As printed in A HANDBOOK OF KOREA, 9th, 1993;
Published by the Korean Overseas Information Service


Koryo Period
(918 -1392)

Shilla was torn to pieces by rebel leaders such as Kyon-hwon who proclaimed Latter Paekche in Chonju in 900, and Kungye who proclaimed Latter Koguryö the following year at Kaesóng. Wang Kón, the last rebel leader, the son of a gentry family, became the first minister of Kungye. Overthrowing Kungye for misde­meanors and malpractice in administration in 918, he sought and received the support of land-lords and merchants whose economic as well as political power overwhelmed the Shilla government.

Wang Kon easily raided Latter Paekche in 934, and received a voluntary surrender in 935. The following year he accepted the abdication of King Kyongsun of Shilla.

Wang Kön was at first content to leave provincial magnates undisturbed. He was partic­ularly careful to placate the Shilla aristocracy. He gave former King Kyàngsun the highest post in his government, and even married a woman of the Shilla royal clan, thus somewhat legitimizing his rule.

Enthroned as the founder king of the Koryo Dynasty (918- 1392), the name of which was derived from Koguryó, he drafted ten injunc­tions for his successors to observe. Among the ten injunctions he predicted probable conflict between his state and the northern nomadic states with Koguryo’s territory as the objective, and advised the strengthening of the state. He advised that Buddhist temples must not be interfered with, and warned against usurpation and internal conflict among the royal clans and weakening of local power.

King T’aejo’s (Wang Kon’s posthumous title) lenient policy plus his marriage ties made the rebellious local lords relatively obedient. To weaken the local power, King Kwangjong (r.949-975) instituted emancipation of slaves in order to restore the commoner status of those unjustly bonded in 956. This helped to increase revenue and was welcomed by the people unjustly forced into captivity.

Two years later, he installed a civil service examination system to recruit officials by mer­it. His successor King Kyongjong (r. 975-981), put into practice the allotting of land and forest lots to officials. These policies enabled the Koryo state to gain a foothold as a centralized government. King Songjoug (r.981-997) in 982 adopted the suggestions in the memorial writ­ten by Confucian scholar Ch’oe Sung-no and paved the way to rule by Confucian state model. District officials were appointed by the central government, and all arms privately owned were collected to be recast into agricultural tools. The government organization was set up after the T'ang system, but the power to make admo­nitions to the throne on the part of officials and censorship of royal decisions was instituted. With such internal order, Koryo was long able to withstand foreign invasion. The Khitan rose to power and began to con­federate, transforming their old tribal league into a centralized organization. They conquered Parhae in 926 and in 937 officially came to be called Liao. As noted earlier, the people of Parhae fled to Koryo, but Liao was now ready to strike, and Koryo tried in vain to open diplo­matic relations. Liao initiated attacks in 983, in 985, in 989, and in 993, continuing to harass Koryo . However, in 993, Koryo’s commanding general So Hui (940-998), facing a stalemate with the Liao army, convened peace talks with Liao general Hsiao to end the enmity with the recognition of the territorial rights of Koryo south of the Amnokkang River.

Diplomatic relations were opened between the two states in 994. But Liao attacked again in 1010 and the Koryo king fled to the south. The conflict became more complicated as the northern Jurchen tribes grew stronger in the Korean border area of Manchuria. As the con­flicts continued to afflict war-weary Koryo, King Hyonjong (r.1009-31) ordered the carving of the Tripitaka, imploring Buddha’s aid, which consisted of about 6,000 chapters.

However, in 1115 the Jurchen proclaimed the Chin empire and came into conflict with Liao. Chin conquered Liao in 1125, and turned to an invasion of Sung. By 1126 it conquered the Northern Sung which fled south of the Yangtze River. Two Sung emperors were captured by Chin, and royal as well as private Sung libraries came into Chin possession.

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Koryo had its own calamity that year. In 1126, all of the palace buildings, including tens of thousands of books in the royal library and national academy, were turned into ashes when the palace buildings were set afire by the father-­in-law of King Injong. Koryo lost the famed collection, and there was no way to obtain books from Sung. To print books with wood blocks was prohibitive in cost and time con­suming. Then came the idea of typography and the casting of bronze type began with the same technology that was used in coin-casting. Koryo printing with movable metal type was devel­oped to print many titles in limited copies around the mid-l2th century.

See type & oldest printed document

In 1145, King Injong (r.1112-1146) had a Confucian scholar, Kim Pu-sik, compile the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms). About one hundred years later, a monk by the name of Iryon compiled the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), which records important history and traditions that are not found in the history.

Conflict increased between civil and military officials as the latter were degraded and paid poorly. In 1170, the military officials rose up against the civil officials and paid them back with bloodshed. Around this time the Mongols consolidated power, and the new Sung tech­niques of smelting iron with corks was utilized by the Mongols in the production of arms. With the new arms, the Mongols conquered Chin in 1215 and chased the diehard Liao refugees into the territory of Koryo, which was consequently plagued by consecutive Mongol invasions. As a result, the Koryo court and officials fled to Kangwhado Island in 1232.

Mongols invaded in 1238 and looted Koryo, destroying the splendid Shilia pagoda of Hwangnyongsa Temple. The Koryo court on Kanghwado carved the second Tripitaka Koreana consisting of over 80,000 wood blocks inscribed on both sides, which is now stored at Haeinsa Temple. This enormous task was also conducted with pious patriotism to secure Buddha’s protection against the Mongols. The people of Koryo reached a con­sensus to resist the foreign invaders and safe­guard the nation despite the incessant attacks and invasions.

See Tripitaka Koreana storage

From the middle of the 14th century, the Mongol power declined rapidly, with their own internal struggles for the throne, and in the 1340's, frequent rebellions broke out all over China.

Free at last from Mongol domination, Koryö began efforts to reform its government. King Kongmin (r. 1351-74), first removed pro-­Mongol aristocrats and military officers. These deposed people formed a dissident faction which plotted an unsuccessful coup against the king.

A second internal problem was the question of land holdings. By now the land-grant system had broken down, and Mongol-favored officials and military men, along with a handful of land­ed gentry, owned the vast majority of agricultur­al land, which was worked by tenant farmers and bondsmen. King Kongmin's attempt at land reform was met with opposition and sub­terfuge from those officials who were supposed to implement his reforms, being the owners of the land whose ownership was supposed to undergo a drastic change.

A third problem was the rising animosity between the Buddhists and Confucian scholars. Normally, and during most of the dynastic peri­od, Buddhism and Confucian creeds coexisted with little conflict. It must be noted here that by this time Korean scholars had become imbued with the Neo-Confucian doctrine as advocated by Chu Hsi in the late 12th century, just before the advent of the Mongols. The new Confucian scholars did not agree with the idea that one should denounce one’s family ties to become a monk because the very basis of Confucian phi­losophy was founded on strong family and social relationships. The wealth and power of the monasteries and the great expense incurred by the state for Buddhist festivals became the target of criticism.

Another problem was that Japanese pirates were no longer hit-and-run bandits, but orga­nized military marauders raiding deep into the country. It was at that time that General Yi Song-gye distinguished himself by repelling the pirates in a series of successful engagements.