CE 1218-1231 : A New Hope: Mongol Suzerainty
Hi, welcome to The History of Korea. I’m Allen Lee. Today we talk about how the Mongols become the suzerain of Korea, and how that relationship is then broken. It’s a short period in time, just 16 years from 1218-1231, but it’s chock full of geopolitics. Not so much battle scenes, which is in the next episode, but plenty of diplomatic intrigue and a little spy craft thrown in. I’m excited, and I know you are, too.
We left off the last episode with that carefully worded dispatch from Goryeo thanking the Mongols for helping them with that little Khitan problem. But Marshal Jo and Commander Kim had already agreed to a “Older Brother, Younger Brother” relationship with Genghis Khan.
What this relationship really means is a traditional suzerain role as best practiced by the Chinese for so many centuries. Except in this case, it’s the Mongol Empire that is the suzerain, while Goryeo is its vassal.
An immediate reply for the sake of courtesy was sent to Goryeo, but it wasn’t until a few days later that a fully reply was made when the Mongol Commander sent Puli-taiyeh with a dispatch to the capital, no doubt an official confirmation of the agreement made between the Goryeo and Mongol commanders near the battlefield.
Remember, this is the first recorded meeting between the Mongolian Empire and Goryeo, and it provides a great view of this cultural clash between the warrior Mongols and the refined Goryeo courtiers.
It’s early-mid 1219, after the battle of Kangdong. Puli-taiwan and his escort arrives at the Sonui Gate outside the palace. By this time, the king of Korea is Gojong; or at least in name, anyway. Remember, this is the very beginning of military regent Choe U’s reign; his father, Choe Chungheon, had suffered a stroke this year and was probably convalescing.
Puli-taiwayeh proclaims that “the King must come out to welcome us.” The Korean officials, aghast at this suggestion, appeal to the envoys three times; and they finally re-mount their horses and ride through the hostel gate.
Remember, at the time, within the royal compound in the capital Kaegyeong, there were hostels, basically mini-palaces, built for especially for whichever empire was suzerain at the time. It was originally built for the Song; then for the Liao; then for the Jin; and now for the Mongols.
I’ll let the histories tell the rest of the story.
[When] the King had appeared in the Taegwan Hall 46) [the Mongols], all in fur clothing, hats and girdles, and with bows and arrows, marched straight into the hall. One took a document from his bosom and, seizing the King’s hand, gave it to him. The King changed color. Those in attendance were shocked, but they did not dare approach. The attending official, Choe Seondan, said tearfully, ‘How can we allow this bunch of barbarians to approach the Most Venerable? Suppose there should be the calamity of an assassin? We surely would not be able to prevent it.’ Then he suggested that Pulitaiwan be taken outside to change into Korean clothing. They were taken into the palace hall for private homage, only bowing with raised hands clasped but without prostrating themselves. They were given utensils of gold and silver, silks, and otter plelts, according to their rank.
I wonder where Choe U was during all of this, and how the Mongols thought of the military regent behind the throne. I’m sure there were many Choe members in attendance; and for sure, the Mongols knew that the king was a puppet.
Marshal Jo Choong accompanied the Mongols and Jurchen commanders northward as far as the border city of Uiju. Despite appearances, the Goryeo were merely buying time. We know this because as soon as the the Mongols had left, the histories note that the authorities sent:
Vice Minister of the Bureau of Finance, 최정분 (Choe Jeongboon) on an inspection trip of the walled cities of the postal relay circuit to take stock of arms and gather military supplies. Moreover, the people of the minor walled cities moved to the major walled cities for protection. At the time, spies reported that the Mongols would use the autum to return. Therefore, preparations were made.
As a clue of the Mongol’s intentions, when Mongol Marshal Hachen left Goryeo, he left behind 41 subordinates at the border city of Uiji, instructing them to “practice the language of Goryeo and wait for our return.”
They didn’t have to wait long. Later that year, in the fall of 1219, the Northeast Commissioner of Men and Horses reported that mongolian and jurchen troops had come and camped outside Jin Myeong Seong, and a month later they were reported in the capital, there to collect their tribute, which the Goryeons gave.
It was already a dicy time for Goryeo because of the military regency. But it was particularly sensitive because this happened exactly during the transfer of power from Choe Chungheon to his son Choe U. In quick succession, in 1217 the Khitan reach the capital before being driven back; in 1218 Choe senior has a stroke; in 1219 he dies, leaving only Choe U.
Even worse, Goryeo’s foreign and domestic problems began to merge during this time into just a huge cauldron of chaos. The Khitan invasions further destabilized the people, and assassination attempts and rebellions against the Choe reached a fever pitch. In 1217, 700 monks stormed the capital in order to overthrow Choe and were put down by his private guard.
So Choe was on real thin ice during this time. He even cancelled the welcome celebration for Marshal Jo, probably because he couldn’t afford to have a politically popular rival anywhere near him. JO actually wanted to stay in Seogyeong after the victory over the Khitan, but Choe insisted on throwing him and his commanders a private party in the capital, which he promptly paid for by increasing levies on the civilians.
Remember how I said that Goryeo’s mistreatment of the people outside of the capital, including all the ethnic minorities, would come back to haunt them?
Well in 1219, Uiju Junior Colonel Han Sun and Colonel Da Ji led a revolt against the Choe. Unlike all the other rebellions, however, these two men would eventually appeal to foreigners for help. This was no longer just a protest against Choe, but an attempt to create a separate state allied with foreign powers. First, these two men and their armies swept through the exact same cities that the Khitan had taken over on their original march to the capital from the northwest. They then submitted to Wannu (remember, the self proclaimed king of the Eastern Jurchen state), and in return received 10,000 Jurchen troops for their assault on Goryeo border cities.
But then they got a little too cute. Because their next move was to ally with the Jin Marshal Yukehsia. The crafty Jin officer, however, invited them to a banquet where he ambushed them. He put their heads in a box and sent it to Kaegyeong in 1220. The Goryeos rewarded him with a whole host of treasures including a basin of silver, fifty bolts of fine grass cloth and silk, and a thousand bushels of rice.
The northwest continued to be an absolute mess. In 1220, the people rose up again, and this time 5,000 troops had to be sent to put down that rebellion. Add to this the packs of Khitan bandits roaming the countryside, looking for villages to rob, rape and murder, and you had a truly lawless frontier.
There’s this great chart in Henthorn’s book that shows the record of the official visits of the MOngol and Jurchen delegates to the Capital during that time, including the number in each party. There were five visits in 1221, 2 visits in 1222, two in 1223, and four in 1224.
Of course, each time the Mongols visited the capital, they had to be paid off with enormous amounts of precious goods. In late 1221, delegates sent by the youngest brother of Genghis Khan, Temuge-otchigin, was still in the capital when the commissioner of the northeastern district reported that another Mongol delegation, this one sent by the Mongol Queent Anchi, was on her way there. Choe U would exclaim in anger:
“We have still not had time to attend to the envoys who came before if we attend to these, how many will come later? We should have the commissioner of men and horse comfort them and send them back.”
At this point, it seems like every head Mongol was sending their entourage to the Korean capital to collect their share of schwag.
Let’s take a break from the narrative to talk a little about what’s going on with other kingdoms.
Although Goryeo had formally submitted to this “older brother, younger brother” relationship with the Mongols in 1218, they still had not officially gotten off the Jin calendar. They would continue to mark the Jin years until 1224, when Jin power would finally collapse in Manchuria. But at this time, the Jin Empire was still powerful, and trying to influence the Goryeo empire. They just couldn’t get their message through, probably because the roads and conduits were so clogged with Mongols trying to get their booty while they could.
Unfortunately, the golden Goryeo-Song era, in which massive amounts of intellectual property and real property were traded between the two nations, was long over by this point. The Goryeo records show a precipitous decline in the Song ships recorded at port from a peak of 35 in the period of 1050-1075, to only 4 between the 1200 and 1225.
These, btw, are records of official trade ships. Historians believe unofficial trade continued at a brisk pace during this time.
This was also a time when Japanese pirates, wako, make a re-appearance after nearly a decade of silence. Raids increase in frequency starting in 1223, and wouldn’t really stop until 1263, after Goryeo and Japan conclude a trade agreement.
Again, this is the worst time for this to occur; right when Korea is being attacked by Khitan, and being pressured by the Mongols and Jurchens, the Japanese sneak in through the back door and start plundering.
Back to the story. The Goryeons continued to placate the Mongols, biding their time. In 1220, Choe U decides to fortify the walls in the north by taxing the southern provinces. These walls would eventually be complete in 1228.
In 1221, Choe seriously considered turning back the Mongol delegates. By this time, the Goryeons were really getting tired of the Mongol delegates, who behaved badly once they were in Korea. One envoy shot up the hostel in which they were staying. Another shot a man. The Goryeons voiced their displeasure to the Mongols.
But it wasn’t until 1223 when Goryeo seriously considered throwing off the Mongol yoke. This was because the Mongol commander Muqali died, and Genghis himself was occupied with matters on his western frontier. Wannu, the king of the Eastern Jurchen, declared independence immediately, then tried multiple times to get the Goryeons to join him. When the Goryeons declined, Wannu began raids on Goryeo border towns two years later.
Still, in 1223, Choe used his own trooops build moats and walls in the capital, as well as a 13-story stupa at Heungwang Temple.
Goryeo Mongol relations were finally ruptured by an event that, to this day, people still debate. In the fall of 1224, a Mongol delegation led by Chukuyu arrived to oversee the annual tribute. The only known description of what happens next is captured in these few lines:
“In the first month of 1225, the Mongol envoys left the Western Capital and crossed the Yalu. Of the national gifts which had been presented, they kept only the otter pelts and, as regards the remainder, namely, the silks, etc. , [this] they abandoned in the fields. On the way they were killed by bandits. The Mongols suspected us. Therefore, relations were severed.
Historians are still divided on who actually killed the Mongols. Some speculate that the delegates weren’t killed at all, and that the Mongols just said they were so that they’d have an excuse to invade Korea.
But for the time being, the Mongols were preoccupied with campaigns elsewhere. After Genghis dies, In 1229 Ogodei ascends to the throne, and makes an agreement with the Song to attack the Jin. This war would occupy the Mongols for the next few years.
When the Mongols decide to finally re-capture the Eastern Jurchen led by Wannu, they order Goryeo to attack Wannu from the south. But Goryeo does not comply, and instead tries to broker a deal with the Eastern Jurchen.
This proves to be disastrous, because the Mongols decide to delay their attack on Wannu and instead decide to teach Goryeo a lesson.
In the winter of 1231, a large Mongol force crosses the Yalu. The Mongol Invasion of Korea has begun in earnest.
So that’s the brief, but really important set up, to the Mongol Invasion of Korea. Stay tuned for the next episode to find out what happens next.