The Government of Silla
In terms of political developments, Silla was situated at a pivotal time. At the beginning of this period, the culture was not far removed from its tribal heritage: Ascribed status was more important than status by merit, and leadership by hereditary lords was more important than central government authority.
This gradually changed—to a point. In 651 a central government office, called the Silla Chancellery, replaced the hwabaek, the council of elders, which represented the old order. Remnants of the older order persisted in the provinces, where Silla could not initially appoint its own officials. Rather, it recognized the local strongman. In time, however, the local leader was given central government rank, and later, central government officials could be appointed.
One method Silla used to keep local leaders in line was the hostage system. To ensure the local leader’s loyalty, he was required to send his eldest son and heir to Kyongju. There the heir would be educated, treated royally, and subsequently develop loyalty to the throne, but if the strongman decided to revolt against the Silla leadership, it could use his son to pressure the provincial leader to either give up or else see his son executed. The hostage system was an effective method of ensuring centralized authority, and it was used elsewhere in East Asia and other parts of the world.
The influence of Silla elitism can be seen in the life of a colorful character named Chang Po-go (d. 846), a local ruler who controlled maritime trade along the Korean and Chinese coasts. In Chang’s time, Koreans lived scattered along the Chinese coast, as recorded in the diary of the Japanese monk Ennin (794–864).
Chang had gone to China as a young man and become an officer in the Tang army. Later, enraged at the capture and enslavement of fellow Koreans along the coast, he petitioned the Silla court to establish a naval garrison on Korea’s southwest coast to protect the sea-lanes and coastlines. He was highly successful and became a powerful leader of the China trade.
Meantime, loyalties were shifting in the capital, and the Silla royal court was rocked by a series of coups in which each claimant succeeded to the throne by assassinating the reigning king. In one contest for the throne, a prince made an alliance with the powerful Chang, and together they successfully secured the throne for the prince.
In reward, Chang asked that his daughter be married to the new king. For the status-conscious Silla court this was too much. Chang was assassinated, and that was the end of one of the few who dared to climb beyond his prescribed status.
The palace coups that plagued the Silla dynasty in the late ninth and early 10th centuries were one important reason the dynasty began to decline. Another key reason was the dissatisfaction of the provincial rulers, who were tired of exorbitant tax levies and who still remembered stories of bygone days when their territory was not part of the Silla kingdom but was independent or allied to one of the three kingdoms.
Plus, given the political instability in the capital, it was hard for the court to keep control of the provinces. By the mid-eighth century, local rulers began to form regional alliances. Through alliance or con-quest, some rulers came to control more territory.
Eventually, two centers of power developed: one loyal to the old Koguryo court, which called itself the Later Koguryo kingdom, and one loyal to the old Paekche court, which called itself the Later Paekche kingdom. Therein were seeds sown for the eventual destruction of Silla.