The Mongol Invasions

Koryo's General Kang Kam-chan battling Mongolians

The Military Regime's Resistance Against the Mongols

The Mongols arose as a nomadic herding people in the steppe region of north central Asia. The wealth produced by the agricultural peoples to their south natUrally aroused their acquisitive instincts, and so it was that the empires of Chin and Sung, and Koryo too, became prime targets of Mongol invasion. After defeating Chin there was a further reason for the Mongols to extend the swath of their conquests to Koryo-the objective of

securing a base for the subjugation of the Southern Sung and Japan.

The first contact between Koryo and the Mongols resulted from their joint effort to destroy a motley army of Khitan who had fled from Man­churia across the Yalu to escape the Mongols. When Chin came under sustained Mongol attack, the Khitan had taken the opportunity to assert their independence, but following the fall of the Chin capital in 1215, Mongol pressure drove the Khitan into Koryo territory. After creating considerable turmoil in Koryo's northern regions for more than two years, the Khitan made a defensive stand at Kangdong Fortress, east of Pyongyang, but soon were compelled to surrender by the combined Mongol-Koryo siege forces (1219). After this incident the Mongols regarded themselves as Koryo's benefactors and came to collect annual tribute. Their demands were too heavy, however, and on several occasions Koryo refused to accede to them. This was the immediate cause for the beginning of a rift between the two. Subsequently, in 1225, the Mongol envoy Chu­ku-yii was killed enroute back from Koryo, and the Mongols eventually used the incident as a pretext for launching their first invasion of Koryo, in 1231.

The Mongol army led by Sartaq ran into stubborn resistance from Pak So at Kuju (Kusong) but, abandoning his siege there, Sartaq drove toward the capital at Kaesong. When Koryo now sued for peace, the Mongols left military governors (daruhaci) behind in the northwest region of Korea and withdrew their troops. But Ch'oe U resolved to resist the Mongols and so moved the capital to Kanghwa Island the next year (1232), an action cal­culated to exploit the one Mongol weakness, their fear of the sea. At the same time that the ruling class entered Kanghwa, the populace in general was made to take refuge in the mountain fortresses or on islands off the coast. Koryo's decision to resist the Mongols provoked further invasions. To be sure, the Mongol force again withdrew upon the death of their com­mander, Sartaq, at the hands of the monk Kim Yun-hu in the battle at Ch'oin-song (Yongin), later in 1232, but thereafter Mongol assaults con­tinued as before. In the end, over a thirty year period, the Mongols launched a total of six invasions of Koryo.

To one standing on a hill on the mainland opposite, the shoreline of Kanghwa Island lies visible just across the water. Nevertheless, the Mon­gols could only glare across this narrow strip of sea and call to the Koryo defenders to come out onto the mainland. The Koryo response was that they would come out, if the Mongols first withdrew their forces. To which the Mongols in turn rejoined that they would withdraw, if first the Koreans came back across to the mainland. It was a pointless exchange of verbal taunts, for the real question was the strength of will on the part of the Ch'oe house to continue to resist. So long as their determination to resist could not be broken, it would be well-nigh impossible for the Mongols to capture Kanghwa.

Meanwhile, secure in their haven on KanghwlI, the members of the

ruling class were able to continue their extravagant lives of luxury no differently than they had in Kaesong. It was just as if they had moved intact to Kanghwa all the facilities of the capital-the palaces, mansions, temples, polo fields, everything. The merriment on the occasion of the great annual festivals, such as the p'algwanhoe and yondunghoe, also was the same. This was because the amount of the grain tax revenues as well, sent by ship along safe coastal routes, was little different than before.


The Struggle of the People

The resistance of the military regime to the Mongols at first was carried on with the support of the peasantry and the lowborn classes. At the time of the first Mongol invasion, the brigand bands on Mt. K wanak gave them­selves up and joined in the battle against the Mongol enemy. The resistance of the army of slaves at Ch'ungju, led by Chi Kwang-su, is particularly famous. They fought bravely to the end to defend the town, even though the aristocratic officials all had fled.

While moving the capital to Kanghwa the military regime had instructed the peasantry to take refuge in mountain fortresses and on islands off the coast. These areas thus became the base points for the struggle against the Mongols. Unable to overcome the stout resistance of these redoubts, the Mongols adopted the tactic of laying waste by fire to the ripened grain fields. Food supplies then ran short, and because of this the peasantry suffered much hardship. Moreover, when a mountain fortress fell to the Mongols, the strength of its defenders exhausted, they were cruelly slaugh­tered by their conquerors. The most severe suffering and destruction result­ed from the invasion led by Jalairtai in 1254. On this occasion it is said that the number of captives the Mongols took back with them reached more than 200,000, while the corpses of the dead were too many to be counted and the entire region through which the Mongols passed was reduced to ashes. The population thus declined and whole villages fell into ruin. It was also during this time that many irreplaceable cultural treasures were lost, outstanding among them the nine-story wooden pagoda at Hwangnyong-sa in Kyongju and the woodblocks for the Tripitaka pro­duced two hundred years earlier and stored at the Puin-sa monastery in Taegu.

As the villages became devastated, the life of the peasants inevitably became one of hardship. But the government on Kanghwa, instead of pressing ahead with positive measures to safeguard the peasantry, by constant harsh exactions only made its condition more miserable. Such exploitation by the aristocratic elite not only bred hostility toward their rulers in the hearts of the peasants, but also dampened their desire to fight against the Mongols. This alienation of the people could not but pose a grave threat to the government on Kanghwa.


Collapse of the Military Regime and Peace with the Mongols

The Ch'oe had carried on resistance against the Mongols with the backing of the peasantry, but now that their support had weakened, a grave crisis overtook the military regime. Whether or not this crisis could be overcome would determine whether or not the regime would survive. Its trust in the power of the Buddha led the government to undertake an­other woodblock carving of the Tripitaka, and the result was the so-called Koryo Tripitaka, famed for its exquisite artistry, that remains to this day at Haein-sa near Taegu. The government also offered up anxious prayers to the deities of heaven and earth. It was in such an atmosphere that sentiment for peace with the Mongols arose among the king and the civil officials in particular.

It was observed above that once the Ch'oe had begun to make use of men of letters, the voices of the civil officeholders, who for some time had been completely ignored, more and more demanded to be heard. At the outset they had held opposing views with regard to moving the capital to Kanghwa, and even after the move they took every opportunity to urge peace. This policy of the civil officials to make peace with the Mongols was directly related to the question of the further expansion of their role in the governing process. That is, their aim was to attempt to curb the power of the military men by reaching an accommodation with the Mongols. In order to achieve this objective peace was necessary, but to bring about peace would necessitate the downfall of those who advocated continued resistance, the military rulers. Accordingly, the civil officials, in collusion with a segment of the military officials, had initiated a move toward overthrowing the Ch'oe house, a move toward peace.

The last of the Ch'oe dictators, Ch'oe Vi, was assassinated by the civil official Yu Kyong and the military official Kim Chun in 1258. Authority thus reverted for the moment to the king and a decision to make peace with the Mongols was reached. In the next year, then, the crown princc (later King Wonjong) went to the Mongols and conveyed Koryo's desirc for peace, and to clearly signal this intent to cease resisting, Kanghwa's walled fortifications were torn down.

The military men, however, stilI were not happy about peace with thc Mongols. Although Kim Chun went along with the current of opinion around him, taking no active steps to thwart those working for peace, hl' nevertheless was not enthusiastic about the peace policy. Then, when hn Yon killed Kim Chun and seized power from him, the opposition to making peace came out into the open. In the end, 1m Yon went so far as

to depose the king, Wonjong, who had put the pro-Mongol policy into effect. These events suggest that an inseparable linkage had formed betwcl'n the pursuit of a policy of resistance to the Mongols and the perpetuation

of military rule. However, rapprochement already had rcachcd the !Joinl where Koryo was subject to strong Mongol intcrfcrcnce, and at the SlIllIt'

time national solidarity had so disintegrated that the populace no longer could be rallied behind a policy of resistance. Mongol pressure soon restored Wonjong to the throne, and at his request Mongol troops were brought in. Under these circumstances, with the assassination by royal command of 1m Yu-mu (1m Yon's son who took power after his father's death), the flickering pulse of military rule that had been sustained since the downfall of the Ch'oe house now was utterly extinguished. This was the same year (1270) in which Koryo returned the capital to Kaesong and completely abandoned the struggle against the Mongols.


Anti-Mongol Struggle of the Sambyolch'o

As already noted, the Three Elite patrols (Sambyolch'o) had constituted the military underpinning of military rule. They were also in the forefront of the struggle against the Mongols, bedeviling the enemy forces with their sudden forays and harrying tactics. The Three Elite Patrols, then, were the mainstay of military rule, the core force in the resistance against the Mongols. Accordingly, when the military regime was toppled and peace terms worked out with the Mongols, they were bitterly resentful. When the return to Kaesong was announced, therefore, the Three Elite Patrols immediately rose in revolt. Under the leadership of Pae Chung-son, they first blocked all transit between Kanghwa and the mainland. A royal kinsman, Wang On, the Marquis of Sunghwa, was put forward as king, a government was established, and officials were appointed, thus creating an anti-Mongol regime in opposition to the government at Kaesong.

Kanghwa Island, to be sure, was the base from which the struggle with the Mongols had been waged for more than forty years. But the situation was different now that Wonjong's government at Kaesong was working hand in hand with the Mongols. It was necessary for the Three Elite Patrols to secure a permanent base of operations out of reach of the Kaesong government. The rebels went south, therefore, to the island of Chin do, off the southwest tip of the peninsula. There they not only built a palace complex on a large scale and readied the other appurtenances of a capital city, but they brought the nearby islands and the adjacent coastal region under their control, thus creating a distinct maritime kingdom.

Chindo, however, fell to a combined Koryo-Mongol assault in mid-1271, the central figures in the revolt being nearly all lost. Led by Kim T'ong­jong, the survivors fled to Cheju Island to continue their resistance, but Cheju too was subjugated, in 1273, bringing to a close almost four years of insurrection. The bitter end struggle of the Three Elite Patrols provides a clear indication of how strong was the spirit of resistance to the Mongols among the military men of Koryo.