The Founding of Goryeo

The Founding of Koryo

In 918 Wang Kon took a decisive step that has affected Korea to the present day. He changed the name of the kingdom by shortening it from the four syllables that meant “later Koguryo” (Hu Koguryo) to a two-syllable, Chinese-sounding name, Koryo. The name change put Korea inside the Chinese system: No longer were Koreans barbarians with a multisyllabic name; they were beginning to be an integral part of the tributary system of China, with all of the rights and privileges of a tributary state. Koryo not only moved its capital closer to China geographically, it moved closer to China politically as well.

Wang Kon established the capital for the new dynasty in Kaesong just north of present-day Seoul and eventually recruited Silla aris-tocrats to join him and move to the northern capital. He continued to recognize Kyongju, the capital of Silla, by calling it the “Eastern Capital,” although it was located in the southeast part of the peninsula. Pyongyang became the “Western Capital,” although it was located north of Kaesong.

In 918 Wang Kon’s new kingdom was only one of three kingdoms on the peninsula. “Later Paekche” had emerged in the southwest, and Silla still had a king on the throne in Kyongju. Wang Kon was not anxious to destroy Silla. Rather, in good Confucian form, he gave Silla time and respectfully allowed the last king to serve out his term. Wang Kon even defended Kyongju when it was attacked by the Later Paekche (Hurst 1981, 1).

The leader of Later Paekche was a former Silla subject who rose to power in Paekche territory, a man named Kyon Hwon (ca. 867–936). As king of the Later Paekche kingdom, he attacked both Koryo and Silla. In 927 his armies sacked Kyongju, killed King Kyongae, took hostages, and hauled off treasures. However, Kyon Hwon did not cause the fall of the Silla dynasty. Instead, Wang Kon led an army of rescue and drove the Later Paekche forces back. Wang Kon won the respect of the people of Silla, and his respect for the old but dying kingdom was also reinforced.

Kyon Hwon was a capable ruler in some respects: He established the Later Paekche kingdom, ruled for nearly 30 years, and made alliances with one of the Chinese dynasties, the Liao (907–1125), at a time of disunity in China. In other regards, he was despotic, ruthless, and capricious. After being beaten back from what had appeared to be the sure conquest of Silla, he decided to name his fourth son, Kumgang, his heir.

This enraged his elder son, Shingom, who took over the kingdom, murdered his brother Kumgang, and imprisoned his father in a remote Buddhist temple. Kyon Hwon escaped, however, and sought refuge in the court of his erstwhile enemy, Wang Kon. Wang accepted Kyon Hwon and allowed him to lead an army against his own son and former kingdom. Kyon defeated Shingom in battle in 936 but in the process destroyed the kingdom he had set up, bringing Korea closer to unification under the new house of Koryo.

In the meantime, the last king of Silla, Kyongsun (r. 927–935), had surrendered to Wang Kon in 935. His territory and power shrinking, Kyongsun sought a role in the new Koryo kingdom. Wang took a wife from the Silla royal house, made the last king, Kyongsun, a member of the new Koryo aristocracy, and recruited many of the officials of Silla to come to Kaesong to serve in his court. Thus it was that the dates for Unified Silla, 688 to 935, overlap with the dates for Koryo, 918 to 1392.

In spite of the generation or two of turmoil, the transition from Unified Silla to Koryo hegemony was relatively smooth. Koryo’s vengeance was reserved for Later Paekche; it had great respect for Silla. As in Silla’s conquest of Kaya, the royalty of the defeated Silla kingdom was welcomed into the aristocracy of the victorious Koryo dynasty, avoiding a bloodbath (Duncan 1988, 39).

In present-day Korea, the historic integration of conquered dynasties is reflected in the fact that the largest surname groups in the country, Kim, Yi, Pak, Choe, and Chong—names of Silla aristocracy—compose 55 percent of the population. In addition to the Kims of Silla, there are the Kims who are descendants of the Kaya aristocracy, today called the Kimhae Kims. The Kimhae Kims are the largest lineage group in Korea, numbering about 4 million people.

Koryo’s consolidation of power was not limited to the former Three Kingdoms. In the meantime, a new power in Manchuria, the Kitan, who had founded the Liao dynasty in 907, attacked the northern kingdom of Parhae in 926. Many of the ruling class of Parhae were descendants of Koguryo refugees from the unification war, and they decided to join Koryo for protection (U-song Yi 1977, 28). Consequently, the northern border of Koryo extended farther north from where it had been under the Unified Silla rule. It now included the Yalu River estuary on the northwest.