18. Baekje Triumphant: King Geunchogo

After the assassination of King Bunseo by the Han Commanderies, Baekje remained relatively stable for the next forty years under King Biryu. Biryu was a relative of King Saban, the monarch whom Go-I forced to step down. From then on the two descendants, the Go-I and Saban lines, competed for kingship. Biryu took power under circumstances similar to how Saban lost his- by claiming that Bunseo’s successor was too young to rule. Biryu died in 344, and the successor took his position as King Gye. He only reigned for two years, and was the last king to be descended from Go-I. The short and uneventful reign gave way to Baekje’s most important ruler. 346 was a monumental year for Baekje, beginning its crescendo to become the super power of the peninsula, led by King Geunchogo.

For such an influential figure, the records tell us surprisingly little about the king. The Samguk Sagi only has a few entries about his reign, but every entry is a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments.

In the second year of his rule, King Geunchogo performed the sacrifices to heaven and his ancestors, and then set out on his work. He continues King Biryu’s diplomatic efforts to ally with Silla, and by 366 Silla and Baekje were regularly sending envoys to one other. Gaya and Baekje were also on good terms.

As for Goguryeo, the situation in the northern country was not going well. Goguryeo had suffered a humiliating blow from the Murong Xianbei. Since the Xianbei were pressing down from the northern regions, Goguryeo looked south to the newly unoccupied southern regions where the Daebang commaderies were. Baekje also had sights on this new land, and the two countries fought the battle of Chiyang in 369. Baekje showed an unexpected force and the Goguryeo army retreated. King Geunchogo, in a show of immense confident, plotted a counter attack in the heart of the northern kingdom. He fitted his army with imperial yellow (a color traditionally reserved for the Emperor of China) flags and, two years after Chiyang, marched an army of three hundred thousand to Pyeongyang. Two centuries earlier an army of twenty thousand was enough to intimidate the first Chogo of Baekje. Now his successor by name (the “Geun” in Geunchogo denotes second, to show his alliance with the old family line) managed to raise an army almost ten times as big.

The army attacked the Pyeongyang fortress, forcing the Goguryeo king to lead an army to repel the invaders. King Geunchogo’s son, the succeeding King Geungusu, drew his arrow and fatally wounded the Goguryeo monarch. Although Baekje retreated soon afterwards, this battle in 371 culminated in Baekje’s dominance over the region.


Although still smaller than Goguryeo, Baekje gained significant amounts of land under Geunchogo’s reign. Source: Wikipedia.

Baekje then set sights on improving ties with its neighboring countries. First order of business: China. This was a politically tumultuous era (see King Micheon’s entry for further details), and the Jin, successors to the Cao Wei, had lost a lot of land and power to the invading northern countries. In addition, the dismantling of the Han Commanderies cut them off from prospective trading and diplomatic relations with the countries to the east. So we might suppose that the Jin court warmly greeted Geunchogo’s envoys in 372. Baekje and Jin had set up official relations, Geunchogo married a woman from the Jin court, and the Jin bestowed to Geunchogo the title of “General Stabilizing the East and Administrator General of Lelang.” This put Baekje in a favorable position to step up diplomacy with another neighboring country.

Geunchogo’s most long lasting achievement might probably be his efforts to normalize relations with the Yamato (usually referred to as the Wa in Chinese and Korean historical texts), modern day Japan. Japan’s historical texts record a few instances of their alliance. One of the most famous symbols of this relation is the Seven Branched Sword, counted among Japan’s national treasures. The sword will be very familiar to anyone interested in Japanese pop culture, since it appears in many games, movies, manga and anime as a powerful weapon (although the real sword was most likely strictly ornamental).


King Geunchogo, or one of his successors, also sent the scholars Ajiki and Wang In. They brought literacy of Chinese characters to the Yamato court, and instructed them in the Confucian classics. It’s never mentioned when Baekje gained reading and writing, but it was in use, if only by an elite few, by Geunchogo’s time. In fact, Geunchogo commissioned the scholar Goheung to write a history of Baekje. The Seogi, as it was called, was the first historical text written in Korea. Sadly no remaining copies exist today.

A lot of modern historians consider the 4th century to be the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. They mention the legends of the three founders (Jumong, Onjo and Pak Hyeokgose) in passing, and then skip a few centuries to Baekje’s expanding power. Geunchogo’s reign was a watershed moment in early Korean history. He changed Baekje’s position in the peninsula and, if there is any truth to the “Continental Baekje” theory, it might probably be because Baekje had trading outposts on the continent at the time, showing it to be an active player in the politics of the day. King Geunchogo died in 376, leaving Baekje, Goguryeo, Silla, Gaya and Japan involved in intrigues and alliances which would very quickly become the conflicts of the three kingdoms.

King Geunchogo is one of the important figures that people learn about in schools, and is featured prominently in textbooks. Because of the lack of any entries on his personal life, Geunchogo doesn’t show up in pop culture very often. There was, however, a 2010-2011 60 episode drama about Geunchogo’s life, which incorporates the Continental Baekje theories into its plot.


(As a quick aside, the Japanese and Korean historical texts get into a rather silly argument about which country was stronger. About whether Baekje sent those gifts to the Yamato court as a show of submission, or whether the Yamato court asked Baekje for help. It would seem a bit odd that a supposedly more powerful Yamato would be importing culture from a subservient country and not vice-versa. But for the most part, the two countries seemed to be on equal terms, and the arguments are on political rather than scholarly grounds.)


17. Riches To Rags and Back Again: King Micheon

In 293, a young boy named Eulbol had to make the tough decision of leaving his old life behind. This wasn’t a decision made lightly, since he was fleeing for his life. His uncle, the Goguryeo king Bongsang, had Eulbol’s father executed under false charges of treason. A year before, Bongsang had his uncle executed under similar pretenses, an act that made the king very unpopular. With all these family members suddenly turning traitors despite themselves, Eulbol knew he couldn’t stay in the palace.

Hi self-imposed exile did save his life, but Eulbo fell from one misfortune into another. He got a job working for a local lord named Eummo. The man, known for his bad temper, had no idea who the young prince was and had the boy work without rest. Eulbol spent his days performing errands and at night he camped near the pond outside of Eummo’s house, throwing stones in the pond to keep frogs from waking his master up. After a year Eulbo had had enough and escaped.

The boy then went on to become a salt merchant. Salt was an important commodity for the community and the provisions had to be well taken care of.  So when an old woman went to Eulbo and asked for double portions, he turned her down. Infuriated, she put a shoe in the salt merchant’s bag, and he left without knowing what he was carrying. The old woman called the local lord and accused Eulbo of stealing her shoes, who was lashed and forced to pay the woman in salt the value of her shoes.

Things didn’t get better. Eulbol’s clothes ragged, his skin dried form the sun, the stress of poverty making him completely unrecognizable, he lived seven years in this way, forgetting himself and his old life. In the year 300, he a visitor found him and changed the course of his life.

During the years of Eulbol’s exile, King Bongsang continued to kindle the resentment of his subjects. Already unpopular enough, the King seemed completely oblivious to this fact when he ordered every man and woman over fifteen to repair and decorate his palace. The prime minister Changjori pointed out that there was a famine in the country, and that the king’s orders were putting too much strain on the people. The King replied that, on the contrary, he was building a palace because seeing the ruler in such a beautiful place would inspire the people, and this whole endeavor was completely altruistic. Heaven forbid that the king would actually enjoy the noble sacrifice he was making.

Unimpressed, Changjori retorted, “If a ruler does not cherish his people, he cannot be worthy. If an official does not admonish you, he is not loyal. While I am Prime Minister of State, I must speak out, how would I dare deny you praise?”

“Do you want to die for the people?” The King scoffed. “I hope you will not mention this again.” Just like Myeongnim Dappu before him, Changjori started a plot to overthrow the unworthy king.

The first thing a successful revolt needs to do is to avoid a power vacuum, so Changjori had to make sure there was someone to replace Bongsang. The problem was that the best potential candidate had disappeared seven years earlier. So the Prime Minister sent two loyal ministers to search for Eulbol. One of the ministers stopped in front of the Biryu river, where he spotted a boat drifting by. Although the man in the boat was older and more wizened, the minister recognized him as Eulbo. The minister bowed and said, “now as the king is without principles, the Prime Minister of State and high officials secretly plot to remove him. Because you are a royal grandson and your deportment is restrained and humane and you love the people, you ought to inherit the dynastic throne. Therefore we have been sent to respectfully welcome you.”

Eulbol was still suspicious of anyone from court. “I am an ordinary person and not a king’s grandson. Please go search again.”

“The present king has lost the people’s trust for a long time,” the minister insisted. “And clearly is not of the caliber to be king. Therefore most officials sincerely hope you will become King. Please do not harbor any doubts.”

Eulbol agreed and hid in a house by orders of the Prime Minister. In Autumn of that year, the King and his ministers went on a hunting trip. In the forest Changjori placed a reed in his hat and turned to the others. “All those who have the same mind as me, do as I do.” Every minister followed suit. The coup was over, and the ministers placed the King under house arrest. Knowing his time was over, King Bongsang and his sons committed suicide. And so in the year 300 Eulbol  became fifteenth king of Goguryeo, known in history as King Micheon.

After Goguryeo lost the war against Wei, the country was slowly recovering. The two kings before Bongsang- Jungcheon and Seocheon- kept the country running steadily after the devastating defeat. Across from Goguryeo in China the Jin dynasty had been keeping things relatively stable in the post-Han Empire collapse, but an intense conflict called the War of the 8 Princes significantly weakened the dynasty. Tribes and smaller countries vying for power were now free to pursue their own agenda, starting the massively confusing Six Dynasties and Sixteen Kingdoms period in China.  King Micheon would be one of those people engaged in the world politics of the time.

Two years after he took the throne, King Micheon led an army of 30,000 to attack Xuantu/Hyeondo, one of he Han Commanderies. The Commandery stood only in name for about a decade till it was completely invaded. In 313, King Micheon annexed the Lelang/Nangnang Commandery. After the two campaigns, and the culture and economy of the Commanderies were absorbed into Goguryeo. Most importantly, it ended almost 400 years of Chinese (Han and post-Han) presence in the peninsula. No other Chinese dynasties would occupy land there again, though not for lack of trying.

A painting from the Anak Tomb, believed to be either King Gogukwon (another Goguryeo King), the last governer of Lelang who lived in Goguryeo afterwards, or King Micheon himself.


The Sixteen Kingdoms were predominantly from the northern tribes collectively known as the Wu Hu, counted amongst them were the steppe people who were one of the Han Dynasty’s major enemies, and believed to be distant relatives to the Huns who were ravaging Europe at roughly the same time, the Xiongnu. Another major player were the Xianbei. They were an ancient group occupying the regions of Inner Mongolia who had branched off into groups, like the Murong, Tuoba, Shiwei, Rouran and Khitan (look out for this name again, in about six hundred years time). The Murong Xianbei joined Cao Wei and Goguryeo in their attack against the Gongsun family, and again joined Cao Wei in the war against Goguryeo. In 285, Murong Hui took power, and his many campaigns involved a crippling attack against Buyeo, Goguryeo and Baekje’s ancestral lands. Goguryeo was quite familiar with the Murong Xianbei.

Although not part of the Sixteen Kingdoms, Goguryeo as a major power of the region, was intricately involved with the politics. The Murong were also seen as a possible threat. And so, according to the Samguk Sagi, when a Chinese official named Cui Bi and the other Xianbei had a secret meeting to overthrow the Murong, Goguryeo joined the plot. They formed an alliance to attack the Murong stronghold.  But Murong Hui had his own plan, and he had a banquet prepared for the Rouran at the exclusion of the others. Thinking they were double crossed,  Goguryeo and the other troops withdrew.

Cao Bi fled to Goguryeo but was soon captured.  Murong Hui sent his sons to attack Goguryeo, but the two countries managed to arrive at a truce.  The war between Goguryeo and the Xianbei was momentarily averted.

From a young boy who spent his childhood selling salt and keeping frogs away, King Micheon grew up to change the fate and geography of his region. He died in 331, and was buried by a land called the Beautiful (Mi) Stream (Cheon), where his posthumous name comes from. But even though he was dead and buried, it wouldn’t be the last time King Micheon would meet the Xianbei.


Another picture from the Anak Tombs.

15. Out From The Shadows Of Obscurity: King Go-I

fd5_16_i1A model of a Baekje village. Source: Naver Encyclopedia


In the (Chinese) Records of the Three Kingdoms, there are sources from older texts which describe the kingdoms and tribes outside of China. There are many interesting accounts which give an outsider’s perspective on the different tribes and countries in the Korean peninsula and in Manchuria. Buyeo was depicted as a nation of friendly people, polite and “always singing.” The historian did note, however, the draconian nature of their laws; the punishment for murder was death and having the entire family of the murderer enslaved. Even more bizarre was the punishment for “jealousy.” The woman (it was always a woman) would be put to death and her corpse exposed to the elements. Her family would have to pay a fine to recover the corpse. Whatever Buyeo meant by jealousy, you didn’t want to be caught doing it.

The writer of the accounts noted that the people of Goguryeo had many different spirits they appeased to. They are boisterous, loving to sing and dance and get into fights. The writer did not like Goguryeo’s marriage customs, which involved the wife’s family building a hut behind their house, where the husband and wife spend the night; the husband and wife go to the husband’s home only after the kids have grown up. Oh, and they brewed great beer, apparently.

The accounts go on to depict the Okjae tribes, the Ye and even the people of Samhan. Although the records sometimes have the air of an outsider who doesn’t quite understand what is going on in a foreign country, they are a great source of history for the area. But one is struck at what the records conspicuously left out: any major account of Silla and Baekje.

Silla and Baekje occupied the areas of the Samhan confederacies. We now know how important those two kingdoms are going to be thanks to the power of historical hindsight. In the first few centuries, there was nothing to distinguish them from the other tribes, including the Gaya confederacies. They were certainly not anyone near the strength of Goguryeo, the regional power. So in the old records,  Silla and Baekje were lumped together with the other countries and chieftains. Things were about to change in the year 234 with the ascension of King Go-I of Baekje.

When Soseono and her two children, Biryu and Onjo, went deeper south to found a new state, Onjo’s Baekje was the result. For the first two centuries of its existence, Baekje fended off multiple attacks from the Han Commanderies and the Malgal, a semi-nomadic tribe around the area. Onjo himself had pulled a successful attack against the king of Mahan, and the state of Baekje was slowly absorbing the confederacies of the area. Thus Baekje was a mix of Goguryeo descendants and the local Mahan people, and two languages appear to have been spoken in the state. Despite the records of natural disasters or attacks from Lelang and Malgal, the first years of Baekje were fairly stable. As the excellent Topics in Korean History podcast points out, the first kings of Baekje had incredibly long reigns, far longer than the average, so they must have been doing something different. The average length of a rule was about 40 years.

Then came King Saban, who ruled for a grand total of less than a year. In 234 he assumed power after his father’s death, but then was removed almost immediately afterwards. The reason was he was too young to be leader, and was replaced by King Go-I. He claimed to be the younger son of an earlier king, Gaeru. However, this was most likely a fabrication to justify his usurpation. Being Gaeru’s son would’ve meant that Go-I lived to be older than 120 years. Long lived or not, this is a little too much even by Baekje standards.

The King took power in the same year Saban stepped down, in 234. Saban left  Korean history to enter the history of Japan. Meanwhile, Go-I began his project of making something out of the little Baekje he just took over. He didn’t waste any time working on his country, so that when the chaos erupted up north in 246, with the Goguryeo-Wei war, Baekje was ready.

When the commanderies of Lelang and Daifang joined the Wei to fight Goguryeo, Baekje saw this as an opportunity to strike at their northern neighbors. They attacked Lelang and took many hostages. However, for reasons unknown, King Go-I decided to send those prisoners of war back.  Daifang struck back, but they were surprised to discover that this little state had enough strength to defeat the joint power of the commanderies, even killing the Daifang governer in battle. Baekje was no longer a little walled state to be pushed around.

Having won the battle, Baekje developed a more complicated relationship with the two commanderies. Despite these conflicts, the relationship between Baekje and Daifang went smoothly afterwards, as Go-I’s son married a princess from Daifang, and Baekje would help the Commanderies in their other expeditions. This was an example of the diplomacy which Baekje was famous for. During it’s rise to power as a kingdom, Baekje was more outward looking than the other two kingdoms, eagerly entering into alliances and trade relationships with Japan and the various Chinese kingdoms. This outward looking diplomacy was the source of Baekje’s strength.

King Go-I also set up a system to centralize his state. This was the beginning of Baekje’s court system, which would eventually divide the court into sixteen posts, with three tiers each. Each tier was supposed to show up to court dressed up in full regalia, and the colors were divided by rank. The upper ranks wore purple, the middle ranks scarlet, and the lower ranks blue. Go-I enacted strict laws against corruption, and anyone caught taking bribes was severely punished. All this gave the appearance of a fresh official court ready to become its own kingdom.

The expansionist tendencies of Go-I and his successors is the subject of a controversy. Namely, did Baekje ever colonize parts of China? Some people believe Baekje had a “Greater Baekje” period, where the country had an Eastern and Western side. The Western half was across from the Korean peninsula and into parts of China. Official histories nowadays reject the idea. One of the first objections goes as far back as the 18th century, when a scholar from Joseon tried to disprove the theory that Baekje had any posts in Chinese territory. If a 18th century scholar had to reject the theory, it means that the idea has been around for a long time. Where did it come from?

Korean records like the Samguk Sagi make absolutely no mention of Greater Baekje. What little evidence we have comes from references to Baekje occupying the Laioxi region, references found in Chinese sources. This occupation would have taken place during the Jin Dynasty, so any time between 266 and 420. This would coincide with Go-I and his successors’ plans of expansionism. On the other hand, there are also other Chinese records that have no such claim, including, most tellingly of all, the records from Jin. With the absence of any conclusive evidence, the “Greater Baekje” hypothesis is one left to speculation and Internet flame wars.

For Go-I’s efforts to solidify his country, he was considered the founder of Baekje, and ancestral festivals were dedicated to him. The King set Baekje on the path to become a power of the region, a path that moved northwards, and that his descendants would quickly take up.

12. The Perils of Ruling: Adalla Isageum

Perhaps the most common form of historical writing in the ancient East Asia was the annals. Daily events in a king’s life were recorded in these annals, from ceremonies performed to any diplomatic or internal affairs conducted, both good and bad. What might surprise a reader who just happened to get a hold of one of these texts is the meticulous recording of the weather.  One might despair at the thought of ancient historians being so obsessed with making small talk, but the records of weather patterns  were very significant, and it is no coincidence that they are noted down alongside political activities.

Kings played an intermediary role connecting heaven and earth. This is not a completely foreign idea, since almost every culture in the world has a notion of a leader who is more than human, or at the very least having some supernatural entity backing them up. Europe had the divine rights of kings idea in its early modern period, for example. What thing that makes this connection to heaven slightly different, however, is that heaven can- and will- withdraw its favors from rulers.

So how do you know that heaven disapproves of the current king? The human world and nature were said to work with one another, each according to their own principles. It’s a well oiled machine, if the affairs of the human world are in disharmony, then nature would start acting strangely as well. A king who behaves immorally or doesn’t rule as he should, then, will be visited with a series of phenomena like floods, eclipses, earthquakes, and unseasonable temperatures.

Opportunists were always waiting for such signs from heaven in order to rally enough support for a coup d’etat, or even outright revolution. Though Myeongnim Dapbu’s decision to oust King Chadae had political motives behind it, the end of Chadae’s rule also coincided with reports of earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Contemporaneously to the revolt against Chadae in 165 CE, another revolt was about to happen down in Gyerim (Silla). There was nothing particularly immoral or tyrannical about the 8th monarch of Silla, Adalla Isageum. His reign started with amnesties and  updating the political and military branches of the country. But nature itself seemed to have gone against the king. He was said to be unnaturally tall for the day and age- about 7 feet- and had disproportionate features. This was omen enough for superstitious people. But what made it worse was that during his reign, frost appeared in the summer, floods destroyed many houses, and a plague of locusts ravaged the countryside. Even the fish were planning their own revolt by jumping out of the water and dying on the shore. This no doubt made the people of Gyerim very uncomfortable. Was heaven angry at them and their ruler?

Solar_eclipse_1999_4_NR (1)
Source: Wikipedia 

In 164, the records talk about a dragon appearing in the capital. Although it’s not sure what really happened, the rumors of the dragon appearing in the capital was enough to encourage some to go against the king. So a year later, a minister named Gilseon, much like Myeongnim Dapbu, started a coup in an attempt to overthrow Adalla. Unlike the fellow conspirator in the north, though, Gilseon failed.

The would-be revolutionary had to escape. He found refuge in a neighboring state, Baekje. Relations between Baekje and Silla had calmed significantly after Talhae’s successor and the king of Baekje signed a treaty. But tensions were to mount again as Gaeru of Baekje granted asylum to the Sillan traitor. Adalla sent a message requesting that  Gilseon be returned. Gaeru refused.

Infuriated, Adalla resorted to the old tactic of laying siege to a fortress. This was not very successful, and the Sillan troops just went back home. The people of Baekje were willing to drop the matter too. It seemed like things were going to go back to normal.

But in 166, King Gaeru died, and his successor, Chogo, was less forgiving. A year after he took the throne, Chogo captured two castles that belonged to Silla. The troops then took a thousand hostages back to Baekje. Adalla Isaegeum probably saw that Chogo was much more bellicose than the king before him, and decided that drastic measures were needed.

Adalla raised an army of twenty thousand soldiers, and personally led eight thousand horsemen. They got to the Han river with the intention of crossing and attacking the Baekje troops. It must be remembered that Silla was a small country at the time, and to have an army of that many soldiers means that Adalla decided to go all out. Not to mention that crossing the Han river was no easy feat. Anyone who has been to Seoul knows that the river is quite large, and in that era there were no bridges to help the troops cross.

Source: Wikipedia


If Adalla and his troops confronted the Baekje armies, it would not have been an ordinary castle siege. I would have meant an all out war. A war that might’ve resulted in one of the budding three kingdoms being destroyed before reaching full bloom. It was quite a reckless move.

A reckless move that paid off. Chogo sued for peace, and a conflict was averted. The ruler whom people feared had lost heaven’s favor managed to safely navigate  two crises. But Baekje and Silla relation would never be the same again. And it wouldn’t take too long before more conflicts would arise. From the other side of the sea, however, Adalla also was engaged in a political relationship with another country. But this time it was more of a diplomatic one. The records show that Silla and the people of “Wa” were regularly sending envoys to each other.

The word Wa was a term that the ancient Chinese sources used to describe the people of the island nation. The original character for Wa 倭 (Wei in Chinese and Wae in Korean) meant something like a person stooping, which could signify humility and the people’s customs of bowing, but it could also mean a dwarf or a petty person. The later scholars in Wa took the latter interpretation, and-in an act of positive appropriation- changed the character of Wa to 和, “harmony, peace.”

The Wa, known to us today as “Japan,” were active in the peninsula for a long time. Usually alternating between  coastal raids,  trade and diplomacy. Jima, sixth ruler of Silla, began a peaceful relationship with Japan and Adalla continued this diplomacy. He forged ties with the legendary Queen Himiko, who sent an envoy to Silla. Himiko, the shamaness queen who is a staple figure in Japanese high and pop culture, was famous enough to be recorded in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sources. (The problem is that all sources give different dates of her reign, so her identity is still a mystery). Japan would be allied with the different kingdoms and play a role in the conflicts between Baekje and Silla.

When Adalla Isaegeum died, it was the end of an era for Silla. The founder of Silla, Hyeokgeose, was from the Pak (Park) family. The fourth king, Talhae, was from the Seok clan. Kingship went back to the Pak after Talhae passed away. But Adalla would be the last of the Pak rulers. He died with no heirs, and so the Seok family became the sole ruling family from then on.

11. A Revolt in Goguryeo: Myeongnim Dap-Bu

During the reign of King Taejo of Goguryeo, there were five powerful clans. These were the Sono-bu (the former ruling family), Gyeru-bu(current ruling family starting from Taejo),Gyanna-bu, Hwanna-bu and Yeonno-bu. Taejo attempted to centralize his authority by bringing the head of those family under his rule in court. This was largely successful, but also had the side effect of factionalism, a problem that would plague the courts of many dynasties.

Taejo had an incredibly long reign. So long that Taejo’s brother Suseong, was getting annoyed by his sibling’s insistence on staying alive. With the aid of the Sono, Gyanna and Hwanna families, Suseong gathered his own faction to start plotting a revolt bent on overthrowing Taejo. When the king had heard of this, he decided to abdicate the throne to Suseong. The ministers were against this idea, among them one of the highest ranking ministers, Bokjang, who warned his king that disaster would fall upon the descendants of Taejo if the king were to give up his power.

In the year 146, Taejo passed the crown down to his brother, later known as King Chadae. Chadae enacted a brutal purge. Bokjang was one of his first victims. He went to the execution ground with the lament “I only regret that our former King did not take my advice, so that matters have reached this pass… Rather than live in such an age of unrighteousness, I had better die quickly.” People were appalled at the news of the loyal minister’s death.

Next on Chadae’s list were people of the royal family, including Taejo’s sons. Taejo and Chadae’s brother, sensing the situation was getting too dangerous, secluded himself up in the mountains.

People who were ready to join Chade’s revolt were given high positions in court. And, naturally enough, the families that had not supported the king were treated unfavorably. What happened exactly is not entirely certain, but it’s safe to assume that the other families were excluded from power and generally lost a lot of status. One of these clans, the Yeonno, seemed to have been in a particularly bad situation.

From this Yeonno clan a particularly humble person stepped up to the game. Goguryeo had 10 ranks at the time, and this man was close to the bottom in the 9th rank. He had managed to make a name for himself during the reign of Taejo. But now the situation had changed and his position, perhaps even his life, was threatened. The man, whose name was Myeongnim Dap-bu, decided that something had to be done.

Myeongnim Dap-bu stated that he could not bear to see the people suffering under the unjust king. He found some ministers and clan members, who were also facing hardship under Chadae’s reign, and in 165 CE, almost twenty years after Chadae had taken power, Myeongnim Dap-bu organized a coup d’etat. He then assassinated the king. Nobody seemed to have reacted negatively to this event.

In order to avoid a power vacuum cause too many problems, the ministers had to act fast. They sought out the brother who had hidden himself up in the mountains back to court. He then became the king Sindae.

King Sindae’s power came entirely from a revolt that had overthrown his brother, and so he tried to not repeat the same mistakes as the former king. His reign started in a conciliatory tone. He issued an edict that acknowledged his debt to the ministers who called him to powers. “How could I imagine that the people would happily endorse me? Or that many ministers would urge me to accept the throne?” And so, “together with my people. I shall reform myself to bring about a great amnesty throughout the kingdom.”

This amnesty extended to those who had supported the previous king. Chadae’s son, who had already fled after the revolt fearing for his life, was forgiven, and the families who had supported Chadae’s rise to power were largely forgiven.

But Sindae knew that he owed the largest debt to Myeongnim Dap-bu. In fact, Sindae showed so much gratitude to the leader of the revolt that an entirely new position in court was created for Myeongnim Dap-bu. Earlier there was a junior and senior councilor who acted as the highest positions in court. Now Sindae merged the two into one position. The name of the position was Guk-sang which is usually translated in English as ‘Prime Minister.’

The history book that records all this, the Samguk-sagi, gets a little bizarre with the dates at this time. The ages in the text are for the most part fairly consistent, but it seems like in the 2nd century, every major figure starts living to incredibly old ages. Taejo dies at age 119, and Myeongnim Dap-bu is said to have become prime minister at 99 years old. There was either something very good in the water of Goguryeo, or the records have some inconsistencies in them. Suffice to say, Myeongnim Dap-bu was not a young man when he had taken power.

With the help of the prime minister, and thanks to Sindae’s magnanimous stance towards the factions, Goguryeo navigated a coup d’etat and government reform with very few internal difficulties.

Externally, there was a problem that had been harassing Goguryeo since Taejo’s time: the Han Empire. Conflicts arose periodically between the two countries, especially by proxy of one of the commanderies. And in 172, the armies were once again approaching Goguryeo.



Mural of a Goguryeo warrior. Source

Sindae’s ministers met in order to decide what to do. Most people there agreed that, despite the large numbers that the Han Empire could muster, they had no choice but to face their enemy in battle. Most people nervously agreed. “If we do not go out and fight, they will consider us to be cowrds and will invade repeatedly.”

The Prime Minister had another idea, though. Myeongnim Dap-bu agreed that they had to do something, but also reasoned that it would be impossible for their army to go against such a big number. He suggested another strategy to win the battle, called the “Clear Field Strategy”.

The “Clear Field Strategy”-청야전술 in Korean- was a way of weakening an advancing army before the battle even starts. Since armies needed a lot of food supplies to support their campaign, advancing troops would use the wells and fields of the land around them to keep their supplies up. Myeongnim Dap-bu and his troops were to “clear the fields”- burning any crops and blocking any wells- between the Han army’s camp and the walled fortresses of Goguryeo. The aim was to stop enemy troops from being able to refill their food supply, thereby weakening the enemy before they could even reach their target. A kind of scorched earth tactic.

The Han army was thus unable to reach their target with enough food, and was forced to retreat. At a field in the Manchurian regions named Jwa-won, the army of Myeongnim Dap-bu attacked the retreating Han army and defeated them.

What happened exactly during and after this conflict is unknown. Because Han records make no mention of any battle at Jwa-won. If the battle actually took place, then it must have been inconsequential for the Empire, since, as we shall see later, the Han had much bigger problems to deal with at the end of the 2nd century.

The victory was felt in Goguryeo. And the Clear Field Strategy would become part of Korea’s defensive repertoire in the many battles that the peninsula would face from outside enemies.

Myeongnim Dap-bu died in 179. King Sindae was so distressed to lose his prime minister and confidant that he ordered a seven day mourning period. The new position of Prime Minister, in one form or another, would also play a pivotal role in court politics. And so Myeongnim Dap-bu rose from the lowest ranks in court to completely change the face of his country.

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.

8. The God of War: King Daemusin

Kingship in Goguryeo passed from the founding king Jumong to his prodigal son Yuri. When it came time for Yuri to pass the throne, however, there was a slight hiccup. The next in line for the throne had committed suicide as a result of palace intrigue. So when Yuri died in 18 CE, his third son, Muhyul, came to the throne. He was only 14 years old. Normally this situation spells hard times for a kingdom. Nonetheless, Muhyul getting the throne was perhaps the luckiest thing that could’ve happened to Goguryeo. His posthumous name, King Daemusin, tells it all. The name translates as “Great God of War,” and he was responsible for making Goguryeo a force to be reckoned with.

During his lifetime, King Daemusin conquered many states and expanded his kingdom’s territory. There are three stories that have captured the imagination of people for generations after. The most famous was a David and Goliath tale, the time when Goguryeo challenged East Buyeo.

As you may recall, Buyeo was divided into a Northern and an Eastern kingdom. And the two kingdoms were the great powers in the northern regions. Jumong himself had come from Eastern Buyeo, and it was the king of Eastern Buyeo, King Geumwa, who had brought Jumong’s mother to court. It was also King Geumwa’s sons who were responsible for forcing Jumong out of the kingdom. So when Geumwa’s eldest son took the throne as King Daeso, he set his sights on the little kingdom of Goryeo.

Near the end of Yuri’s reign King Daeso sent the following message: “Our late King was on good terms with your former ruler, King Tongmyong [another name for Jumong], but your ruler enticed our subjects away and brought them to where you are now, gathering enough people to set up his own realm. Now, among kingdoms, there are both great and less, just as among people there are elder and younger. It is proper for the less to serve the great, just as it is right for the young to serve their elders. If Your Majesty can show proper respect by serving Us, then Heaven is bound to protect you, and your kingdom could last for ever. Otherwise, you may find it hard to preserve your state, however much you want to do so.” *

King Daeso had given King Yuri an offer he couldn’t refuse. And Yuri knew that. Judging that his country was still too young to challenge a great power like Buyeo, he decided to submit. But Muhyul couldn’t let things leave without  retaliating. “My late ancestor was a descendant of the gods,” Muhyul sent in reply, “moreover, he was a worthy man with many talents. Yet, being jealous, Your Majesty injured him with slander to Your father, then King, so that my ancestor was degraded to the wretched status of stable boy. This is why he was unhappy and left. Now, without taking Your own faults of former days into account, Your Majesty is relying solely on your great multitude of troops, treating our land with contempt. I request the envoy report this to Your Majesty: that now eggs are piled up here; if Your Majesty does not upset them, then I shall be able to serve You as subject, but not otherwise.”

This reply is impressive, if we consider the fact that Muhyul would have been 5 years old when he had thought of it. Most of us at that age would’ve probably just replied with “Your face!” Muhyul was known in the court to be  something of a child prodigy, which was probably why King Yuri felt secure naming him as successor.

This kind of tit-for-that with King Daeso continued when Muhyul ascended the throne. 3 years into the rule of King Daemusin, there was a strange phenomenon in Buyeo. There was a red crow with two bodies attached to one head. One of the people told King Daeso “Crows are black, but this one has turned red. Moreover, it has one head and two bodies, it is an omen of the union of two kingdoms. Doesn’t this mean Your Majesty is going to annex Ko[Go]guryeo.” Daeso sent the crow as an elaborate warning to King Daemusin.

Daemusin, now at the ripe old age of 17, looked at this reverse Siamese crow and retorted “[…]Then again, a red crow is indeed a fortunate omen. Although Your Majesty obtained it, you no longer possess it since you have sent it to me. As to which of our two states will survive or perish, so far this cannot be known.” With this diss, war between the two countries had begun. And this is where the story turns from remotely plausible history into Lord of the Rings.

King Daemusin, on a divine horse which he found earlier, and his troops were marching towards East Buyeo when they stopped by the banks of a river. There they found a cooking vessel. The tripod was no ordinary cookware, however, since it could cook food without any fire. Soon after a man named Bujong appeared, saying that the vessel belonged to his family, and that his sister lost it. To show his gratitude, Bujong joined King Daemusin. Later one night, while camping in a forest, strange metallic sounds could be heard. The next day King Daemusin found various weapons, a sign from heaven.

Two more soldiers would join Daemusin, a master of the lance and a giant man with white face and glowing eyes named Koeyu. The giant, said to be 3 meters tall, loomed over the king and requested that he join the group. Daemusin was greatly pleased to have such a person on his side.

A year had passed, and in the spring, the army had reached the area of Eastern Buyeo. King Daemusin surveyed the land, and found the best place to build his camp. King Daeso emerged from his city, eager to finally attack the impudent king of an insignificant little country. He rode his horse to the Goguryeo camp and, to his horror, found he had fallen into a trap: King Daemusin had pithced his camp around muddy and uneven countryside. Stuck in the mire, the horse could not move any further, and King Daeso was helpless. Then a terrifying war cry was heard. Koeyu scrambled towards Daeso, and decapitated him. The Buyeo army continued to fight despite the grizzly sight, but it was clear that they had lost.

With such allies, how could King Daemusin not win against Buyeo? That’s probably what people at the time thought. The idea that a small country like Goguryeo could challenge East Buyeo was simply unthinkable. That a small country like Goguryeo not only challenged but also defeated East Buyeo could not possibly be explained without including half the cast of an epic blockbuster. The Great God of War had achieved the impossible.

The reality seems to be that the war was grim and the soldiers of Goguryeo suffered heavy losses. After the defeat of King Daeso, we find the army of Goguryeo making straw figures of soldiers outside their camp. This was to fool the enemy while Daemusin and his troops escaped back to their country. The Samguk Sagi says at this point the magical tripod and the divine horse were ‘lost,’ switching the frame back to reality: a starving and broken army that had to hunt wild animals on their way back home.

When King Daemusin arrived in the palace he arranged a banquet for his people. He told them, “It was because of my own shortcoming in attacking Puyo[Buyeo] too rashly that, although we killed their king, we still did not destroy their kingdom. Moreover, we lost many soldiers and military provisions; this is all my fault.” The king then left to personally tend to the wounded. He would not repeat the same mistake and let his kingdom suffer.

Although they did not destroy East Buyeo, after the death of King Daeso, the kingdom was living on borrowed time. Internal discord and battles of succession meant that soon the kingdom collapsed into itself. It was later absorbed into Goguryeo. Small fry no longer, Goguryeo now found itself a strong country.

That was far from the end of King Daemusin’s exploits.We find the king a couple of years later  now wizened by his experience against East Buyeo. This time, a governor from the Han Empire, looking to find a way to make a name for himself, stepped up to challenge Goguryeo. His army surrounded the  kingdom. Their plan was to lay siege. The last time an army from Han led a siege against a Korean kingdom, things did not end well.

King Daemusin gathered his ministers to find a way out of this situation. One of his ministers, Ultuji, came up with an idea. In warfare, sieges are costly and exhausting, and you only carry them out if you believe that the people walled up inside the fortress will soon run out of food and surrender. The region of Goguryeo was rocky, and the Han governor was hoping that the people will soon starve. So, Ultuji said, send the governor a carp from one of the palace ponds along with some alcohol. King Daemusin liked the plan and did so. As expected, the governor saw this meant that there was more than enough water and food in the Goguryeo fortress, and that a siege would be too costly to be worth it. He withdrew. The King was now able to win wars without even fighting.

The final tale that made King Daemusin famous involved his son. Prince Hodong was known to be handsome and charming. He went out hunting one day, where he knew that the prince would run into the leader of the Kingdom of Nangnang. This Nangnang was probably one of the Four Han Commanderies, though some historians think it was another kingdom that was loyal to China. The King of Nangnang was impressed by the prince, and the two hit it off. They hit it off so well, in fact, that the Nangnang monarch decided that Prince Hodong should marry into the family.

The princess of Nangnang was said to be equally as smitten with prince Hodong. But the prince acted distant. He went back to his country. The princess was likely confused by this, and became even more confused when she got a secret message from Prince Hodong. He told her to destroy the war drums and horns of the city. After that, he would come in at night and the two would be together forever. The drum and horn were the instruments used to warn the king of any approaching intruders.

This should’ve made the princess suspicious. But young teenagers, especially those in love, are anything but rational. She destroyed the drum and horn. The princess then waited for the embrace of her beloved. Instead, there was chaos.

King Daemusin had arranged for the meeting of the King of Nangnang and Prince Hodong. Prince Hodong was instructed to try and make his way into Nangnang’s good graces, and find a way into the city. The prince played on the princess’ love and had her bring ruin to her own country. The King of Nangnang surrendered, but not before killing his own daughter for her betrayal.

Not long after this incident, Prince Hodong committed suicide. This was probably due to court politics, but some have somehow decided that this suicide was due to the prince’s grief over losing the Princess of Nangnang. Strangely, the tale of Prince Hodong and the Princess of Nangnang, one of sorrow and betrayal for the poor princess, a cautionary tale at best, had over the years transformed into a tragic love story. The imagination of many future writers have worked in a Romeo and Juliet plot, when in reality there is nothing to indicate that Hodong had any feelings for the princess.

One person who did suffer real grief, though, was King Daemusin. He had seen his brother commit suicide because of scandals, and now his own son suffered the same fate. Some say this shock greatly weakened the king. In the year 44, at the young age of 40, the great god of war passed away. And although the Nangnang commandery was soon taken back by the Han Emperor, Goguryeo came out of King Daemusin’s reign much stronger and robust. Ready for more dynamic kings to come and expand the power of the kingdom.

2009010708150969048_1  Daemusin’s reign is a particular inspiration to Korean fantasy authors. Source: Naver News

War, political intrigue, loyal vassals of supernatural stature, adventure, romance, tragedy. It’s no wonder that King Daemusin has been the inspiration for many fantasy and martial arts novels in Korea. The story of Hodong and the Princess of Nangnang was enacted many times on screen and stage, including a ballet. In the 90’s a manhwa called The Kingdom of The Wind was released, depicting a fictitious account of the life of Daemusin and his era. This series spawned a drama and perhaps the greatest honor that computer game obsessed South Korea could bestow on King Daemusin, an MMORPG.


*All quotes come from the Academy of Korean Studies Press’ translation “The Koryo Annals of the Samguk Sagi”