Shilla was torn to pieces by rebel leaders such as Kyon Hwon who proclaimed
the Latter Paekche (Hu Paekche) state in Chongju in 900, and Kung Ye who
proclaimed to Latter Koguryo (Hu Koguryo) state, the following year at
Kaesong. Wang Kon, the last rebel leader, the son of a gentry family,
became the first minister of Kung Ye. Overthrowing Kung Ye for
misdemeanors and malpractice in 918, he sought and received the support of
landlords and merchants whose economic, as well as political, power overwhelmed
the Shilla government.
Wang Kon easily raided Latter Paekche in 934. Wang Kon accepted the
abdication of King Kyongsun of Shilla in 935. The following year he easily
conquered Latter Paekche and unified the Korean Peninsula.
Wang Kon was at first content to leave provincial magnates undisturbed.
He was particularly careful to placate the Shilla aristocracy. He gave
former King Kyongsun the highest post in his government, and even married a
woman of the Shilla royal clan, thus somewhat legitimizing his rule.
Enthroned as the founder king of the Koryo Dynasty (91801392), the name of
which was derived from Koguryo, he drafted 10 injunctions for his successors to
observe. Among the 10 injunctions he predicted probably conflict between his
state and the northern nomadic states with Koguryo's territory as the objective,
and advised the strengthening of the state. He advised that Buddhist
temples must not be interfered with, and warned against the usurpation and
internal conflicts among the royal clans and the weakening of local power.
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King T'aejo's (Wang Kon's posthumous title) lenient policy plus his marriage
ties made the rebellious local lords relatively obedient. To weaken the
local power, King Kwangjong (r. 949-975) instituted emancipation of slaves in
956 in order to restore the commoner status of those unjustly bonded. This
helped to increase revenue and was welcomed by the people unjustly forced into
Two years later, he installed a civil service examination system to recruit
officials by merit. His successor King Kyongjong (r. 975-981), put into
practice the allotting of land and forest lots to officials. These
policies enabled the Koryo Dynasty to gain a foothold as a centralized
government. King Songjong (r. 981-997) in 982 adopted the suggestions in
the memorial written by Confucian scholar Ch'oe Sung-no and paved the way to
rule by Confucian state model. District officials were appointed by the
central government, and all arms privately owned were collected to be recast
into agricultural tools.
The government organizaiton was set up after the Tang system, but the power
to make admonitions to the throne on the part of officials and censorship of
royal decisions was instituted. With such internal order, Koryo was long able to
withstand foreign invasion.
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The Khitan rose to power and began to confederate, transforming their old
tribal league into a centralized organization. They conquered Parhae in
926 and , officially came to be caled Liao in 938. As noted earlier, the
people of Paehae fled to Koryo, but Liao was now ready to strike, and Koryo
tried in vain to open diplomatic relations. Liao initiated attacks in 983,
in 985, in 989, and in 993, continuing to harass Koryo. However, in 993,
Koryo's commanding general So Hui (940-998), facing a stalemate with the Liao
army, convened peace talks with Liao general Hsiao to end the enmity with the
recognition of the Koryo's territorial rights of south of the Amnokkang river.
Diplomatic relations were opened between the two states in 994. But
Liao attached again in 1010 and the Koryo king fled to the south. The
conflict became more complicated as the northern Jurchen tribes grew stronger in
the Korean border area of Manchuria. As the conflicts continued to afflict
war-weary Koryo, King Hyonjong (r. 1009-1031) ordered the carving of the Tripitaka,
imploring Buddha's aid, which consisted of about 6,000 chapters.
However, in 1115 the Jurchen established the Jin Empire and came into
conflict with Liao. Jin conquered Liao in 1125, and turned to an invasion of
Song. By 1126, it conquered the Northern Song which fled south of the
Yangtze River. Two Song emperors were captured by Jin, and royal as well
as private Song libraries came into Jin possession.
Koryo had its own calamity that year. In 1126, all of the palace
buildings, including tens of thousands of books in the royal library and
national academy, went up in smoke when the palace buildings were set afire by
the father-in-law of King Injong. Koryo lost the famed collection, and
there was no way to obtain books from the Song. To print books with wood
blocks was prohibitive in cost and time consuming. Then came the idea of
typography and the casting of bronze type began with the same technology that
was used in coin-casting. Koryo printing with movable metal type was
developed to print many titles in limited copies around the mid-12thcentury.
In 1145, King Injong (r. 1112-1146) had a Confucian scholar, Kim Pu-shik,
compile the Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms). About one
hundred years later, a monk by the name of Iryon compiled the Samguk yusa
(Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), which records important history and
traditions that are not found in the Samguk sagi.
Conflict increased between civil and military officials as the latter were
degraded and paid poorly. In 1170, the military officials rose up against
the civil officials and paid them back with bloodshed. Around this time
the Mongols consolidated power, and the new Song techniques of smelting iron
with corks was utilized by the Mongols in the production of arms. With the
new arms, the Mongols conquered Jin in 1215 and chased the diehard Liao refugees
into the territory of Koryo, which was consequently plaqued by consecutive
Mongol invasions. As a result, the Koryo court and officials fled to
Kanghwado island in 1232.
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Mongols invaded in 1238 and looted Koryo, destroying the splendid Shilla
pagoda of Hwangnyongsa temple. The Koryo court on Kanghwado island carved
the second Tripitaka Koreana consisting of over 80,000 wood blocks
inscribed on both sides, which is now stored at Haeinsa temple. This
enormous task was also conducted with pious patriotism to secure Buddha's
protection against the Mongols. The people of Koryo reached a consensus to
resist the foreign invaders and safeguard the nation despite the incessant
attacks and invasions.
From the middle of the 14th century, the Mongol power declined rapidly, with
their own internal struggles for the throne, and in the 1340s, frequent
rebellions broke out all over China.
Freed at last from Mongol domination, Koryo began efforts to reform its
government. King Kongmin (r. 1351-1374), first removed Pro-Mongol
aristocrats and military officers. These deposed people formed a dissident
faction which plotted an unsuccessful coup against the king.
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A second internal problem was the question of land holdings. By now the
land-grant system had broken down, and Mongol-favored officials and military
men, along with a handful of landed gentry, owned the vast majority of
agricultural land, which was worked by tenant farmers and bondsmen. King
Kongmin's attempt at land reform was met with opposition and subterfuge from
those officials who were supposed to implement his reforms, as they were
landowners and the policy of land ownership was supposed to undergo a drastic
A third problem was the rising animosity between the Buddhists and Confucian
scholars. Normally, and during most of the dynastic period, Buddhism and
Confucian creeds coexisted with little conflict. It must be noted here that by
this time, Korean scholars had become imbued with the Neo-Confucian doctrine as
advocated by Chu Hsi in the late 12th century, just before the advent of the
Mongols. The new Confucian scholars did not agree with the idea that one
should denounce one's family ties to become a monk because the very basis of
Confucian philosophy was founded on strong family and social
relationships. The wealth and power of the monasteries and the great
expense incurred by the state for Buddhist festivals became a major target of
Another problem was that Japanese pirates were no longer hit-and-run bandits,
but organized military marauders raiding deep into the country. It was at
that time that General Yi Song-gye distinguished himself by repelling the
pirates in a series of successful engagements.
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