The Period of the Three Kingdoms
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
(see The Role of Religion
, ch. 2).
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
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)
(see The Korean War
, this ch.).
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.
Data as of June 1993