What Was the Goguryeo Kingdom?

Tomb mural dating from the Koguryeo Era, 37 BCE to 668 CE. Near Pyongyang, North Korea.
Goguryeo tomb mural near Pyongyang, North Korea. via Wikipedia

Goguryeo was an ancient Korean kingdom that ruled northern Korea from about 37 BCE to 668 CE.  At its height, Goguryeo controlled a huge area, from the southern Russian Maritimes to the central Korean Peninsula, and including large sections of Manchuria in what is now northeastern China.  Its third and final capital city was at Pyongyang, currently the capital of North Korea.

Along with Silla and Baekje, Goguryeo was one of Korea's "Three Kingdoms." The three performed an uneasy diplomatic waltz, sometimes fighting one another, and at other times banding together to fight off outside threats.

History of Goguryeo:

Around the year 37 BCE, a prince of the Buyeo Kingdom (which covered Manchuria and parts of northern Korea) decided to found his own kingdom.  The prince Jumong renamed himself King Dongmyeong of Goguryeo, and established a new realm in the valley of the Yalu River, which now forms the border between North Korea and China.

The first historical mention of the legendary Prince Jumong is from the Gwanggaeto Stele, created for the famed Goguryeo leader, Gwanggaeto the Great (r. 391 - 413).  The stele claims Jumong as an ancestor of Gwanggaeto and the other Goguryeo kings.  

Goguryeo very nearly ceased to exist long before Gwanggaeto was even born, though.  In 244, Goguryeo's erstwhile Chinese allies, the Wei, invaded Korea and destroyed the Goguryeo army.  King Dongcheon and his family had to flee from their capital at Hwando, which the Wei forces sacked and destroyed.  It would be 70 years before the Goguryeo would be strong enough to regroup and rebuild their capital city.

By 313, remarkably, the Goguryeo under King Micheon managed to take the Liaodong Peninsula from China, and push the last Chinese troops out of their fortifications on the Korean Peninsula.  Goguryeo no longer had to fear Chinese interference in Korean lands.  However, the other two Korean kingdoms - Baekje and Silla - were growing more powerful, and posed a separate threat to Goguryeo.

In addition, although the Chinese were no longer a problem, another western people soon invaded northern Korea.  The Xianbei, ancestors of the Mongols, attacked Hwando in the winter of 342 and drove King Gogukwon and his court from the city.  The Xianbei kidnapped the queen and queen mother, and took an estimated 50,000 Goguryeo subjects as slaves.  King Gogukwon retreated to Pyongyang.

The hapless King Gogukwon ruled from the southern capital at Pyongyang for several decades, but in 371, he lost the Battle of Chiyang to King Beunchogo of the Baekje Kingdom.  Gogukwon was killed in the battle, and the Baekje troops sacked Pyongyang.

The new Goguryeo king, Sosurim, sought to reform and strengthen his nation.  He established a national school called the Taehak, reformed the military, proclaimed a new legal code, and also established Buddhism as the national religion in 372 CE.  Under his leadership, the country began to recover.

Between 391, when Gwanggaeto the Great took the throne, and 531 CE, Goguryeo enjoyed the height of its power and territorial expansion.  It conquered the entire Liaodong Peninsula, took the southern half of Baekje, and forced Silla to pay tribute.  Goguryeo power spread to most of southern Manchuria, and also what is now the Russian maritime province.

 In 427, King Jangsu permanently moved the capital south to Pyongyang, to more easily project his power into the southern end of the Korean Peninsula.

In 531, King Anjang of Goguryeo was assassinated.  This touched off a period of internal power struggles and succession disputes that seriously weakened the kingdom.  To the north, nomadic tribes picked off Goguryeo land in what is now China and Russia.  To the south, Silla and Baekje formed an alliance and attacked Goguryeo, seizing the Han River valley.  Silla then quickly double-crossed Baekje, taking the rich agricultural land around Seoul for itself.  Baekje counterattacked, but the Baekje king died in battle, permanently tipping the balance of power in Silla's favor.

To counter Silla power, Goguryeo and the remainder of Baekje formed an alliance with one another.

 Silla, meawhile, joined in a confederation with China's Tang Dynasty. In 660, Baekje fell to Silla and the Tang.  The Goguryeo Kingdom was defeated in 668 by the Silla/Tang alliance. The Silla Kingdom then united all of the Korean Peninsula into "Unified Silla," which lasted until 935 CE.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Goguryeo Kingdom?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 31, 2015, thoughtco.com/what-was-the-goguryeo-kingdom-195350. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2015, December 31). What Was the Goguryeo Kingdom? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-goguryeo-kingdom-195350 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Goguryeo Kingdom?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-goguryeo-kingdom-195350 (accessed December 12, 2017).