One of the most dynamic periods of Korea is the Three Kingdoms Era, which lasted, it is estimated, from 50 to 668 AD. During this time, three major kingdoms emerged on the Korean peninsula born of the walled-town states and confederated kingdoms that arose after the Ancient Choson period. These three states were Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla. Koguryo, the first to emerge, was a forest hunting culture that experienced a golden age in the fourth century. Paekche, the second of the three to rise to power, was more agricultural and maritime based. Silla, the last nation to arise, was a nation of warrior bands who eventually would conquer all of Korea. In addition, a fourth state, Kaya, played a small role in the era. However, wedged between Silla and Paekche, the nation never truly established itself as a power and was more a pawn for the other three to use. For all intents and purposes, we will focus on the other three kingdoms. The relationships these three states had with each other and with neighboring China make up a compelling tale of alliances and warfare, which stands out as the birthplace of the unified Korean state. This era also marks the beginning of organized rule and the establishment of state aristocracy with a definitive culture. To begin with, I will give a short history of each nation’s coming to power.
Located north of the other two kingdoms and on China’s northern border, Koguryo was the largest of the three states and the first to emerge into a real power. Koguryo’s evolution began when the right to the throne was secured during the reign of King T’aejo. According to Ki-baik Lee, author of A New History of Korea, the Ko house of Kyeru lineage, one of the five tribal enclaves to survive since the Ancient Choson, defeated all other opponents and named the line as theirs. Historically, the line of succession had always gone from brother to brother, but that was changed to the much more efficient father to son royal bequeathing. During this time, the remaining five tribes were split into five distinct provinces called “pu”. After a few hundred years of setting up this lineage, Koguryo looked to expand its borders, and in 313 it looked to take the Liao river valley on the northern Chinese border. In the south, Koguryo took the Taedong river basin, which put it into conflict with the prospering Paekche (Lee 36-38). Koguryo was well on its way to expanding despite conflicts with Paekche and the Wei kingdom of northern China, and had designs of ruling the entire Korean peninsula.
The state of Paekche did not start its ascent to a real powerful entity until 250 AD when King Koi rallied local tribes to deflect a Chinese Wei thrust into the Han River region. Upon this successful defense, King Koi was honored as the nation’s founder-king, and was honored four times a year by the people of Paekche. The structuring of Paekche began then as King Koi appointed six ministers to run the affairs of state. Interestingly, Lee remarks, “Koi also declared a law that officials who accepted bribes or were guilty of extortionate practices would be required to pay three-fold compensation and in addition would be barred from office for life” (Lee, 37). Thus, we see the beginnings of the formation of a law code. It was not until the reign of King Ch’ogo (346-375) that Paekche became a centralized aristocratic state. King Ch’ogo was a warrior king and he, like Koguryo, looked to expand his territory once his kingdom was sturdy enough.
The nation of Silla actually grew out of the walled state of Saro in the southeast. Championing a confederation of twelve walled-states, Saro began to expand into a larger state during the reign of King T’arhae (57-80 AD). For the next 300 years Saro grew in power through conquest and alliances. In 356, during the reign of King Naemul, Saro had become a larger and confederated kingdom, which controlled much of southeast Korea. It is at this time that the nation’s name was changed to Silla (Lee 40-44).
Kaya, also called Mimana, was a Japanese state that developed
starting about the year 50 AD. However, Kaya was wedged in between
the two faster growing powers of Paekche and Silla. Constantly at
war with Silla, Kaya never was given a change to transform into a stable
state. Its culture was stifled by constant warfare with Silla and
shaky alliances with Paekche. Mainly, it served as a go-between for
Paekche and Japan. By 562, Kaya had fallen to Silla.
The struggles of these three kingdoms that strived for domination of the entire Korean peninsula developed into a series of victories and defeats for each kingdom resulting in many difficultly maintained alliances. Whoever was the most powerful found that the other two nations had allied against them. This all started in 371 when Paekche attacked Koguryo in hopes to retake previously lost territory. They struck as far north as Pyongyang, and killed Koguryo’s king. Severely weakened, Koguryo recognized its need for a better infrastructure. King Sosurim (371-384) took up this task. He adopted Buddhism for spiritual unity and set up Confucian schools to build a bureaucratic structure. It was 391 when Koguryo began to look once again at expanding. King Kwanggaet’o (391-413) is said to have won multitudes of notable battles as the next ruler of Koguryo. Lee remarks “according to this inscription, in the course of his reign of just twenty-odd years, King Kwanggaet’o conquered a total of sixty-four fortresses and over 1,400 villages,” an incredible amount of victories to be sure (Lee 38). To the south, he attacked Paekche and gained back its lost territories. Then, during the reign of King Changsu (413-491) the Koguryo capital was moved south to Pyongyang. By far, Silla and Paekche were outnumbered and had less territory, so they formed an alliance against the powerful Koguryo in 433. However, despite the alliance, Paekche was unable to defend against an assault form Koguryo and in 475, Hansong, then the capital, fell and Paekche’s very existence was threatened.
Silla, at this time, had just begun father to son succession,
and was consolidating into a centralized state. The Korean-American
Cultural Association released a book entitled The Culture of Korea… that
deals with this portion of Silla’s growth nicely. Port stations and
markets in the capital city of Kumsong were testimony to a state growing
more powerful and centralized. Also at this time, (500AD) Silla was
implementing newly developed agricultural technology and irrigation techniques.
The Silla ruler was now no longer called maripkan, but wang, which is Chinese
for king. Twenty years later, in 520, a new administrative law code
was implemented (Korean-American Cultural Association). These advancements,
all taken from Chinese culture, marked a point where Silla was ready and
able to accept China’s more advanced political institutions, and in 540,
Silla went on the offensive again. After years of tiny squabbles,
Silla and Paekche made a joint campaign against Koguryo’s Han River basin.
For its part, Paekche also consolidated during this time. In 475, it was forced to move its capital to Ungjin in the southern mountains. However, it was nearly impossible to dictate any type of orders from a mountain fortress, so King Song (523-554) moved the capital to Sabi, much further north and on a broad plain. It was from here that King Song inaugurated a system of twenty-two government offices, five capital districts and five provinces. At this point, King Song looked to Silla for a joint effort to reclaim the once gained and now lost territory of the Han River basin.
Paekche, with friendly ally Silla, was thrilled to launch a strike against Koguryo, but in the end, they lost as well. After taking ten territories in the Han River basin, Koguryo retreated and left the land to Silla and Paekche. Soon after though, Silly kicked out Paekche from the area. King Song of Paekche was enraged, and immediately launched a retaliatory attack against Silla in 554, but was killed in during the course of the campaign. The alliance of 120 years was now finished. From this point onward Paekche declared Silla a mortal enemy and allied with Koguryo against their new common foe.
It is at this point that China becomes a dominant factor in the three kingdoms era. According to Traditional Korea: A Cultural History, written by Wan J. Joe, there were three pervading themes in China involvement with Korea during this time period. First, each of the three nations attacked China at one point or another and suffered retaliation attacks from China. This is most applicable to Koguryo, which was located on the northern Chinese border. They were always at war with China, suffering numerous attacks from the Sui and T’ang dynasties from the late sixth century until its downfall in 668 AD. Secondly, in planning to take over the whole Korean peninsula, each of the three kingdoms attempted to use the north/south China conflict to an advantage. Likewise, each tried to use the Japanese in Kaya as well. Third, all three states adopted Chinese culture with little hesitation, despite the fact that China was often an enemy. These borrowed parts of Chinese culture included, but were not limited to, legal institutions, Buddhism, Confucianism and the Chinese written language (Joe).
Since Koguryo suffered the brunt of China’s ambition, it is on them that I will now focus. In China, the Sui dynasty had finally united China once again in 589, and was concerned with Koguryo on their northern border. However, they were also worried about the Turks in north-central Asia. Koguryo also noted the rise of the Turks and made an alliance with them against the Sui. China was now surrounded by the Turks, Koguryo, Paekche (Koguryo’s new ally) and the Japanese (still tied to Paekche after the Kaya state fell to Silla). To combat these many enemies, the Sui allied itself with Silla. Koguryo was first to attack the Sui but was repelled. To retaliate, China sent an army to Koguryo, but met with stiff resistance and was defeated. The Sui, who had continued to attack Koguryo and suffer defeat, crumbled, and the T’ang dynasty took over. Koguryo, fearing yet more Chinese attacks, built a wall one thousand leagues long, but was soon hampered by internal upheaval. King Yongnyu was killed and political battles entailed until Yon Kaesomun emerged wielding total power. He rejected envoys from both the T’ang and from Silla and in 645 placed itself to fight an enormous army from the T’ang (Lee 48). However, Koguryo endured this attack and many more and now stands as a monument in Korean history for defending the land from foreign invaders.
With Koguryo and China in their own war, Paekche was left to attack Silla and did just that. Silly quickly realized its need for aid, and petitioned the T’ang to take out Paekche first and then begin a dual campaign against Koguryo. The joint attack ripped Paekche apart and the capital was soon taken when King Uija surrendered. A member of Uija’s royal family, Poksin, formed a weak resistance movement soon thereafter, but it was put down within a year. The focus then shifted to Koguryo and the pincer attack that was now available to the T’ang/Silla allied front. The taking of Koguryo was easier than anticipated as Yon Kaesomun died and another power struggle ensued. Kaesomun’s eldest son, Namsaeng, was kicked out of Koguryo by his younger brother. He surrendered to the T’ang and aided them in taking Koguryo within a year. Silla was rewarded with all Korean land south of Pyongyang, while China received all land north of the city.
It may seem that with all the previous discussion of military history there was no real culture in the three kingdoms. However, this is very much so not the case. After an aristocratic culture had emerged in each respecting kingdom, culture grew steadily until Silla took over. First off, each of the three kingdoms, once centralized, sought to record their own history, as pointed out by Han Woo-Keun, author of The History of Korea. Koguryo compiled the Yugi (existent records) and later the Sinjip (new compilation), all before 600 AD. In Paekche, the Sogi (documentary records) was written in the mid fourth century. In addition, Silla had a compilation of its own called the Kuksa (national history) written in 545. The fact that each state wrote a history testifies to the fact that each had designs for total rule of the peninsula (Keun).
Each kingdom also put a strong emphasis on Confucianism to maintain social order according to J.O.P. Bland in his book China, Japan, and Korea. Koguryo, under King Sosurim, instituted the National Confucian Academy in trying to reform his state after the Paekche assault in 371. It is unsure exactly how Confucianism was taught in Paekche, but it is known that they the term paska (meaning doctor of Confucian academics) so it is supposed that there were schools of Confucianism in Paekche as well. Silla’s adoption of the Confucian structure was a bit more abstract. They depended upon the rules of strict fidelity to unify the country. The fidelity idea was specifically applied to the throne in respect to staying loyal to the crown (Bland).
Buddhism was also quite prevalent in the three kingdoms. According to http://www2.yonhapnews.co.kr, a website devoted to Korean life and history, Koguryo acted as a gateway for both Buddhism and Confucianism to move from China into the three kingdoms as early as 372 AD (http://www2.yonhapnews.co.kr). The adoption of Buddhism was facilitated mostly by the royal houses of each kingdom. In all three kingdoms, Buddhism acted as a spiritual unifier for the state. In an ancient myth, stated by a website from the University of California-Berkeley, Silla brought Buddhist monks to the battlefield in the Han River basin and that their incantations were the cause of a victory (http://violet.berkeley.edu/~korea/ancient.html). Religion was not only a spiritual unifier, but also a source of inspiration to the army.
As for the fine arts, poetry, song and music were all very prevalent in each society. Once again, Ki-baik Lee has some interesting perspectives as he describes the culture of the three kingdoms. No one really knows what kind of poetry was written in Koguryo or Paekche, but in Silla, poetry was mainly used in Buddhist song. Poems written by Buddhist monks were sung as entreaties for divine intervention in temporal affairs. Music was also fundamentally religious in all three kingdoms, especially in Silla (as written above). There were also thirty to forty different kinds of wind, string and percussion instruments in use during the age as well. The most famous of these instruments is a zither, a flat box with strings across that can be plucked.
The three kingdoms era was a time of great prosperity and great warfare in Korean history. The rise and fall of Koguryo and Paekche and the takeover of Silla all led to a one hundred year golden age for the unified Silla kingdom. From this point onward, Korea would progress towards becoming a unified nation. The relations the three kingdoms began with the dominant China and rising Japan would eventually lead to the defining of a Korean nation. Truly, the Three Kingdoms Era is a most dynamic era in which the framework for a unified culture and nation were laid.
Bland, J.O.P. China, Japan and Korea. W. Heinemann. London, UK. 1921
Korean-American Cultural Association. The Culture of Korea, Racial Background, Sketch of Geography, History of Korea, Religion, Literature, Art, Science, Music, Economic Background, and History of Revolutionary Movement. Honolulu, Hawaii. 1946.
Leclaire, Phillip. Socrates. 04 Apr. 2002. <http://violet.berkeley.edu/~korea/ancient.html>.
Lee, Ki-baik. A New History of Korea. Ilchokak Publishers. Seoul, Korea. 1984.
Woo-Keun, Han. The History of Korea. East-West Center Press. Honolulu, Hawaii. 1971.
W.J. Joe. Traditional Korea: A Cultural History. Chung’ang University Press. Seoul, Korea. 1972.
Yonhap News. Yonhap News Agency. 02 Apr. 2002. <
http://www.friesian.com/philhist.htm - A philosophy of history page with a few maps and the rulers of the Three Kingdoms
http://www.hostkingdom.net/regindex.html - A regional chronologies page which lists the dynastic rulers and their years in power for Korea and the rest of Asia
- A bibliography of sources for further readings about the Three Kingdoms
Era of Korea.
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