CE 1231. The (Mongol) Empire Strikes Back

CE 1231: The (Mongol) Empire Strikes Back

한국의 역사 – Korean History




Hi, welcome to The History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. You guys, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the Mongol Invasion of Korea.


[intro music]




지명에서 창주. 연주. 덕주. 맹주는 산동반도에서 화주는 요동에서 정주는 중산에서 용주.철주.통주.곽주.귀주.삭주는 요동에서 옮겨왔습니다.


On August 26, 1231, a large Mongol force led by Marshal Sartaq crosses the Yalu river and surrounds Uiju. The city basically rolls over immediately. Defense General Jo Sukchang, the son of Marshal Jo Choong, and Deputy Commissioner of Uiju Jeon Gan, open the granary for the Mongol troops, then write letters to neighboring cities Sakju and Seondeok-jin to surrender as well.


Next stop is Jeongju; but when the Mongols arrive they find the city deserted, the residences having scattered and hid.


Next is Inju, which surrenders immediately. Here Commander Hong Bogweon, an infamous Korean traitor, joins the Mongols and acts as a guide for subsequent Mongol attacks.


In Seochang-hyeon, the Mongols imprison Colonel Moon Dae, and leading him to the city walls of Inju, order him to call out to the city that they are real Mongols, and so should surrender immediately. They did this because Koreans at the time were sometimes attacked by Jurchen bandits disguised as Mongols. Moon instead shouts: “They are not really Mongol troops!” The Mongols then behead him.


The Mongols attack the city but it is in vain. Because, as provisions run out, the Administrator, Yi Juijeok, puts all the women and children in the granary and lights it on fire. Then he leads all the men in slitting their own throats. This would be a foreshadowing of how the rest of the invasion would go.


The Mongols fail to take the walled city of Kuju (구주 대첩, 龜州大捷). So they turn back and conquer Yongju, Sonju and Kwakchu. A second force advances rapidly down the peninsula, failing to conquer Chaju and the Western capital, Seogyeong (aka Pyeongyang), after fierce resistance. But they continue onward, easily overrunning Hwangju and Ponju by October.


The Koreans get some unexpected help from Yukehsia, the leader of the Jin near the border, who offers five thousand soldiers who are quickly incorporated into the Goryeo forces. Even Fifty Jurchen bandits from nearby join the Goryeo army. The enemy of your enemy is your friend.


On October 6, roughly five weeks after the invasion started, Goryeo’s three armies under the command of General Yi Jaseong, depart the capital. Their progress was slow and after 12 days, after reaching Dongseon poststation, their scouts reported no sight of the enemy. So General Yi and his men relaxed, taking off their armor, when some soldiers shouted that the Mongols were coming! 8,000 Mongol soldiers suddenly appeared. General Yi and another general were hit with an arrow and pierced with a lance, respectively, and barely escaped alive. But they managed to fight off the attack. In particular, two crack archers from Yukehsia’s army were noted for their excellent shooting.


The Mongols send two envoys with the following message: “Of those who submitted when we arrived at Uiju, none were slain. If your nation does not submit we will, in the end, not go back. If you submit then we will turn and go towards the Eastern Jurchen.” These two envoys are imprisoned.


In Kuju, the Goryeo army arrived as the Mongols were breaking down the walls with catapults. The Goryeo army was completely defeated. They send a messenger to Commander Sartaq’s tent, which is decorated with multi colored silk damask and lined with women on each side. His words are blunt: “if your country is going to fight defensively, then defend yourselves; if you are going to submit, then submit; if you are going to face us in battle, then face us in battle. Let it be decided quickly!”


When Sartaq’s message is received in the capital on November 30, the Goryeo’s answer is to increase their forces. Goryeo chooses battle, and the Mongols deliver. The Mongols promptly take the city of Pyeongju and slaughter every person there and raze it to the ground in revenge for the two Mongol envoys who were imprisoned.


They then advanced on the capital itself, Kaeseong, burning homes and slaughtering everyone along the way. By December, the capital is surrounded by Mongols. It has only been four months.


They send Jeong, the Duke of Hwoe-An (회안공, http://m.blog.daum.net/naissus/528?categoryId=32)  to the three Mongol forces, bearing gifts for each of them. In fact, this marks the technical surrender of Goryeo.


But the fighting doesn’t stop. The Mongol forces turn to all the cities they had by passed and take Kwangju, Choongju and Cheongju down. If you look on a map of korea, they make a beeline from the far northwest corner of Korea all the way down to Cheongju, way south of the center of the peninsula.


But fierce resistance continued. The Deputy Commissioner leads an attack on all the Mongol leaders in Uiju, killing them all.  There was also a stubborn defense being carried out in Chaju.


But the defense of Kuju is legendary. Under the command of Pak Seo, the commissioner of men and horse of the northwest frontier district (this was the same title held by Kim Chwi Ryeo back in the Khitan invasions). Kuju had always been a rendezvous point for all the surrounding cities in case they were defeated. Perhaps they remembered Kuju as the place where Goryeo had won such a decisive victory over the Liao Empire back in 1018.


The commander of Sakchu, Kim Choongeon, was in charge of the eastern and western walls, while Kim Kyeongseon was to defend the southern wall.


When the mongols arrived, Kyeongseon, leading his twelve soldiers as well as the rest of the soldiers out of the gate, said: “Do not think of your own lives; if fate decrees, die, but do not fall back.”


Every soldier except his own threw themselves on the ground, begging not to go. He ordered them all back inside and then with only his 12 soldiers advanced into battle. Kyeongseon himself fired an arrow and knocked down a mounted soldier with a black flag leading the Mongols. His 12 soldiers now emboldened fought hard. Kyeongseon is hit with an arrow, his arm bleeding, but he still presses forward. After 4 or 5 attacks and counterattacks, the mongols finally withdraw. Kyeongseong and his brave men return, where Pak seo and Kyongseon salute him with tears in their eyes. After this, Pak Seo placed Kyeongseong in charge of the defense of the entire city.


Horrendous siege warfare ensued. The Mongols attacked the city from the west, south and north gates. They loaded carts with grass and wood to turn over near the gates and lit them on fire. Kyeongseong responded by catapulting molten iron. The Mongols built towers and a huge platform wrapped with cowhide, hiding soliders inside to excavate tunnels through the city walls. The Koreans responded by burning the towers.


The mongols assembled fifteen large catapults and assaulted the south wall. Pak Seo constructed similar catapults and fired stones backward. The MOngols soaked wood with human fat and attacked the city with fire.


Kyeongseong, exhausted and wounded, reclined against a bed and directed his troops. When a mortar smashed directly behind him, his subordinates begged him to move his chair but he refused. In the end he died in that very position.


The Mongols attacked this way a hundred times over 30 days. The Mongols called for reinforcements from the Northwest frontier. They then attacked the wall with 30 catapults. But even after breaking the wall in 50 places, Pak Seo would quickly repair them. The Mongols retreated to a wooden palisade. They sent a Korean translator to command them to submit. But the Koreans would not.


Last, the MOngols built scaling ladders. But Pak So attacked the ladders with large blades, hacking the ladders to pieces. During the siege, a 70 year old Mongol general inspected the city walls and sighing, said: “i have followed the army since I bound my hair into plaits as a youth, and so I am accustomed to seeing the cities of the earth attacked and fought over. Still i have never seen a city undergo an attack like this which did not, in the end, submit.”


The histories further note that: “The mongols said: this city has withstood many with few. Heaven protects, it not hte strength of men.’ then they lifted the siege and left.


This battle is all the more incredible considering that Goryeo had already surrendered to the Mongols by this point. Here’s another event.


Not only did Kuju held out, so did Chaju. Remember, the capital, and therefore the country, had already formally surrendered But when the official Seong Gookcheom was sent from the capital to instruct the garrison at Chaju to surrender, the deputy commissioner of the city, Choe Choonmyeong, simply closed the city gates in his face.


The Mongols, along with officials from the capital, would visit Kuju and Chaju multiple times, at times begging, and then threatening, them to finally surrender. It was with great reluctance that these cities did.


Choe U and the royal court were actually planning on executing Pak Seo and Choe Choonmyeong, the leaders of Kuju and Chaju, respectively, for insubordination. They were worried that the Mongols would punish Goryeo for having delayed the surrender process.


But interestingly, it was the Mongols who saved Pak seo and Choe Choonmyeong. In true warrior fashion, they praised both men for their bravery and loyalty. Choe Choonmyeong was actually being held in a cell in Seogyeong awaiting execution when a Mongol functionary would remark: “he is a loyal subject of yours. We are not going to kill him now that you have already pledged peace with us. Would it be proper for you to kill the loyal subjects of all your cities?”


It’s hard not for me to read a bit more into these two events. Sure, the two cities were just doing their jobs by defending the country from foreign invaders. But it’s hard not to see a bit of a “f you” to the capital from these cities. They must have been so frustrated with the central government by that time that they would rather die defending their city rather than have to submit to the Mongols by the order of the capital.


This was an extremely short war. It took the Mongols less than a year to submit Goryeo. But the consequences would live on for a very long time. Before the war, Mongols were already demanding unreasonable amounts from Goryeo. Afterwards, however, their demands became astronomical: Gold, sliver, pearls, otter skins. 10,000 small horses, 20,000 large horses, 10,000 bolts of purple guze, 20,000 otter skins, and clothing for an army of 1 million men!


For hostages, they demanded the king’s sons and grandons, his daughters, the offspring of provincial lords; 500 girls, 500 boys for the emperor and each high official was to present a daughter and 1000 girls and 1000 boys.


The traitor Jo Sukchang, the son of Marshal Jo, who had first quickly let the Mongols raid the Uiju granary, was appointed Grand General to head a tribute mission to the Emperor. The Koreans officially disclaimed responsiblity for the death of the Mongol envoy in 1225, and then said that the imprisonment of the Mongol envoy was an honest mistake; they could not believe that Mongols would attack since the two nations had been on such good terms.


All throughout the invasion, Choe U had been advised to transfer the capital to Kanghwa Island ( 강화도, formerly 江華島).  by a certain Yun In, the deputy commissioner of SeungCheon-bu, who himself had secretly sent his family and servants to the island when the Mongols threatened the capital.


Choe U considered this, and even considered moving his family to the distant Ulleung Island in the East Sea, which is 75 miles off the coast of eastern Korea.


Kangwha island, however, was just off the coast, right next to the capital Kaeseong. It’s actually the island just north of Incheon airport today, and just outside of greater Seoul. It’s amazing how close Kaeseong is to Seoul; unfortunately, it’s just across the border in North Korea. Imagine the wealth of archeological treasure that must exist there! MY dream is to one day step on the ground of where the palace used to be. If you look at pictures, the palace site is still preserved, and it’s a beautifully located spot right at the foothill.


Anyway, Kangwha island is a pretty small island, about 116 miles square, which is about the size of a small american city, comparable to Kansas City. It does, however, have very high tides. Today there are around 65,000 people living on it. But this small island would play a huge role, and a very tragic role, in Korean history. Not just in goryeo but in the 19th century, which I can’t wait to get to. But, we’re still in the 13th century, so baby steps.


It sits at a strategic location: right at the mouth of the Han river, which runs right through seoul and cuts right into the heart of central Korea; and also at the base of the Ryesong river, which leads to Byeongnando, the port of Kaegyeong, the capital of Goryeo.


It’s cut off the from the mainland from a very small channel, not even a river, which is maybe [200] feet wide and [x] feet deep.


In the fifth month of 1232, Choe assembles all the officials of the fourth rank and above at his home and proposes that the capital be moved to Kangwha. Lots of officials disagreed but were too afraid of Choe U and “no one dared utter a word in opposition.” Well almost no one, anyway.


Kim Saecheong, Commander of the Night Patrol (야별초, 夜別抄), pushed open the door to the meeting and entering, told U sharply,


‘The successive generations have held Songgyong since T’ aejo for two hundred years. The walls of the city are strong and the soldiers provisions are sufficient. We should combine all our forces and defend it to protect the fatherland. How can we abandon the capital?”


But when Choe asked him for a plan, the Commander did not have a ready response. Choe’s father in law told Choe that Kim’s advice was the prattle of a young girl and that he wanted to take him out and behead him. The other officials agreed and Kim was executed.


So the decision was made to move to Kangwha.  Hundreds of carts and wagons were seized to transport Choe’s household goods. Notices were posted throughout the city stating that residents from the five wards had to evacuate to the island or face martial law. As we learned in the previous episode, it was a horrific move, like the Russian aristocrats fleeing Moscow ahead of Napoleon’s advance in War and Peace. Even aristocratic women had to get out and trudge through the mud. Many people and horses died.



Let’s talk about the move of the capital to Kanghwa Island. Given that the closest distance between the island and the shore of the mainland was less than 50 feet, why would it present any protection against the deadly Mongols?

I wondered the same thing; after all, this is the Mongol force that incorporated the best practices of the best armies in the world at the time: the Chinese, the Jurchen, the Persians and the Arabs. How could they let a small stream get in the way of conquest?

There are three reasons:

  1. The answer isn’t so much in battle protection, but in resource protection. Maybe it is easy to build some small boats and send an army across the channel onto the island. But the siege of a well guarded fort depends mainly on one thing. That’s the ability for the attackers to starve out the besieged.

Because Kangwha is an island, Choe U was able to store food in coastal ports and access them using the Goryeo navy. As fierce as the Mongols were, they were still a land-based army. They could certainly send a huge force over the channel and onto the island, but they could not surround the back of the fort, which had access to the vast riverways of Korea.


  1. This also really exposes the one-dimensionality of the Mongol army. For all their ferocity and organization, without a maritime threat they were never going to rule for very long over multi-dimensional states such as Goryeo.
  1. The final reason is that you must give credit to the fighting spirit of the Korean people. From Mongol and 3rd party accounts describing how ferociously the Koreans defended themselves, we must objectively conclude that the Mongols must have decided that the risk of lives needed to successfully conquer Kanghwa was too great. Perhaps also, the Mongols in this time period organized their forces in small groups to pillage. One historian noted that the Mongols certainly considered attacking Kanghwa and, in 1232, had actually built ships for that purpose. But a certain Byeon Yeo, who had been captured at Taeju, persuaded them that it was too dangerous. And so they burnt the ships. Byeon managed to escape and was given the rank of supreme general for his deed.


Likewise in the provinces, commissioners were sent to evacuate people to mountain citadels and coastal islands.  Meanwhile, an army of 2,000 was raised to build the royal palace on Kangwha.’




In the spring 1232, most of the Mongol troops had departed. But they did establish residence commissioners, mostly in the northwest, to keep an eye on the Koreans.


Goryeo was familiar with the usual system of tribute and hostages, having been the vassals of China, but the Mongols were altogether different. The Chinese system was much more a trading relationship. The Mongols, however, viewed Goryeo strictly as a conquered nation. Their demands seemed endless: goods, hostages, transplanting of farm familes, armies, ships, etc.


On the first day of the seventh month of 1232, Kim Ingyong, the young soldier who Marshal Jo had first appointed to spy on the Mongols back in 1218, was appointed to defend the capital with 8000 soldiers while the transfer to Kangwha was completed.


So quickly did the move occur that the King had to stay on a hostel on the island.


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