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The forgotten glory of Koguryo
Lee Wha Rang
2/6/2004



Map: Koguryo occupied much of today's Manchuria and part of Siberia. Since its formation in 57 BC. Koguryo became the most powerful nation in the Far East until it was toppled by the Silla-China alliance in 668 AD.

Koguryo, one of Korea's ancient three kingdoms, existed for 700 years ruled by 26 wise kings. All kings strove to better people's welfare and strengthen the military. Koguryo had to fight invaders from north and its citizens were well organized and train ed in the art of warfare. It developed unique culture and remarkably advanced educational, socio-political and military systems.

Koguryo murals are rich in color and tone. Women dancing, warriors in practice, birds in the sky, dragons, fish in rivers, beasts in forests, wind and clouds of the murals appear so real and fresh, one fears they may jump out of the canvass at any time.

Both North and South Korea want the United Nations to designate Koguryo archeological sites a world cultural heritage in the same class as the Egyptian pyramids and the Mayan temples. After so many years of neglect and plunder, the past glory of Koguryo is fast disappearing.

Koguryo relics are situated in North Korea and Manchuria. South Korea is off limit to these sites. North Korea has limited technical and financial resources to explore and preserve the sites in North Korea. China has little interest in preserving its former ruler of Manchuria.

Last year, thieves stole priceless Koguryo frescos from the Kilrim site in China. The thieves are still at large. China is building a dam, which will ruin several sites. Koguryo forts and structures are being pulled down and used as building materials by the local residents. Apartments stand where Koguryo castles used to stand. Ancient sites are cleared for factories. King Kwangkaeto's burial mound remains desecrated and unattended.

Koguryo was established in 37 BC from several warring tribes in Manchuria and North Korea. Its first king was King Dong-myong, In 342 AD, Koguryo was invaded by the Chinese Yen. The Chinese were driven out after years of intense fighting.
The power of Koguryo peaked under its 19th king, King Kwang-gae-to (廣開土大王). Until his epitaph was discovered in the 19th Century, some historians believed he was only a fictional character. He was born in 374 AD and became the king in 391 AD at the age of 18.

During his 22-year reign, he warred on and subdued neighboring states north and south. Koguryo' territory reached as far south as the Nakdong River and as far north as the Song-wha river (松花江) in North Manchuria. Under his rule, Buddhism flourished and the economy expanded.

In 372 AD, Koguryo officially adopted Buddhism as the state religion. Koguryo established a state academy to educate the nobility and compiled a state history consisting of 100 chapters before the introduction of Buddhism. State codes were promulgated to initiate a legal system to rule the people.

Koguryo dominated Silla, Baikje, Gara, Bukyun, and Dong-Buyuh. In 400 AD, Koguryo helped Silla defeat and expel a Japanese invasion army. Four years later, Koguryo smashed an allied army of Baikje and Japan. The King died in 412 AD at the young age of 39 and his gigantic epitaph was erected in 414 AD in Jirin (China - 中國 吉林城集安市 太王鄕 大碑街).

Until 385 AD, China was in chaos with numerous warlords fighting for hegemony and none of them was powerful enough to attack Koguryo, and Koguryo had friendly relations with the warlords, exchanging envoys and gifts. With the emergence of a unified China, Koguryo became under military forays by the Chinese and was forced to move its capital to Pyongyang, far away from the Chinese border.

In about 610 AD, Sui Emperor Yang-ti invaded Koguryo with more than one million men. In 612 AD, Koguryo General Ulchi Mundok held key fortresses against Yang-ti's army and navy for several months and destroyed the Sui troops in retreat. An ambush at Salsu (Ch'ongch'ongang River) killed all but 2,700 Sui troops out of 300,000 men sent to capture Pyongyang. In 613 AD, Emperor Yang-ti led an army to invade Koguryo but he failed again. In his absence, his political enemies rose up and Yang-ti was forced to return to China. The Koguryo army inflicted heavy losses on the retreating Chinese troops.

One of Yang-ti's top generals Hu Sizheng defected to Koguryo with critical intelligence on Yang-ti's future war plans. In 614 AD, Yang-ti assembled another invasion army but again internal rifts forced him to abandon his quest. Yang-ti's war on Koguryo weakened his Sui Empire and Sui fell to T'ang in 618 AD.

Koguryo stayed strong and united under the wise rule of King Yongyang, who died in 617 AD and King Yongnyu ascended the throne. He was incompetent and pro-Chinese, allowing T'ang troops to roam his kingdom on the pretext of recovering the remains of the Chinese troops killed in Koguryo. In 642 AD, General Yon Kaesomun toppled the king and installed the king' nephew as the new king, but Kaesomun ruled the nation.

Koguryo had advanced weapons of the era. Short Mongol-style bows with double arches were extensively used by the cavalry. Sharpshooters and special forces were equipped with crossbows, that were effective in taking out enemy commanders. Catapults were used to rein heavy rocks on the enemy. The Koguryo soldiers were good at throwing daggers at the enemy in close range fighting.

Koguryo maintained a standing army of about 50,000 men that would grow to more than 300,000 men in times of war. General Ulchi Mundok commanded an army of 300,000. Unlike most armies of the era in which soldiers were jack-of-all-trades, the Koguryo army was made of specialists: archers, crossbow-men, spear-man, catapult operators, horsemen, wall-climbers, and so on.

T''ang's emperor T'ai-tsung tried to topple Koguryo in 644 AD, 648 AD and 655 AD - all repulsed by Koguryo. The years of constant warfare eventually brought down the once mighty Koguryo. Ironically, the end came when a fellow Korean state Silla joined up with T'ang in 668 AD and invaded from south while T'ang moved in from north. This two-front war was too much for Koguryo.

In 660 AD, Baikje fell to Silla and in the following year, Pyongyang fell to T'ang invaders. However, General Yon Kaesomun attacked T'ang's supply lines and forced the T'ang army to retreat. The general died in 666 AD and his three sons began to fight for succession. In 668 AD, the Tang army returned and occupied Pyongyang. After the fall of the capital, the remnants of the defeated Koguryo army fought on until 673 AD, when King Bojang died - Koguryo was no more.

Koguryo officials and 200,000 prisoners were taken to China and Koguryo's territory was annexed to T'ang. Many of the Korean prisoners served T'ang emperors well. For example, Ko Sagye, a famous Koguryo general, joined the T'ang army. Hi s son Ko Son-ji rose to a high rank and led a T'ang army to subdue Tashkent in the mid-eighth century and introduced the art of paper-making to the Arabs.

In 674 AD, T'ang invaded its former ally Silla. Silla defeated the T'ang army and freed Koguryo capital Pyongyang. In 735 AD, Silla regained the Koguryo territory south of Taedonggang. Subsequent Korean kings regained the lost territory south of Yalu and Tumen.

The last king of Koryo attempted to invade Manchuria to regain the rest of Koguryo territory. Unfortunately, the general in charge, Yi Sung Gye, mounted a coup instead and founded the Chosun (Yi) Dynasty.

A Koguryo revival is going on in S Korea. New books on Koguryo are being published. Several airlines include Koguryo murals in gift packages. Various commercial products (T-shirts, ties, scarves, etc.) use Koguryo motifs. TV dramas, musicals, martial ar ts and commercials draw upon the glory of Koguryo. The revival has been helped by well-attended exhibitions of Koguryo artifacts.

A South Korean entrepreneur Miss Um started 'ROK Cafe Koguryo' a few years ago after falling in love with things Koguryo. Its walls are covered with photos of Koguryo murals and other artifacts. Replicas of Koguryo monuments guard the entrance. Authentic recitals of Koguryo ceremonies are presented periodically. People stand for hours in line to get inside.

Miss Um has 6 locations at present. She plans to expand to 45 locations by the end of 1997. Next year, she plans to expand to Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Miss Um wants to propagate Koguryo images throughout the world by working closely with multi-national chains such as TG Friday and Benigans.

The Koguryo revival ('boom') hit the right cord with the youth of Korea. Today, 70 million Koreans are crowded into a tiny peninsula. Once upon a time, the mighty Koguryo lorded over a large chunk of today's Chinese territory, and today's Korean nationalists view the 'lost' territory with a hungry eye.

The glory of Koguryo is a proud heritage of Korea for all Koreans. All of us must do the right thing to preserve and promote all things Koguryo.


Lee Wha Rang is a contributor for Korea WebWeekly.

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