The Period of the Three Kingdoms

North Korea Table of Contents

From approximately 108 B.C. until 313, Lolang was a great center of Chinese statecraft, art, industry (including the mining of iron ore), and commerce. Lolang's influence was widespread; it attracted immigrants from China and exacted tribute from several states south of the Han River that patterned their civilization and government after Lolang. In the first three centuries A.D., a large number of walled-town states in southern Korea grouped into three federations known as Chinhan, Mahan, and Pynhan; during this period, rice agriculture had developed in the rich alluvial valleys and plains to such an extent that reservoirs had been built for irrigation.

Chinhan was situated in the middle part of the southern peninsula, Mahan in the southwest, and Pynhan in the southeast. The state of Paekche, which soon came to exercise great influence on Korean history, emerged first in the Mahan area; it is not certain when this happened, but Paekche certainly existed by 246 since Lolang mounted a large attack on it in that year. Paekche, a centralized, aristocratic state that melded Chinese and indigenous influence, was a growing power: within a hundred years Paekche had demolished Mahan and continued to expand northward into the area of present-day South Korea around Seoul. Contemporary historians believe that the common Korean custom of patrilineal royal succession began with King K n Ch'ogo (r. 346-75) of Paekche. His grandson, Ch'imnyu, inaugurated another long tradition by adopting Buddhism as the state religion in 384.

Meanwhile, in the first century A.D. two powerful states emerged north of the peninsula: Puy in the Sungari River Basin in Manchuria and Kogury, Puy's frequent enemy to its south, near the Yalu River. Kogury, which like Paekche also exercised a lasting influence on Korean history, developed in confrontation with the Chinese. Puy was weaker and sought alliances with China to counter Kogury, but eventually succumbed to it around 312. Kogury expanded in all directions, in particular toward the Liao River in the west and toward the Taedong River in the south. In 313 Kogury occupied the territory of the Lolang Commandery and came into conflict with Paekche.

Peninsular geography shaped the political space of Paekche, Kogury, and a third kingdom, Silla. In the central part of Korea, the main mountain range, the T'aebaek, runs north to south along the edge of the Sea of Japan. Approximately three-fourths of the way down the peninsula, however, roughly at the thirty-seventh parallel, the mountain range veers to the southwest, dividing the peninsula almost in the middle. This southwest extension, the Sobaek Range, shielded peoples to the east of it from the Chinese-occupied portion of the peninsula, but placed no serious barrier in the way of expansion into or out of the southwestern portion of the peninsula--Paekche's historical territory.

Kogury ranged over a wild region of northeastern Korea and eastern Manchuria that was subjected to extremes of temperature and structured by towering mountain ranges, broad plains, and life-giving rivers; the highest peak, known as Paektu-san (White Head Mountain), is on the contemporary Sino-Korean border and has a beautiful, crystal-pure lake at its summit. Kim Il Sung and his guerrilla band utilized associations with this mountain as part of the founding myth of North Korea, and Kim Jong Il was said to have been born on the slopes of the mountain in 1942. Not surprisingly, North Korea claimed the Kogury legacy as the main element in Korean history.

According to South Korean historiography, however, it was the glories of a third kingdom that were the most important elements. Silla eventually became the repository of a rich and cultured ruling elite, with its capital at Kyngju in the southeast, north of the port of Pusan. In fact, the men who ruled South Korea beginning in 1961 all came from this region. It has been the southwestern Paekche legacy that suffered in divided Korea, as Koreans of other regions and historians in both North Korea and South Korea have discriminated against the people of the present- day Chlla provinces. But taken together, all three kingdoms continue to influence Korean history and political culture. Koreans often assume that regional traits that they like or dislike go back to the Three Kingdoms period.

Silla evolved from a walled town called Saro. Silla historians are said to have traced its origins to 57 B.C., but contemporary historians regard King Naemul (r. 356-402) as the ruler who first consolidated a large confederated kingdom and established a hereditary kingship. His domain was east of the Naktong River in present-day North Kyngsang Province, South Korea. A small number of states located along the south central tip of the peninsula facing the Korea Strait did not join either Silla or Paekche, but instead formed a Kaya League that maintained close ties with states in Japan. Kaya's possible linkage to Japan remains an issue of debate among historians in Korea, Japan, and elsewhere. There is no convincing evidence to definitively resolve the debate, and circumstantial historical archaeological evidence is inconclusive. The debate is significant since its outcome could influence views on the origin of the Japanese imperial family. The Kaya states eventually were absorbed by their neighbors in spite of an attack against Silla in 399 by Wa forces from Japan, who had come to the aid of Kaya. Silla repelled the Wa with help from Kogury.

Centralized government probably emerged in Silla in the last half of the fifth century, when the capital became both an administrative and a marketing center. In the early sixth century, Silla's leaders introduced plowing by oxen and built extensive irrigation facilities. Increased agricultural output presumably ensued, allowing further political and cultural development that included an administrative code in 520, a class system of hereditary "bone-ranks" for choosing elites, and the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion around 535.

Militarily weaker than Kogury, Silla sought to fend the former off through an alliance with Paekche. By the beginning of the fifth century, however, Kogury had achieved undisputed control of all of Manchuria east of the Liao River as well as the northern and central regions of the Korean Peninsula. At this time, Kogury had a famous leader appropriately named King Kwanggaet'o (r. 391-412), a name that translates as "broad expander of territory." Reigning from the age of eighteen, he conquered sixty-five walled towns and 1,400 villages, in addition to assisting Silla when the Wa forces attacked. As Kogury's domain increased, it confronted China's Sui Dynasty (581-617) in the west and Silla and Paekche to the south.

Silla attacked Kogury in 551 in concert with King Sng (r. 523-54) of Paekche. After conquering the upper reaches of the Han River, Silla turned on the Paekche forces and drove them out of the lower Han area. While a tattered Paekche kingdom nursed its wounds in the southwest, Silla allied with Chinese forces of the Sui and the successor Tang Dynasty (618-907) in combined attacks against Kogury. The Sui emperor Yang Di launched an invasion of Kogury in 612, marshaling more than 1 million soldiers only to be lured by the revered Kogury commander lchi Mundk into a trap, where Sui forces virtually were destroyed. Perhaps as few as 3,000 Sui soldiers survived; the massacre contributed to the fall of the dynasty in 617. Newly risen Tang emperor Tai Zong launched another huge invasion in 645, but Kogury forces won another striking victory in the siege of the An Si Fortress in western Kogury, forcing Tai Zong's forces to withdraw.

Koreans have always viewed these victories as sterling examples of resistance to foreign aggression. Had Kogury not beaten back the invaders, all the states of the peninsula might have fallen under extended Chinese domination. Thus commanders like lchi Mundk later became models for emulation, especially during the Korean War (1950-53).

Paekche could not hold out under combined Silla and Tang attack, however. The latter landed an invasion fleet in 660, and Paekche quickly fell under their assaults. Tang pressure also had weakened Kogury, and after eight years of battle it gave way because of pressure from both external attack and internal strife exacerbated by several famines. Kogury forces retreated to the north, enabling Silla forces to advance and consolidate their control up to the Taedong River, which flows through P'yongyang.

Silla emerged victorious in 668. It is from this date that South Korean historians speak of a unified Korea. The period of the Three Kingdoms thus ended, but not before the kingdoms had come under the long-term sway of Chinese civilization and had been introduced to Chinese statecraft, Buddhist and Confucian philosophy, Confucian practices of educating the young, and the Chinese written language. (Koreans adapted Chinese characters to their own language through a system known as idu.) The Three Kingdoms also introduced Buddhism, the various rulers seeing a valuable political device for unity in the doctrine of a unified body of believers devoted to Buddha but serving one king. Artists from Kogury and Paekche also perfected a mural art found in the walls of tombs, and took it to Japan, where it deeply influenced Japan's temple and burial art. Indeed, many Korean historians believe that wall murals in Japanese royal tombs suggest that the imperial house lineage may have Korean origins.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress