By Rosie Sokolove, 2nd dan
Koguyro, also known as Koguryo, was one of the Three Ancient Kingdoms of Korea. It was located where presently China and the northern half of the Korean peninsula are. Koguryo was the largest of the three ancient kingdoms of Korea. A 12th century CE Goryeo script call The Samguk Sagi says that Koguryo was founded in 37 BCE by a Buyeo prince. However, archaeological and textual evidence suggests that the culture of Koguryo was in existence around the fall of an earlier kingdom. The kingdom fell in 668 AD. Koguryo’s name was inherited by the Koryeo dynasty (918 – 1392), which was where the name Korea was stemmed from. There are many surviving artifacts and other evidence that gives people a good picture of the life, culture and history of the Koguryo people.
Koguryo was originally said to be founded in 37 BCE by Jumong, a prince from the kingdom of Buyeo, after fleeing a power struggle with the other princes. He founded Koguryo in a region called Jalbon Buyeo, usually thought to be located between the Tung-chia river basin and the middle Yalu, which is presently the China – North Korea border. Some educators think that Koguryo may have been actually formed in the 2nd century. In the Han Shu’s geographic monographs, Koguryo was mentioned in 113 BCE. in the Old Book of Tang, it is said the Emperor of Tang talked about Koguryo’s history being around 900 years old.
It is believed that the people of Koguryo are a mix of Buyeo and Yemaek people. Although they might not have originally identified themselves as Koguryo, the various Yemaek tribes people some of the first to live in the area. Archaeological evidence would support the idea of centralized groups of Yemaek tribes in the 2nd century BCE.
Jumong was said to be the first king and ancestor of Koguryo. There have been many other rulers that reigned after him. Koguryo rapidly expanded its power from the various Yemaek tribes’ land and its own original basin and the water drainage that came with it. During the reign of King T’aejo (53 – 146 CE), a royal hereditary system had been established. Five of the local tribes had been reorganized into five centrally ruled districts. After centralizing, Koguryo’s land may not have had enough recourses to provide for its people which led to the Koguryo people raiding and or exploiting their neighboring communities for recourses and land. Aggressive military actions could have also helped in expanding Koguryo’s control of land. King T’aejo usually allowed the conquered tribes to keep their chiefs as long as they supported and reported to powerful Koguryo people who were directly related to King T’aejo, having to pay expensive taxes. As Koguryo’s boundaries expanded those taxes increased greatly. Soon, to the west, Koguryo’s kingdom had entered direct military contact with the Liaodong commandery, pressuring Koguryo to move their capital from the Hun River valley to the Yalu River valley.
Koguryo continued to try and conquer the different areas on the northern Korean peninsula that were under Chinese control. Koguryo and the Chinese Wei created an alliance in 238 to destroy the Liaodong commandery. Eventually Liaodong fell under defeat by the Chinese Wei. The cooperation between Wei and Koguryo fell apart and Koguryo’s attacks against the western sides of Liaodong led up to Wei’s counterattack that destroyed Koguryo’s capital in 244 devastated Koguryo. It was said that King Dongcheon fled to the Okjeo tribes after his army was destroyed.
The Wei army left after they thought they had destroyed Koguryo. But, within 70 years Koguryo was able to rebuild their Hwando Mountain Fortress capital and began to raid the different cammanderies around them. As Koguryo’s gained more power and expanded into the Liaodong peninsula, Micheon of Koguryo had conquered the last Chinese commandery at Lelang in 313. From that point on, until the 7th CE, the control of the peninsula would be fought primarily between the Three Kingdoms of Korea.
There was a temporary expansion setback during the winter of 342 when Xiambei, ruled by the Murong clan, attacked Koguryo’s capital and forced King Gogukwon to flee for a while. The Xiambei used the Koguryo people for slave labor and the Korean peninsula became subject to Xiambei migration. King Geunchogo of Baekji have destroyed one of the largest cities in Koguryo, Pyongyang, and killed King Gogukwon of Koguryo in the Battle of Chiyang in 371 . In 372, Koguryo embraced Buddhism as the national religion and proclaimed new laws after turning to domestic stability and the unifying of the various conquered tribes. The government recognized and encouraged the teachings of Buddhism, having many monasteries and shrine created during Koguryo’s rule. A national education institute called Taehak was established.
Remembered for his rapid military expansion, Gwanggaeto the Great is said to have conquered 64 walled cities and 1400 villages from Khitan and Baeji and took the entire Liaodong Peninsula in 404. He also added Buyeo to Koguryo’s land and expended the recourses of the Mohe and the Wa (Japan). They subjugated Baekji, contributed in the dissolution of the Gaya confederacy, and coaxed Silla into becoming a protector of Koguryo during the Yamato War.
Koguryo’s territory kept reaching further out, now including three fourths of the Korean Peninsula, including what is now known as Seoul. Gwanggaeto created the reign name “Yeongnak” to signify his belief that he was on an equal footing with the major Chinese dynasties. In 413 King Jangsu climbed his way up to the throne, moving the capital to Pyongyang in 427. In the south, Silla and Baekji rivalry to Koguryo strengthened as Koguryo land control continued expanding.
After the Zenith, Koguryo began to decline. Anjong was assassinated so his brother Anwon took his place. There was a power struggle that worsened and worsened until Yang-won, an 8 year old, was finally crowned, but it still did not completely dissolve the problem.
In the 550’s, the Tuchuehs, a nomadic group, took advantage of Koguryo’s internal problems and attacked Koguryo’s northern castles and conquered some of the northern lands. As civil wars continued among feudal lords, Baekji and Silla allied together to attack the weak Koguryo from the south in 551.
Koguryo was often in conflict with the Tang and Sui during the late 6th and early 7th century. There was fluxuation between Koguryo and Silla and Baekji, alternating between being in and out of alliances.
Baekji and Silla had entered an alliance together to try to attack and capture the Han River valley. In 553 Sills’s army came to assist the tired Baekji armies and took complete control of the Han River valley. Angered by the betrayel, Baekji sent a retaliating strike force to attack Silla’s western border but ended up being captured and killed. Baekji had become the weakest kingdom on the Korean peninsula . Silla had gained an important recouse area with a lot of people there and easy base to start more expanding. Koguryo had become slightly weak from not baing able to use the land. Silla had direct access to the Yellow Sea which allowed them to be less dependent on Koguryo. When the Sui region had been provoked from Koguryo from all the military positions and exapantion plans, it resulted in the start to the Koguryo/ Sui Wars.
In 612, Sui led many different armies towards Koguryo. Koguryo was able to beat the Sui navy, so when Sui’s multiple divisions of armies were finally able to reach Pyongyang, they didn’t have enough supplies for the attack. They were still able to find different ways to hurt their opponents. General Eujili Munkeok had helped lead some of Koguryo’s people to help with ambushes. At the Battle of Salsu River, Koguryo had released the water from a dam that had split and cut out Silla’s recourses and escape route and out of the 305,000 soldiers, only 2,700 had survived.
The 613 and 614 campaigns were stopped after they were sent. The first one in 613 was aborted after the Sui genereal Yang Xuangan had rebelled against the Sui emperor, Emperor Yang. The 614 campaign was stopped after Koguryo had surrendered and returned a fleeing general Husi Zheng who sought refugee in Koguryo. Emperor Yang later executed Husi. Although Emperor Yang had tried to organize another attack against Koguryo in 615, the deteriorating state of Sui, he was never able to launch it. The Sui Dynasty disintegrated in 618 after the war had depleted Sui’s national treasury while Koguryo’s strength and power had also weakend.
In the winter of 642, there was a plot to kill Yeon Gaesomun created by King Yeongnyu who was suspicious about the general. After hearing this Yeon started a rebelious and violent attack killing the king and the other high level officers. He then declared the new king to be Yeon Gaesomun’s nephew Go Jang while giving himself power and decaring himself as the Dae Mangniji. Increasing the tension between Tang and Koguryo, Yeon had an increasingly threatening position against Tang.
There were rumors that spread to Emperor Taizong of Tang about an attack that was going to be launched against Koguryo, the emperor had originally declined the offer to join, but during the summer of 645 the Tang Chinese army attacked Koguryo. Yodung had been captured from the Tang forces that headed towards the southeast part of Koguryo where Koguryo’s capital Pyongyang lay. Emperor Taizong eventually withdrew his army in the early winter because of the shortage of supplies.
In 660, the Silla-Tang alliance conquered Koguryo’s ally, Baekji, and contitued attacks on Koguryo for eight years. Koguryo’s king Yeon Gaesomon died in the summer of 666 AD, having Yeon Namsaeng succeed him as Dae Mangniji. When Yeon Namsaeng led a caravan to Pyongyang, rumors quickly spread about him actually going there to kill his younger brothers. Taking advantage of the situation, Emperor Gaozong of Tang saw an opportunity to destroy Koguryo. In 667, the Chinese army that gaozong sent had crossed the Liao River and camptured Sinseong. After that they just fought off different counterattacks from Yeon Namgeon and had joined forces with Yeon Namsaeng, but they still could not cross the Yalu River. Li Ji turned his attention more towards the northern cities of Koguryo, and in the fall of 668 the army crossed the Yalu River and attacked Pyongyang with the help of Silla’s army. Yeon Namsan and Kin Bojang had surrendered while Yeon Namyeon continued to resist the Tang forces, Shin Seong, a Buddhist monk, turned against him and surrendered the inner city to Tang. That became the end of Koguryo and Tang claimed the land as its own.
There were different things that had shaped the culture of Koguryo, but unfortunately not much is known since many of the records have been lost. There are murals and other artifacts that depicted the different people of Koguryo. Koguryo people’s language had parts of it in the Old Korean language. Some common activites to pass the time were drinking, singing and dancing. Hunting is another activity that men do and it is sometimes thought to be a good way to train young men to fight in the military. Archery contests often occur as well seeing that the Koguryo men hunted deer with bows and arrows while riding on horses.
Koguryo people worshipped many ancestors and other beings that they found to be supernatural. Every October, there was a festival called the Dongmaeng Festival that was held. This festival was kept to worship the gods and other supernatural beings. The ceremony always followed after with huge celebratory feasts, games and other activities. Koguryo people worshipped and respected Jumong, the founder of Koguryo. During the Dongmaeng Festival a religious ritual was performed for Jumong and the other ancestors and gods. The people found mythical beasts and other animals to be sacred in Koguryo. They worshipped the dragon and phoenix as well as a three legged crow representing the sun called Samjogo that was considered the most powerful out of the three. There were also paintings and other murals of theses mythical beast in the Koguryo king tombs today. Koguryo people believed in the ‘Sasin’, who were four mythical animals that guarded different areas. There was a blue dragon called chungryong that guarded the east, white tiger, also known as baek-ho, guarded the west, hyunma ia a black turtle, sometimes depicted having snakes for a tail, that guarded the north and the one who guarded the south was a red phoenix called jujak. There were many Koguryo arts that were preserved in the large tombs.
Koguryo was a great civilization. It influenced so much, affecting how the future ended up. There are still many artifacts from Koguryo that can help people uncover the history of Koguryo . It was the largest of the Three Kingdoms of Korea and it had survived for about 805 years. Some cultural legacies of Koguryo can be found within modern Korean culture. The remains of walled towns, fortresses, palaces, tombs, and other artifact have been found in North Korea and Manchria. Koguryo was a great ancient kingdom that went through many hardships and golden ages, having an interesting culture and lifestyle.