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South Korea Table of Contents

South Korea


Koguryo, Silla, and Koryo Kingdoms

Historical records suggest that the Koguryo Kingdom was the first Korean state to emphasize the military arts. From the first through the fourth centuries A.D., the Koguryo tribes frequently fought with Chinese and other groups for control of the region from the Liao River south to the Yalu River, the latter forming today's international boundary between North Korea and China. Modern South Korean textbooks emphasize an unbroken history of foreign incursions. Like the early warrior kings of Paekche and Silla, however, King Kwanggaet'o, who ruled Koguryo from 391 to 412, significantly added to his state's territory by military conquest, absorbing neighboring tribes and fortified towns throughout present-day northeastern China and down into the Korean Peninsula (see Silla; Koryo , ch. 1). The Koguryo established military units in each of their five tribes. Each tribal army had about 10,000 men. An elected leader in charge of all military forces in the kingdom headed the chain of command. It was considered an honor for a man to be selected to be a soldier by the council of elders.

In the seventh century, the Silla Kingdom united Korea south of the Taedong River and successfully resisted repeated campaigns by the rulers of Sui (581-617) and Tang (618-907) China to conquer all of Korea. Under Silla rule, the king placed military commanders in charge of civil and military affairs in all of the country's local districts. A military academy was established in the capital city of Kyongju and was open to young men of aristocratic birth. Upon completion of their training, these young men were given the title hwarang, meaning Flower Knight. Most of the great military leaders of Silla trained at this academy and dedicated their lives to military service.

During the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), Korea remained independent until the kingdom was invaded by the Mongols in 1231. King Taejo (918-39) was a merchant and military leader who reunified the peninsula after the political fragmentation that followed the decline of the Silla Dynasty in the late ninth century. During the reign of King Munjong (1046-83), Korea's northern boundaries once again reached the Yalu and Tumen rivers. King Munjong established two military districts along the northern border and based army units there to defend the kingdom. Following a military coup led by socially and economically disgruntled generals in 1170, Koryo kings (most notably those of the Ch'oe family) became virtual puppets of military leaders from 1196 to 1258. In 1259, at the end of several years of warfare with the Mongols, Koryo capitulated, becoming a vassal of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1364) based in Dadu, which is modern Beijing (see The Evolution of Korean Society , ch. 1). King Kongmin (1351-74), however, increasingly resisted Yuan-imposed institutions and sided with the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) against the Mongols. Yi Song-gye, one of Kongmin's commanders, rebelled against the effort of Kongmin's son to reverse Korea's pro-Ming orientation and in 1392 established the Choson Dynasty.

Data as of June 1990