21. Spies, Lies and Baduk Tiles: King Gaero

21. Spies, Lies and Baduk Tiles: King Gaero

The wars between Baekje and Goguryeo’s King Gwanggaeto changed the power dynamics of the Korean peninsula. The Baekje-Wa-Gaya alliance was subdued, and Goguryeo’s ally of Silla was forced into an unfavorable situation vis a vis its supposed savior. King Gwanggaeto died in 413 at an early age, believed to be in his mid to late thirties. Unfortunately for Baekje, Gwanggaeto’s successor, King Jangsu, not only proved to be as competent a military leader as his father, he also lived to reign for about 78 years (his posthumous name “Jangsu” means “long life”). The shadow Goguryeo cast over the southern kingdoms was strongly felt.

Jangsu moved the Goguryeo capital to Pyeongyang in 427. This location put the seat of power much closer south, and this greatly unnerved Silla and Baekje. Although still allies with Goguryeo, Silla accepted Baekje’s offer of a treaty. The Silla-Baekje alliance would last for over a hundred years,and stipulated that if one of the countries was attacked by Goguryeo, the other would offer military help.

This alliance was drafted up by King Gaero’s father, and Gaero himself tried to bolster up as much help as possible when he gained power in 455. He sent his brother Gonji to live in the Wa courts of Japan to continue their relationship. He also sent emissaries to one of the Chinese kingdoms, Northern Wei. Northern Wei, however, had no intentions of antagonizing Goguryeo- in fact they were trying to improve relations with the country- and rejected the offer. Coupled with some internal power struggles between powerful clans, King Gaero had a tense political situation to deal with. And he would retreat from the hard struggles of politics with his favorite past time, baduk.

Go_board_partBaduk Stones. Source: Wikipedia

Baduk, or Weiqi, more commonly known by its Japanese name Go, is a strategy game where two players use black and white stones respectively, and try to control as much space on the board. It is to this day incredibly popular in most Asian countries. It is not an uncommon sight to see people surrounding two baduk players in a park in the afternoon. Korea in fact has a TV channel dedicated to the game.

Like most games of strategy, playing baduk at a high level creates a close bond in the players. You play a round in anticipation of their next move; they observe your behavior and enter your spirit to find any patterns. You create a trap perfectly suited for their temperament; they know you well enough that they can fool you into believing they walked into your trap. Combined with the fact that baduk games have a staggering amount of possible games, and a round of baduk can last for hours, this kind of double guessing and strategizing creates an intimate knowledge of yourself and your opponent. Deep and intense friendships arising from playing strategy games is a common motif in East Asian literature, and  likely a common occurrence in real life as well. King Gaero found such a friend in an exiled Goguryeo monk named Dorim.

Gaero and Dorim during a game of baduk, from the Seoul Lantern Festival. Source

Dorim moved to Baekje after being exiled from Goguryeo. He was also a high ranking baduk player, and when he heard of the Baekje king’s passion for the game, approached Gaero and offered, in typical humility towards a monarch, his ‘meager skills’ to amuse and entertain the king. As an expert baduk player and a man of learning, Dorim was a perfect companion for the king. The two spent their days in discussion around the baduk board.

All this was a welcome island of peace around the tumultuous politics of Baekje. Dorim expressed how grateful he was that he, a foreigner, was so accepted by the King of Baekje. King Gaero expressed that his only regret was not meeting Dorim sooner.  But this is not t say that he neglected his kingly duties either. One of the main topics the two discussed was how to improve the standing of Baekje. Dorim suggested that Baekje would strongly benefit from some internal construction, such as public works, the reconstruction of the palace, and the restoration of the former king’s tombs. King Gaero agreed, and ordered these projects be taken out. The Baekje capital of Wieryesong was absorbed in these works until the day Goguryeo troops arrived at the city walls.

King Jangsu arrived at the Baekje capital with a force of 30,000 soldiers. It was an attack from both land and sea, an assault intending to crush the capital. Jangsu had things perfectly planned, he knew the best time to strike, and he seemed to know the best places to attack. It was as if he had knowledge of the city first hand. And the knowledge he did have came thanks to the information of his spy, Dorim.

King Jangsu had Dorim exiled on the charge of false crimes. Dorim worked to gain the trust and influence of King Gaero, gathering information to report back to Goguryeo. Playing strategy with Gaero also gave Dorim insight into the Baekje king’s mind. Dorim’s suggestion to keep the people busy in public works meant that the Goguryeo attack came as a complete surprise. King Jangsu’s spy gave him the decisive upper hand.

Gaero gravely lamented the situation. Despite his good intentions, his trust in Dorim had cost him his country. He rallied the troops and began preparations to defend against Goguryeo. He summoned his son, future king Munju, and told him “I will fight to the death to protect this country, but there is no use in you dying here too. Go, protect the royal lineage.” The prince fled to  Silla to ask for help.

Goguryeo managed to invade the capital Wieryesong in 7 days. When King Gaero tried to escape, he was spotted by a Goguryeo general. Unluckily for the king, this general was a man named Jaejunggeollu, a former Baekje general who he had been exiled and defected to Goguryeo. Jaejunggeollu gave his former king first a deep bow, and then spat in his face three times. Gaero was taken as prisoner of war. The Silla reinforcements arrived too late, and Wieryesong was destroyed. Goguryeo now had control of the Han river area.

Baekje’s history is divided into three broad categories: the Wierye, Ungjin and Sabi periods. The Wierye period, which started in the early 1st century with Baekje’s founder King Onjo, ended in 477. King Gaero was executed the same year, having lost the war by the hands of a former subject and a former friend.

Where Wieryesong would have once stood. Source: Wikipedia.

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.)