CE 1196. Military Dictator Choe Chung Heon

Choe Chung Heon as depicted in drama Warrior K, (무신; MBC; 2012)

[intro music]

최충헌 was kind of like the Cromwell of English History, and kind of like the shoguns of Kamakura Japan. And, I have to say, it’s hard not to think of the current rulers of North Korea when you read about it. You’ll have to be the judge of how applicable those comparisons are after listening to this episode.

The year is 1196. Yi Uimin, the son of slaves who seized control of Goryeo, is plundering the country along with his two sons. According to accounts, they have completely taken unilateral control of the country, even relegating the Council of Generals to a kind of advisory role.

Another opportunist general by the name of Choe Chungheon senses his opportunity and makes his move. He assassinates Yi Uimin and himself takes power of the country. Choe, his sons and his grandsons would control the country for the next 60 years.

As in the last episode, I’ll be relying a lot on Edward Schultz’s incredible book, “Generals and Scholars, Military Rule in Medieval Korea”, published in January 2000 by the University of Hawaii Press, one of my favorite book publishers.

Let’s talk a bit about Choe the man. First of all, the name. His last name is pronounced choe. It’s actually cho and ee, but when you contract those two vowel sounds it becomes “chwae”. In English you’ll see it romanized as c h o e, and so many people will call him choe. Sidebar, if you ever see the korean name c h o i, people will pronounce it “choi”, but it’s actually the same name, pronounced chwe. I’ll use the correct Korean pronunciation.

Choe was born in 1149, in either kyeongju or kaesong (which, btw, are very far apart from each other), the son of grand general Choe Won-ho (최원호). He was the descendant of the famous Confucian scholar, 최치원, who lived in the 10th century. Like most of the military officers of the time, Choe was from a long line of aristocratic military officers.

Choe’s military career started promisingly enough: At the start of Myongjong’s reign, in 1170, as he was 21 years old. He achieved recognition for bravery in quelling antimilitary rebellions, and advanced to be a leader of the toryong, or special patrol troops. He also was promoted to commander in the capital guards. During this time, having come from an elite military family, he must have had a very close view of all the events that unfolded. He must have been aware of not only the place of the military, but how all the other generals were vying for power.

But after a fast start in the military, we don’t know what happened in the middle of his career. It is notable, however, that he had a short stint as a civilian bureaucrat, himself. He was appointed as royal inspector in in the Kyongsang province, but apparently returned to the capital in frustration after having witnessed so much abuse of power by corrupt officials.

This is notable because I don’t think any of the other military rulers, and certainly not Yi Uimin, had any experience in the civil service.

We don’t know about the middle of his career, but we certainly know about what happens next. At age 35, he rises to general; at age 40, in 1189, he joins the war council under Yi Uimin. For the next seven years, he must have been biding his time, because it’s in 1196 that he finally decides to usurp Yi Uimin. Along with his general brother, Choe Chung-su (최충수), and their private armies, they attack and depose the war council and Yi Uimin.

Incredibly, the dynastic records report that it was a dispute over chickens that first incited Choe to rise against Yi Uimin.  Choe’s younger brother complained that Yi Uimin’s corrupt cronies had stolen chickens from him. And when he went to complain, he was tied up.

Apparently, it was his younger brother’s willingness to fight that finally convinced Choe to do the same. When Yi Uimin visited a mountain retreat, the two brothers and their kin attacked. Chungsu tried to stab Yi; and when he failed, Choe stepped in and beheaded the dictator. The victorious Choes then had to race back to the capital to make sure there weren’t any reprisals.

Unlike Yi Uimin (이의민), who by most accounts was an autocratic, unilateral despot, Choe builds a coalition of military officers and civilians around the power of the monarchy. Choe had most likely already lined up the support of General Baek Jeonyu (백존유), who then enlisted the Capital Guards to side with Choe. The next step was to go to the king, or should we say the puppet king, Myongjong, do get a royal sanction, which he received. After all, any alternative was better than the son of a former slave.

And let’s face it, Choe had a better background to lead. After all, as the former son of slaves, Yi Uimin really had little experience in convincing educated elites such as aristocrats to his side. Choe, on the other hand, was already an insider. His stint in the civil service as a royal inspector, however short, must have been helpful as he formed alliances with the civil aristocrats around him.

Choe did his best in emphasizing the difference with his predecessor.  By painting Yi Uimin as a dangerous, uneducated, low-born thug, he was able to pitch himself as the noble-born solution. Nevermind that he was a usurper to the throne just like Yi.

Once he was in charge, the purge was quick and systematic. As Edward Shultz writes, “Within the first eighteen months of Ch’oe rule, Ch’unghon purged at least ten generals, six grand generals, and six supreme generals—more than half the leadership of the nearly moribund Council of Generals”.


In true reformer fashion, like Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, Choe drew up a list of 10 Proposals which he presented once he was in power. They were, in fact, more like grievances that he must have been carrying with him for a long time.

Edward Shultz writes:

“He attacked the bureaucracy, the powerful families, the Buddhist hierarchy, and the monarch himself for ineffective policies that had pushed the kingdom close to total collapse. Through these proposals he touched on the chaos engendered by peasant revolts. the disturbances caused by monks, and the perfidy of slaves.”

Buddhism in goryeo actually plays a pretty central role in this unfolding drama, so Before we continue, let’s take a minute to talk about it.


Remco Breuker, a professor of korean studies and expert on the goryeo period at Leiden University in Amsterdam, wrote his thesis paper on Goryeo, entitled, “When truth is everywhere. The formation of plural identities in medieval Korea.” And among many things, Breuker talks about how Goryeo society in relation to religion and spirituality was pluralist. There wasn’t one philosophy or school of religion that dominated. Instead, it was a dynamic mix of influences as would be expected from a country that was at the crossroads of a few, very powerful outside forces; namely, southern China, northern China, and the tribal nations to the north.

Thus, Buddhism was just one influence among several. Geomancy, or the divination of natural elements, was considered the official, native belief at the time. But Buddhism, which had first entered Korea from the Qin Dynasty in 392, had become just as influential at many levels of society, including at court and within the military.

The topic of Buddhism in Korea is an extremely rich one, and more importantly, it is very well documented. I admit, I have not studied much of it yet. So I’ll just touch upon some of the larger themes.

By Choe’s rule in 1196, Buddhism has become so ingrained among the cultured elites in Goryeo that even princes in the royal family had become monks. Certain temples, especially within the capital, had gained intimate access to the royal family through the guise of spirituality, and had gained a lot of power. Just like in modern times, religious organizations were always specially treated by governments, especially in terms of taxes. So many Buddhist temples had amassed significant treasuries, out of the reach of the government, which they then used to influence the court and the government.

It got to a point where many kings and aristocrats were building their own private temples in far flung locations and choosing to live in them, instead of in the capital. Choe felt that this practice was harming the country because it was distracting the rulers of the kingdom away from important state matters.

Proposals (cont’d)

Choe addresses this in his 9th proposal, writing:

In T’aejo’s day, temples were constructed taking into account favorable and unfavorable topographical features. This, accordingly, made the country peaceful. In later ages, ministers, generals, ranking officials, and unreliable monks, without examining the topographical conditions, built Buddhist buildings and named them their prayer halls. Injuring the earth’s vital system, they often produced calamity. Please, only Your Majesty can make the geomancy officials investigate and remove any structures not built by the dynasty. Do not let yourself become an example of ridicule for later generations.

Of course, Choe is explicitly saying that the Buddhist buildings are wrong because they were not built according to geomancy. But what he’s really saying is that the practice of the elite building their own Buddhist temples at the expense of good governance needs to stop.

Before Buddhism, Koreans believed so strongly in geomancy that it even guided the way they built forts. Koreans at the time considered natural elements such as boulders and trees as divine. In the 12th century, Xu Jing, a visitor from the Song Dynasty, would remark on how the Koreans would build the walls of the capital around large trees and boulders, rather than removing those natural elements.

Funnily enough, Choe’s first proposal is a criticism of the king, and in it he references geomancy.

T’aejo . . . built a great palace so his descendants as rulers would live there for myriad generations. A while ago the palace was burnt and then rebuilt in a grand style. But because of beliefs in the theory of divination, for a long time it was not occupied. How can one just rely on yin and yang? Only your majesty on a proper day can enter to occupy it and follow the eternal heavenly commands.

This specific criticism was in reference to Myongjong’s habit of leaving the royal palace and staying elsewhere.

The second proposal criticizes two civil bureaus: 문화부 (Ministry of Culture) and 추밀원 (Security Council):

Lately there has been an excess of people in the two departments (Munhabu and Ch’umirwon) and various ranks. The salaries are insufficient and evils have spread.

Choe built a dual system that relied on the existing dynastic system in concert with his own private system of government. Here are some steps he took once he was in control:

  1. He emphasized the civil exam more than any other ruler. 3 months after taking power, Choe held a formal exam which 33 servants passed. This is the biggest class to ever graduate in all of Goryeo’s history.
  2. He refused the highest civil positions, instead choosing lesser roles in offices like the Censorate.
  3. He did accept the military role as Supreme Commander –  which is not surprising. For all his posturing about taking a lesser role, he must have known that his authority relied primarily on the military.
  4. A year after his rise to power, he forced Myongjong to abdicate the throne to his younger brother, 15 year old Sinjong. He did this by compelling Myongjong to feign an illness.  Remember, Korea was still technically a tributary to the Jin Empire at this point. We’ll cover this special relationship in our next episode, but one of the conditions of this status was that every royal succession had to be submitted to, and then approved by, the Jin. Even though Myongjong was the perfect puppet, this must have been symbolically necessary given Choe’s 10 proposals criticizing the monarchy.

Aside from the initial purges, Choe was deliberate and measured in the way he slowly took control of the country. He didn’t make any brash moves that would incur undue attention.

Marriage and brother

Next was his marriage policy. As many rulers of old, kings and nobles in Goryeo took multiple wives as both political and economic strategy. Wang Geon, for example, had 29 wives, each representing a different province of Korea.

Choe already had a wife from the prominent military family of Song. After taking power, his next two wives were from the old aristocratic families of Chongan Im and Wang.

Choe seemed to be following a textbook Machiavellian process of consolidating control based on a carefully designed plan followed with scrupulous discipline. It all seemed perfect.  Maybe too perfect.

Because, while Choe himself had the discipline, his younger brother apparently did not. Choe Chungsu, the younger brother who first stirred up a fight over chickens, decides to marry his own daughter to the crown prince in 1197.  He plans to do this over the strenuous objections of Choe.  

Here is what Choe said to his brother:

Although our power extends throughout the country, our lineage was originally poor and without influence. If your daughter married the crown prince, would we not be criticized? An ancient once said, “If the front carriage falls, the rear carriage should be careful.” Earlier Yi Uibang married his daughter to the crown prince, and then Yi was killed. Do you want to follow this precedent?

Now, maybe Choe was jealous that his younger brother was now more closely aligned with the crown. But, judging from all of Choe’s actions up until that point, I’m going to guess that Choe was probably angry that his brother would make such a controversial, brash move. I’m guessing Choe’s strategy was to gradually work his way towards an intermarriage with the royal family.  Also, Choe must have known that it was very bad timing. Just a year after he had forced Myongjong to abdicate, his family was marrying into the royal family.

Most importantly, Yi Uimin himself had pushed his daughter onto the crown prince as a wife. This had enraged pretty much everyone.

When Chungsu continued to disregard his brother’s objections, Choe met him on the street and killed his younger brother.

Choe’s military

Now, let’s talk about what Choe did with the military. First, a brief summary of the Goryeo military forces:

So before the military coup, The total standing army in peace time was around 43,000 men, or roughly 2% of the population, assuming that the population of Goryeo at the time was around 2 million (btw, roughly equal to england and wales at the time). But this was just the royal army, so this ratio shouldn’t be compared to the entire population, since there were additional provincial units that I’ll talk about later.

Goryeo’s armed forces were divided into two armies and six guards. The two armies, of around 3,000 men, were the elite soldiers, and their loyalty was to the king. Next were the three standing guard units, of around 33,000, who’s sole purpose was to guard the capital area. The remaining three were auxiliary units that acted as police, or as ceremonial guards.

These royal units ultimately reported to the Council of Generals itself. And most of the royal unites were manned by professional soldiers, most of whom came from elite familes that had been supplying officers and soldiers for a long time.

In addition to this standing royal army, there were five emergency units that mobilized in times of war. These men were recruited from both common and aristocratic backgrounds. But once peace was reached, the provinces were then responsible for their own defense.  For example, the two northern frontier districts were able to keep their taxes in order to fund their own militaries. Likewise, in the south, there evolved a cavalry, an infantry, and labor unit.

So when Choe first took control, he had to enlist the support of the capital guards. But the organization of that force was purposely divided among several generals, each of whom was difficult to control. So Choe outwardly supported these dynastic military units while gradually stripping them of control, all the while building up his own private forces.

The Council of Generals, which had become so instrumental under the rule of the prior military rulers, and then fallen out of favor with Yi Uimin, did make a comeback under Choe. But it was relegated to a ceremonial role. For example, it discussed issues related to the nation’s topography, geomancy and rituals. Instead, the State Council became the central ruling body on important matters.

Gradually, the capital guard became nothing more than a ceremonial unit. Choe had begun to staff the army with the old and weak, while saving the best men for his own private guards. In essence, without actually abolishing the capital guards, Choe was replacing it with his own army that was loyal to him.

Meanwhile, the emergency units were also being starved of resources. By 1216, a good 20 years into Choe’s reign, larger forces beyond the borders of Goryeo were becoming critical. Khitan and Mongols were beginning to plunder the border up north, which was really a symptom of the seismic world events about to take place. When you think about the history of the Mongolian Empire, Korea was one of the first places to feel those vibrations before that earthquake would hit. And Choe had a front seat to all of it.

But unfortunately, the emergency units of yore that were so effective in fending off the prior Khitan invasions were woefully under funded by this point. General Chong Sukch’om (Jeong Sookcheom, 정숙첨, 鄭叔瞻), who was put in charge of this emergency forces, quickly realized that they were manned by the old and disabled.

Choe establishes stability by taking a firm grip and establishing a system of rule, centralized military and placating civil bureaucrats through granting of land, but also enriching his pockets by confiscating rich farm land.

Choe believed that slaves were gaining too much freedom, and that this was the cause of all the peasant unrest. In fact, more than a dozen peasant revolts broke out across the kingdom during Myongjong’s reign.


Many of Choe’s plans were working, but that didn’t mean he had it easy. In fact, Choe would survive a barrage of assassination attempts on his life throughout his reign. It’s no wonder that he always traveled with a retinue of guards.  One particular assassination attempt was by the king himself.

In 1204, King Sinjong claims illness and steps down from the throne. His son, Huijong, takes his place. Huijong had always been antagonistic towards Choe since his father took the throne and he became crown prince. So as soon as he ascended to the throne, he began to plot against Choe.

First, he tried to lull Choe into a false sense of security by first promoting him to the Prime Minister of the State, and next by bestowing upon him the title of Royal Protector. This latter designation was exclusively granted only to blood relations to the king.

On the advice of his associates, King Huijong hatched an assassination plot on Choe. Feigning illness, he had Choe visit the palace with just a few escorts. Once deep inside, Choe was attacked by monks. First Choe begged the King for help. When he refused Choe ran as the monks chased after him. Choe hid and only survived because his guards rescued him.

Of course, King Huijong was banished after this debacle. After this attempt, Choe noticeably increased his private army. By the time of the Khitan invasions in 1216, his private army had swelled to 10,000 men, which is 3x larger than the two armies normally assigned to the king before the military coup.


Those Khitan invasions really started to unravel Korea at this point. We talk more about the background of these foreign invasions in the Mongol episodes, so I encourage you to check those out. But Choe had already been juggling an almost impossible task: First, he had to deal with an already bankrupt state (remember, in 1189, Yi Uimin had to borrow money from the local provinces). So he took land where he could to fund it. Second, he had to create a private army, without tearing down the existing one.

Add to that the Khitan invasions, and things started to get really bad. Assassination attempts and rebellions increased during this time. In 1216, Choe is 67 years old; the dynastic record shows that he officially handed control to Choe U a few years earlier, but i’m sure he was still running things. But he’s getting old, and with the Khitan invasions, things are really unraveling. Assassinations on his life and rebellions throughout the country increase. In 1217, 700 monks storm the capital attempting to kill Choe. His private guard fights them off.

In 1218, at the age of 70, Choe Chungheon has a stroke. This is horrible timing, because this is the year that the Mongols essentially force Goryeo into a suzerainty. Mongol envoys in fur coats march into the palace and grab King Gojong’s hand, it’s an incredible event.

A year later, in 1219 at the age of 71, Choe dies. and Choe U becomes the sole ruler behind the throne.

Some final thoughts on Choe’s reign

Of all the military dictators during that the Goryeo military rule, (무신정권; 武臣政權), Choe was the most successful. He was able to build a coalition of civilians and military officers. He must have been doing something right because the system that he built was strong enough to be passed down to his son, and then to his grandson.

But he had to spend too much time consolidating power and protecting himself — time that could have been better spent defending the kingdom from the massive unrest occurring just north of the border.

As a quick comparison to what was happening in contemporary Japan, in the Genpei War, He was more like the taira than the minamoto. Taira wished to keep the kyoto power structure in place, whereas minamoto was offering a completely new form of rule, in which local strongmen were ostensibly given control (when in fact, they too were subjugated to central authority, only this time in kamakura rather than kyoto).

We’ll talk about the rest of the Choe reign in the next episode.  Talk to you then.

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