Mongol invasions of Korea

Mongol invasions of Korea

Korea was under the control of the military when the greatest challenge to its independence came: the invasion of the Mongols. Koryo’s first contact with the Mongols, in the early 13th century, was as an ally. The Mongols had beaten the Jurchen state of Jin in 1212; with the Jurchen in disarray, the Kitan, whom the Jurchen had controlled, rose up in resistance. When pressed by the Mongols, the Kitan retreated into Koryo, the land of their traditional enemy. A combined Mongol-Koryo force had defeated the holdout Kitan in a battle near Pyongyang in 1219.

Unfortunately for Koryo, the Mongols then demanded tribute as the price of being an ally. The demands for tribute were too costly, and Koryo did not always comply. Their relationship was deteriorating when in 1225 a Mongol envoy was killed. The Mongols used this incident as an excuse to launch their first of six invasions against Koryo in 1231 (Ledyard 1964, 1).

The Mongols had risen to power under Genghis Khan (1162–1227), who was able to unify a diverse group of tribes located on the plains of North Asia. He conquered lands and people to the west, south, and east, but it was his grandson, Kublai Khan (1215–94), who conquered China, both the Southern Song and the Jin (Jurchen) in the north. Kublai’s new dynasty was called the Yuan (1271–1368).

In 1231 the Korean court, under the control of the Choe military family, left Kaesong and took refuge on Kanghwa Island to the south-west, in the estuary of the Imjin and Han Rivers. The Choe family’s army of retainers escaped with them. While they hid in the relative safety of their island fortress, the common people of Koryo were left to fend for themselves. Peasant armies rose to defend their lands and families, but they were no match for the Mongols. The devastation was extreme and the results catastrophic.

On the island, the Choe military leadership and the king and his court built a palace and a miniature city in replica of the capital, Kaesong. They carried on as if oblivious to what was happening on the mainland.Tradition holds that the rulers-in-exile were safe on the island because the Mongols, as horse riders, were not capable sailors.

Although the stretch of water between the island and the mainland is only as wide as that of a large river (a bridge crosses the span today), legend says the Mongols were not able to cross the water. The story is not convincing in light of the fact that the Mongols, when they decided to invade Japan, mounted an armada: They simply loaded their horses on the ships and sailed off to conquer the island nation, albeit with Korean help. Surely they could have conquered the Koryo court had they wanted to. Having control of the peninsula, however, they took the position of waiting the court out.

A Koryo military unit named the “Three Special Forces” continued to fight and toward the end, in 1271, was driven to Cheju Island for safety. The Mongols, however, were able to sail to Cheju and quash the last of the holdout army in 1273. In the process the Mongols discovered the herds of horses kept on the island. One of their demands for tribute thereafter included a supply of horses from Cheju.

The Mongols established a different form of tribute system from that of the Chinese. No longer were the tribute demands reasonable. No longer was there reciprocation of tribute goods. No longer was there the advantage of accompanying a tribute mission in order to conduct some trade at a private level.

Rather, as part of their tribute, the Mongols demanded an asset the Chinese had never asked for: slaves. It is estimated that the Mongols hauled off at least 200,000 slaves during the time they controlled Korea, from 1231 to 1368 (Ledyard 1964, 1).

Tributary of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty

With the assassination of the last of the Choe military dictators in 1258, the rule of the Choe generals, who had been in power for four generations (62 years), was over, and the king was free to make a treaty with the Mongols. As part of the treaty, King Kojong (r. 1213–59) agreed to a new hostage arrangement: His son would be taken to Beijing, marry a Mongol princess, and be educated until his turn came to rule in Korea. Thereafter, for eight generations, each Korean king relinquished his son, the crown prince, allowing him to be raised in Beijing, and each king had a Mongol mother and a Mongol wife. No Chinese dynasty dominated the Korean court as thoroughly as did the Mongols.

Korean women were delivered to the Yuan court as well. Many were lost to history as nameless slaves and concubines, but some were given to the emperor’s court to be part of the imperial harem. One of the sons of these court women became the emperor. Yuan dynasty China called Korea a “son-in-law kingdom,” since the emperor’s daughters would marry the Korean king. But at the same time, Korea was also the “mother” kingdom, or at least the kingdom that pro-vided the mother of the emperor.

This closeness of relationships was one beneficial outcome of the conquest. Although the devastation wreaked by the Mongols was nearly total, once the dust settled, Korea became part of a vast international empire that brought products and ideas to Korea.Particularly important was the idea of Neo-Confucianism, which had been developed by the Southern Song but was just starting to filter through the Yuan court to Korea. As dramatic as the Mongols’ impact was on Korea, with all of its war and chaos, it would be eclipsed by the revolution in thought brought by Neo-Confucianism.

Cultural Achievements

In spite of the destruction and chaos caused by the warfare during the invasion of the Mongols, in its aftermath Korea saw great cultural inno-vation. In some cases innovation was stimulated by contact with the Mongols and the Chinese, in other cases innovation was indigenous, and in some cases it was developed out of fear of the Mongols. A case in point is the invention of metal movable type technology.

Although the Chinese had developed printing using movable fonts made of wood and ceramics some time before, it was the Koreans who first created mov-able type printing fonts made of metal. The oldest book printed using metal movable type that survives is a 1377 document called the Jikji, a Buddhist text explaining the teachings of a Korean monk. A record exists that indicates that the technology was used as early as 1234, but none of the earlier books survive.

More important than movable type at the time, however, was print-ing with carved wooden blocks. At the same time that some Buddhist temples were experimenting with movable type, another temple was engaged in a massive project, that of printing the entire Buddhist canon, which required carving more than 80,000 wooden blocks.

The monks completed the project once in the early 13th century, only to have it destroyed by a Jurchen invasion. As an act of devotion to the Buddha whose protection they sought, this time from the Mongols, monks repeated the feat a second time. Although it did not stop the Mongols from invading, the edition survives—it is housed today in a remote mountain temple called Haein-sa, located not far from Taegu. The blocks and the buildings that house them were named in 1997 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The highest art form from the Koryo period is the Korean adaptation of Song celadon ceramics, among the finest in the world. Ceramic art experts say that the Koryo celadon surpassed its Song exemplars in the quality of the color of the glaze, a turquoise that is at once delicate and deep. It is found sometimes on very simple ware and other times on very elaborate works. The shape might be as important as the glaze for some works, often incorporating themes from nature, such as ducks, lotus blossoms, peaches, and dragons.

In scholarly matters, Confucianism came to slowly eclipse Buddhism. Confucian historiography, as seen above in the Samguk sagi (Korea’s first history), is one manifestation of this development, but it is also found in biographies, eulogies, essays, and memorials to the throne. If deemed worthy, the writings of a scholar-official would be collected and published as the complete works of a scholar after his death. The first of these anthologies were published in the mid-Koryo period, and they continued to be published for the next 800 years.

One example is that of Yi Kyubo, whose collected works include about 2,000 Chinese poems as well as letters, court memorials, biographies, and essays, short compositions that were often humorous and always insightful.Toward the end of the Koryo period, Neo-Confucianism, which had emerged in China in the early 11th century, gained traction in Korea. Influenced by Buddhism and Daoism, this Confucian revival would come to dominate the political, social, and philosophical landscape of the Choson dynasty.

Decline of Koryo

The story of the Koryo dynasty is remarkable. It lasted nearly five centuries, making it one of the longest dynasties in world history. During this time the name of the country came to be known as Korea in the West, and the West has retained that name despite changes of the name within Korea in the intervening centuries. (Inside Korea today the country calls itself “Hanguk” in the south and “Choson” in the north.) Koryo had noteworthy internal strength such that it survived an internal military takeover on the one hand and external domination by the Mongols on the other.

By the mid-14th century, the Yuan dynasty of Mongol China began to totter. Internal rebellion in China, led by pro-China/anti-Mongol groups, began to spread. Soon the Mongols were driven out (1368), although they maintained a government in the northern border territory, their homeland. The ouster of the Mongols from China had major implications for the future of the Koryo dynasty, whose royal and aristocratic families had intermarried with the Mongols. Although they survived for another quarter-century there, a weakened court ultimately gave way to a new dynasty, the Choson.