North Korea Table of Contents

Wang Kn's army fought ceaselessly with Later Paekche for the next decade, with Silla in retreat. After a crushing victory in 930 over Paekche forces at present-day Andong, South Korea, Kory obtained a formal surrender from Silla and proceeded to conquer Later Paekche by 935--amazingly, with troops led by former Paekche king Kynhwn, whose son had treacherously cast him aside. After this accomplishment, Wang Kn became a magnanimous unifier. Regarding himself as the proper successor to Kogury, he embraced survivors of the Kogury lineage who were fleeing the dying Parhae state, which had been conquered by Kitan warriors in 926. He then took a Silla princess as his wife and treated the Silla aristocracy with great generosity. Wang Kn established a regime embodying the remnants of the Later Three Kingdoms--what was left after the almost fifty years of struggle between the forces of Kynhwn and Kungye--and accomplished a true unification of the peninsula.

Placing the regime's capital at Kaesng, the composite elite of the Kory Dynasty (918-1392) forged a tradition of aristocratic continuity that lasted to the modern era. The elite fused aristocratic privilege and political power through marriage alliances and control of land and central political office, and made class position hereditary. This practice established a pattern for Korea in which landed gentry mingled with a Confucian- or Buddhist-educated stratum of scholar-officials; often scholars and landlords were one and the same person. In any case, landed wealth and bureaucratic position were powerfully fused. This fusion occurred at the center, where a strong bureaucracy influenced by Confucian statecraft emerged. Thereafter, this bureaucracy sought to dominate local power and thus militated against Japanese or European feudal pattern of parcelized sovereignty, castle domains, and military tradition. By the thirteenth century, two dominant government groupings had emerged: the civil officials and the military officials, known thereafter as yangban.

The Kory elite admired the Chinese civilization that emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Official delegations and ordinary merchants brought Kory gold, silver, and ginseng to China in exchange for Song silk, porcelain, and woodblock books. The treasured Song porcelain stimulated Kory artisans to produce an even finer type of inlaid celadon porcelain. Praised for the pristine clarity of its blue-green glaze--celadon glazes also were yellow green--and the delicate art of its inlaid portraits (usually of flowers or animals), Kory celadon displayed the refined taste of aristocrats and later had great influence on Japanese potters.

Buddhism coexisted with Confucianism throughout the Kory period; it deeply affected daily life and perhaps bequeathed to modern Korea its eclecticism of religious beliefs. Kory Buddhist priests systematized religious practice by rendering the Chinese version of the Buddhist canon into mammoth woodblock print editions, known as the Tripitaka. The first edition was completed in 1087, but was lost; another, completed in 1251 and still extant, is located at the Haeinsa temple near Taegu, South Korea. Its accuracy, combined with its exquisite calligraphic carvings, makes it the finest of some twenty Tripitaka in East Asia. By 1234, if not earlier, Kory had also invented moveable iron type, two centuries before its use in Europe.

This high point of Kory culture coincided with internal disorder and the rise of the Mongols, whose power swept most of Eurasia during the thirteenth century. Kory was not spared; Khubilai Khan's forces invaded and demolished Kory's army in 1231, forcing the Kory government to retreat to Kanghwa Island (off modern-day Inch'n). But after a more devastating invasion in 1254, in which countless people died and some 200,000 people were captured, Kory succumbed to Mongol domination and its kings intermarried with Mongol princesses. The Mongols then enlisted thousands of Koreans in ill-fated invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, using Korean-made ships. Both invasions were repelled with aid, as legend has it, from opportune typhoons known as "divine wind," or kamikaze. The last period of Mongol influence was marked by the appearance of a strong bureaucratic stratum of scholar-officials, or literati (sadaebu in Korean). Many of them lived in exile outside the capital, and they used their superior knowledge of the Confucian classics to condemn the excesses of the ruling families, who were backed by Mongol power.

The overthrow of the Mongols by the founders of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China gave a rising group of military men, steeled in battle against coastal pirates from Japan, the opportunity to contest for power. When the Ming claimed suzerainty over former Mongol domains in Korea, the Kory court was divided between pro-Mongol and pro-Ming forces. Two generals marshaled their forces for an assault on Ming armies on the Liaodong Peninsula. One of the generals, Yi Sng-gye, was pro-Ming. When he reached the Yalu River, he abruptly turned back and marched on the Kory capital, which he subdued quickly. He thus became the founder of Korea's longest dynasty, the Yi (1392-1910). The new state was named Chosn, harking back to the old Chosn kingdom fifteen centuries earlier; its capital was built at Seoul.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress