CE 1254 – 1260: Final Attack and Surrender

CE 1254 – 1260: Final Attack and Surrender

Description: Jalairtai Qorci’s brutal attacks; Goryeo finally submits; Choe Hang’s death; Choe Ui’s assassination; the Crown Prince Cheon 원종(元宗) finally visits the Mongol Court; King Gojong dies; Mongke Khan dies; Kublai Khan meets Goryeo Prince Cheon

Welcome to The History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. In this episode, the final conquest and submission of Goryeo by the mighty Mongols.

We left off the last episode with yet another ominous note from the Mongol court to the Korean court, admonishing them for not sending the real ruler of KOREA from gang Hwa island: namely Choe Hang.

And….here comes the fifth invasion of korea by the Mongol empire. Or was it the sixth? I don’t even know any more. There have been a lot of attacks by a lot of scary sounding. This time it’s jalairtai qorci. Sounds like a Klingon.

And quick note: Choe Hang, the unpopular, Buddhist scholar son of Choe U, who had assumed power in 1249, is now ruling at this point.

On August 6, 1254, the northwest commissioner of men and horses reports that jalairtai has crossed the Yalu river with 5000 men. 2 days later an advance guard of 3000 cavaLry are in Seohae province. By August 19th, they’re in Kwangju.

Chang, the Duke of Ahn-gyeong, returns with ten Mongol envoys who repeat the same demands; the Koreans send a delegate with gifts of gold, silver, wine utensils, pelts and coins; this time, however, the delegate returns to the court with a slight change in the MOngol demands, and that’s that the people submit with their heads shaved.

Koreans do not submit, and so Jalairtais forces move southward towards Chungju but are repelled by a violent storm. At the same time, the Eastern Frontier District reports many Eastern Jurchen troops also crossing the border.

In the 10th month, a Mongol force attacks the mountain fortress at sangju, where their forth ranking official is shot by a buddhist monk. The Mongols give up their seige after lifting 50% of their men.

The Koreans send an envoy again asking for a withdrawal, to which Jalairtai replies, “If Choe Hang leads the King out to the mainland, then the troops can be disbanded.”

In the first month of 1255, some citizens of Taegu, who had been captured by the MOngols but escaped, reported that the Emperor had ordered Jalairtai to return, and that the Mongols in the Northern frontier district had already crossed back across the Yalu.

I dont know why this happened. Certainly nothing I’ve read explains this. What we do know is that by the second month of 1255, martial law was lifted on Kangwha Island, and Goryeo immediately began to repair the damage.

We’ve been talking about this latest invasion as routine, but of course the reality for the peasants was not as casually discussed. With this latest forced withdrawal from the fields. The peasants were forcibly removed from their property by the Goryeo court. So fields were idle and the storehouses were empty. Add on top of that the Mongol pillaging and a drought that had reoccurred throughout the late 1250s and you had a recipe for disaster.

There was a general famine and the old and weak died of starvation in great numbers. Infanticide increased. The roads were covered with skeletons. The histories report that the “dead were without number”. At the end of 1254, an estimated 206,800 persons had been taken prisoner during Jalairtai’s invasion. The histories note that: “those who died of starvation were multitudinous; [the corpses of] the old and weak clogged the ravines and it reached the point where some tied babies in the trees and left.”

And remember how I said how Kanghwa Island mainly defended itself through it’s abiliity to supply itself via back-channel maritime routes?

Originally, what happened was that grain transport ships would sail from the provinces up the river to Kaegyeong. Well, once the capital was transfered to Kanghwa, these same ships would just stop at Kanghwa, and not move on to Kaegyeong.

Well by this time, even that didn’t work, because there literally wasn’t any grain to transport. So in 1257, it was suggested at court to distribute fields, instead of official salaries, to court officials. Presumably, I guess once a powerful aristocrat was given a field somewhere in the provinces, he would ensure that it was properly planted and harvested. A Bureau of Distributing Land was formed expressly for this purpose.

In the eight month of 1255, the Mongols were back. I wonder what happened that pulled Jalairtai back in the first place, whether it was a strategy by the Mongols or not. But anyway, when 20 Mongol cavalrymen were spotted at Sungcheon-bu, martial law was re-enacted on Kanghwa. Jalairtai and his main forces were back in Seogyeong.

By this time, the Mongol stepped up their amphibious warfare game. They weren’t too successful at it though; they attacked Cho Island unsuccessfully in 1255. In the first month of 1256, word was received that the Mongols were planning to attack the southern islands. So a fleet of 300 men, led by General Yi Kwang and General Song Geunbi was sent to intercept them. This Goryeo navy defeated the Mongols and captured four of their officials.

1256 also saw the continued activity of the night raids by the pyolcho and the tobang, causing Jalairtai to remark angrily to a Korean envoy: “If you desire peace and friendship, then why do you kill our soldiers in great numbers?”

There was a slight scare when Jalairtai, the Duke of Yeongnyeong and Hong Bogweon arrived outside Gap-got River 갑곶강, unfurled their banners then climbed Mount Tongjin  통진산(通津山) to look down on Kangdong. (http://m.blog.daum.net/manjumongol/156)

But an attack on Kanghwa was never initiated, and in the 9th month of 1256, the Mongol army retreated once again on the Emperor’s orders. I’m beginning to think that all these retreats by the Mongol army were just calculated strategies by the Mongols.

I mean, at this point, if the country is starving, all you need to do is attack once in a while, then sit back while the citizens die. Why waste all your manpower when all you need is the passage of time.

In a way, this is a much more brutal strategy than some kind of blitzkrieg, especially when you know the country’s leadership is dysfunctional.

Well while there was plenty of Koreans escaping to the Mongol side, In late 1256, the governor, or tsung-kuan, of Tung-ching province, led his family and a handful of followeres to submit to goryeo. One Sungsan (and btw good luck trying to google that guy), when asked why he switched sides, he said:

“It is not because the Mongols are perishing while your country is flourishing [well that’s obvious]. I came simply because I have committed three crimes. When Jalairtai entered the southern districts [of Koryo], I [was charged with] garrisoning Uiju and I was unable to defend it; that is the first. Then, they sent me to encourage agriculture, [but] the forage and grains were not abundant and the storehouses were barren; that is the second. When I heard that Koryo soldiers were coming, I sent seventy men to investigate. Not one man returned; that is the third.


For changing sides, Sungsan was rewarded with grain, implements, textiles, and three slaves (KS 24. 27b-28a).

Well I have nothing to report but more misery for the Korean people. Things were bad both in the countryside and on Kanghwa. Some thieves entered the Household Bureau of the Crown Prince and stole some items. And the histories note that: “there was no snow this winter; and through starvation and disease, the roads were once again convered with corpses. One kun of silver was worth only two kok of rice.” So presumably this is the equivalent of hyper-inflation, but this is caused by a dysfunctional market, not by some loss of faith in fiat; after all, silver is not a fiat currency but a commodity. At a certain point when there is not enough trade across borders, then silver is worthless to you because all you want is some food in your stomach.

A couple of important things happen in 1257. First, Choe Hang, the military ruler, dies at the age of 48. His son, Choe Ui, who is characterized in the records as “Young, foolish and stupid”, takes over at the age of 19.

Also, there was an uprising recorded at Weonju in mid-1257, and the suggestion is that it is over rice. In other words, the people are starving. In the fourth month of 1257, a great famine is reported in the capital.


And now it’s summer time, and that means the Mongols are back. Funny how, in the very first invasion, the Mongols came in the winter; but in all these subsequent invasions, they always came in the summer time. Maybe even they were sick of the Korean winters.

So Jalairtai is back in the palace. He asks that the King come out in person, and that the crown prince enter the Mongol Court.

The Koreans instead send Hui, the Duke of Yongan, to present gifts to Jalartai. Jalartai says that he will withdraw and camp at Bongju once the crown prince arrives. But the Koreans deliberate and delay again.

Meanwhile, the Mongols try their hand at amphibious warfare again, invading Changnin Island. But again, the Goryeo navy outclass them. General Yi One Thousand (that’s his name) with a fleet of over 200 men. He fought them, took several tens of heads and freed over 100 captives. Choe Hang rewarded the soldiers with six kun of silver.

You may think we’re going to repeat the process again, but this time it’s different. First of all, in 1258, Choe Ui, the 20 year old military dictator of Goryeo, is assassinated, ending the 70 year rule of the Choe clan.

Power is given back to the King. If you want to hear about more details of this assassination, listen to my episode on Choe Hang and Choe Ui.

In a nutshell, a couple of scheming military officers and a bunch of royalists conspire to kill Choe Ui. They return power to the King. All the officials bow to the King and shout, “manse!” which means 10,000 years.

Now before we throw Choe Ui under the bus, let’s remember that he inherited power at age 48, whereas his father and his grandfather inherited (or seized) power when they were full fledged adults.

Anyway, everyone in the country was angry, and so when Choe Ui was killed, all sectors of the capital seemed to rejoice. But not for long of course, because there was still the matter of the MOngols to deal with.

Meanwhile, there’s a new Mongol player on the scene, named Yesuder Yuchou. He demands that the King and the Crown Prince come out to see him.

But once again, the Koreans play the same tricks. They say the crown prince is to ill to leave the island.

This time, the Mongols don’t take no for an answer. They unleash their men all over the country, pillaging even the remote villages this time.

Also different this time, the Mongols began to occupy Goryeo itself. Remember, they had stationed semi-permanent camps north of Cheongcheon river. But now they occupied Uiju and began walling it.

All the people of the north were forcibly evacuated to Cho Island. But because by this time there were too many refugees, they were then evacuated to Chuk Island, which didn’t have wells or springs. So Grain supplies were sent there by ship. But some military officers, perhaps emboldened by the death of Choe Ui, rebelled against orders and instead turned coat to the Mongol side, effectively turning over their northern provinces to the Mongols.

So in the end, it was actually the Korean officers who began to defect to the Mongol side. Perhaps using the death of Choe Ui as an excuse, they began to submit to the Mongols, even commanders in the southern part of the peninsula.

The last entry for the year 1258 in the Goryeo histories notes: “This year the grain of all the provinces was exhausted due to the pillaging of the Mongol troops.”

Sometime in late 1258, the Koreans finally gave in and sent the Crown Prince to the Mongol Court as a hostage. Finally, after 40 years of stubborn resistance, Goryeo had submitted to the Mongol Empire.

A peace agreement was concluded in the third month of 1259, with priority given to agriculture. Peasants were ordered back to the fields to start planting crops to feed a now destitute and starving nation. The last remaining demand was that the capital be returned from Kangwha to Kaegyeong. This however would not happen so immediately.


On May 14, 1259, Cheon 원종(元宗, 1219년 4월 5일 (음력 3월 19일) ~ 1274년 7월 23일 (음력 6월 18일) , the crown prince of Goryeo (later to be canonized 원종), along with a retinue of 40 people, set out for the Mongol Court. Only 300 horses for the national gift to the Mongols could be found in the capital area, and so more horses were purchased on the road. Therefore, few yangban rode, and they presumably walked the journey.

During the crown princes journey, news was received that Jalairtai had died violently; thus duties of dealing with Goryeo fell to Yesuder and Prince Sungchi. By the way, as the crown prince passed by Prince Sungchi in Tungching on the way to the Mongol Court, he passed by a bunch of Mongol troops which had amassed for another invasion of Goryeo. They only stood down after Cheon convinced them that Goryeo had satisfied the Mongol’s demands, which it had.

Included in the peace agreement was the demolition of the fort walls on Kanghwa. Mongol envoys arrived in May 1259 to supervise this process. The dismantling of the inner walls caused enough anxiety among the citizens; but when the tobang were ordered to dismantle the outer walls, so great was the panic that people began to purchase boats, causing boat prices to soar.

Also at this time, on July 21, 1259, King Gojong, who sat atop the throne for 47 years, since 1212, going as far back as Choe Chungheon’s reign and seeing the entirety of the Mongol Invasions, dies at the age of 68.

What can you say about a king who managed to (a) stay alive and (b) stay on his throne during the most tumultuous of times? Is it enough to say that he was a yes-man? I don’t think so. Even though he was a puppet for all of his reign, it still is a lot of work not to piss off other people. It’s not enough for him to say yes to everything the Choes asked him to do. Because all throughout his reign, the Choes also had their vehement detractors. Gojong must have been like the Jay Leno of Goryeo; Jay Leno stayed atop the late night wars through an almost pro-active strategy of staying as amenable as possible. I guess you can say it was a talent of survival.

With the crown prince already on his way to the Mongol Court, the royal grandson, Prince Sim, was formally placed at the head of government in the crown prince’s absence.

But still, the Koreans refused to leave Kanghwa. Hong Tagu, the son of our old friend Hong Bogweon, tattles on the Koreans to the emperor, telling him that the Koreans had not returned to the mainland. It’s only when a Mongol envoy is sent to the island to see for himself that the Koreans order a levy for an army of 30,000 men to construct new palace buildings in Kaegyeong.

The Koreans explained to the envoy that they were delaying because first, the Emperor had allowed them 3 years to rebuild the mainland capital, and also that the crown prince, who was visiting the Mongol court, was absent.

But the real reason the Koreans delayed moving back to the mainland was because everyone who escaped the island was either captured by Mongols or joining the Mongols willingly. With the winter setting in, another famine set in at the capital. The Special Supervisor of Resettlement of Sohae Province (서해도(西海道) encompasses modern day Incheon) reported that anyone who returned to the mainland was captured by Mongol raiding parties. The Goryeo court secretly sent forces against these raiding parties. But that wasn’t the whole story. People were defecting to the Mongols en masse, probably because they were starving and it was better to risk being a slave of the Mongols than starving to death. Even a recorder of the palace guards was noted to have shaved his head and deserted to the Mongols.

Meanwhile, Mongke Khan, who was leading an attack against the southern Song, dies in battle in JUly 1259 in Szechuan Province (remember, the Songs were getting it too, and would hold out until 1272 before succumbing to the Mongol Empire).

The Mongol prince Kublai was also in the field against the Song in Hubei Province. After Mongke’s death, Mongke’s brother Ariy-boge hurriedly convenes an assembly in Mongolia and gets elected as Khan. Hearing about this, Kublai makes a quick peace with the Song and hurries north. En route, he meets Goryeo Prince Cheon. Hearing that the latter was submissing, he is related to have exclaimed: “Goryeo, a nation 10,000 li (away); Tang Tai-tsung himself led an expedition against them and was unable to obttain their submission. Now their heir apparent himself comes to me. This is the will of Heaven.”

At this same meeting, Chao Lang-pi, the Pacification Commissioner of the Chiang-haui provinces, is said to have remarked to Kublai, “although Goryeo is called a small nation, due to its perilous mountains and seas, our nation has used troops against them for over 20 years and they are still not our vassals.”

Kublai and Prince Cheon travel northward together, but in the second month of 1260, they receive word of King Gojong’s death. Kublai allows the prince to return back to Goryeo, where he arrives the following month.

Let’s stop here. But I will leave you this thought: as we continue to talk about Mongol Goryeo relations in the next episode, we’re going to find out that this somewhat chance meeting between the prince and Kublai, who we know goes on to be one of the greatest khans of the Mongol Empire, seems to have a material effect on the course of history. As is so often the case, it’s a personal relationship between two individuals that can dictate the events of entire nations. Stay golden, people.

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