The Mongol Invasions of Korea

Koryo’s General Kang Kam-chan battling Mongolians
1235 Mongol invasion of Korea

CHRONOLOGY

1231        First Mongol invasion of Korea

1261        Assassination of the Last Ch’oe dictator, end of military rule in Koryimage

1270        Final capitulation of Koryimage court to Mongol siege, beginning of Mongol overlord period

1274        First of two joint Mongol-Korean invasion attempts of Japan

1320s      Lady Ki’s travel to Yuan Dynasty China as a “tribute woman”

1333        Lady Ki named an imperial concubine

1339        Birth of Lady Ki’s son, the future crown prince and emperor of the Yuan dynasty

1340        Marriage of Lady Ki to the Mongol emperor as secondary imperial consort

1356        Purge of Empress Ki’s family members in the Koryimage court by King Kongmin

1365        Empress Ki’s ascent as primary consort

1368        Ming dynasty’s conquest of China

THE MARRIAGE OF LADY KI TO THE YUAN EMPEROR, 1340

Kaegyimageng, the capital of the Koryimage dynasty, was abuzz with news from China in the summer of 1340. Seven decades had passed since the Korean kingdom had succumbed to a long siege by invading Mongol forces, and in the intervening period Korea had become suffused with all things Mongol—its culture, politics, and even its monarch bore the stamp of Mongol dominance. Now Koreans received word of an event that showed that Korea, in turn, could wield influence over the stupendously powerful Mongol empire based in China, the Yuan dynasty. Lady Ki, a Korean and favored concubine of the Yuan emperor, had in the previous year given birth to the likely crown prince, and was now being crowned formally as an imperial consort through her marriage to the Yuan emperor. This turn of events could hardly have been anticipated two decades earlier, when she was sent as a captive prize of submission to the Mongol rulers. Indeed she and hundreds of other “tribute women” sent to Mongol-controlled China had embodied the Mongols’ comprehensive control over the kingdom of Koryimage, a period in Korean history normally viewed with utter shame.

The period of Mongol dominion over Korea, however, resists easy judgment. Empress Ki’s story, in fact, represents a microcosm of Koryimage’s complex relationship to the Mongol empire—an experience of tragedy and horror, to be sure, but also of reform, opportunity, and valuable exposure to the outside world. This period also highlighted important features of Koryimage as a civilization and its place in Korean history, especially for practices and customs regarding women. In these and other ways, the Mongol era constituted a seminal turning point in Korean history: on the one hand, it directly led to the fall of the Koryimage dynasty, but in the larger scope of national history it represented a time when Korea was integrated into the world order to a degree not seen again until the twentieth century.

The Mongol Empire launched several invasions against Korea under Goryeo from 1231 to 1259. There were six major campaigns: 1231, 1232, 1235, 1238, 1247, 1253; between 1253 and 1258, the Mongols under Möngke Khan’s general Jalairtai Qorchi launched four devastating invasions in the final successful campaign against Korea, at tremendous cost to civilian lives throughout the Korean Peninsula. The Mongols annexed the northern areas of Korean Peninsula after the invasions and incorporated them into their empire as Ssangseong Prefectures and Dongnyeong Prefectures. In March 1258, the dictator Choe Ui of the Goryeo military regime was assassinated by Kim Jun, ending the Choe military dictatorship of Korea; after this, scholars who had insisted on peace with Mongolia gained power. This party sent an envoy to the Mongols, and a peace treaty was contracted between the Mongol Empire and Goryeo, part of which stipulated that Korea was to accept vassaldom to the Mongol Empire. Some military officials who refused to surrender formed the Sambyeolcho Rebellion and resisted in the islands off the southern shore of the Korean Peninsula

THE MONGOL CONQUEST

The first Mongol invasion, in 1231, led by the son of the founder of the Mongol empire, Genghis Khan, came six decades after the 1170 institution of military rule in Koryimage that had turned the Korean monarch into a mere puppet. Notwithstanding the many incursions across the northern border, the administrative reforms over the first century of the Koryimage dynasty in the tenth century had helped to establish firmly the principle of civilian rule. Hence the military officials gradually experienced a decline in authority over the next 150 years, even to the point of humiliating deference to their civilian counterparts. This, apparently, led to the military coup of 1170, which purged top civilian officials and gave military officers power over not only the government but also the throne. By the turn of the thirteenth century, the Ch’oe family emerged to constitute a mini-dynasty of military strongmen, who ruled a land racked by bouts of unrest, including a large-scale slave rebellion at the beginning of the Ch’oe dictatorship. The devastating Mongol invasions, beginning in 1231, eventually led the House of Ch’oe to flee to the confines of Kanghwa Island, just to the south of the capital. There the Koryimage court under Ch’oe control successfully resisted final capitulation, even as the rest of the country suffered. The final Ch’oe generalissimo, however, was assassinated in 1261, and this opened the door for the court to enter negotiations of surrender. Given the continuing decimation of the countryside, including the destruction of countless cultural artifacts, the Koryimage monarchy had little choice but to accept Mongol overlordship. Despite the lingering resistance to the Mongols on Cheju Island off the southern coast, which was eventually put down, for all intents and purposes Korea was now part of the Mongol empire.

Militarily, following the 1259 peace treaty, Mongol ambitions on Japan resulted in two invasions of Japan. In both efforts, the Mongols directed Korean shipbuilding and militarization towards the amphibious assault of the Japanese coasts and pressed a large proportion of Korean naval and infantry forces into the service of Mongol military objectives. Korea supplied 770 fully manned ships and 5,000 soldiers in 1274 and 900 ships and 10,000 soldiers in 1281. Yuan officials and envoys took concubines and wives in Korea while they were stationed in Korea for the invasion of Japan.[26] For a variety of reasons, both invasions failed. During the periods leading up to and during the invasions, Korea was effectively forced to serve as a Mongol military base.

That Koryimage maintained a semblance of autonomy through the maintenance of its own monarchy and government might be considered a fortunate outcome of its defeat, given that the Mongols could have easily wiped out the entire leadership. But such autonomy was severely curtailed, as the Mongols dictated the general direction of the government. This was soon made apparent when the Korean state was forced to provide manpower and expertise for the next stage of Mongol expansion, into Japan, in 1274. Koreans, long known as master seafarers, built and guided the ships, which were loaded with thousands of soldiers from the joint Mongol-Korean forces. This armada twice attempted, and failed in, an invasion of Japan. The military organ devised to oversee these invasions, the Eastern Expedition Field Headquarters, remained intact even after its original purpose expired, serving as the institutional representative of Mongol domination in Korea. The nominal head of this institution was the Korean king, but in reality this and other powerful organs were controlled mostly by Mongol overseers whose interference in Korea was not limited to foreign relations and military matters, but extended to internal Korean affairs as well. The Mongols, in fact, established commanderies in various parts of Koryimage to reinforce their suzerainty, and this does not even count the northern quarter of Koryimage territory that now came under direct Mongol control.

Needless to say, politics in the Koryimage court often hinged on tendencies and sentiments regarding the Mongols, as the monarch himself politically—and in other ways as well—was severely weakened. The Mongols, in fact, dictated everything from the kings’ reign names, which humiliatingly bore the word “loyal” (“ch’ung”), to the clothing and even the consorts of Korean kings. The Mongol court also controlled who would be king, on several occasions returning a Koryimage monarch to the throne not long after deposing him. But on another level, these signs of subservience might have been moot, for within a few decades the Koryimage king himself was barely Korean. Under the arrangements of Korea’s surrender, the crown prince of the Koryimage royal house had to spend his childhood in the Yuan dynasty capital, where he would marry a Yuan princess, and then return to Korea when it was his turn on the throne. The first such monarch, King Ch’ungnyimagel, married a daughter of the third Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan (of Marco Polo fame), and hence thereafter all the Koryimage kings, except the last one, were direct descendants of Genghis Khan himself. One could argue that the Korean court had to submit in order to prevent mass slaughter and hence preserve Korean nationhood, or even in order to escape domination by Korean military officials. But one also has to wonder whether the Koryimage kings under Mongol rule held a meaningful identity as Koreans. Even the monarch credited with anti-Mongol policies in the mid-fourteenth century, King Kongmin—who, by twist of fate, was mostly Korean and served as the last of the Mongol-era kings—was married to a Mongol princess, whom he adored and famously mourned with obsession upon her passing.

This brings us to the greater implications of these circumstances, and here we must tread with some sensitivity. For not only was the Koryimage monarchy infused with Mongol ancestry, but intermarriage with the Mongols took place among other Korean groups as well, from the aristocracy down to the lowest status groups who had no choice on the matter. This accompanied the significant spread of Mongol influence in Korean culture in the fourteenth century, from language, food, hairstyles, and clothing to even family and marriage customs—to be expected, given the political and military domination under which the Koreans lived. Together, these two levels of Mongol influence led to what many Koreans today would consider embarrassing at best: a significant strain of Mongol provenance in the Korean people and culture. DNA analysis, which strongly hints that central Asians share widespread common descent from Genghis Khan, would probably show not an insignificant number of Koreans today with the same ancestry. Such are the results, repeated thousands of times throughout world history, of conquest. We can imagine the often horrific circumstances under which such a mixture of peoples took place, and we can abhor, from the Korean perspective, the shameful consequences. Whether one condemns this particular episode in Korean history or examines it with scholarly detachment, however, it undoubtedly complicates any sacrosanct notion of Korean homogeneity.

If we can take a difficult step back from the horrors of war and forced subjugation to forge a longer-term perspective, we should also consider the salutary impact of Mongol domination on the history of the Koryimage dynasty and of Korea. Under the Mongol empire, Koreans had many more occasions to make their way to China as tributary officials, diplomats, scholars, traders, and others, and once in the Yuan dynasty capital (present-day Beijing), they encountered a teeming tapestry of peoples and cultures from throughout the vast Mongol empire. The exchange of books, ideas, and other artifacts of both high and low culture from these encounters integrated Koreans, for the first time in their history, into a truly global order. The Chinese civilization that Koreans had emulated always aspired to be universal, but in geographical scope and the willingness to embrace other cultures, it paled in comparison to the Mongol empire. And among the great influences that these cultural currents yielded was the introduction of both the cotton seed and Neo-Confucian philosophy to Korea. But this interaction drove the flow of influence in the opposite direction as well.

King Gongmin (1330–1374) and Queen Noguk assisted in the peaceful succession of Gegeen Khan.

KORY WOMEN IN THE MONGOL EMPIRE

Among the most intriguing areas of Mongol influence in Koryimage lay in marriage and family customs, particularly as they affected women. Scholars have suggested, for example, that the practice of taking multiple wives, not uncommon in the late Koryimage aristocracy, might have expanded under Mongol rule. If so, such an influence presents an interesting comparison with native Korean customs characterized by a relatively high social and familial position of females. This is not to suggest that the Koryimage era featured something approaching equality between the sexes. It is now commonly accepted, however, that Korean women enjoyed far greater standing in marriage, inheritance, and social status in the Koryimage than in the succeeding Chosimagen era, especially in the latter Chosimagen period.

Whatever benefits that Korean women might have enjoyed, the Mongol period reinforced the submissive standing of females through the demand for “tribute women” exacted upon the vanquished Koryimage. Government records indicate that, between 1275 and 1355, there were approximately fifty instances of the Koryimage court sending tribute women to the Mongol court, which took almost two hundred girls. But this is likely a gross under-estimation, for the officially recorded instances only counted the mostly aristocratic females sent to become concubines for the Mongol royalty and aristocracy, and did not include the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lower-status females sent under more wretched circumstances. Like the other major group of Koryimage people sent to China—those males bound to serve as eunuchs for the Yuan court—the Korean tribute women represented little more than human booty, in effect slaves handed over as a sign of tributary subordination. Out of these terrible conditions, however, a fraction of both the eunuchs and tribute women managed to ascend to the highest levels of court life in the Chinese capital. And among these examples, the most fascinating and powerful figure was Lady Ki.

Lady Ki, daughter of a lower-level official’s family, was sent, like many others of her status, as a tribute woman to the Mongol capital some time in the 1320s. Little is known about how she came to catch the emperor’s attention, but as noted in her biography in the official history of the Yuan dynasty, it is likely that her beauty and her talents in singing, dancing, and poetry were extraordinary. She was formally named an imperial concubine in 1333. The Mongol emperor, who as a boy had fallen victim to political strife and spent over a year in exile on an island off the west coast of Korea, might have had a favorable disposition to Koreans in the first place. And having developed an intense affection for Lady Ki, he treated her as the preferred companion over his queen, who in fact came from a family of political enemies. When he tried to promote Lady Ki to official status as the secondary consort (second wife), it aroused staunch political opposition because it digressed from the standard practice of taking imperial queens only from a certain Mongol clan. In 1339, after she gave birth to a son, who would later become the Yuan monarch, the emperor’s determination stiffened, and over weakening political opposition he had her crowned as the secondary imperial consort in 1340. In 1365, as the Yuan dynasty’s grip on China was dissolving, Empress Ki ascended to the position of primary imperial consort.

In that intervening quarter-century, Empress Ki exercised great influence over the Yuan court. In addition to her connection to the emperor himself, she enjoyed a powerful institutional base, a special government organ with wide-ranging tax collecting authority created specifically for her use. Through this organ, she amassed tremendous power and initiated several grand projects. After a while she served in effect as the monarch, as her husband gradually lost interest in affairs of the state. She even led a failed attempt to nudge her husband off the throne in favor of her son. The official history of the Yuan dynasty, written by scholars of the successor Ming dynasty, notes that Empress Ki also developed a reputation for corruption and extravagance. This also suggests that her behavior and that of her court allies contributed to the demise of the Yuan dynasty itself. The Yuan experienced a series of rebellions all across China in the middle of the fourteenth century, many at the hands of the so-called “Red Turban” Chinese bandits, a group of which was led by the man who would become the founder of the succeeding Ming dynasty.

Just as important for our story, Empress Ki also exercised decisive power in her home country of Koryimage. This was done through both her direct intervention in monarchical succession, and through her family members, whose status and influence, backed by the empress of the Mongol empire, increased considerably. Empress Ki’s father was formally invested as a “king” in the Yuan empire, and her mother in her old age enjoyed ritualized visits from the Koryimage monarch. The Ki family is remembered, however, almost exclusively for its lavish lifestyle and venality, on display both among the common people and within Koryimage elite circles. Outright theft of others’ property, including slaves, reached such severity among her siblings in Korea, in fact, that Empress Ki herself had to send a warning to her family members. One of her older brothers in particular, Ki Ch’imagel, who once headed the Eastern Expedition Field Headquarters and exercised greater authority than the Koryimage monarch, is especially singled out in the official histories for his corruption and abuse of power. Indeed, his biographical entry in the official History of Koryimage comes under the section on “traitors” and recounts the sordid deeds of the entire Ki family. Little wonder, then, that when the last Koryimage monarch under Yuan domination, King Kongmin, unleashed an anti-Yuan policy in 1356, he purged Ki Ch’imagel and his family in a surprise attack. For this, Koryimage suffered a reprisal invasion ordered by Empress Ki, but this was successfully fended off, and indeed King Kongmin and others understood that Yuan control over China was in its last throes. Little remains known of the fate of Empress Ki, who fled with her son, the next Yuan emperor, to the Mongol homelands ahead of the Chinese rebels who would establish the Ming dynasty.

Despite this inglorious end, however, Empress Ki’s life and times present an intriguing picture of Koryimage’s successful adaptation to the Yuan overlord period. She was likely the one most responsible, for example, for spreading Korean influence in China. She did this through her political authority, to be sure, but also through her incorporation of Korean females and eunuchs into the Yuan court. These Koreans contributed to the flowering of a “Korean style” in the Chinese capital, as things Korean, from clothing to food to lifestyle, became fashionable. As a Korean observer at the time noted, it became almost a requirement for elite males in China to take Korean concubines, who cultivated an aura of beauty and sophistication. Chinese sources, too—and often not in a flattering way—noted that Koreans, in particular Korean women, exerted strong influence over popular taste in China. The flourishing of the “Korean style” may have represented a peak in the export of Korean culture in premodern times, and not until the early twenty-first century would Korean culture, popular or high, enjoy such widespread emulation and popularity outside the peninsula.

This presents, then, another reminder that the Mongol period, while certainly a time of humiliating subjugation to a foreign power, also left a more favorable imprint on Korean culture and identity. We certainly cannot discount the horrific circumstances of the long Mongol siege of the mid-thirteenth century, or of the way Lady Ki and countless other captives went to China in the first place. But her rise to the heights of the Mongol court—and hence to a status as perhaps the most powerful person in the world at one time—shows her as a fitting representative of how Koreans throughout history adapted to the realities of power among their neighbors. Korea’s first experience of integration into a truly global order—a mixture of brutal conquest, humiliating submission, and cultural exchange—shared its core features with the experience of other subject peoples in the Mongol empire who spanned all the way to Europe. The implications for the longer view of Korean history are especially important when comparing this interlude to the periods of foreign domination and intervention in the twentieth century.

In the short term as well, there were significant repercussions. The end of the Mongol period, for example, induced a concerted backlash among Korean elites, who, after two centuries of disruptions caused by both domestic and foreign usurpers, sought to restore a more stable and inward-looking form of rule. And in arousing the Red Turban rebellions, the Mongols were responsible for the rise of Yi Simagenggye, a Korean military leader who made his name in repelling Red Turban invaders (as well as the so-called “Japanese pirates”) during the late Koryimage era. Together, these two outcomes of Mongol rule contributed directly to the fall of the Koryimage dynasty itself, and to the birth of a new dynastic order in Korea under Yi’s command.

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