The Later Three Kingdoms Period

The Later Three Kingdoms Period

Silla had kept control of the leaders of Paekche and Koguryo by use of the hostage system, and it had levied taxes on all the territory. In the end these mechanisms broke down. The hostage system no longer kept the provinces under control, and tax revenues declined.

In the early Three Kingdoms period, the throne had rotated among various “holy bone” representatives from the Kim, Pak, and Sok clans, a remnant of the tribal confederation days. For the last 100 years of the Three Kingdoms period and the first 150 years of the Unified Silla period, the kings had come from a single lineage within the Kyongju Kim clan, but the unity this once represented began to break down.

During the last century of the Unified Silla period, assassinations and rivalries reemerged between not only various segments of the Kim clan but also the old Pak clan. Trouble at the center was all the excuse some warlords needed to test the strength of the periphery.

The most powerful of these warlords was a Silla royal prince who, disillusioned at not getting his chance on the throne, left for an area to the north. His name was Kungye (d. 918), of the Kim clan. He fled Kyongju for Kangnung, at that time on the northeast border of Silla, and declared himself king of the Later Koguryo kingdom.

Kungye was later toppled by one of his generals. This ultimate act of disloyalty, otherwise intolerable in a Confucian society, was justifiable in the eyes of later historians because of the alleged cruelty of Kungye. After suffering several acts of vicious behavior at the hand of Kungye, the people came to Kungye’s trusted general, Wang Kon (877–943), and asked him to overthrow his lord.

Wang Kon rejected their first request, in good Confucian form. When asked a second time, he rejected them again. The third time, moved by their pleas, he rose up and killed the hated Kungye.

The truth probably lies somewhere between the extreme descriptions of the arch-evil Kungye on one hand and Wang Kon the traitor on the other. Since Wang Kon won, he had the privilege of writing history, and in his account, he was the hero. In any case, Wang Kon became the king of Later Koguryo in 918.

The notion that history may have been doctored a little is rein-forced by Wang Kon’s name. It means “setting up the king.” Though it is not likely he was born with that name, he apparently liked his surname because he bestowed it on his loyal supporters. If it was good enough to be manufactured for him, he could manufacture it for others. Several of those who allied themselves and their territories to Wang Kon was also given the surname “Wang.”