-75 BCE to 313 CE: Early Goguryeo

Welcome to the History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. In this episode, we talk about the kingdom of Goguryeo.


[intro music] 

In our last episode, we followed the history of Gojoseon, the first Korean state, from its birth in 300 BCE to it’s fall to the Chinese Han Dynasty in 108 BCE. We then followed that storyline to the Han Dynasty’s 400 years of rule, the last time Han China would ever rule over Korea, until Korea’s independence in 313 CE. That independence was partially won by peoples from the Kingdom of Goguryeo.


Gojoseon and Goguryeo are the two most prominent kingdoms from early Korean history; the former because of it was the first to enter the record books as a state; and the second because it was the largest and most powerful.

From what I’ve researched, I would put the difference between Gojoseon and Goguryeo thusly:

You may recall from my previous episode on Gojoseon about its origins. Named by the Chinese as Chiaoxian (朝鮮) or morning calm, and first entering the record books in the 3rd century BCE, Gojoseon was a vague area of land east of the Yan kingdom as recorded by the Chinese. When Han China attacked in 108 BCE near the Amnok River it in essence ended the reign of Gojoseon.

Meanwhile, around the same time, you had tribal people living within proximity and also likely among the Gojoseon people. While Gojoseon was centered around the Amnok River (or present day border of N Korea), these tribal people were centered farther northwest along the Hun River (near present day Shenyang, China in the Liaoning peninsula). 

Gojoseon might have been more agricultural. That kingdom expanded into parts of present day South Korea, which was definitely an agricultural land.

Goguryeo was founded by some very hard scrabble mountain people. Near the Hun River, they were cramped into the mountains which did not have enough arable land to sustain them. Thus they were hunters, horse traders and ultimately raiders, becoming a terror to the agricultural neighbors at the foot of the mountains which they called home. However, Goguryeo didn’t just span the mountains along the Hun River. Their influence spanned across the mountains to the northeastern coast of Korea.

While Gojoseon was under attack by the Han Chinese in the 1st century BCE, the Goguryeons were just getting started as a more organized group.

From a geopolitical context, the biggest difference might be this: Gojoseon succumbed to the Han Chinese, thereby giving up their territory to Chinese rule via the Han Commanderies. Goguryeo attacked the Han Chinese, including their commanderies, and thus eventually took that land back for the indigenous people. Gojoseon lasted maybe 300-400 years. Goguryeo lasted at least 700 years.


So let’s research where the Goguryeons came from.

To talk about Goguryeo we need to talk about the ethnic tribe that made up a large part of that state, the Yemaek. The Yemaek themselves are known to be a combination of two tribes, the Ye and the Maek. In a prior episode I recounted the founding myth of Korea, Dangun, in which a tiger and a bear enter a cave and the tiger emerges as a woman after eating garlic and mugwort. The exact provenance of this myth is unknown, as the earliest written record of it is from the 13th century. But there is wide consensus that the Ye people worshipped tigers; while the Maek people were named after bears. Thus there is a strong indication that the Dangun myth may trace as far back as the Yemaek. The Yemaek are known to have occupied the wide swath of land in northeastern Asia with roughly the North Korea / China border as its horizontal midpoint. Their land spanned north into Manchuria and southward into the heart of present day Korea.

The Ye tribe originated in the Buyeo region in Manchuria.

We learned that prehistoric Koreans are believed to have originated somewhere north in the Amur river valley, and therefore the speculation is that the Yemaek were from there as well. From what we know, while Gojoseon had become a full fledged state in the northwest part of Korea and Liaoning, the Yemaek people had consolidated within the eastern seaboard of northern Korea, into Heilongjian province of China.


When you look at the three chinese characters used for Goguryeo, the first one is 高, meaning large or high, and the latter two elements are a phonetic compound 句麗 (contracted into 麗) meaning village or walled town. Together they mean large village or large fortress. In the 10th century, Goryeo state would adopt that name as their own, except they would shorten it to just the two characters Goryeo. From that you get the origin for the modern day word, “Korea.” 

The sound of these characters should not to be confused with Gojoseon; the “Go” `in Joseon was added by modern historians to distinguish it from the 13th century Joseon dynasty (itself named after the original); the “go” in Gojoseon means old, while the “go” in Goguryeo means high or large.

How do we distinguish these two kingdoms? Gojoseon was formed around 500-300 BCE and ended in 108 BCE, while Goguryeo formed around 37 BCE, a little after Gojoseon ended. To be clear, one kingdom did not spring from the other. They were separate kingdoms but had overlapping geographies and so we can speculate as to the ethnicities of both (which we will).

The early days of Gojoseon are proto-historical in that references to it as a state in the Chinese records are not as explicit. Goguryeo is definitely historical because historical texts acknowledge it as a state clearly from its founding.

Location-wise, and with the understanding that during these early times geopolitical boundaries were either imprecise at the time or the records of them are imprecise (and most likely both), Gojoseon and Goguryeo had significant overlap. Current archeological evidence suggests that the center of Gojoseon was either in the Liaodong peninsula or farther east near the Yalu River.

Goguryeo’s early days are much better documented in the histories and there is better evidence of it as well. There is a lot of material evidence that Goguryeo’s heart was centered around the river valley between the Yalu and Hun Rivers, which is just north of the current North Korea and China border. Goguryeo’s first capital was at Cholbon (졸본;卒本; 辽宁省本溪市桓仁满族自治县浑江西岸), around 50-100 km north of the present border; in 3 CE it was moved to Kungnae (국내; 國內), in present day Ji’an (集安市; Tonghua, Jilin, China), which itself is literally right on the border on the Amnok river, just north of it in China; and in 427 CE it moved to Pyeongyang Fortress, which is in modern day Pyeongyang (平壤城; 평양).

Goguryeo sites have been found as far north as the Songhua River (parallel to Harbin) and as far south as Kyeongsangbukdo in Korea, and as far west as the Liaodong region. Broadly speaking, Goguryeo was a bit more northeast than Gojoseon based on these data points.

Goguryeo capital cities had at least 2 fortresses; one built on level ground for every day use, and the other built on a mountainside for defense. Some of these mountainside fortresses are breathtaking. If you want to see an example take a look at Guknae in J’ian; it’s a large stone fortress built on a towering cliff above the surrounding dense forest treeline, and the scale reminds me of Jaipur’s Amer Fort in Rajasthan.

Three Claims over Provenance

There are three distinct viewpoints over the provenance of Goguryeo, and I’ll discuss each in turn. The first one, set forth by North Korea, can be easily summarized as it is overtly politicized. One of their origin stories is that the whole of human civilization itself originated via the Taedong River Culture, and that Pyongyang is the center of it all. It’s not worth getting too much into, but one example of how this theory conflicts with evidence involves the location of King Tongmyong. Although the North Koreans acknowledge that before Pyongyang, the capital of Goguryeo was Ji’an China, their attempt to restore the tomb of King Tongmyong, who was actually in Ji’an, has lead them to try to locate the tomb in Pyongyang.

The second viewpoint is that of China, which claims Goguryeo was established by one of the minority nationalities of China’s northern regions. Specifically, they claim that Goguryeo was a polity of the Gao Yi tribe (고이족; 高夷族), one of the ancient minorities who were administered under the Xuantu commandery. Their assertion is that Goguryeo was established as a state in 37 BCE when Chumong came south from Buyeo and absorbed the existing cultures there. They merge Cholbon and Puyeo as one ethnicity.

Their primary claim seems to be built on the historical record stating that Jumong, the founding king of Goguryeo, came south from Buyeo. Material evidence they use to corroborate this claim includes the discovery of Han Chinese coins as well as the similarity of gold earrings found in tombs in Buyeo and Cholbon.

The third viewpoint is that put forward by South Korea. Their prevailing theories on the origins of Goguryeo continue to evolve along with new archeological discoveries. In the 1970s, historians argued that tombs found in Goguryeo were similar to those found in Gangshang (街上) and Loushang (接上) in the southern part of Liaodong peninsula. But, although these stone piled mounds were similar, there was too large a temporal and spatial gap between the two to indicate the relationship they sought.

In the 1980s, after bronze daggers were excavated from tombs from Qian mountain range to Ji’an, the theory shifted to Goguryeo sharing a culture with groups farther north on the Liaoning Peninsula.

The latest archaeological evidence, specifically relating to piled stone burials found in Jilin’s Changbai County, however, returns back to a shared Buyeo-Goguryeo heritage.

Perhaps the strongest point that the South Koreans are making is not that China’s Buyeo-Goguryeo hypothesis is necessarily wrong, but that it deserves much more material research. Current archeologists are better documenting the rich, indigenous culture that thrived in each of the regions within that monolith state. Specifically, tombs in Goguryeo buried their dead above ground under mounds of rocks; whereas those in Han China were buried deep beneath the ground. 


The Samguk Sagi states that Goguryeo was founded in 37 BCE by a Buyeo prince. King Dongmyeong of Goguryeo (58 BCE – 19 BCE, r. 37 BCE – 19 BCE) or Dongmyeongseongwang (Korean: 동명성왕; Hanja: 東明聖王). We could spend an episode on Buyeo but suffice it to say that it was a proto-Manchurian kingdom far north of present day Korea. It was farther north than what would become Goguryeo. The prince’s name was Jumong, and after some internal strife in Buyeo he moved southward and established control over the Yemaek people living there at the time. In that way his story is a bit similar to Wiman, the Chinese military leader who established Wiman Joseon, and somewhat reminiscent of the Scandinavian Vikings who founded Kievan Rus by establishing control over the Slavs living there. 

(This, by the way, contributes to the debate between Chinese and Koreans over the provenance of Goguryeo. The Chinese will, as expected, argue that Goguryeo is a kingdom founded by one of the ethnic tribes in their empire because of Jumong, while the Koreans argue that Goguryeo is a Korean kingdom because of the Yemaek people who already had many of the characteristics of a state, who fell under his rule. We should note that in general, Kievan Rus is recognized as the proto-Russian, Slavic state, and Goguryeo as as proto-Korean state.)

However, the earliest mention of Goguryeo is in the Chinese Book of Han, which writes of Gaogouli County as a province under the rule of the Xuantu Commandery since 113 BCE (you may recall that this was the commandery that moved around a bit, from the northeast corner of Korea to the middle of China, at one point).

What we know for sure is that the Yemaek people who formed the bulk of Goguryeo were a powerful, militaristic people from the beginning. In 75 BCE they would be recorded as incurring into the Xuantu Commandery. In 12 CE they revolted and broke away from Xuantu, and therefore Chinese, control.


Historian Gina Lee Barnes categorizes Goguryeo into four broad stages.

The traditional founding of Goguryeo is recorded as 37 BCE according to the Samguk Sagi. But the first stage starts at 75 BCE. That’s because in that year, the Xuantu commandery was shut down. You’ll know from a prior episode that Xuantu was the most remote commandery set up by the Chinese in the Korean peninsula on a narrow strip of land along the northeastern coast. Many historians credit the Yemaek tribe for inciting that insurgency.

What we do know is that the people who would eventually form Goguryeo were clearly causing all types of problems for the Chinese in that area. They are known to be the Yemaek people occupying the territory from northern Liaoning across to the northeastern coast of Korea.

Some historians see the early Goguryeo people (at this point, they were known as just Yemaek) as clients of the Chinese Han empire who were recruited to fight against the steppe nomads. Other historians assign much more power to the Yemaek as the agents of the downfall of an earlier Chinese colony in 128 BCE.

As Goguryeo was forming as a state they were known to be divided into five main clans: 소노, 계로, 관노, 절노, 순노.




What is verifiable fact is that by 12 CE, the Goguryeons rebelled against the Han and in the year 32 sent an embassy to the Han court on behalf of their leader, whom they addressed for the first time as King.

This starts the second stage, when they have clearly established themselves as a (1) a state around the area of the Hun River (which is just north of the Liaodong peninsula in modern day China) and (2) a state that is independent of Han China. 

But a state does not a prosperous society make. Unfortunately the Yemaeks occupied a mountainous land and they weren’t able to eke out an adequate living. So they resorted to raiding surrounding tribes and settlements. By mid 1st century they may have demanding regular tribute from their peninsular neighbors. In 47 CE they attacked Han China and advanced deep into the mainland, even occupying Peking at one point.

In the 2nd century, they attack the Chinese Xuantu commandery, which they had forced from northeastern Korea to Manchuria, in 105 CE and the Liadong commandery in 167. In 109 Goguryeo had sent tribute to Han China, showing that this was not just a one-dimensional state.

The second stage is also notable for a well documented civil war that occurred in Goguryeo. According to the Samguk Sagi, in 204, King Nammu (고남무; 高男武) died, sparking a war of succession among his younger brothers. I have to say the language as written in the samguk sagi  is quite colorful, and historians speculate that this particular passage originated from Korea’s oral tradition, which has tended towards the baudy since the beginning. If I’m not mistaken there’s quite a bit of euphemistic word play going on; I won’t elaborate on these but I will read you the quotes and let you draw your own conclusions. So here’s the Korean recorded version of the civil war:


When the old king died, his queen leaves the palace and seeks help from his younger brother, Palgi. Palgi, not realizing yet that his brother had died, reprimands her for “wandering about the night”. Properly chagrined, she then sets off for the palace of the next younger brother, Yonnu, who is much more accommodating. He welcomes her into his house and seats her in the place of honor, and has meat and drink brought to her.

The queen tearfully recounts what happened to her, helpfully points out that the deceased king has no sons, and though Palgi is the rightful next in line, recounts how he was so “arrogant and cruel” and thus she now turned to him.

Yonnu quickly gets the picture and rushes to her side, at one point taking the knife from the table to cut the meat for her himself. As he did so, he cuts his finger. So the Queen “loosened her waist band and bound it about his wounded finger”. When she was about to return, she said to him: “The night is dark; I am frightened of what might happen. I wish you would accompany me to the palace.”

And so “the next morning”, they enter the palace together and she tells the council of ministers to salute Yonu as king.

This obviously didn’t sit well with Palgi, who quickly launches an attack on the palace with his followers. Having failed that, he flees to Liaodong. 

The version recorded in the Chinese record books, circa the 3rd century, is decidedly less colorful. It only records that Palgi was “unworthy to succeed”, and was rejected by his countrymen in favor of a younger brother. It also records that Palgi would eventually defect to Gongsun Kang, the warlord who had taken control of Liaodong and Lelang commanderies at this time, which we will describe later.

You can decide which version of the story you prefer.

THIRD STAGE: 207-245

In 207 CE Goguryeo moves its capital from the Hun River valley at Jolbon (졸본) to the Yalu River valley near Mt. Wandu after retaliatory attacks from the Liaodong commandery. Goguryeo has essentially been driven from a richer farming area to one which is tougher, which has all types of implications and thus begins the third stage Goguryeo. 

In China, the Han dynasty finally ended its 400 year rule in 220, splitting into the famous three kingdoms. In 238, Goguryeo formed an alliance with Wei, the northernmost Chinese kingdom, to overthrow the Liaodong commandery, which had gone rogue for half a century. 

Although this alliance was successful by knocking off the warlord Gongsun clan from the commanderies, this now brought Wei to the Liaoning peninsula, and sure enough the two allies began to bump heads. Partially because the Yalu river valley didn’t have enough farmland to support the Goguryeons, in 242 they plundered the Liaodong district of Xi’anping (西安平; near present-day Dandong, Liaoning). This area was long under control by the Goguryeons. But it now belonged to the Wei. 

The Wei would retaliate with enormous force, driving Goguryeo and its king once again from its capital. It would be the strongest reassertion of Chinese authority in Korea since the days of the first Han China conquest in 108 BCE against Gojoseon. By conquering Goguryeo, Wei gained a lot of prestige, with envoys visiting the Wei court from as far away as Japan.

On the more socio-political front, the Chinese history, the Sanguozhi, suggests that Goguryeo began sinicization earlier around the 2nd century, but historians believe it was during the 3rd century that the social and political structure of Goguryeo really began to develop, influenced by China. The Sanguozhi describes the kingdom as consisting of five “tribes”. Note that the term “tribe” is the contemporary Chinese one. Having said that, Goguryeo’s structure as five distinct groups which included the royal house and the former royal house. Social classes were separated broadly into two: the upper order, which did not work in the fields and ate at raised seats; and presumably the rest. There were six other ranks: senior, deputy senior, record keeper, clan head and assistant.

During this period we also see a further evolution of Goguryeo’s political structure, which is best stated by Gina Barnes, quoting historian Gardiner:

Gardiner states that the greatest change in Koguryŏ structure during this time implied in the Sanguozhi is that of an increase in kingly power from primus inter pares [first among equals] to a central ruler no longer relying on a hierarchy of clan nobles but on a nexus of appointed officials subject to his word alone

Barnes, Gina. State Formation in Korea (Durham East Asia Series) (p. 48). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 

Thus in 245, after being driven once again from their capital, this time by the Wei kingdom, the Goguryeons were essentially driven underground to lick their wounds and re-group, thus ending the 3rd stage of their evolution.


We open the fourth stage with Goguryeo having been driven from their capital. They re-established their capital at Wandu in 245 but for the rest of century very little is written about them, even as China was undergoing another one of their dynasty changes, with the establishment of Jin in 265 and reunification in 280. Tribute missions from the southern Korean tribes of the Han, Buyeo and Japan would make frequent journeys to the capital of China (Luoyang) through the Lelang and Daifeng commanderies on the peninsula; it were almost as if the Goguryeons hadn’t driven the Chinese out of there in the first place.  

The gap in knowledge about Goguryeo between 245 and 313 is all the more glaring because of what happens in 313. Goguryeo attacks the Lelang commandery in 313 AD. Lelang is the commandery surrounding modern day Pyongyang. The Lelang commander, Zhang Tong, is said to have fled northwards and established a new commandery.

Barnes points out this huge hole in our understanding of Goguryeo. How could they have been so completely routed by Wei in 245, and allow the Wei, and later the Jin Empire to re-establish control over their commanderies in Korea during that time, only to re-emerge with such effective force and defeat the Chinese once again?

In order for the Goguryeons to have re-grouped and re-established their power so quickly, they had to have completely re-structured their state. Prior to 245, they had relied on the Okcho people (the poor farmers who occupied the narrow strip of northeastern Korea who were forever subjugated into a role of supplying food to the militant Goguryeons), and also on raiding the farmers in the Liaoning Peninsula. After Wei so thoroughly routed them, however, they had neither of those options.

That means they had to re-structure their economy around the Lelang commandery near present day Pyongyang. Barnes speculates that perhaps the Buyeo, the erstwhile cousins and potential ancestors of Goguryeons, had something to do with it. Around 286, the Buyeo people were expelled from their homeland in Manchuria by the Murong, a steppe nomad people who would later attack the Goguryeo capital in 314. The Buyeo would eventually re-settle in Okcho and other parts of the Goguryeo stomping grounds.

The Buyeo and Goguryeons were known to be hostile to each other; but perhaps they teamed up?

There is still lots to learn. But generally 313 is generally taken as the final end of Chinese domination in the peninsula and the establishment of Goguryeo as suzerain. 

Gardiner writes that the 4th century is the turning point between the ancient and medieval in Korea. And so we will stop here with the history of Goguryeo because at this point, we enter the Three kingdom period in Korean history in which significant events are the principal result of interaction between three kingdoms: Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje.



I’d like to spend the rest of this episode on something that is not history, but is historic and certainly an important part of history. In a prior episode we described at length the founding myth of Gojoseon, which involved a bear, a tiger, garlic, and a cave. Goguryeo’s founding myth is no less fantastic; it is recorded on a 4th century stele called the Gwanggaeto Stele, and goes like this:

Jumong was the first king of Goguryeo and descended from gods on both sides of his family.

His biological father, Hae Mosu (or “god of the sun”), was sent to earth from heaven. 

Haemosu, the sun of the heavenly emperor, descended to the seat of the capital and made it his own. Through brilliant five color clouds (오방색) he came down Woongshim mountain in a coach pulled by five dragons amidst beautiful music, with his entourage following him on the backs of white crested ibises. They descended to earth every day to do their business and then ascended back to heaven every evening. So they were commuters, kind of like living in Jersey and commuting into Manhattan.

Quick scientific side note: the people of this day thought the distance between heaven and earth was 2 thousand billion ri (ri is 4 km), which is around 8 trillion kilometers. A light year is 9.5 trillion kilometers.

His mother, Yuhwa, was the daughter of Habaek (하백; 河伯), the god of Amnok River or the sea. 

One day, Yuhwa was swimming in the Amnok river with her two sisters, Hwunhwa and Wihwa. Their faces were as beautiful as flowers and their jewels jingled as they played in the water. 

Haemosu happened to be hunting in the area at the time. Haemosu had reached old age without any heirs. So went he saw them, he told his aide that if he caught one of them he could perhaps get one.

The three sisters submerged under water to hide from the old king; but with the flick of his whip Haemosu created a splendid copper room with three seats in it on the spot. In the room were three jars of fragrant wine. Attracted by that sweet smell, the three maidens slipped in and drank the wine, and were soon drunk. The old king had literally honey potted them. But when the old codger showed up to collect his prizes the three managed to flee, except for Yunhwa, the eldest.

The river god was enraged when he heard the news. “Who are you!?” he demanded. Haemosu replied that he was the son of the heavenly emperor and that he was going to marry his daughter.

This was not a satisfactory answer and the river god demanded that Haemosu prove that he was divine.

Thus the sea god transformed himself into a carp. Haemosu turned into an otter and latched on to him; the sea god then transformed into a deer, and Haemosu followed as a jackal, overcoming him again; and lastly the sea god transformed into a pheasant a flew high into the sky, only to have Haemosu turn into a hawk, overcoming the sea god again.

Bested, the sea god begrudgingly held a feast for the couple. But upon getting Haemosu drunk, he locked up the couple in a leather covered dragon coach and sent them off towards heaven. But Haemosu roused himself in time and escaped, but not before pulling a golden pin from Yuhwa’s hair.

Yuhwa returned to her father alone in the coach. Angered, he cast her down to earth for good to another river. 

One day, the fisherman in that river informed the king of Buyeo, King Geumwa (金蛙 or 金蝸), that they had spotted a mysterious being in the water and that many of their fish were stolen. Using an iron net they pulled up Yuhwa; she levitated out of the water sitting on a stone.

Recognizing her as the eldest daughter of the sea / river god, the king set her up in his villa. There, once the sunlight poured its warm rays on her body she conceived and gave birth to a large egg. In time Jumong was born from that egg. He learned to speak at 1 month and told him mother he couldn’t sleep because of some annoying flies, and to make him a bow and arrow so that he could shoot them. She obliged and sure enough he shot each fly dead, and with that skill he earned his name Jumong, which means outstanding archer in the Buyeo language.

Jumong’s step dad, King Geumwa, was no mortal either. The Samguk Sagi states that the prior king of Buyeo, Hae Buru (解夫婁, which means sun and light), did not have any children well into old age. I’ll quote from this great tumblr page I found:

When his horse arrived in a place named Gonyan, the horse started to shed tears after seeing a large rock there. The king (Hae Baru) wondered why and asked a person to move the rock. He found a golden frog-like child there. The king was pleased and, believing that Heaven had given him a wise heir, immediately took him in and raised him. He named the child Geumwa.



The Early History of Korea. Gardiner, Kenneth H.J. 1965: ANU Press

The Koguryo Foundation Myth: An Integrated Analysis; By Sun-hee Song, Indiana University





Early Korea 1: Reconsidering Early Korean History through Archaeology Paperback – November 30, 2008 https://www.amazon.com/Early-Korea-Reconsidering-History-Archaeology/dp/0979580013

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