to decide what relation it would have with the new dynasty of China, and where to pledge their loyalty. Goguryeo was close enough to all the action to be forced to make a choice.
It is hard to imagine that Goguryeo was particularly sad to see Han go. This was the state that fought them on multiple occasions, and the Han Commanderies were still a thorn on Goguryeo’s side. The biggest Commandery, the Lelang (Nangnang in Korean) had recently undergone a radical change as well. It was occupied by the warlord Gongsun family, who created a new Daifang Commmandery to supplement the Lelang power. and Goguryeo was still enraged that the Gongsun state had tried to interfere with the succession issue between King Sangsang and his brother Balgi. Now it was King Sasang’s son, King Dongcheon, who was ruler during the post-Han period in 227. Since he was the son of another woman, King Sasang’s wife the Lady U was ill disposed towards the young
Dongcheon. She would engage in wildly childish acts like spilling soup on his clothes and cutting off the mane of his horse. The prince learned how to stand his own against such treatment, and so Goguryeo had a strong willed and patient king when it came time to face the new world.
Two Kingdoms in particular were eager to gain Goguryeo on their side, the Wu and the Cao Wei. Wei was closest to Goguryeo, but Wu was close enough to know that Goguryeo could pose a threat if the country allied itself with Wei. In 234 Wei sent their envoys to King Dongcheon. Wu did the same two years later. Dongcheon had to make a choice, and he showed his decision by executing the Wu envoys and sending them to Wei. The Goguryeo-Wei alliance was sealed.
One of the first things the new allies did was bring down the Gongsun family. The current leader, Gongsun Yuan, had angered the Wei king, who send his general- the famous Sima Yi- to subdue the Gongsun’s state. Goguryeo was more than happy to take revenge on the the Gongsun family for their meddling. Goguryeo troops joined Sima Yi in this successful campaign. But the ambitious countries of Cao Wei and Goguryeo could not keep an alliance for long.
Sima Yi, one of the more famous figures of the (Chinese) Three Kingdoms saga.
King Dongcheon’s father had started a campaign of Western expansion. Before 245, the Liaodong Peninsula felt Goguryeo’s forces, which was even threatening the northern borders of Silla. Wei was not impressed. The King of Wei sent out his troops. Ten thousand men from the Commanderies marched towards Goguryeo. Dongcheon matched their forces with 20 thousand of his own troops. The year 246 saw the beginning of the Goguryeo-Wei wars.
Dongcheon and his troops attacked the Wei army. They subdued the Wei down by the Biryu River. They fought all through the Yangmaek valley. The battles went to King Dongcheon’s head. They made him overconfident. He brought his generals together and told them, “Wei’s larger forces were not as good as our smaller forces, and, although Guangqiu Jian [the commander of the Wei forces] was a well-known Wei general, isn’t his life in my hands today?” King Dongcheon led his troops to finish off the Wei army. But the course of the battle was about to change.
The Wei army surrounded King Dongcheon’s army, and Goguryeo began to feel the real threat of the war. The Wei had no intention of just subduing the Goguryeo army. Wei followed the retreating army, like a lion following its wounded prey. Wei followed King Dongcheon through the mountainous terrain of the Goguryeo to the capital, Hwando.
On the 10th month, the winter was heated with blood and fire when the Wei armed managed to penetrate the Hwando. The people were forced to escape. Those that were left behind fell under the knife of the invading Wei army. The generals dismantled the city and inscribed their victory on the wall. Wei, however, was still not satisfied. They kept their chase of King Dongcheon.
King Dongcheon and his troops headed towards South Okjeo, one of Goguryeo’s tributary states. And then Mil-U, one of those who had participated in the fighting, and kept following his king while the Wei followed them, told Dongcheon that he would go back and stop the Wei army. He gathered a few troops and went to his suicide mission.
The King escaped and managed to gather his troops. He was not ready to forget Mil-U’s sacrifice, and offered a reward to anyone who could find and rescue him. They went back to the battleground and found Mil-U, badly injured but still alive. They brought him back to the King, who personally nursed Mil-U back to health.
Once the battered Goguryeo army reached Southern Okjeo, they were pressed up against a wall. The land and gave way to the sea. If the Wei were to reach Okjeo, the King would surely be lost.
Knowing this, the Goguryeo general Yuyu went to Wei’s camp. He met with the general of the Wei army and offered his surrender. He surrendered on behalf of the king, with presents and peace offerings. They had food and tabelware to set up a banquet, and the Wei general approached. But Yuyu reached for the offerings first. He took out a knife from within the tableware, and used it to kill the Wei general. Yuyu stabbed the general, and then stabbed himself.
“Hide a knife behind a smile,” an ancient stratagem states, and Yuyu followed this strategy literally. Although feigning surrender like that might clash with modern sensibilities, warfare was viewed differently back then. War was based on deception, and desperate situations called for desperate strategies. When Yuyu had told the king of his plan, the King was reportedly in tears, saddened that the situation had become so dire.
The chaotic scene sent the Wei army flying in confusion and panic. King Dongcheon divided his army and the Wei army eventually retreated. This wasn’t a victory that gave Goguryeo any strength or land, but its very survival survival. When the court returned to Hwando, it was too much in ruins to function as a capital anymore. So in 247, the King moved the capital and named it Pyeongyang.
The army demolished, the capital in ruins, and the geography of the country completely reconfigured, Goguryeo’s standing had greatly diminished. Although Wei was unsuccessful in destroying the country, Goguryeo had experienced its first major threat, a crisis of unprecedented proportions. When Gojoseon faced a not too dissimilar war, the country collapsed from internal strife, with ministers defecting to Han and ultimately assassinating the king. Dongcheon’s loyalty to his army, and the general strength that Goguryeo had accumulated, saved the country from total destruction. The King rewarded Mil-U and Yuyu’s family, and the two warriors would become a model for the later generals as Goguryeo attempted to reclaim its power once more.