Gwanggaeto the Great of Goguryeo (374-413, r. 391-413) was the nineteenth monarch of Goguryeo, the northernmost of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. His full posthumous name roughly means “Very Greatest King, Broad Expander of Territory, bringer of Peace and Security, buried in Gukgangsang.” Under Gwanggaeto, Goguryeo once again became a major power of Northeast Asia, as it had been earlier, during the second century CE. Many consider this loose unification under Goguryeo to have been the first and only true unification of the Three Kingdoms.
Today, King Gwanggaeto the Great is regarded by Koreans as one of their greatest historical heros, and is one of only is one of two rulers, along with King Sejong who were given the title Great after their name. His legacy of greatly expanding the territory of Korea during his reign gave his people great confidence, hope and strength.
At the time of Gwanggaeto’s birth, Goguryeo was not as powerful as it once had been. Just prior to his birth, Baekje’s King Geunchogo had soundly defeated Goguryeo, capturing its second-largest fortress of Pyongyang and slaying Goguryeo’s King Gogukwon. Goguryeo’s King Sosurim, who succeeded Gogukwon upon the latter’s death in 371, kept his foreign policy as isolationist as possible so as to rebuild a state gravely weakened by the Baekje invasion of 371. Gogukyang, who succeeded Sosurim, maintained a similar policy, opting to focus on the rehabilitation and remobilization of Goguryeo forces.
After defeating Goguryeo in 371, Baekje had become a dominant power in East Asia, with an area of influence not limited to the Korean Peninsula alone. Baekje forces under King Geunchogo seized several coastal cities of China, notably in Liaoxi and Shandong, to retain its superiority over Goguryeo and a variety of southern Chinese dynasties, which had arisen within the context of extended civil wars caused by the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 C.E. and the concomitant invasions of foreign tribes, including but not limited to the Xiongnu and Xianbei (Wu Hu). Baekje and Geunchogo’s leadership also seems to have established good relations with parts of Japan.
Thus, Goguryeo, surrounded by a powerful Baekje’s forces to its south and west, found it most effective to avoid conflict with Baekje, while at the same time cultivating constructive relations with the Xienpei and Yuyeon in China, in order to defend itself from future invasions, and even the possible destruction of its state.
Goguryo under Gwanggaeto
Rebuilding the military
Gwanggaeto took the throne when his father, King Gogukyang, died in 391. His name, King Gwanggaeto is sometimes abbreviated to Hotaewang or Taewang. Immediately upon being crowned king of Goguryeo, Gwanggaeto selected Yeongnak (Eternal Rejoicing) as his era name and granted himself the title Emperor, which was tantamount to proclaiming that he had equal status to the rulers of China and the king of Baekje. He was called Emperor Yeongnak the Great during his reign. He started his reign by beginning to rebuild and retrain Goguryeo’s cavalry units and naval fleet, and they were put into action the following year, 392, against Baekje.
Reclaiming Baekje territory
In 392, with Gwanggaeto in personal command, Goguryeo attacked Baekje with 50,000 cavalry, taking 10–walled cities along the two countries’ mutual border. This offensive infuriated Baekje’s King Asin, who planned a counter-attack against Gwanggaeto; however he was forced to abandon his plan when Goguryeo defeated his invasion force in 393. King Asin again attacked Goguryeo in 394, and was again defeated. After several heavy defeats, Baekje began to crumble politically and Asin’s abilities as a leader came under doubt. Asin lost to Goguryeo again in 395, and he was eventually pushed back to a front along the Han River, where Wiryeseong, then Baekje’s capital city was located in the southern part of modern day Seoul.
In the following year, Gwanggaeto led his huge fleet in an assault on Wiryesong, approaching by sea and river. Asin was expecting a ground invasion and was caught with his defenses down. Gwanggaeto’s forces burnt about 58 walled fortresses under Baekje control, and defeated the forces of King Asin. Asin surrendered to Gwanggaeto, even handing over his brother to Goguryeo as a prisonor as a condition for maintaining his own rule over Baekje. Gwanggaeto had finally gained superiority over its longtime rival Baekje on the Korean peninsula.
Conquest of the North
In 395, during a campaign against Baekje, the king himself led forces that attacked and conquered Biryu, a small nation located in central Manchuria. Its exact location is not known but it was not very far from the Songhua River.
In 400, Later Yan, founded by the Murong clan of the Xianbei in present-day Liaoning province, attacked Goguryeo. Gwanggaeto responded swiftly, recovering most of the territory seized by the Xianbei and driving most of them from Goguryeo. Then in 402, he decided to launch an attack on Later Yan on its home territory, determined to protect his Empire from further threat. In the same year Gwanggaeto defeated the Xienpei, seizing some of their border fortresses. In 404, he invaded Liaodong and took the entire Liaodong Peninsula.
The Xianbei did not watch idly as Goguryeo forces took over their lands. In 405, forces of the Later Yan crossed the Liao River, and attacked Goguryeo but were defeated by Gwanggaeto. The Murong Xianbei invaded once again the following year, but yet again the Goguryeo king was able to repel them. Gwanggaeto led several more campaigns against Xianbei as well as against Khitan tribes in Inner Mongolia, which he brought under his control. In 408, the king sent a peace delegate to Gao Yun, then emperor of Later Yan/Northern Yan, to broker a settlement between the two dynasties, because Gao Yun descended from the Goguryeo royal house as well. Goguryeo control over the Liaoning region remained strong until the Tang Dynasty seized the area as a part of its war against Goguryeo in the late sixth century.
In 410, Gwanggaeto began his conquest of the Buyeo (state). The Buyeo state was no match for the great cavalry units of Goguryeo, and it suffered a series of defeat, finally surrendering to Goguryeo after King Gwanggaeto conquered sixty-four walled cities and more than 1,400 villages. Gwanggaeto also attacked several Malgal and Ainu tribes further north, bringing them under Goguryeo domination.
In 400, Silla, another Korean kingdom in the southeast of the peninsula, requested Goguryeo assistance to defend against an alliance of Japanese army, the Baekje kingdom to the west, and the Gaya confederacy to the southwest. In the same year, King Gwanggaeto responded with 50,000 troops, defeated both Japanese and Gaya cavalry units, and made both Silla and Gaya submit to his authority. In 401, he returned King Silseong to Silla, to establish peaceful relationship with the kingdom while he continued the conquest of the north, but Goguryeo forces remained and continued to influence Silla.
Death and legacy
King Gwanggaeto died of disease in 413, at the age of 39. Although Gwanggaeto ruled for only 22 years and died fairly young, his conquests are said to mark the high tide of Korean history. Except for the period of 200 years beginning with his son and successor, King Jangsu, and the later kingdom of Balhae, Korea never before or since ruled such a vast territory. There is evidence that Goguryeo’s maximum extent lay even further west, in present-day Mongolia, bordered by the Rouran and Göktürks. Gwanggaeto is also given credit for establishing the reign titles that were recorded for the first time in Korean history, a symbolic gesture elevating Goguryeo monarchs as equals to their Chinese counterparts.
Upon King Gwanggaeto’s death at 39 years of age in 413, Goguryeo controlled all territory between the Amur and Han Rivers (two thirds of modern Korea, as well as Manchuria, parts of the Russian Maritime province and Inner Mongolia). In addition, in 399, Silla appealed to Goguryeo for protection from raids from Baekje. Gwanggaeto captured the Baekje capital in present-day Seoul and made Baekje its vassal.
Today, King Gwanggaeto the Great is one of two rulers of Korea who were given the title “Great” after their name (the other one being King Sejong the Great of Joseon, who created the Korean alphabet). He is regarded by Koreans as one of the greatest heroes of their history, and is often taken as a potent symbol of Korean nationalism. Recently, the People’s Republic of China launched a program of attempting to claim the history of Goguryeo as part of Chinese history, which has resulted in popular opposition from Koreans.
Gwanggaeto’s accomplishments are recorded on the Gwanggaeto Stele, located at the site of his tomb in Ji’an along the present-day Chinese-North Korean border. The Gwanggaeto Stele, an enormous six-meter monument erected by Gwanggaeto’s son King Jangsu in 414, was rediscovered in Manchuria in 1875 by a Chinese scholar. It is the largest engraved stele in the world. Although the stele gives us a great amount of information of his reign, it has also caused a some historical controversy, because of several references to Japan contained in its text. Some characters in the text of the stele are not clear, leaving the text open to more than one interpretation. The references to Japan can be read as follows:
- in 391 Japan crossed sea and defeated Baekje and Silla and made them subjects.
- in 399 allied armies of Baekje and Japan invaded into Silla. Silla asked Goguryeo for help.
- in 400 Goguryeo expelled Japan from Silla to southern Korea.
- in 404 Japan lost the battle against Goguryeo in the southern Lelang (Pyongyang).
Korean scholars dispute this reading, denying the possibility of Japan’s presence on the Korean Peninsula in the fourth century. For example, written histories of both the Silla and Baekje kingdoms contain no mention of Japanese control of any part of the Korean peninsula in 391. Rather, Baekje accounts read that Japan obeyed the commands of the King of Baekje. Some Korean scholars claim the the Gwanggaeto Stele was deliberately altered by the Japanese army to provide a historical justification for Japan’s later occupation of Korea. Korean scholars claim that the passage should be interpreted as:
- in 391 Goguryeo crossed sea and defeated Baekje and Silla and made them subjects.
Another interpretation of the passage regarding 391 is that it refers to Japanese troups in Korea not as conquerers, but as military troops in the service of Baekje. Goguryeo, not respecting Baekje’s use of Japanese troops, states that Baekje is under the control of the Japanese, because Baekje was not strong enough to stand their own ground without Japanese help, making them subject to the assistance of the Japanese.
Due to the different interpretations of history made by scholars from different countries, it has proved impossible at this point for Korean and Japanese scholars to strike a concensus regarding the events of the Goguryeo period. This disagreement has delayed progress in developing common history textbooks to be used in Korea, Japan, and China.
A further legacy of Gwanggaeto is the ITF Taekwon-Do Tul (form) named for him that was created by General Choi Honghi and his colleague, Nam Taehi. To quote the significance of the form, as introduced by the ITF Taekwon-do:
KWANG-GAE (Gwang-gaeto) is named after the famous Kwang-Gae-Toh-Wang, the 19th King of the Koguryo Dynasty, who regained all the lost territories including the greater part of Manchuria. The diagram represents the expansion and recovery of lost territory. The 39 movements refer to the first two figures of 391 C.E., the year he came to the throne.
The pattern is performed as part of the testing syllabus for the level of 1st Degree black belt by the three former branches of the original ITF in addition to independent Taekwon-Do schools that regard themselves as ‘traditional’ ITF Style.