Foundation of the Koryo Dynasty Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

At the end of Korea’s Unified Silla Dynasty, the kingdom was divided into three states—Silla, Later Paekche, and Later Koguryŏ—giving rise to the Later Three Kingdoms period. In 918, Wang Kŏn took over Later Koguryŏ and renamed it Koryŏ, completing the reunification of the three kingdoms in 936.

Summary of Event

The last half century of the Unified Silla (668-935) Silla Dynasty, United period was a time of chaos. Since 780, the royals had been engaged in a century-long struggle for the throne. During that period, fourteen kings ascended the throne, three kings were assassinated, and one committed suicide. Royals and aristocrats led extravagant lifestyles in the city of Kyŏngju, where, it is said, the sound of music never stopped. [kw]Foundation of the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-936) [kw]Koryŏ Dynasty, Foundation of the[Koryo Dynasty] (918-936) Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] Korea;918-936: Foundation of the Koryŏ Dynasty[1130] Government and politics;918-936: Foundation of the Koryŏ Dynasty[1130] Kyŏn-hwŏn Kung-ye Wang Kŏn

Although the central government was weak and unable to pay much attention to the local governments, local aristocrats grew independent and became ever more powerful. In the countryside, disaffected farmers were heavily weighed down by grain taxes and corvée Corvée system;Korea duties to support both the local and central governments. Many fled their farms and roamed the country, some joining bandits and others being absorbed by the increasingly powerful local landed lords who took them in as slave laborers. The local elites ran their own governments independent of the capital, owned private armies of various sizes, and were commonly referred to as generals and castle lords.

Unable to collect taxes, Taxation;Korea the national economy was in a desperate state. In 889, when Queen Chinsŏng (r. 887-896) tried to collect taxes by force, farmers and robbers throughout the country rose up in arms. The most prominent generals leading the insurgents were Kyŏn-hwŏn Kyŏn-hwŏn from Wansan (now Chŏnju) in North Chŏlla Province, and Yang-gil Yang-gil from Pukwŏn (now Wŏnju) in Kangwŏn Province. By 892, Kyŏn-hwŏn, a young Silla general, carved out a territory in Chŏlla Province and asserted his independence from the Silla government. He presented himself as the successor of the former Paekche, made Chŏnju the capital, and, in 900, proclaimed himself the king of Later Paekche Later Paekche Dynasty (900-936).

Another prominent figure was Kung-ye Kung-ye , who was born a Silla prince. There are interesting reports regarding his birth. As the story goes, the king, his father, ordered him thrown out of the palace because of his inauspicious birth. His nurse saved the baby and raised him. At the age of ten, Kung-ye entered a Buddhist monastery, and in 891 he enlisted in the camp of the bandit Ki-hwŏn. After being ill treated, Kung-ye moved to the camp of another bandit, Yang-gil of Pukwŏn, and served as his lieutenant. Being resourceful and courageous, he won many battles and soon commanded a sizable army. One of the men who joined Kung-ye was Wang Kŏn Wang Kŏn (895), a member of the local gentry from Songak (or Song-do, now Kaesŏng), who later would become the founder of the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392).

Yang-gil, becoming suspicious and envious of his lieutenant’s success, attacked Kung-ye but was soundly defeated and subsequently lost all his territory. In 901, Kung-ye founded a state and named it the Later Koguryŏ Later Koguryŏ kingdom[Later Koguryo kingdom] (901-918), indicating that his dynasty was the legitimate continuation of the former Koguryŏ kingdom. He declared Songak his capital and proclaimed himself king. This period, from c. 900 until 936, is known as the Later Three Kingdoms Later Three Kingdoms period (Korea) period.

As his domain expanded, Kung-ye changed the name of his state twice, first to Majin, then to T’aebong, and moved the capital to Ch’orwŏn. He now held the largest territory among the three kingdoms. His territory extended beyond the Taedong River to the city of P’yŏngyang in the north, in effect occupying the whole southern part of the former Koguryŏ, or almost all of the northern part of Silla.

After his military success, he turned to Buddhism Buddhism;Korea , with the intention of devoting the rest of his life to the religion. He declared himself a Maitreya Buddha, proclaimed both of his sons Buddhists, and named them bodhisattvas, thus trying to present his family as a true Buddhist family. He authored twenty volumes of Buddhist scripture and showed them to the most revered monk at the time, Sŏckch’ŏng Sŏckch’ŏng . When the latter criticized them as heretical nonsense, Kung-ye killed him. After the incident, Kung-ye became more violent and unpredictable and turned into a neurotic psychopath. Kung-ye even accused his queen of infidelity and killed her. When their sons tried to intervene, he killed them as well.

The officials under him were genuinely alarmed by the king’s erratic behavior and implored Wang Kŏn to replace him. Understandably, everyone under Kung-ye’s rule feared for his life. In 918, Wang Kŏn came with ten thousand soldiers and surrounded the royal palace. Kung-ye fled for his life but was eventually captured and killed.

Wang Kŏn, now King T’aejo (although this title was given posthumously), renamed his state Koryŏ and moved his capital back to his town of Songak. He established good relations with Silla while remaining hostile toward Later Paekche. When Kyŏn-hwŏn invaded deep into Silla’s capital in 927, King Kyŏng-ae asked for Koryŏ’s help. Wang Kŏn set out immediately, personally leading his troops. However, Kyŏn-hwŏn arrived at the capital first and ravaged the city.

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Oblivious to the crisis at hand, King Kyŏng-ae Kyŏng-ae , his queens and concubines, and other royal families were dining sumptuously near the capital at the outdoor banquet place known as P’osŏkjŏng when the Later Paekche forces fell on the city. Paekche soldiers killed and plundered. King Kyŏng-ae was captured and forced to commit suicide. Then, Kyŏn-hwŏn violated the queen and allowed his soldiers to do likewise with the king’s consorts and concubines. Before leaving the city, Kyŏn-hwŏn placed a relative of the former king on the throne. He was King Kyŏngsun, the last monarch of Silla.

Although he was too late to prevent the sacking of the capital city, Wang Kŏn came to Silla’s aid and engaged Kyŏn-hwŏn’s returning forces. During the next two years of battles, Wang Kŏn lost many men and two generals, and once could barely extricate himself from Kyŏn-hwŏn’s formidable forces.

An internal discord was Later Paekche’s undoing. Kyŏn-hwŏn took many wives and sired ten sons. Among them, he most favored his fourth son, Kuŏmgang Kŭmgang , and chose him as his successor. This decision sowed the seeds of family discord. The eldest son, Sin-gŏm Sin-gŏm , in collusion with two younger brothers, kidnapped and imprisoned his father in a Buddhist monastery, killed Kuŏmgang, and made himself king (935). After three months, the imprisoned monarch escaped and made his way to his old archenemy, Wang Kŏn, and surrendered. Wang Kŏn received him and treated him royally.

In the same year, the last king of Silla, Kyŏngsun Kyŏngsun , discussed with his officials a possible surrender to Koryŏ, as Silla was no longer viable. Silla had been reduced to the territory just around the capital city of Kyŏngju. The only dissension came from the crown prince, who argued that a nation’s rise and fall depended on the mandate of heaven (heavenly authority to rule) and it was imprudent to surrender a country that had lasted a thousand years.

Regardless, the king decided to surrender and lead his nobles and ministers from Kyŏngju to Songak in a procession that stretched out for miles. In despair, the crown prince bid farewell to the king and retreated to the mountains. There, he lived eating grass and wearing hemp cloth until he died. In Korean history, he is known as the Hemp Prince (Ma-uŏi T’ae-ja). Thus ended the Silla Dynasty, which had seen fifty-six kings and lasted (through its early and United phases) from 57 b.c.e. to 935 c.e., just eight years short of a millennium.

Koryŏ’s Wang Kŏn had his two former adversaries under his wing. In 936, Kyŏn-hwŏn convinced Wang Kŏn to attack his own sons in Later Paekche; after a fierce battle, Wang Kŏn defeated Sin-gŏm and his brothers. Some accounts say Kyŏn-hwŏn died on the battlefield, while others say he died shortly thereafter. Thus ended Kyŏn-hwŏn’s Later Paekche in 936.

Significance

Koryŏ’s Wang Kŏn unified Korea for the second time in its history, and it remained one entity until the twentieth century. The name he gave his kingdom, Koryŏ, from which the English name for Korea originated, was chosen to recall the greatness of the earlier Koguryŏ kingdom.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hulbert, Homer B. History of Korea. 2 vols. Richmond, Surrey, England: Curzon, 1999. Written in the manner of annals, this history contains the most detailed account. Covers up to 1904.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joe, Wanne J. Traditional Korea: A Cultural History. Rev. ed. Edited by Hongkyu A. Choe. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym, 1997. Comprehensive and well-written history of Korea.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Ki-Baik. A New History of Korea. Translated by Edward W. Wagner. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. Very succinct overview of Korean history. The “Dynastic Lineages” section is particularly helpful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rutt, Richard. James Scarth Gale and His History of the Korean People. 2d ed. Seoul: The Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, 1983. Based on the history written by James Gale, a contemporary of Homer B. Hulbert. Gale and Hulbert were born a month apart and served together at the court of the emperor Kojong (r. 1864-1907) at the end of the Yi Dynasty. Often they have similar views, yet they complement each other in details.

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