Ch’oe Family Takes Power in Korea

During the Koryŏ Dynasty, the kingdom was under military rule from 1170 to 1270. Various generals struggled for power until General Ch’oe Ch’ung-hŏn took control, brought the country back to order, and began ruling as dictator in 1196. The Ch’oe family maintained control until 1258.

Summary of Event

During the first two centuries of the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392), in spite of a few major foreign invasions and domestic uprisings, the Koryŏ kingdom enjoyed peace and prosperity. As Koryŏ entered the second half of the dynastic period, however, corruption became rampant within the court and power struggles ensued. Monarchs were weak, incompetent, and lackadaisical, and state affairs went neglected. In particular, King Ŭ ijong Ŭijong (r. 1146-1170), the effeminate eighteenth monarch of Koryŏ, led an extravagant lifestyle, building palaces, pavilions, and manmade lakes for his entertainment. [kw]Ch’oe Family Takes Power in Korea[Choe Family] (1196-1258)
[kw]Korea, Ch’oe Family Takes Power in (1196-1258)
Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty]
Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty]
Ch’oe family[Choe family]
Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty]
Korea;1196-1258: Ch’oe Family Takes Power in Korea[2130]
Government and politics;1196-1258: Ch’oe Family Takes Power in Korea[2130]
Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty]
Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty]
Chŏng Chung-bu
Ch’oe Ch’ung-hŏ n
Ch’oe Ŭ i

In the aristocratic Koryŏ society, civil officials ruled supreme. Military officers, on the other hand, suffered social, political, and economic discrimination. As a result, military discontent had been building for some time. On August 30, 1170 (by the lunar calendar), during one of the king’s outings, a young low-ranking civil official by the name of Han Roe slapped the face of a general. This outraged the soldiers and generals who had long suppressed their building frustration and anger. That evening, General Chŏng Chung-bu Chŏng Chung-bu and officers Yi Ŭi-bang Yi Ŭi-bang and Yi Go Yi Go led their soldiers in killing the civilian officials at the gathering, including Han Roe Han Roe . Among those killed was Kim Don-jung Kim Don-jung , who earlier had burned General Chŏng Chung-bu’s beard. Kim was the son of Kim Pu-sik (1075-1151), the renowned Confucian scholar, historian, and general who compiled the Samguk sagi (1145; history of the three kingdoms).

On returning to the palace, General Chŏng and his soldiers expelled the king and placed the king’s brother Myŏngjong Myŏngjong (r. 1170-1197) on the throne. This military coup marked the beginning of a hundred years of military rule in the Koryŏ Dynasty and was the first of many attempts by numerous generals to gain control of the kingdom. It was not until General Ch’oe Ch’ung-hŏn Ch’oe Ch’ung-hŏn took power and restored order in 1196 that peace and stability were brought to the state.

Within ten years of the first revolt, all the original instigators had been killed, with the exception of Yi Ŭi-min Yi Ŭi-min . Born a slave, he was given the task of assassinating the banished King Ŭijong, when the movement to reinstate him was discovered and foiled in 1173. Yi eventually rose and claimed political power with his sons, but they proved to be as corrupt and lawless as their predecessors.

On April 8, 1196, General Ch’oe Ch’ung-hŏn, together with his younger brother Ch’oe Ch’ung-su Ch’oe Ch’ung-su and their nephew, Park Jin-jae Park Jin-jae , attacked and wiped out the Yi family. As reward, King Myŏngjong elevated the Ch’oe brothers to meritorious subjects. Nevertheless, Ch’oe Ch’ung-hŏn deposed the king the following year, replacing him with the king’s brother, Sinjong Sinjong (r. 1197-1204). Ch’oe held absolute power over the court and ruled the country as a military dictator. He alone made government policy decisions, rendering the king nothing more than a puppet. Ch’oe replaced kings as he saw necessary and eliminated those who opposed him. He maintained his power through his personal security force (mun-gaek).

The struggle to maintain power continued throughout Ch’oe Ch’ung-hŏn’s life. His brother, Ch’oe Ch’ung-su Ch’oe Ch’ung-su , sought to marry his daughter to the crown prince in an attempt to bolster his own position. Ch’oe Ch’ung-hŏn advised against it, but when his advice went unheeded, fighting broke out in the capital city of Kaekyŏng (formerly Songak, now Kaesŏng) between the two brothers and their respective forces. Ch’oe Ch’ung-hŏn prevailed, and Ch’ung-su was killed.

There were attempts on Ch’oe Ch’ung-hŏn’s life as well. King Huŏijong Hŭijong (r. 1204-1211) was behind one such plot in December, 1211, when Buddhist monks attacked Ch’oe in the king’s palace. He was rescued barely in time by his guards. The plot was uncovered, and the king was deposed and replaced by his cousin Kangjong Kangjong (r. 1211-1213). King Kangjong died after two years and was replaced by his son Kojong Kojong (r. 1214-1259). In total, General Ch’oe placed four kings on the throne and deposed two. King Kojong was the longest reigning monarch of the dynasty and witnessed Koryŏ’s most turbulent time in history because of the Mongol invasions.

The Mongols launched their first invasion in 1231. Anticipating further attacks, Ch’oe U Ch’oe U , who had succeeded his father in 1219, decided to move his court to Kanghwa Island off the Han River in 1232. The Mongols attacked that year as well, but because Kanghwa Kanghwa was out of reach, the Mongols ravaged the countryside instead. Korea;Mongol invasions of

While the country suffered under Mongol attacks, Ch’oe’s regime built magnificent palaces on the island. The regime renewed the annual celebration yŏndŭnghoe, honoring the birth of Buddha, and held a more splendid event than ever before. The court seemed determined to live with abandon. Although the Mongols could clearly see the island from the opposite side of the shore, they were inexperienced and fearful of crossing water. On land, the people suffered tremendously under the marauding horde yet still had to provide for the king and nobilities on the island, as well as fight to drive the invaders from their villages.

King Kojong, meanwhile, did the only thing he could. He fervently prayed to Buddha, entertained thousands of monks on the island, and ordered the entire Buddhist scripture to be carved on wooden blocks as a supplication to Buddha to intercede. The result was the famous Tripitaka Koreana (thirteenth century), a collection of 81,240 blocks, each carved on both sides.

After the initial attacks in 1231 and 1232, the Mongols invaded five more times. The 1254 incursion under the leadership of Jalairtai Jalairtai was particularly atrocious. According to records, Jalairtai took more than 200,000 Koreans as prisoners; the dead were too numerous to count. Ch’oe U died in 1249 and was succeeded by his son Ch’oe Hang Ch’oe Hang . The Ch’oe regime remained opposed to returning the court to the capital of Kaekyŏng, which was one of the conditions the Mongols demanded in exchange for their withdrawal from the peninsula. With no end to Mongol hostilities in sight, civilian officials began losing faith in the Ch’oe military regime.

Ch’oe Hang died in 1257 and was in turn succeeded by his son Ch’oe Ŭi Ch’oe Ŭi . Neither Ch’oe Hang nor Ŭi were strong leaders. Ch’oe Ŭi was especially incompetent and was soon set on by other ambitious men. Ch’oe Ŭi was killed within a year (March 26, 1258) by one of his long-time family servants in collusion with civilian officials. The Ch’oe family’s military dictatorship thus came to an end after sixty-two years and four generations. After the assassination, King Kojong and his officials sued for peace with the Mongols, resulting in the Mongols’s withdrawal from the country the following year. Power transferred back to the king in 1270, when the court finally returned to Kaekyŏng.


Military rule began against the backdrop of social unrest and military discontent. The numerous uprisings and rebellions were usually the result of tenuous political and social conditions, even discrimination against the military. Although most uprisings were eventually suppressed, this period saw examples of upward mobility in a society in which class distinction had been rigid. For example, Yi Ŭi-min, a man of humble beginnings, was able to climb to the highest military position. In another instance, a courageous slave from the Ch’oe house was able to incite and lead thousands of fellow slaves to revolt for their emancipation.

The Mongol invasions are regarded as playing a significant role in the demise of the Ch’oe family. However, the Ch’oe family’s resistance over the years and their decision to move the capital to the island of Kanghwa prevented Koryŏ from being completely overrun. The Mongols had intended to conquer Koryŏ in their quest to dominate the Far East, as they had done to much of the known world to that point.

Although many cultural artifacts were destroyed during the Mongol invasions, the Ch’oe period saw the flourishing of cultural activities, especially related to Buddhism. This period also produced the finest specimens of Koryŏ celadon (chŏng-ja-gi). The aforementioned Tripitaka Koreana stands as a testament to the pride and tenacity of the Koreans and the spirit of defiance they exhibited against the Mongols. Indeed, such an ambitious undertaking might not have been possible in peacetime.

Further Reading

  • Hulbert, Homer Bezaleel. Hulbert’s History of Korea. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962. A history that is somewhat critical of the military era because of the sources the author consulted at the time of his writing (c. 1905), which were based on Confucian ideals.
  • Joe, Wanne J. Traditional Korea: A Cultural History. Seoul, Korea: Chung-ang University Press, 1972. A comprehensive general history of Korea from ancient times to the 1870’.

  • Koryŏsa. Edited by Chŏng Inji et al. Seoul, Korea: Kyŏngin Munhwasa, 1972. The Yonse edition of this classic is the most authoritative source on the history of the Koryŏ kingdom. Written from the Confucian scholars’s viewpoint.
  • Lee, Ki-baik. A New History of Korea. Translated by Edward W. Wagner with Edward L. Shultz. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. Devotes a chapter to the era.
  • Schultz, Edward L. Generals and Scholars: Military Rule in Medieval Korea Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. The first and only book devoted to the subject in English to date. Provides a detailed account of the governmental organization and mechanism through which the Ch’oe house controlled the state.