Choe U (최우) • Choe’s “Kitchen Cabinet” • The Directorate General of Policy Formulation (Kyojong Togam, 교정도감) • Personnel Authority (정방, 政房) • Ganghwa Island (강화도, 江華島)
Hi, welcome the History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. Today we continue with the rule of the Choe military dynasty by talking about the second in line, Choe U, the son of the original, Choe Chung Heon.
Choe U 최우 (崔瑀, 1166년 ~ 1249년 12월 10일 (음력 11월 5일)) the first son of the founder of the military dynasty 최충헌 (Choe Chungheon, 崔忠獻), took over after his father’s death and ruled the country for 30 years. His reign was mostly a continuation of his father’s, in that he was able to carry out many of the political restructuring of the country that his father had started. But he is mostly known for being the unfortunately ruler of Korea when it was attacked by the Mongols in 1231. It would be Choe U’s monumental decisions during this attack that would define him and his rule. I’ll call him U in this episode, to distinguish him from his father Choe.
Again, I’ll be relying heavily on the book, “Generals and Scholars, Military Rule in Medieval Korea”, by @Edward Shultz, published in 2000 by the University of Hawaii Press. By the way, I have been in touch with Professor Shultz via email, and he has been very generous with his time in answering some questions I had about that era. So shout out to Ned, hope you’re enjoying Hawaii.
Also, shout out to @Trond Knutsen, who’s the digital publishing manager for the Uiversity of Hawaii Press. I try to buy the electronic versions of every source material that I find, because if you travel as much as I do, that extra convenience is worth it. Trond has helped me out a lot whenever I’ve had issues downloading ebooks such as Generals and Scholars.
There isn’t a lot of documentation of U in his earlier years. He was born in 1166, most likely in the capital Kaegyeong. What’s surprising is his father was said to be born in 1149, which means that Choe was only 17 when U was born. You see a lot of very young mothers during that era but not so many young fathers. His mother is Choe’s first wife, who was from the prominent Song military family.
What we do know is that U joined the Imperial army at the age of eighteen and served for about twenty years, and continued to serve while he was dictator. I haven’t found a lot of information about his early life.
There is however, the incident of succeeding his father. When the time came for Choe Chung-Heon to select a successor, he had two choices.
He selected U because he was the first son, and he was the more talented and capable of the two. U’s brother, Hyang, did not take this lightly and so the two brothers faced each other in a sword duel, and it ended in U’s victory. U did not kill his brother, but put his fate in his father’s hands. Choe Chung-Heon announced that U would be his successor, and U became the Royal protector/prime minister, and leader of the Imperial Council.
Remember, this really echos what happened to Choe senior when he first took over. He also had a dispute with his younger brother, the general Choe Chungsu, over the younger brother trying to marry into the royal family to soon after Choe took control. Their dispute ended in a much worse manner, though, with the older Choe killing his younger brother in the street.
At least with Choe U, all he did was banish his younger brother.
As for succession, Choe U only emerges in the dynastic records in 1202, at the age of 36. And again, I’m kind of reminded of the Kim regime in North Korea today. Succession plans are either kept secret, or not revealed until an appropriate time. This is probably more out of concern for safety. If, like the Kims, you fear for the country’s acceptance of your successor, then you do things in secret.
We know that by this time, Choe U is a general and was already performing ceremonial duties for King
The records indicate that Choe U was a continuation of his father’s regime. In the last episode, we talked about how the senior Choe had begun to create a privately created administration alongside the existing dynastic structure. One way he did this was using what Shultz compares to a “kitchen cabinet”, or an informal group of close advisors that exist alongside the official lines of government. This hearkens back to President Andrew Jackson’s informal group of friends who his opponents labeled his kitchen cabinet, as opposed to the real cabinet, which they dubbed the “parlor” cabinet. In other words, the parlor is where you put your nice furniture to impress the guests; but it’s in the kitchen that the family really makes decisions.
Also, using a more contemporary example, it’s somewhat comparable to Minamoto’s bakufu, which literally means tent, and refers to how the Kamakura era’s real governance was run not in Kyoto, where the emperor was, but in a humble tent on the battlefield in which military officers such as Minamoto formulated battle strategy.
In other words, in parallel with officials, rulers such as Choe, Minamoto and Jackson formed unofficial circle of advisors upon whom they could rely for advice. Except in Choe’s case, he turned his kitchen cabinets into official bodies. The most prominent example is a directorate which he named, “The Directorate General of Policy Formulation”, or 교정도감 (Kyojong Togam).
Directorates were not new in Goryeo; they were usually created with extraordinary powers for emergencies. But Choe turned this body into a permanent fixture of his government.
And here is where we see the true genius of Choe. Instead of trying to intermarry his kin into the royal family, he instead institutionalized his own administration so that it existed alongside the existing dynastic government.
This directorate was Choe’s first, cautious foray into creating a permanent administration. He vested it with the powers for internal defense policy and policing.
We should never forget that Choe and his son and his whole family are soldiers at heart. So in keeping with that, the directorate had many martial elements. In fact, the 교정도감 was originally formed in 1209 in response to an assassination attempt on the senior Choe. So the records suggest that the directorate’s original purpose was as a security force similar to the Dobang. The head of the directorate was imbued with a title comparable to a military general. Of course the head was always from the Choe family.
Because Choe had done such a great job of laying the groundwork for a separate government that his family controlled, alongside the existing dynastic government, when Choe U took power he didn’t have to rely so much on royal fiat. When Choe first needed to create a new agency, he had to do it on the sly as a kitchen cabinet first. But U just had to create a new agency and it was done.
So U further took the 교정도감 and gave it powers of recruitment and ultimately overseeing policy in general.
U also established the second most important body, called the 정방 (Personnel Authority, 政房). It actually had it’s roots from Choe, who in the early days would have the Ministries of Civil Personnel and Military Affairs come to his home to deliberate who should be appointed.
But it was U who was able to create an official agency and named it the 정방. In 1225, the Koryosa notes:
Ch’oe U established the Personnel Authority in his private residence to make recommendations and select civilian scholars. It was called the Pijach’i… . After Ch’unghon took power, he set up an Administration (Pu). Privately he set policy and made recommendations and appointments. He took men from his group and made them transmitters (sungson), calling them “politically colored” transmitters (chongsaek sungson). Those with administrative responsibility were of the third rank and called “politically col ored” ministers (sangso). Those of fourth rank and below were called “politically colored” deputy directors (sogyong); they handled writing. Below them, those who managed general affairs were Personnel Authority.
U also created the Seobang(서방, 書房), or the Chamber of Scholarly Advisors. All of its members served dual roles in the dynastic ranks, including in the Dept of Ministries, Ministry of Punishment, Royal Confucian Academy, and the Ministry of Civil and Military Personnel. Shultz speculates that the seobang was created by U to formulate a response to the Mongolian threat. It was a merging of the civilians and the military that epitomized the rule of the Choe.
It represented the overall goal that Choe had in trying to bridge the differences between the civil bureaucrats and the military, the root cause of the military overthrow of the government back in 1170. In this sense, the seobang represented a success.
As much as U was the designated successor of his father, heads still needed to roll. Because although this was a planned succession, it was still an “unsanctioned” transfer of power. Remember, the Choes were never officially the heads of the kingdom. The monarchy still was the titular head, and the Choes were the shadowy puppet government. So at the start of U’s reign, 28 members of Choe’s staff were purged.
Under his reign, U made changes to land and fiscal policies. He also reduced the corrupt practice of buying offices.
U’s first marriage was to the daughter of General Jeong Sookcheom (정숙첨, 鄭叔瞻), who you may recall in our previous episode was put in charge of the emergency forces under Choe. After her death, he married the daughter of Tae Jipseong (태집성, 太集成), another military aristocrat. He also had several concubines; one of them, the daughter of Sa Honggi, would bear him two sons, one of whom would be Choe Hang. Sa Honggi himself was a minister of civil personnel.
Ch’oe U’s daughter married Kim Yakson (김약선, 金若先) of the Kyongju Kim clan, who could trace his lineage to Silla kings. From the beginning it seemed as if Choe had handpicked Kim to be his heir. He went to great lengths to promote him into positions of power. Unfortunately, Yakson became involved in a dispute that led to his banishment and execution, at which point U turned to his own son Hang, who had been sent to live in a temple, as a potential heir.
I wonder if U had used his son-in-law as a kind of decoy from the very beginning. But that’s just my speculation.
Ch’oe U employed more civilians in his government than his father. As Schulz notes:
“Of ninety-six men found to have held dynastic civil ranks (from 1219 to 1249}, sixty-nine (71 percent of all officials) were men with Civilian backgrounds. (See Append ix 6.) This was an increase from the 54 percent found during Ch’oe Ch’unghon ‘s regime.”
Shultz writes that: “Ch’oe U also encouraged respect for civilian officials and institutions by reverting to a greater dependence on Chinese traditions. In 1225 he memorialized: “I request that our dynastic institutions and rites of music emulate Chinese systems.”
Remember, the Choes were always acutely aware that they did not have the heavenly power of the monarchy. Thus they continued to fill the ranks of their administration with noble born civilians and military officers. This is in stark contrast to the original military dictators who took over back in 1170. They, out of desperation as well as anything, promoted anyone who would side with them, whether they were slave born or noble born.
But the Choes didn’t do that. U did, however, succeed in integrating the military within the top government positions. Remember, that was one of the main reasons the military coup of 1170 happened in the first place: because the military had become so disrespected by the rest of society.
U’s government was chock full of soldiers: 12 of the 38 in the State Council were military; ⅓ of the lower offices of the Security Council were military; several officers were now to be found in the Ministry of Rites–once the exclusive province of civilians.
U’s inner circle of advisors–his kitchen cabinet, as it were–was made up of four military officers and 8 civilians. All but three are identified as coming from families with previous government service. Notably, one of those was U’s son in law Kim Yakson before he had him killed.
Another famous member of U’s administration was the famous Korean poet and man of letters Yi Kyubo, who’s brilliant poetry survives to this day. He actually passed the state examination under King Myongjong before Choe senior’s rule, but it was only upon recognition by the Choe dynasty founder that he was promoted within the ranks, eventually serving in the lower ranks of the Security Council before matriculating to the executive under Choe U. He would play a notable role in negotiations with the Mongols during this time because he was said to have written appeals to the Mongols that were so eloquent and impassioned in nature that they drew tears from the Mongol emperor himself.
One more note about art during Choe U’s reign. It has to be a short note because, in comparison, U’s dealings with foreign policy was much more urgent, as you will soon hear. It may seem like the Choes had the entire country’s supply of noble families in their back pocket. But, in addition to the myriad monk, peasant and slave rebellions, there was a school of intellectuals who led their own conscientious objection against Choe rule.
They were called the “Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove.” They were made up of seven of the top scholars in the country. They were:
Ham Sun, and
As Schulz writes:
“They took their name from a group of earlier Chinese poets and prided themselves on their knowledge and understanding of the Chinese classics. Many of these scholars purposely distanced themselves from the Ch’oe leaders, and others were passed over in selection. Of the seven members, only Yi Illo and Cho T’ong actually occupied civil posts.”
So a few of them did take posts in Choe’s reign, but they are notable for their writing style at the time which clearly diverged from the Choe line, choosing instead to emphasize an escapist mentality from politics, and indulging in nature.
So far we’ve talked about U’s continuation of the Choe dynasty, his political maneuverings and his strategic marriages. But the really important events that are happening during this time have nothing to do with domestic issues.
I will be fully covering this in the next episodes. But you can’t mention Choe U without talking about the Khitan and Mongol incursions in Goryeo. Because these monumental events occur right when Choe is handing off power to his son. So let’s go in order:
1214: official hand over of power to U; but I’m sure the senior Choe is still in charge
1216: a huge nation of 90,000 Khitan cross the Yalu river into Goryeo, fleeing the Mongols
1217: the Khitan plunder and pillage Goryeo
Fall 1218: Choe Chungheon suffers a stroke! The worst timing!
Winter 1218: Mongols cross the border into Goryeo, chasing the Khitan. This is the first time the Mongol Army has ever set foot in Goryeo; unfortunately not the last.
Early 1219: Mongols, Jurchen and Koreans lead a joint attack on Kangdong, the last Khitan stronghold. The Mongols visit King Gojong at the palace and force Goryeo into a suzerainty
Fall 1219: Mongols are spotted at the border, coming for the first of their tributes.
Oct. 1219: Choe dies; U is all alone.
Again, I’ll cover how Goryeo responds to the Mongols in future episodes. But I’ll summarize, because it’s instrumental to U’s life. Basically, for the remainder of his reign, from 1219 to 1249, U would essentially be managing the kingdom under Mongol suzerainty. It’s a fascinating tale of accommodation, then battle, then defeat, then trickery–anything they could do to placate the Mongols while coming up with a plan to throw them off.
From 1219 onward, the legendary Mongol army would lay waste to Goryeo from north to south. They would attack six different times–when you think of all the places in the world that got hit the hardest by Genghis Khan, certainly Korea deserves to be mentioned. The Goryeo army, land and people exhausted and wasted, In 1232, U would make the monumental, fateful decision of relocating the monarchy and the capital to Ganghwa island, a small island just off the west coast near present day Incheon. Again, I’ll cover this in dedicated Mongol invasion episodes in the future, but here’s a taste of that fateful move, as told by the Goryeosa:
At that time there was frost and rain for ten days and mud filled the roads sinking people to their shins. People and horses died. Even wives of high officials and rich households went barefoot and carried their loads on their heads. The crippled, widowed, orphaned, and homeless lost their way and cried out. Their numbers were countless.
In 1249, Choe U (1209 – 17 May 1257) is recorded to have died suddenly from disease. He did stick it out til the ripe old age of 73, which is pretty good considering he was in the middle of an invasion by the Mongols. Power was handed over to his son, Choe Hang. We’ll cover that in our next episode.