CE 1170. The Military Coup

General Yi Uimin (이의민). No relation that I’m aware of. From Age of Warriors (무인시대; KBS1; 2003)

Screenshot on youtube

Hi, welcome to the inaugural episode of The History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee.

Today, we’re going to talk about my favorite period in Korean history: the Military coup of 1170. Why is this my favorite? Because of the chaos. I’m talking slave and peasant Revolts. Even monks revolt! The king spine is snapped in two and his body is rolled into a rug and thrown into the lake. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.

[intro music]


It’s September 1170. The head of the Palace Guard, General Jeong Joongbu (정중부), along with Executive Captains Yi Go (이고), Yi Uibang (이의방) storm the palace in the capital Gaegyeong. Their mission is to overthrow King Uijong (의종) and take control of the country. This is written in the Goryosa:

As soon as the king entered the gate and his high officials were about to retire, Yi Ko and others killed Im Chongsik and Yi Bokgi (이복기)(李復基) at the gate with their own hands. Han Noe, relying on his close relationship to the eunuchs, hid inside the royal quarters under the king’s bed. The king, greatly alarmed, sent his eunuch Wang Kwangch’wi to stop him. . . . Shortly afterward Transmitter Yi Set’ong … and others, along with the accompanying civil officials, functionaries, and eunuchs, all met tragedy. Their corpses were piled as high as a mountain.

It was a bloodbath at the highest ranks. When the smoke cleared, the following officials were either thrown out or killed:

  • Six members of the Security Council,
  • three members of the Ministry of Military Affairs, and
  • four former military commissioners
  • three of the eleven state councillors: Ch’oe Yuch’ing, Ch’oe On, and Ho Hungjae, all close associates of Uijong.
  • nine men in the lower ranks of the Security Council and Royal Secretariat-Chancellery.
  • Even the Institute of Astronomical Observation (Sach’ondae), which was in charge of reporting celestial occurrences and remonstrances through the observation of natural events, similarly had three of its members dismissed.

The three leaders then installed the deposed King’s brother, Myongjong (명종) on the throne. They banished King Uijong to Geoje Island, which is this tiny island way far away on the southeastern tip near Busan, away from the powers in the capital.

The trio ruled the state, or tried to, using the newly reshuffled Council of Generals. In a sense, this council replaced the General Council as the principal ruling body of the country. Now imagine this: a group of military officers have deposed the king of the country, and killed all his cronies at court. Let me ask you, how do you think it went for them afterwards?

Well, I think about this great scene in “The Bounty”, which is a 1984 film about the famous mutiny of the British ship Bounty. The mean but upright captain played by Anthony Hopkins is thrown off his own ship by his first mate, played by a young Mel Gibson. As Hopkins is put on a dinghy and pushed off the ship, he asks: “Do you really think you’ll be able to command this rabble?” and Mel replies: “I’ll do my best.” And Hopkins replies: “Well I did my best, and I had the authority of the law. You’re a dead man Fletcher.”

Well, the same thing happened to these three officers. They knew that the king was just too valuable to kill. So they just banished him. But unlike the mutineers of the bounty, these guys not only were without the authority of the law, but without the cultural / religious / spiritual authority of the monarch.

Things rapidly spiralled downward. There was in-fighting among all the military officers. You can imagine the kind of suspicion that occurs when a bunch of outlaws decide to take down the establishment.

To be clear, they didn’t immediately replace the entire government with military. As Edward Schultz writes in his excellent book “Generals and Scholars”, which I heavily draw upon in this episode, for the first five years after the coup in 1170, there are around 44 men identified as those who probably dominated the government at the time. Of these, only 20% were known to have been in the military. Later, from 1175-1196, that number would swell to around 34%.

But in the beginning, instead of replacing all the civilians with military officers, the leaders of the coup just got rid of the existing civilian bureacrats who were not loyal to their cause, with ones who were. Civilians continued to monopolize such offices as the Ministry of Rites, the Royal Secretariat-Chancellery, and the Office of Examiner (Chigonggo).

Of the three leaders of the coup, only Jeong Joongbu was a general. The other two, Yi Uibang and Yi Ko, were actually just executive captains, or senior 8th grade officers. In fact, these two younger upstarts were the ones who elicited Jeong Jung Bu to join their cause and bring his Network.

These two upstarts rapidly lost control of themselves. Within four months of the coup, Yi Ko had killed several military leaders who had criticized his behavior. Immediately after this, Yi Uibang killed Yi Ko. Four months later, Yi Uibang killed another of the coup’s leaders, Chae Won. The surviving two, Jeong jungbu and Yi Uibang, concluded a friendship pact, basically promising not to kill each other. But that didn’t last long; four years later in 1176, Jeong Jung Bu’s son Kyun killed Yi Uibang.

So six years after the coup, 2 of the 3 leaders of the coup, the two main instigators, were dead. But the bloodbath wasn’t over. A year later, a young twenty-something general named Kyong Taesong (경대승) killed Jeong Jung Bu and his son Kyun. Kyeong was angry about the failures of the military leadership, and promised to clean up the government. Within five years, he himself was dead, of what the historians say was stress and anxiety.

So let’s take stock here: by 1177, just 7 years after the coup, all three of the leaders were assassinated, some by each other. Even the guy who replaced them, Kyong Taesong, was dead. However, in his short reign, he did give us the Tobang (도방).

The Tobang are now mostly known as the deadly fighting force of the later Goryeo period. They were an elite army unit, sometimes of skilled cavalry, who were responsible for fending of the multitude of northerners, including the Khitan, Jurchen and Mongols.

But historians think that the Tobang first started out as the personal guard of Kyong. After Kyong Taesung (경대승) killed Chong Chungbu, the histories note that quote: “in fear he summoned a suicide squad of some hundred and ten people and stationed them at his house. Calling them the Tobang, he used them as a personal guard.”

In fact, during this military era, many generals began to raise units of personal bodyguards numbering in the dozens. It’s not surprising considering all the infighting and deaths. These private military units became extremely loyal to their leaders, not least of all because if the leader was killed, usually all his men were, too. Kyong, for example, had his Tobang guard sleep on alternating days at his house. He’d provide them with blankets and pillows so that they could sleep there, and even slept under the same blankets to show his commitment to them.

These private military units are somewhat reminiscent of the samurai in Japan.

So after the death of the three principal coup leaders, Kyeong himself dies, which brings us to one of the most interesting men of that period: Yi Uimin (이의민).

Only in such a chaotic environment would someone like he be able to rise to the very top of the country. Yi Uimin was the son of a slave. The histories relate that he was a man of imposing physical size and strength. The son of a salt trader and a temple servant, he was born before the coup during King Uijong’s reign, when he gained the notice of the king and rapidly advanced through the capital guard to reach the rank of subcolonel, or senior seventh grade, aka pyolchang. With the military coup, he advanced to senior colonel, or senior fifth grade, and then general.

NOw before I continue, I have to disclose that I’ve not found a ton of material on Yi Uimin in English. What does exist seems exaggerated. Accounts definitely make him out to be a sort of monster, which is a bit rich considering that no one at the time was an angel. We’re talking about generals, all of them noble born, who murdered each other indiscriminately for power. And suddenly this former slave is the bad guy? So let’s take everything next that I’m about to say with a grain of salt.

Three years after the coup, in 1173, an official named Kim Bodang attempted to reinstate the exiled King Uijong back to the throne. Jeong Jungbu, who was running the country at the time, asked the young Uimin to bring the king back to the capital. Uimin killed the king en route in Uimin’s hometown of Kyungju, an area in the southeast of Korea just north of Busan. Apparently, he killed the king with his bare hands by snapping his spine. Then he rolled the king’s body in a carpet and threw it in the lake.

Meanwhile, Kyeong, the founder of the Tobang, and murderer of Jeong Jungbu, was in charge. Since Uimin was a friend of Jeong, he had to lie low for a while, which he did by going back to his hometown of Kyungju. As soon as Kyeong died, Yi Uimin jumped to power.

[aside about kyeongju]

Apparently, after Kyong’s death, King Myongjong was scared that Yi Uimin would stay in the wealthy Kyungju province and cause a rebellion. So he welcomed him back to the capital.

With that welcome, Yi Uimin returned to the capital, seized control of the country and for the next twelve years, from 1184 to 1196, plundered the country and the capital along with his sons. Unlike his predecessors, he brushed aside the Council of Generals. He apparently physically threatened King Myongjong to impose his will on him.

Exaggerations aside, by all accounts Yi Uimin’s reign was a disaster. You don’t need any more proof then the fact that in 1189, because of fiscal irresponsibility, the court had to borrow money from local officials. You don’t need a degree in economics to know that that’s a tremendous failure at the very top of the government. It’s as if the federal government in the United States were bankrupt and had to borrow money from the states. It’s quite inconceivable.

In 1196, Yi Uimin himself was assassinated by yet another general. This general’s name is Choe Chungheon, and he will go down as one of the most important figures in Korean history. We’ll cover him, and his reign, in the next episode.

Let’s take a look back for a second. In just twenty six years, from 1170-1196, we’ve had a king killed; multiple generals assassinated; and control of the country has changed hands at least three times.  How do you think that was affecting the rest of the country?

Not surprisingly, the rest of the country was spiralling out of control. Without a strong center, the provinces had to fend for themselves. Each of the military dictators: Jeong Jungbu, Kyong Taesong, Yi Uimin; were too busy trying to protect their own backs. Many of them were trying to enrich themselves while they were at the till.

So far we’ve talked about the capital and the upper crust. But what’s happening to the rest of the country? The rest of the country plunges into chaos. For practical reasons, taxes are not being collected properly; the northern borders, so important against protecting against barbarians from the north, are not being guarded properly; and in the south, provincial governments such as Kyongsan-do are on the verge of seceding from the central government.

But the most interesting thing is happening on a sociological and individual level. As peasants, slaves and aristocrats alike hear that the former son of slaves has ascended to the top of the government, pandemonium breaks out.

Before we get into that, let’s talk about the Goryeo class system. We’ll cover this subject in depth in a separate episode. But I wanted to point out a few things. Broadly speaking, there were four classes in korea at the time: the royalty (왕족), aristocrats (양반), peasants (상민) and then the low-born (천민).

Let’s talk about the difference between those last two classes: the peasants and the low-born. This may be obvious to some of you, but it wasn’t to me in the beginning. I often make the mistake of lump-summing the working class with the poor. Judging from recent presidential elections here in America, I don’t think I’m alone in this. What happened in Goryeo will make that distinction clearer, and it will also remind you a lot about modern day social problems. The sangmin and cheonmin are not only very different classes, but often in conflict with each other.

Among the low-born were the slaves and a group of people called the baekjeong. Now slaves are pretty self explanatory. The baekjeong, which you’ll hear me mention over and over again, are a very special designation. Baekjeong literally means, “blank obligation”, or someone without an obligation to the state. You might even say they were state-less, or without citizenship. At least a slave had a role in society. But baekjeong didn’t as far as the state was concerned.

You’ll recognize the grievances of the sangmin. First of all, what is their role: well, they do all the most important work of the country. They grow the food. They participate in massive civil projects such as roads and dams. They pay most of the taxes. And when the military needs soldiers, they provide their sons.  The one thing they don’t have is social mobility. Like the serfs of Europe, they basically accept that their lives will be poor and miserable. They can’t attend school or get a proper education.

They are told constantly that the royalty rules by the mandate of heaven. They are told that the royalty are divine, and thus their bloodlines are divine. Who knows if any of them actually believed that. But the bottom line is that, as long as the royalty stayed in their lane, they would stay in theirs.

They have two big consolations. The first is that, at least their rules, the royalty and the aristocrats, recognize them as the backbone of society. In fact, Confucius recognizes the working class as such. They know that, as long as they fill their role, their rulers will more or less take care of their basic needs. The second is that, as low as they are, they are at least higher than the cheonmin. Unlike the slaves and the baekjeong, the sangmin have their citizenship badge. They are legitimate, valuable, permanent members of society.

But the military coup broke all of that down. Suddenly, the social structure, based on Confucianism, and also that the king has the mandate of heaven, completely breaks down. What happens when Yi Uimin, the son of slaves, suddenly has control of the country? How do you think the average working class citizen feels about that? Peasants, angry that a slave can rise above them, organize and revolt against the state all over the country.

On the other side, slaves got a tremendous boost of confidence, and not just from Yi Uimin’s rise to power. Because during the coup, several low-born military officers found themselves promoted to the seat of power, including the Council of Generals.  But Yi Uimin’s ascension to the Supreme Commander role, short lived as it was, was the final straw to break the camel’s back. The citizens of the country lost all faith in the traditional rules of society, and the result was chaos.

We’ll go into more detail about all the uprisings and rebellions that happen all across the country when we talk about Choe Chungheon, because the documentation of the rebellions is better during that period, at least from what I’ve read. But it’s a fascinating breakdown of social order.


Why did the military coup happen? Several reasons:

  1. The king had gotten too fat and lazy off of the riches of the country, and began to callously neglect his duties to the country
  2. The king had surrounded himself with sycophants and hangers-on, thereby insulating himself from those who hated him
  3. Over the past century, land and other rights were stripped from military officers
  4. And the final straw was that all these factors culminated in some very public humiliations of prominent military officials
  • Excesses of court

How did the king become so spoiled and isolated from the real world? Let’s briefly recap what happened before the coup. Before the founding of Goryeo in 918, Korea went through a bloody warring period in which the three disparate kingdoms of Silla, Goguryeo and Baekje fought for control. By the time of the military coup, roughly 250 years had passed since Goryeo’s founding. Compared to the three kingdoms period, it was a time of relative prosperity and peace, but there were periods of war. For example, Goryeo had fought off some very dangerous incursions by Khitans in the 11th century.

But the military coup of 1170 actually was preceded by what’s commonly known as the golden age of Goryeo-Song Relations. That describes the special relationship that Goryeo had with the greatest civilization in the world at the time: The Song Dynasty. Just as a summary, 3 out of 4 of China’s greatest inventions occurred during the Song period: the invention of compass, gunpowder and printing (the other being paper).

We will go into detail of that period in another episode, but suffice it to say that trade between Goryeo and the Song court during the period of 1078-1170 was extremely favorable to both nations. The Song court lavished Goryeo with enormous gifts of books, musical instruments, silks, and other things that helped Goryeo itself become a very sophisticated and cultured society.

King Uibong exercised a fair amount of excess. Again from the Goryosa:

The king went to Inji Pavilion, also known as Kyongyong Pavilion. He presented a poem that read, “In a dream I heard of a truly happy place—the hermitage under Puso mountain.” Accordingly the king had pavilions constructed there and decorated them. With palace attendants he got drunk daily and enjoyed himself, having no concern for state affairs. The Censorate requested that he desist, but the king, using his poem, would immediately explain his dream to refute them. After this the censors were silent.

You can see from this record how Goryeo earned its reputation for having kept very fair, detailed records of the monarch. Normally, medieval records are written so that they flattered the kings of the day. But Goryeo is an exception in that the recorders of history were not beholden to the king. So the histories record the king’s strengths and weaknesses in a relatively objective manner.

What you can also learn from this quote is how independently run the Censorate was during that time. In fact, it was during this time that the kingdom’s Censorate had reached full maturity and sought to exercise as much power as it could by rendering judgements against the king. For example, the Censorate repeatedly criticized the king’s enjoyment of 격구, or polo, a sport inherited from the steppes up north, until he gave it up.

Unfortunately, they weren’t as successful with his other excesses. Uijong continued to live a life of excess, enriching the civil bureaucrats and eunuchs at court who then catered to his every whim.  This insulated the king from reality, as well as his duties to serve the country. Among others, many military officials observed such behavior with increasing dismay.

Military stripped of rights

Combined with the king’s excesses, there was a gradual process to strip the military of its power. You might say that this process started from the beginning of Goryeo.

First of all, in the Goryeo class system, military officers were officially part of the aristocracy, or the yangban. In a sense, the civil bureaucrats and the military officers were two branches of the yangban. But over time, the civilians gained power over the soldiers, probably because of the extended peace of the 11th and 12th century.

Remember, Goryeo was founded by a military officer in 918 by Wang Geon (태조 왕건), himself a military commander. But of course, as what usually happens, Wang Geon and his successors recognized the danger of the military, and thus instituted a strong civil bureaucracy, borrowing from the Song Dynasty of China. By 981, the dynastic military structure has been placed under the control of two civilian agencies: The Ministry of Military Affairs (병부) and the Security Council (추밀원).

Ironically, it’s this attempt to weaken the military that contributed to the military coup of 1170. [stop] This stripping away of power and land by the civil aristocracy contributed to increased resistance by the military.

The irony is that the military remained critical. Was the Golden Age of Goryeo-Song a relatively peaceful one? Yes. It was mostly peaceful and prosperous. But there were serious foreign invasions and internal rebellions that required the military. During that entire period, Goryeo was attacked by Khitans multiple times. Each time, the military was successful in fending them off, often in spectacular fashion. So how terrible was it that, instead of the military getting the credit, the civil bureaucrats got it all? Pretty bad. Imagine if you’re a military general, and you come from a long line of military officials, and you’ve studied from the best Chinese texts of the art of war, and you give yourself to your country, and you fend off some of the nastiest invaders ever, and you risk your life on the battlefield, and your men are killed, and STILL the glories of the victories are given to the civilian who was put in charge above you?

That happened for decades before the coup. Just a few examples: Yun Gwan wins over the Jin 1107. In 1135, Monk Myocheong from Seogyeong leads a famous revolution in the north against the Goryeo king, citing too much Chinese influence via Confucius. The military ends it one year later. The credit goes to famed statesman and author Kim Busik. So you can imagine all the military silently stewing over these injustices.

Public Humiliation

The depth of this humiliation is recorded by the dynastic records, Jeong Jungbu was severely slighted when at a party, as a prank, a civilian official lit his beard on fire (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgmnqFS5V0w). On one royal excursion, a civilian official’s horse lost its footing, causing a stray arrow to fall near the royal coach. Rather than accept responsibility for the mishap, the man remained silent and allowed the king to believe that his military escort had made an attempt on his life.

Comparison of military coups

How do we view this military coup in the context of the world around Goryeo? In a sense, the military coup couldn’t have happened at a worst time in Goryeo’s history. In 1231, Genghis Khan would invade Korea at its most vulnerable time. The Mongols were famous for sending spies into foreign territories years in advance of invading them. Given Goryeo’s proximity to Khara Korum, you have to assume that Genghis must have been keeping very close tabs on the political situation of Goryeo. Not only that, Goryeo’s allegiance to either the Jin Empire to the north, or to the Song in the south, greatly affected the decisions of each of these nations.

Having said that, Goryeo’s military coup is not unique. We only need to look at Goryeo’s closest neighbors, the Chinese and the Japanese.

Japan famously faced the same problem not long after Korea. Like the Koreans, the Japanese modeled their civil bureaucracy on the Tang model of China, in which the central imperial court doled out power to the regional bureaucrats. Eventually, the provincial leaders in Japan gained more power, including military conscription, which then led to the end of the Heian era and the start of the Kamakura era, or the shogun era, in 1218.

Unlike Goryeo, Japan faced a battle between two would-be regents: the Taira and the Minamoto. Taira pursued a royalist agenda, seeking to keep the existing aristocracy and attempting to take control of the throne via its relationship to the monarchy.  Minamoto, however, had a much more revolutionary idea. Minamoto decided to promise provincial warlords control of their lands in exchange for joining their banner. This political philosophy incentivized many local warlords to take up the Minamoto banner.

Unlike Goryeo, Minamoto’s establishment of his bakufu government in Kamakura, away from Kyoto, had lasting power because it remained a domestic issue. It sometimes pays to be an island.  Maybe the Goryeo military regents could have kept power. But unfortunately, they share a border with a continent full of the most dangerous nomads in all the world. Genghis Khan put an end to Goryeo’s military rule pretty decisively.

Not surprisingly, Tang itself was taken down by this problem, except much earlier in the 10th century. The imperial government granted increased powers to the jiedushi, or the regional military governors. This ushered in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.

How it happened in Goryeo is a bit different. Yes, the military did take down the imperial court. But it didn’t happen in the provinces. Instead, it was the military leaders in the capital that were reacting to what they perceived as injustice at the hands of a corrupt civil bureaucracy.

That concludes our coverage of the military coup of Korea from 1170-1196. In our next episode, we’ll talk about Choe Chungheon, the one military dictator who succeeded in keeping power long enough to pass down to his sons and grandsons.

6 thoughts on “CE 1170. The Military Coup

  1. Bravo. I discovered this series some months ago, downloaded the first episode, but just listened to it now. Very in depth and well-done. It looks like you’re no longer connected to podbean and the rest of the episodes are not available at this time. I realize it’s been a while since you posted, but is there somewhere else I can download the rest of the series?

  2. I just found your podcast and listened to this episode. I’m wondering if you have a list of sources for this and other episodes. Thank you

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