3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
The Northern Frontier Dictators and Slaves

 

Ch 5 - Koryo and the Mongols


The Sword and the Crown

Koryo refused to assist Song China in an attack against the Jurchen Chin, who then conquered the Liao Dynasty and much of northern China. Koryo's weakened royal authority led to a period of fierce regional inter-clan battles that began to unravel Koryo's carefully woven social structure. Koryo generals triggered a major revolt in 1170 that shifted political power in Koryo from civilian to military control.

Koryo's relations with the advanced Song Chinese had always been cordial and mutually beneficial, a relationship that rested on the peaceful foundation of economic and cultural exchanges. The buildup of military pressure by both the Khitan Liao and Jurchen Jin however, prompted a delicate readjustment of Koryo-Song relations. The Song court in Kaifeng wanted to mount a two-pronged attack against the Liao state using Koryo as an ally. King Yejong, unwilling to provoke the Jurchen Jin with any unwarranted action, refused to assist China in its war with Liao. Furthermore, the royal court knew from experience that the Jin would not likely honor any treaty once their own native interests had been satisfied. Koryo had no desire to become embroiled in a three-way power struggle between the Liao, the Jurchen Chin, and the Song Chinese, and tried to maintain strict neutrality in the matter.

The Song emperor, Qin Zong, turned to the Jin for help and found in them a willing ally. The conclusion of the Sung-Jurchen alliance sealed the Khitan Liao Empire's fate. In decline after so many years of conflict with its neighbors, the Khitan could not withstand the sudden onslaught. Soon after the Jin and the Song joined in coordinated attacks against the Liao state, Song China discovered it had made a pact with the devil. Jurchen warriors stormed out of the east, rapidly conquered all the Liao territory bordering the Yalu River as far west as Pao-chou and eventually took control of most of southern Manchuria. In 1125, the Khitan dynasty crumbled.

Flushed with success, the Jin armies immediately turned on the Chinese and drove through the Liaodong Peninsula into China, capturing the Song capital at Kaifeng and taking Emperor Qin Zong and the Crown Prince prisoner. In one swift thrust, the Jin dynasty erased the Khitan kingdom of Liao, annexed the entire northern half of China, and drove the Song court and its military forces south of the Yangtze River. From its new capital in Hangzhou, the Song Chinese asked Koryo to intercede to secure the release of the two imperial prisoners. The Kaesong court understood the direction events were taking on the continent however, and insisted on keeping out of any confrontation between the Jin and Song dynasties. Koryo refused the request and maintained a policy of cautious neutrality.

Koryo's great aristocratic clans living in Kaesong had been the major influence behind the throne from the earliest days of the kingdom. The most powerful of these clans maintained power principally by providing wives and consorts to Koryo monarchs;  the Kim clan of Ansan, the Yi families from In'chon, General Yun Kwan's P'ap'yong Yun clan, Ch'oe Chung's clan from Haeju, and Kim Pu-sik's clan from Kyongju. Once linked to the royal lineage, family members maneuvered the children of these marriages both on and off the throne. To extend their reach even further, aristocratic families formed numerous alliances through inter-clan marriages.

The hereditary aristocracy of Koryo maintained its privileged position through a number of institutional arrangements that secured its status in society. The intricate web of inter-clan relationships created a delicate balance of power among Koryo's great hereditary houses that survived for generations. Once these powerful families began exploiting the protected appointment system to monopolize government posts and expand their private land holdings however, that tenuous balance of power collapsed. It was only a matter of time before open conflict broke out among the ruling elite, eruptions that often assumed the character of armed insurrections.

Koryo's aristocracy reached the zenith of its power and influence concurrent with the Jin rise to power in Manchuria and its conquest of northern China. The Yi clan of Inchon, headed by Yi Cha-gyom, ranked foremost among the Kaesong gentry at the time and secured a closer link to the crown when he presented his second daughter to King Yejong as his queen. When Yejong's reign ended in 1122, Yi Cha-gyom's daughter successfully contrived to put her seventeen-year-old son on the Koryo throne as King Injong. Once again Yi Cha-gyom presented the royal court with queens, this time his third and fourth daughters. Surrounded by his mother and two aunts, all daughters of Yi Cha-gyom, the young King Injong felt the decisively heavy influence of his father-in-law from the beginning.

Yi Cha-gyom used his strong ties to the throne to occupy several government posts concurrently and appointed a number of his own family members to official posts. Anyone who stood in his way was driven from office. He held such power that neither Kaesong's royal court, nor even members of the royal family could stand against him. Fueling this arrogant grab for power was Ch'ok Chun-gyong, a military officer who served with distinction in the Jurchen campaigns, who was willing to back Yi Cha-gyom with armed force if need be. The Inchon Yi clan faction used their positions of power to accumulate vast amounts of land, often by seizing it directly from others. In time, their power and influence came to rival that of the king.

Yi Cha-gyom reached his powerful position in large measure by carefully judging the strength and direction of the political winds that blew through the royal court. He also knew how to protect his political position. Once he came to believe the Jin would inevitably dominate the Chinese, he decided that peaceful relations with the Jin would not only keep them out of Koryo, but would contribute greatly to sustaining his own political power. When the Jin resurrected their earlier demand for suzerainty over Koryo, Yi Cha-gyom gave in to their demands and dispatched envoys in the same year. As a result, the Jin dynasty did not invade Koryo. Arrogant with power after successfully engineering a peaceful settlement with the Jin dynasty, he began to act out his belief in a prophecy that he would soon become king. Yi Cha-gyom laid plans to usurp the throne from his own grandson with armed support from Ch'ok Chun-gyong.

Yi Cha-gyom earned many enemies in Kaesong over the years and foremost among them was King Injong. In 1126, the king and a group of his closest advisers, all hostile to Yi Cha-gyom's growing power, formed a secret cabal with the intent of eliminating him from the court. The plot was a disastrous failure. Alerted to the impending attack, Ch'ok Chun-gyong promptly led a contingent of heavily armed troops against the court. In the violent fighting that raged across the palace grounds, troops set the royal palace ablaze, captured and beheaded Yi Cha-gyom's enemies, and arrested and imprisoned King Injong. Following his bloody triumph, Yi Cha-gyom flaunted his power even more audaciously, going so far as to attempt to poison the imprisoned king. One year later, in 1127, the opportunistic Ch'ok Chun-gyong turned against Yi Cha-gyom and drove him out of Kaesong into banishment. Yi Cha-gyom's demise abruptly collapsed the once vaunted power of the In'chon Yi clan. The Yi Cha-gyom incident demonstrated as much as anything could the weakened state of Koryo's royal authority and the potential power of its aristocracy.

The serious inter-clan struggles that had plagued Kaesong for years soon erupted into regional battles that began to unravel the carefully woven structure of Koryo society. Among those who helped remove Yi Cha-gyom from power were three fiercely nationalistic men from Pyongyang:  Chong Chi-sang, Paek Su-han, and the Buddhist monk Myoch'ong. Each came from a dominant aristocratic group that had great popularity in the western capital and, in theory at least, a considerable reputation at the court in Kaesong. Taking advantage of the troubled situation in the capital, the three plotted to seize the reins of power. Myoch'ong cleverly used the theories of the geomancer's art to urge King Injong to move the Koryo capital from Kaesong to Pyongyang. The monk believed this would earn him great rewards for merit and leave him better able take power into his own hands.

Myoch'ong's repeated argued in favor of the move, which prompted Injong to order the construction of the Taehwa ("Great Flowering") Palace at Imwon, near Pyongyang, which was completed in 1129. Myoch'ong and his supporters became impatient when King Injong did not move to Pyongyang immediately. In their haste, they made an ill-fated decision. They forcefully proposed that King Injong declare himself emperor and adopt his own reign name, thereby asserting Koryo's equality with Song China and the Jin Dynasty. They also urged him to demonstrate his power by launching an attack against the Jurchen Chin.

The actions of the Pyongyang faction drew immediate opposition from an equally influential, China-oriented faction in Kaesong led by the historian Kim Pu-sik, Myoch'ong's arch-enemy in the royal court. The Pyongyang faction's superstitious behavior provided ample reason for harsh denunciations by Kim and his followers who went so far as to demand that Myoch'ong's head be taken for treason. Failing to sway the court by intrigue, Myoch'ong turned to open rebellion. Together with Yu Am and Cho Kwang, the rebellious monk raised an army and in 1135, he proclaimed a new kingdom called Taewi, centered in Pyongyang.

Under orders from an incensed court, Kim Pu-sik put down the rebellious Pyongyang faction in bloody fighting in and around Kaesong and captured and beheaded some of Myoch'ong's confederates. Kim next led his government troops north to Pyongyang, defeating all forces that opposed him along the way. Faced with a hopeless situation, Cho Kwang belatedly attempted to win a pardon by treacherously turning on his compatriots and beheading both Myoch'ong and Yu Am. There was no forgiveness. Instead, Cho Kwang's continued resistance led to a major assault by government troops. In February 1136, the military overran Pyongyang and Cho Kwang died in the flames of the city.

Just a decade after the tempestuous Myoch'ong revolt, Injong was succeeded on the Koryo throne by King Uijong in 1147. By most accounts, Uijong's reign involved frequent episodes of personal debauchery and idleness and the palace grounds reflected his enjoyment of the peaceful arts. He had a number of new pavilions built, beautifully landscaped with the addition of newly dug lily ponds and artfully sculpted hillsides, all for his personal enjoyment and that of the civil bureaucrats who dutifully followed him about. Ordinary soldiers and battle-hardened senior commanders alike served as military escorts under orders to guard the king and his retinue. The military despised escort duty, where they were considered little more than court servants and, at times, treated with outright contempt.

Aristocratic rule in Koryo's rigidly structured class society traditionally rested on the principle of civil supremacy;  the civilian control of the military. In political terms, military officials ranked lower than civil officials and the civil government gradually relegated them to an inferior social status as well. Under normal times, the military received less compensation than their civilian counterparts and frequently faced discrimination and exploitation. The strains imposed on the national treasury by Koryo's earlier wars with the Khitan brought the added indignity of irregular military pay. The final straw came with the suspension of land grants to soldiers as compensation for their services.

The real scandal of the time however, particularly in a society that placed such high value on respect for elders, was the disrespect shown by the young toward Koryo's aged military veterans. Kim Ton-jung, son of court historian Kim Pu-sik, reportedly set fire to a military officer's beard in the court of Uijong with a candle. In another episode, Han Noe, a young member of the Han family slapped Lieutenant General Yi So-ung in the face. Such behavior clashed with military pride and ambition, inflamed the military's growing frustration over civilian rule, and fueled a revolt of major proportions.

In 1170, during a royal journey to the Pohyon-won Temple outside Kaesong, generals Chong Chung-bu, Yi Ui-bang, Yi Ko and others assigned to King Uijong's escort instigated an uprising with the cry:  "Death to all who but wear the civil official headdress!"  Officers and common soldiers alike quickly joined ranks in an open revolt that resulted in the massacre of countless civilian officials, including Kim Ton-jung and Han Noe. Shortly afterward, the military forcibly removed Uijong from the throne and sent him into exile on Koje-do Island. The deposed king's younger brother took the crown as Koryo's new king, Myongjong. Three years later, a failed attempt by the aristocracy to restore Uijong to the throne prompted the military to engage in another bloody round of reprisals against civil bureaucrats, many of whom had escaped death earlier.

General Chong Chung-bu decided that enough was enough and ordered two of his men to pay a social visit to the ex-king on Koje-do Island. During their brief stay with the exiled monarch, they got Uijong drunk, rolled him up in a mat and drowned him. In that single murderous act, political power in Koryo passed from civilian to military control.

The military revolt and the imposition of military rule dramatically altered the history of Koryo. Once the military class unleashed its deep-seated grudges and strong sense of righteousness, it rapidly breached the weakness of Koryo's ruling class and tore it down from within. After the military seized power, it undertook a top down reorganization of the entire bureaucratic structure to redress past injustices and ensure a military monopoly of government positions. It established a supreme military council to manage the affairs of state under the tripartite rule of generals Chong Chung-bu, Yi Ui-bang, and Yi Ko. In the tradition of civil servants before them, military men used their new positions to expand their own private wealth and land holdings. The consolidation of power under the military caused a power shift that led to the complete upheaval of Koryo society.

 

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The Northern Frontier Dictators and Slaves