Post-classical history

Chapter Ten


Death of an Army

On the Korean peninsula between 1146 and 1197, the king scorns the army, the army overthrows the king, and both army and king submit to private power

ON THE PENINSULA east of China and west of Japan, a single king ruled over a single people. For over two centuries, Goryeo had been united under the same dynasty. Its people spoke the same language, worshipped in the same Buddhist temples, followed the same laws.*


10.1 Goryeo

This did not translate into a peaceful existence.

In the early decades of the twelfth century, two major rebellions had rocked the palace; the first led by the king’s own father-in-law, the second by a rebellious Buddhist monk who raised an army from his followers and labeled it the “Heaven-Sent Force of Loyalty and Righteousness.” Both revolts had been put down by the reigning monarch, King Injong; but they had risen out of a deep discontent that Injong did nothing to address.1

Unified though it was, Goryeo was heavily scored by internal divisions. The old families, those that could trace their lineage back to the days before unification, married among themselves, held their country estates apart, and filled most of the offices of civil government: an aristocrat could always be known, remarked the twelfth-century poet Yi Kyu-bo, by “the official tablet stuck in his girdle.”2

Military officers, on the other hand, were relegated to the lowest possible appointments. The army had served the throne loyally in putting down rebellions, and a standing force was needed to protect the northern border against wandering nomadic invaders; but the aristocracy was unwilling to allow soldiers to gain any more power. Injong’s officials had even decided to do away with the exams that allowed military men to qualify for important civil posts. There was no longer any way for a soldier to rise through the ranks and gain power at court.3

Nor were soldiers the only victims of aristocratic ambition. Since the beginning of the century, the spread of great private estates—enlarged both by royal presents and by out-and-out confiscation of the fields of the poor—had displaced more and more of Goryeo’s peasants; too many now wandered through the countryside, giving up farming for a life of banditry.4

When Injong died in 1146, his oldest son Uijong was crowned in his place: the eighteenth king of his line, heir to an uneasy kingdom. Tact and wisdom were required, but Uijong had neither. His father and mother had openly preferred their second son, Uijong’s younger brother Kyong; they thought Uijong to be a trifler, with no skill for governing. Their low opinion seems to have been shared by contemporary historians. Uijong, the chronicles tell us, was more interested in building gorgeous gardens and writing poetry than in governing. He “partied with his favorite civilian officials,” says the contemporary history Goryeosa, “exchanging poems and forgetting the time.” “With palace attendants, he got drunk daily and enjoyed himself,” another account complains.5

Uijong was only nineteen at the time of his accession, and fully aware of his family’s dislike. In 1151, after six years on the throne, he seized on a baseless court rumor that his younger brother Kyong was planning treason, and used it as an excuse to strip Prince Kyong of his titles and remove his closest friends from their official positions. Kyong had remained popular, especially with his mother’s family, and Uijong was afraid of a coup. Six years later, still worried about Kyong’s prominence, Uijong banished Kyong and his cronies from the capital city of Kaesong completely.6

At this, Kyong and his companions disappear from the chronicles. But their reflections can be seen, insubstantial as mirrored ghosts, in the events of the next decades.

Disrespect of Goryeo’s officers and scorn for their men grew more extreme. Uijong, posturing as a man of culture and peace, encouraged the disregard. Ignoring military campaigns, he built Buddhist temples and gave them names like “Tranquillity” and “Joyful Pleasure.” He dug lily ponds, traveled from one beauty spot to another, and gave alms to the poor. Meanwhile, he ordered soldiers to dig ditches and build walls for public projects and forced officers to act as ceremonial bodyguards to civil officials. Enlisted men found their salaries unexpectedly docked, or promised land tracts suddenly reassigned. On royal expeditions, military men were allowed to wait, cold and hungry, until civilians were well fed.7

In 1167, at a royal feast, a young man named Kim Ton-jung (the unruly son of the Royal Diarist Kim Bu-sik, mastermind of the official history known as the Samguk Sagi) acted out his king’s disdain by playing a practical joke on the king’s Chief of General Staff, the army officer Jeong Jung-bu. A career soldier of sixty-one, General Jeong Jung-bu was a dangerous and experienced fighter, nearly seven feet tall. Kim Ton-jung, flown with wine, set the general’s long grey beard on fire with a candle. Jeong Jung-bu was incensed, but his king was merely entertained, as Kim Ton-jung must have guessed he would be.8

General Jeong Jung-bu, as it happened, was related by marriage to two of the banished friends of Prince Kyong; two of the younger officers under his personal command, Senior Captains Yi Ko and Yi Uibang, were from the same clan as another of the exiles. After the raucous dinner party of 1167, unhappiness over Uijong’s high-handedness, simmering along in an unfocused diffusion beneath the surface, began to coalesce into a solid core of resentment around these three.

Three years later, the resentment erupted.

Civilian and military officials had gathered for a memorial service, during which the gap between them grew painfully clear: “Now the civilian officials are haughty, drunk, and full,” one of Jeong Jung-bu’s officers complained to him, “but the military officials are hungry and troubled. How long can we endure this?” Jeong Jung-bu, still smarting over Kim Ton-jung’s insult, agreed. “And thus,” the Goryeosa concludes, “they began to plot a coup.”9

Their opportunity came quickly. The next day, the king staged a boxing competition, offering generous prizes for the winner. During one of the matches, a civilian official named Han Roe mocked the losing officer, finally pushing him down on the ground to demonstrate his weakness. “The king and his officials applauded and laughed heartily,” the Goryeosa explains.

This was the match that lit a very short fuse. At twilight on that same day, Jeong Jung-bu led his co-conspirators in an attack on the palace gates. The guards, surprised, were no match for the rebels, who poured into the palace shouting, “Death to all who wear the civil official headdress!” and massacring the civilian officials. Han Roe hid under the king’s bed but was dragged out and knifed to death outside the king’s quarters. In the bloodbath, Kim Ton-jung also died.10

When it was over, an entire layer of Goryeo’s government had been wiped out: “Their corpses were piled as high as a mountain,” the Goryeosa says. Uijong survived by handing over all power to Jeong Jung-bu and his fellow officers, who spared his life but exiled him to isolated Koje Island, off the southern coast. In his place, the conspirators crowned his younger brother Myeongjong. Nearly forty, weak and accommodating, Myeongjong would sit on the Goryeo throne for twenty-seven years, wielding no power whatsoever.11

Through disregarding its soldiers, pushing them down and away, Goryeo had fallen under a military rule that would last nearly a century.

It was not a peaceful regime. For one thing, General Jeong Jung-bu had rivals. His younger allies, Yi Ko and Yi Uibang, helped him to form the Council of Generals, a group of officers who took over the job of governing that had once been held by the civilian State Council. And Yi Ko, Yi Uibang, and every officer on the Council of Generals—the Chungbang—wanted a share of their leader’s power.

For another, the exiled Uijong had supporters. He had not treated his army well, but he had been a faithful observer of Buddhist principles and a generous builder of temples; he had attempted to lower taxes; he had given alms to the poor.12

In 1173, an officer named Kim Bo-dang, stationed in the northeast of the country, managed to round up a substantial counterforce of soldiers and civilians who were still loyal to the deposed king. Kim Bo-dang had no personal connections in the Council of Generals, and although he was an army man, he had been demoted after General Jung-bu’s government came to power. He had been better off under the old regime.

The attack failed, miserably, and Kim Bo-dang was killed. But as he died, he shouted out, “The civil bureaucrats all joined in plotting with me!” The accusation set off another disastrous chain of events. Scores of civil officials who had not been killed in 1170 fell in a new purge; civilians who had once been sympathetic to the military’s plight now began to turn against the new regime.

The following year, a former civil official from the northern city of P’yongyang raised an even larger army and tried once more to drive the General and his captains out. This attack too failed, but the rebels stormed around in the north of Goryeo for more than a year before an army from the capital finally captured the ringleader and scattered his guerrilla followers. By then, Uijong was dead; one of Senior Captain Yi Uibang’s men had assassinated him in his island prison.13

Matters in the Council of Generals were equally unstable, and a fifteen-year series of murders commenced. The two Senior Captains fell out with each other, and by 1174 Yi Uibang had assassinated his rival Yi Ko. Now undisputed second-in-command to the General, he arranged the marriage of his daughter to King Myeongjong’s son, the crown prince. At this display of ambitions, General Jung-bu arranged for Yi Uibang to be murdered in turn. He controlled the Council of Generals alone for another five years, but his iron hand soon grew far too heavy. In 1179, a younger officer killed the General himself.

Chaos reigned until 1196, when two brothers of the Choe clan—Choe Chung-heon and Choe Chung-su—murdered their most powerful rival and claimed control of the Council of Generals.

The older of the two brothers, Chung-heon, had barely turned twenty-one at the time of army’s revolt. Now he was forty-seven years old, head of his clan, veteran and survivor of a quarter century of civil war. Unlike his predecessors, Chung-heon had a long-term plan. He did not intend to rule by controlling the unruly Goryeo army; the series of graves outside the capital city’s walls had convinced him of the pointlessness of such a strategy.

Nor did he aspire to claim the crown.

To put his own sons on the Goryeo throne would be to shatter the mystique of the long-lasting Goryeo dynasty; such a move might energize a whole new civilian resistance to the military dictatorship. A year after seizing power, he suggested to the now-elderly king Myeongjong that he abdicate because of his failing health. Myeongjong, probably relieved to be given a nonfatal way off the throne, quickly agreed. In his place, Chung-heon organized the coronation of Myeongjong’s younger brother Sinjong, who was even more malleable: “Sinjong was put upon the throne by Choe Chung-heon,” says the Goryeosa, “and all matters of life and death, decisions to accept or to reject, were in Choe’s hands. Sinjong stood above his subjects holding only empty authority. Alas, he was nothing but a puppet.”14

Just after Sinjong’s coronation, Chung-heon’s younger brother and co-ruler, Choe Chung-su, decided to push for the marriage of his own daughter to Sinjong’s son, now crown prince. The older brother disagreed sharply with this strategy. “Now, brother,” he is said to have objected, “although our power can shake the country, our lineage was originally humble. If we have your daughter marry the crown prince, will we not be criticized?” When Choe Chung-su ignored his counsel and pushed ahead with the betrothal, the two brothers quarreled so violently that their supporters divided and began to fight in the streets. In the struggle, Chung-su was killed.15

Now Choe Chung-heon was in sole control of the throne, and his ultimate plan grew clear. Rather than becoming head of an army administration or part of the royal family, he intended to rule as a private citizen. His own personal guards, supplemented by troops who owed loyalty directly to him, became a separate and independent army within the capital, answering only to Choe Chung-heon. At first, they simply guarded his house. As time went on, they were augmented by mercenaries, deserters from the regular army, and new allies, until Choe Chung-heon controlled thirty-six armed units of well-trained fighters. “The bravest soldiers were all Choe Chung-heon’s,” says the Goryeosa, “[and] those in the government army were all thin and weak and useless.”16

Over the next decades, Choe Chung-heon would slowly transfer more and more of the government’s powers—including tax collection and the prosecution of lawbreakers—over to his own private control. Meanwhile, he allowed the Goryeo throne, the traditional government offices, and the shell of the army to survive. The Council of Generals was given a handful of ceremonial tasks, the task of carrying out important Buddhist rituals, and the responsibility for making maps; it no longer took any part in governing the country. The military revolt had ended up by destroying not only the power of the civilian officials but the strength of the army itself.17


* There are two major systems for rendering Korean names into the Roman alphabet. The older system, McCune-Reischauer Romanization, uses phonetic symbols; the second, Revised Romanization, tries to represent Korean sounds with combinations of vowels and consonants. Some names, such as Injong, are the same in both systems, but where the transliterations differ (the name of Injong’s oldest son is Uijong in Revised Romanization, Ŭijong in McCune-Reischauer), I have chosen for simplicity’s sake to use Revised Romanization. Revised Romanization is the current official system of South Korea, although North Korea continues to use a slightly altered version of McCune-Reischauer.

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