CE 1214. The Prequel: Mongols Sniff Around

Pre-invasion, Mongol 1214-1218

Hi, welcome to The History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. Today is the first in a series of episodes about the Mongol Invasions.


[intro music]


In the winter of 1218, ten thousand Mongol troops, accompanied by 20,000 Eastern Jurchen, cross the yalu river into Korea. In quick succession, they take the walled fort of hwaju, which was being held hostage by the Khitan.  They travel through the heavy snow to maengju, and take that fort. Then sunju. Then tokju. All formerly occupied by the Khitan.


As the snow gets too deep to travel through, Mongol Marshal Ha-chen, made camp, then sent an interpreter with a severely worded message for the Goryeo: He proclaimed that he had been sent by Genghis Khan to subdue the Khitan who had been plundering Goryeo for the past three years. And that their task having been complete, the Great Khan now commanded Goryeo to pledge to a Older / Younger Brother relationship. And just like that the Mongols subjugated the Koreans, changing the course of history forever.


Wait. Not just like that.  I mean yes, this happened. But let’s get some context here. How did they get there? And why?


First of all, I want to mention that I based a lot of today’s episode on a book called Korea: The Mongol Invasions, written by WE Henthorn in 1963 and published in the Netherlands by Leiden, EJ Brill.


Let’s do a quick review. Now, you may have noticed I spent a ton of time, like three episodes worth, on the military coup of Korea.  Take a listen if you haven’t already. There’s tons of domestic problems like dead kings, rebelling monks, uprising slaves, etc.  


I didn’t mention what was happening in the rest of the world. But it must be said at the top that you can’t compartmentalize internal and external issues. The stuff happening in the region outside of Goryeo definitely had an impact on Goryeo’s internal problems, which I’ll mention in a second.


So i’m sorry if i made it seem like Goryeo’s internal conflicts existed in a vacuum. But my reason is that the events happening outside of Goryeo were so monumental, we had to dedicated separate episodes to them.


in fact, while Goryeo was dealing with these internal messes, there were rumblings across the continent of asia that would have consequences much larger and more profound than any of Goryeo’s internal disputes. In a nutshell, it was the rise of the Mongols.  


But to understand how that rise came about, and how it impacted Goryeo in particular, takes a bit of explanation. We need to rewind about a century. I promise to make it brief, and I promise you it’s really interesting.


First of all, remember, two centuries earlier, in 1021, Goryeo General Gang Gam-chan helped defeat the Khitan Liao a third and final time.


In 1125, The Jin Empire, which are the Jurchen people, later to become Manchus, defeat the Liao, causing mass migration of Khitan to Goryeo. After a century of relative domestic calm, Goryeo has now neglected and mistreated its poor, many of whom are presumably of Khitan descent.


It’s going too far to speculate that these descendants are the ones who instigated the slave rebellions during the military era. But it’s not a far stretch to say that having a bunch of ethnic minorities, many categorized as baekjeong, or having no citizenship, squatting on Korean land did not help when foreign invaders came calling. In fact, the histories note that many foreign invasions from the north relied on either the indifference, or in some cases, explicit help, from these outsiders. But we get ahead of ourselves.


In 1170, the military coup happens. Goryeo descends into chaos. 1189, Yi Uimin, the despot born of slaves, drains the state treasury. There’s no more money.


In 1196, Choe establishes stability by taking a firm grip and establishing a system of rule. But, in order to do that, he has to spend more money on troops to protect himself and his system, rather than the kingdom. So he funnels whatever money is left into building his own private army. Meanwhile, the troops and provinces that truly need it, the ones in the north, are left high and dry.


All this time, across that wide expanse of northern Asia, the fierce tribes of nomads are fighting amongst each other, and in Darwinian fashion, they are getting stronger by the generation. In 1209, the Mongols recommence war against the Jin Empire, causing both revolts by the newly emboldened Khitan, who until then had been subjects of the Jin, and defections by Jurchens.


In 1211, Khitan prince Yelu Chucai rebels against the Jin and seized part of the Liaodong area. Submitting to the Mongols, he then proclaimed himself ruler of Liao. But he was ousted by Yessupu, and he asked Genghis for help. So there are now two factions of Khitan.


The Jin responded to the Khitan revolt by naming Púxiān Wànnú, a Jurchen, as Pacification Minister of that area. With 40,000 men, Wannu is still defeated by Chucai (the deposed Khitan prince) in late 1214.


Meanwhile In 1214, The Jin are on the run from the Mongols and move their capital from Beijing to Kaifeng. This is a big deal because Kaifeng was once the capital of Song China, it was one of the most advanced cities in the world. Now it’s in the hands of the Jurchen.


But in Spring of 1215, when Mongol General Muqali attacked the Jin in Bejing, conquering that city for the Mongols, Wannu used that as an opportunity to rebel against the Jin himself. Wannu was placed by the Jin to suppress Khitan rebellion; now he himself had become a rebel. He used the Eastern Capital of the Jin (Liaoyang) as his base and declared it Great Jurchen (Eastern Jurchen), a separate state (just north of the the Khitan’s new territory?).


In Spring 1216, the Khitan fled south before being stopped by a Jin Army. This Jin army overran Wannu’s southern border. Yessupu was murdered by Chinu, who then took over the Khitan. At this point, the Khitan held the territory from Haichou to Uiju (just across the Yalu).


So this is confusing without a map. But imagine a map of Asia. To the far south are the Southern Song. They were pushed southward by the Jin, who are now just north of them. Inside the Jin Empire are two big factions of rebel Khitan. They are just north of Korea. The Jin were pushed southward by the Mongols, who are just north of them. So pressure is being applied southward, from the north.


In autumn and winter of 1216, Mongols, accompanied by Chucai (the Khitan prince), chased the Khitan from Haichou to the Goryeo borders. That’s when the Mongols launched an attack upon the Khitan on an island (Tafuying) near Uiju on the south side of the Yalu.


Btw i looked up tafuying on google maps, its this tiny island, and i can’t believe it made its way into the historical record.


The Khitan asked Goryeo for assistance. When refused, they overran the Goryeo border with 90,000 men. The Mongols then withdrew, not giving chase into Goryeo. If I had to guess, this was a careful strategic decision.


Wannu (who had declared his own Eastern Jurchen state in Liaoyang) submitted to the Mongols. After the Mongols withdrew from Goryeo after having chased the Khitan there, Wannu expanded his reach towards the Yalu (the middle-western side; the far western side was controlled by the Jin). The Jin continued to strengthen in Liaodong, thus driving Wannu eastward along the Yalu to the Tumen.


Meanwhile, those 90,000 Khitan continued to drive southward down Goryeo in 1217, pillaging multiple cities. At this point, Goryeo’s defenses are a mess, the country is being led by a military dictator, and all the resources have been concentrated in the capital.


The Leader of this Khitan contingent is a revolving door caused by assassinations: Ch’in-u is killed by Chin-shan, who is killed by Chin-shih, who is killed by T’ung-ku-yu, who is killed by Han-she.


The Khitan reached the gates of the capital Kaesong but are finally driven back by 김취려 (Kim Chwi-Ryeo) to Pyongan (basically pyeongyang in the northwest; probably because Choe house couldn’t afford to defend north, so instead defended the capital).


But instead of leaving the country, they regroup, and then pivot eastwards towards the Tumen River (probably because Wannu now occupied the northwest), where they are able to recruit reinforcements. They then turned back around and, rather than attacking Goryeo towards Kaesong from the northwest, now attacked from the northeast towards Seogeong, capturing cities including Hwaju, Koju, Maengju and Tokju before reaching Kangdong.


In early 1218, The Koreans began the slow process of driving back the Khitan at Kangdong, and they seem to be making progress.  


But not soon enough. Because in the winter of 1218 the Mongols appeared. And this is where we left off from the story last time.


So it’s the winter of 1218. Unlike most armies, the Mongols preferred to attack during the winter, because the frozen rivers provided roadways for their horses. Think of that for a second. An army that prefers fighting in the dead of winter in a place like northern Korea, which has bitter winters akin to Siberia.  This isn’t the French army circa 1812. These are some tough soldiers.  I also think they prefer the winter because they use the summer time for their hunting games. You may find this a bit frivolous, but Mongol war strategy is first honed and practiced during these hunts.


So it’s a bitter Korean winter, the rivers are frozen over, and the Mongols are wearing their filthy fur coats and fur hats which haven’t ever been washed. 10,000 mongol troops (commanded by Hachen), with 20,000 wannu troops, (the self-proclaimed Eastern Jurchen Empire, commanded by wanyen tzuyuan), crush the khitan at hwaju, maengju, sunju and tokju. They have their sights set on kangdong when a snowstorm makes roads impassable.  


Kangdong is just one fort away from the western capital of Seogang, or modern day Pyeongyang, the capital of North Korea today. It’s a major population center. So the Mongols had gotten really deep into Korean territory.


They sent interpreter Chao Chung-hsieng, leading a party of 12, to Jo Choong (조충, 趙沖) Marshal of the Northwest Frontier District and Koryo commander, to demand troops and provisions. Their demands were great. They want money. They want troops. They want food and supplies. And they want Korea to become the “younger brother” of the great khan.


This scary message of course causes a flurry of activity among the Korean government. Who wouldn’t be scared of any communicado from the Mongol army? Everyone knew by that point what the Mongols were capable of.  Marshal Cho is sending endless dispatches to the Goryeo Court in the capital.


Marshal Cho thinks Goryeo should accommodate the Mongols. Kim Chwi Ryeo agrees, saying “Today is precisely when the nation wins or loses.” But the court is not so willing. “The Mongols are the most inhuman of the northern barbarians. Moreover, they have never been on good terms with us,” said the court.


All this hand wringing just causes a delay in response, making the Mongols angry.  Finally, the decision is made to accommodate the Mongol’s demands.  Marshal Cho’s first task is to choose the right man to deliver the goods to the Mongols, and spy on them at the same time. Kim Ingyeong, a subordinate official, begs him to go, but Marshal Jo tells him:


“Your plans are simply to follow what your superiors say. You are not accustomed to go spying recklessly. How can you presume to ask to do so now?”


Kim responds: “I have heard that the MOngols have taken up battle positions; we should take example from the ancient militarists Sun and Wu. When I was young I read the six Books and am well acquainted with them. Thus do I presume to ask.”


Ah. when in doubt, demonstrate your scholarship.


Sure enough, that worked. So Cho sent the young Kim with 1,000 troops and 1,000 bushels of rice to the MOngols.  He arrived in camp just in time to watch the combined Mongol-Jurchen force attack the Khitan in the walled-city of Taeju.


The mongol commander and jurchen commanders, ha chen and tzu yuan, welcomed kim with a big feast and music at their camp at Tok Mountain west of the city.


They even gave each other a show. Kim formed his men into a military square outside the gates of the besieged city. The mongol and jurchen commanders climbed a height to get a better vantage point. Funnily enough, the Khitan themselves, no doubt curious as to what was going on outside the walls by  the enemy, lined the city walls to watch. 46 Mongol soldiers performed in mock combat. Kim, in response, had his men demonstrate their martial skills, and then lining up twenty archers, had them discharge their arrows into the city in one single volley. The Khitan spectators deserted the wall hurriedly.


It was a real lovefest.


In early 1219, preparations were made to take the last Khitan stronghold, Kangdong. The Mongols and the young Kim were now joined by the senior officials, Kim Chwi Ryeo, Director of Affairs for the Commission of Men and Horses, and Han Kwangyeon, who led a large Korean force of cavalry and crossbow units.


Another feast is thrown by the Mongol and Jurchens for these new attendees. There’s plenty of flattery traded back and forth between the Mongols and the Goryeo seniors, no doubt aided by alcohol. For example,  Hachen remarked on Kim Chwiryeo’s distinctive appearance. The elder general was recorded to be six feet five inches tall with a long flowing beard. It was said that when he put on his full dress, two maid servants had to lift up his beard so that he could put on his girdle.


Hachen said, and I paraphrase: “I’ve invaded six nations and so I’ve seen lots of noble men. But then I saw you. How can it be that you are so remarkable? That’s why I trust you. I look at the troops under your command and they too are like members of my house.”


This is also where Cho and Kim note, with some amount of horror, the Mongol custom of eating meat. The meat was stabbed with a sharp kinfe and then swiftly passed back and forth between teh diners each taking a bit then passing it back. WE Henthorn notes, “of the Goryeo soldiers, it is related, there were none who were not reluctant to eat in this fashion.”


It’s here where W.E. Henthorn notes that the Goryeo commanders must have agreed to the Mongol’s terms of a older brother, younger brother relationship. Of course, this is not the kind of decision that can be brokered by any military official, no matter how high up. So they must have had such permission prior to this feast.


Marching in this force was Kim Jidae (김지대, 金之岱), a young conscript from Cheongdo, who had taken his father’s place in the ranks. He would later rise through the ranks in the military and become a prominent civil official. While the other soldiers had strange beasts painted on the top of their shields, Jidae had written a simple poem on his shield expressing the idea that loyalty to the nation and filial piety could both be cultivated by an action such as his own.


The records note the very effective way in which the Mongols took the city of Kangdong. First imagine the fortress from a birds eye view. Now draw a circle around the fortress, large enough so that there are around 300 paces between the city wall and the circle edge. Troops were arranged around this imaginary line. One quarter lined with Mongols; another with Jurchen, another with Korean. The other quarter of the circle is empty.


In the morning, all the commanders rode to a meeting at this empty quarter of the circle. Hachen had a trench ten feet wide and ten feet deep dug along this quarter from the south gate to the east gate.


There isn’t more detail on the battle itself, but the effect presumably was to tighten the noose and force out all the inhabitants towards the empty ditch. Sure enough, forty Khitan commanders came over the wall to submit, and their chiefs pleaded to the Mongols. Then the gates opened and around 50,000 civilians came out and submitted.


In the end, the Khitan leader Hanshe hung himself. Hanshe’s wife, and the top 100 officials, were beheaded immediately.


The Mongol commander Hachen then said to the Koreans: “We have come 10 000 li and combined our strength with you to smash the bandits. This is the fortune of a thousand years.”


The mongol commanders pledged: “our two nations shall eternally be brothers and the descendants of 10,0000 generations will not forget this day.”


Hachen gave the Goryeo forces 700 women and young boys and returned some 200 Korean captives. Hachen selected girls who were around 15 years old and gave nine each to Cho and Kim. He took the remaining prisoners. It is recorded taht Cho Chung took those Khitan prisoners and placed them in districts on unoccupied wasteland, where they settled and became farmers. These could have been the first Baekjeong.


Goryeo sent gifts to the Mongol commanders along with a missive which is a marvel of diplomacy. I’m going to read selections from this, and let you first draw your own conclusions:


Our nation has since long been invaded by the Khitan, and this sickness in our very midst we were unable to drive out ourselves. How would we have expected that Your Excellency the Marshal would clear out the filth for the benefit of our insignificant state, coming from afar with righteous troops, exposing yourself to sun and dew in the open field!


Initially, we did not know the day that [Your] Great Army would enter the

The borders; moreover the Khitan bandits were blocking the roads.

So we delayed and did not in time inquire in the neighbourhood. We beg to consider

this most obnoxious and we are therefore tremblingly ashamed, and hope that you will magnanimously forgive us.


We had only just heard that the [Ch’ i -tan] bandits had moved into the walled-city of Kangdong to defend themselves and so we believed that they

were merely people already in jail, not worth worrying about.


Then we sent people to bring thanks and at the same time inquire about your health.


These emissaries had not yet been able to start on their journey when again there were emergency reports, and so we actually heard that the band had left the fort and submitted, all being executed or made prisoner to the joy of the whole nation who clap their hands in unison.


This is truly [an example of] the righteous [behaviour] of a large State helping a weak one and having pity on its neighbor, whereas for [our] small state it is the good fortune one ecounters but once in 10,000 generations! We are moved by your great kindness…


And it ends with:


Now, we have roughly prepared some meagre wine and fruit and other gifts, and especially dispatched certain officials to bring them to you under escort; their quantities are fully entered on a separate list.


In fear and trembling we submit this petition.


First of all, this is the first communication with the Mongols recorded in Korean history. So that’s pretty notable. But Henthorn says this missive is also notable because it makes the claim that Goryeo had already beaten the Khitan, undoubtedly a diplomatic tactic to play down the importance of the Mongol Military action.


I didn’t quite read that, but I’ll take his word for it.  What is clear to me is how obliquely written this message is. It is, at once, ingratiating, servile; but so overly ingratiating that it can be read as belligerent. Also it is chock full of excuses for being late, and reminds me of an employee who is late to work and has to explain it to his boss.  It is the definition of passive aggressive. And the frequent use of superlatives unfortunately reminds me of a news report from North Korea TV.


I also thought it was funny how they itemized their “gift” to the Mongols on a separate sheet of paper. It’s like, thanks for getting rid of these foreigners; as a gift, we’re sending you this box of chocolates, which we bought at costco for $1 not including tax; here’s the receipt as proof of purchase.


Ultimately, I think also this communication is an excellent symbol of Korea’s lot in life. Always having to deal with the bully of the hour, sometimes Korea fights back; but in desperate times it has to flatter, cajole and manipulate to buy itself some more time. And for sure, the Mongols had caught Goryeo at a desperate time.


We’ll end it here for now. In our next episode, the love fest between the Goryeo and Mongols ends, and the true consequences of this new Mongol relationship become clear in a frightening way.


2 thoughts on “CE 1214. The Prequel: Mongols Sniff Around

  1. Can you tell me what the name of the song is at the end of each episode ? Whats the name of the song where old man that sings pansori?

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