3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
Unification under Koryo A Reformed Government


Ch 4 - Koryo and the Khitan

Setting a Course for the Future

Beginning under King Taejo, Koryo inaugurated a number of reforms to strengthen the twin pillars of Koryo society:  agriculture and freeborn peasant labor. Taejo's efforts to build a base of powerful support for his new dynasty sowed the seeds of trouble for his successors.

Koryo achieved the first true national unification of the Korean peninsula. It embraced not only Later Paekche and Silla, but the survivors of the old Koguryo lineages from the northern kingdom of Parhae. In uniting the Later Three Kingdoms, Wang Kon considered himself the true inheritor of Koguryo's ruling power. After Silla's defeat, he took the title King Taejo, "the Grand Progenitor," and pursued a policy of northward expansion. He pushed Koryo's northern frontier up to the Chongchon River in the west and to Anbyon and Yonghung in the northeast, a line about halfway between the old Taedong River-Wonsan Bay line of the Silla kingdom and the modern northern border with Manchuria.

Initially, King Taejo's unification of the peninsula had little impact beyond removing competing regimes from Korea. It had no effect on the provincial clans of the castle lords who still represented the basic power centers in the countryside. These provincial aristocrats controlled not only "private land," the farmland that served their private interests, but "public land," that part of the country which provided economic benefits to the aristocracy as a whole. The historic independence of this group was well established and, if challenged directly, they would not give it up without a fight. The young King Taejo understood that the true foundation of his power base in Koryo lay in the hands of these wealthy landowners and that his continued success depended heavily on their consent and cooperation. Recognizing the importance of holding the allegiance of these wealthy landholders, Taejo wisely decided to leave them alone.

Wang Kon owed his throne to the generals and military commanders who shared his victories and defeats in battle. Following unification, these men, along with their prisoners and the other spoils of war they took while leading their own armed troops in battle, represented a proud, powerful force. In a dramatic move to strengthen his central government, Taejo brought all the powerful provincial clan leaders and military leaders who had served with him in the unification campaigns into the central bureaucracy. He made his gratitude known in a most tangible way;  he created the position of "merit subject" for those men who had assisted in establishing Koryo. The prestigious title also came with great privileges and gifts of large tracts of land. Unlike the cool attitude shown towards the people of Later Paekche, Taejo treated Silla's aristocracy with extreme generosity and took particular care to assuage their fears. He appointed their former king, Kyongsun, to the governorship of Kumsong, the highest post in Koryo's government, a position ranked even higher that of Crown Prince.

While Taejo granted Silla's elite official titles, land grants, and annual stipends, he did nothing to interfere with their power or wealth. His benevolence not only rewarded the faithful and encouraged the hesitant, it also soothed their pride and secured their allegiance to his throne. In time, many of these land barons rose to occupy high government positions. Taejo shrewdly averted the danger of local rebellions such as those which plagued the former Silla kingdom by giving the wealthy land barons a vested interest in maintaining local order. Left undisturbed, Koryo's aristocracy grew in both size and wealth.

Koryo society rested on the twin pillars of agriculture and freeborn peasant labor. Regardless of the name of the kingdom or who sat on the throne, peasants lived as they always had; in hardship and poverty. Cultivating and farming the private land holdings of the aristocracy, it was Korea's peasants who planted and harvested crops and paid the rents and taxes that generated most of the kingdom's wealth. King Taejo won the favor of the majority of Koreans near the beginning of his reign, when he exempted farmers from the payment of taxes for three years. This act not only averted the peasant revolts of the previous century, it produced a tremendous stimulus for agricultural production. Koryo's land barons took quick advantage of this new policy and greatly increased their fortunes by converting many of their public holdings into "private land" from which they could collect rents directly.

Koryo's peasants farmed not just private land, but a sub-category of public property known as "people's land." Peasants who farmed "people's land" were little more than sharecroppers burdened with a stiff rent that often totaled as much as one half their harvest. Land owners collected more than rent from the peasants, they also collected a tribute tax, usually in the form of cloth. In addition, landowners could call upon adult males between the ages of 16 and 60 to perform forced labor duties on a variety of construction projects. The concentrations of lowborn people living in the poverty-stricken villages inherited from Silla were routinely assigned to labor duties. They worked on farms, mined, and worked with gold, silver, copper, or iron, or made crafts from silk, paper, or pottery. Although treated even worse than freeborn peasants, the once distinctive character of Silla's lowborn people gradually vanished as they merged with the general freeborn population.

Slaves occupied the lowest rung on Koryo's social ladder, and like slaves throughout history, they inherited their status and could be bought and sold as property. These virtually bonded servants belonged to the state, which used them to perform a variety of minor duties within the royal palace and government offices. The government also allocated slaves to civilian and military officials as personal attendants and servants. The private slaves belonging to the royal households, the aristocracy, and the religious temples routinely worked at such chores as cleaning, cooking, and chopping and gathering firewood.

No longer an upstart castle lord from a coastal border region, Wang Kon became the living personification of a long standing and historical tradition. He firmly secured the mantle of royal authority that traditionally belonged to Silla by marrying a woman from Silla's ruling house, the royal Kim clan. In a clever attempt to check the potential ambition of regional castle lords, King Taejo instituted a system of internal hostages through which he required the sons or close male relatives of provincial clan leaders to reside in the capital as a guarantee of the good conduct of their clans. To further bind the clan leadership to his new government, Taejo broke the rigid social caste strictures that shackled Silla society and established marriage ties with twenty-nine local gentry families throughout the country. Women from the Pak and Yu clans in P'yongsan, the Wang clan in Kwangju, and the Yu clan in Chongju became consorts of the king. King Taejo's indulgence accomplished his immediate aims, but it seriously undermined the future authority of Koryo monarchs. By establishing so many fictitious family ties he practically guaranteed a violent fight for succession upon his death.

King Taejo, above all else, was a shrewd and astute politician who readily took advantage of popular beliefs for the benefit of his new dynasty. After a great deal of thought, he developed a personal testament known as the Ten Injunctions, a description of government precepts and values he hoped would provide stability for later kings. Taejo's testament reflected two of his more dominant characteristics;  an ardent belief in Buddhism and a firm belief in geomancy Geomancy, two beliefs that played a prominent role in the later development of Koryo's government and society. Noting that the Koryo dynasty owed its supremacy to its Buddhist piety, the Ten Injunctions directed the government not to interfere with Buddhist monasteries in any way. Despite his religious nature and Buddhist piety, Taejo acknowledged that Buddhist festivals would be observed, but cautioned they should not become a frequent occurrence. He did not want to see the monks take control of the Koryo government and instructed all his sons to keep them in check. As a caveat, he added the precaution that monasteries should not be allowed to proliferate without limits.

King Taejo believed Koryo owed its power to the geomantically favorable location of its capital at Kaesong. He honored the ancient city of Pyongyang for the same geomantic reason. There is little doubt he also honored the site for more earthly, practical reasons. Pyongyang sat on the Taedong River in a strategically important location for the protection of Koryo's northern frontier and as a base for territorial expansion. Taejo designated the territory south of the Ch'aryong and Kum Rivers, the former stronghold of Later Paekche that had resisted him to the very end, as an adverse region. He believed it to be a "perverse and rebellious land" and warned that people dwelling there should never be chosen for government service. King Taejo's testament also charged his successors with the task of forever guarding the throne against usurpers. Succession had to come only from the legitimate descendants of the founding monarch.

The vast Khitan empire building north of the Yalu River made King Taejo wary of future problems. He regarded the Khitan as an immoral, uncivilized people and warned his successors to protect Koryo from their barbaric customs and manners. The Khitan empire tried to establish relations with Koryo as early as 922. Twenty years later the Khitan monarch again attempted to establish relations with Koryo's royal court. He sent his emissaries to Kaesong along with a string of fifty camels as a gift to be presented to King Taejo. Angered by their attempted "bribery," Taejo ordered the Khitan envoys banished to a nearby island and had the camels tied beneath Kaesong's Manbugyo Bridge where they later starved to death. Throughout his reign he rejected every attempt by the Khitan to establish relations.

Contrary to Taejo's opinion however, the Khitan were a quite civilized people at the time. They possessed an agricultural economy, knew how to build walled defenses, and effectively used the rugged northern terrain of their kingdom to their advantage. They had a much more formidable capacity to organize and administer territory than the quick-striking Xiungnu nomads who earlier battled the Han and Tang Chinese. When Khitan warriors forcibly took the Liaodong region from China, most of the officials, artisans, craftsmen, and monks living deep within that country were Chinese. Khitan emperors were quite learned and intelligent men, perceptive enough not to abuse their subjects or otherwise give the Chinese people under their rule any cause for grievance.

King Taejo, founder of the Koryo Dynasty, died in 943, and was buried in a splendid tomb at the foot of Mount Songak near modern Kaesong The Tomb of Wang Kon. Taejo's son Hyejong succeeded him on the Koryo throne, and almost immediately the young king faced two major problems. Although his father had inaugurated a number of great advances in all fields of government in the opening years of his new dynasty, Hyejong inherited a royal throne that had yet to firmly establish itself as a stable power. Second, Taejo had created family ties, some purely fictitious, with twenty-nine aristocratic families as a means of building a base of powerful support for his new dynasty. What began as an act of generous gratitude turned relatives in each of the new "royal lineages" against each other as they battled among themselves for control of the throne.

The first of many power struggles for the throne began almost immediately. The trouble revolved around a royal in-law named Wang Kyu, a strong supporter of Wang Kon's rise to power and one of Koryo's most respected "merit subjects" and a revered founding father. Wang Kyu had presented two of his daughters to Taejo as his fifteenth and sixteenth queens, one of whom bore Taejo a son, the Prince of Kwangju. Shortly after Hyejong took the throne, Wang Kyu began maneuvering against the young monarch by sending yet another of his daughters to the royal palace to be a secondary queen.

Wang Kyu attempted to cement his tie to the royal court by throwing his considerable support behind the Prince of Kwangju and by falsely informing King Hyejong that two of his younger brothers were disloyal. When that failed to move things along, Wang attempted to murder Hyejong. Powerless to eliminate his father's old friend and supporter and with his position seriously threatened from within the court, the beleaguered young king lived under the constant and watchful eyes of armed bodyguards. In 945, after only two years on the throne, Hyejong died, leaving the crown to his twenty-three-year-old brother who reigned as King Chongjong.

Chongjong had no trouble escalating the response against Wang Kyu's direct challenge to the throne. Chongjong brought one of his own relatives into the battle to protect his position by sending an urgent appeal to his paternal uncle, General Wang Sing-nyom, commander of the Pyongyang Garrison. General Wang quickly mobilized Koryo troops from the garrison, rushed south to Kaesong, and quickly eliminated Wang Kyu and his supporters.

After crushing Wang Kyu and his treasonous plotters, Chongjong's young government began to prepare for Koryo's future. Chongjong thought he could best strengthen his frail royal authority by moving the seat of government to the "Western Capital" of Pyongyang. The government rebuilt the city's defensive fortifications, established schools and even set up branch offices of the central government in the city. The government actively encouraged people from the south to move north and settle in Pyongyang. In a short time, Chongjong's new capital city became a cultural, political and military center second only to the capital at Kaesong.

The reorganization and strengthening of Koryo's central government may also have been prompted by the rising strength of Koryo's neighbors to the north and west. For twenty years Koryo shared a common frontier border across the northern half of the peninsula with the powerful nomadic Khitan empire. In their capital city at Liaoyang on the Liao River near modern Mukden the Khitan developed a governing structure very similar to a regular Chinese-style state. In 946, less than a year after Chongjong took the Koryo throne, the Khitan announced the formation of the Liao Dynasty and prepared to satisfy their ambition to expand their domain southward. First they would conquer the territory north of Korea, then take Koryo itself. Fully aware of Parhae's fate and suspicious of Khitan intentions, Koryo intensified preparations for a military defense against an expected invasion from the north along Koryo's frontier.

King Chongjong never moved his capital from Kaesong to Pyongyang. Over a two year period Chongjong raised an army of about 300,000 men from the private armies of the land barons and brought them together under control of the central government as the Resplendent Army, Kwanggun. The creation of such a large standing army bolstered the muscle needed by the civil bureaucracy to consolidate the central government's power in Kaesong. With a number of garrison forts already in place north of the Chongchon River, the Resplendent Army also afforded Koryo the opportunity to pursue a policy of northward expansion toward the Yalu River.


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Unification under Koryo A Reformed Government