Like most other people on this earth, contemporary Koreans in North and South think they have escaped history and tradition in the dizzying pace of an energetic twentieth century. Meanwhile, they move in ways that would be inexplicable without investigations of a much longer period--the poorly recorded millennium before 1400, and especially the well-recorded half-millennium of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910). To grasp "modern" Korea we will first need a tour through previous centuries, to make the point that you may forget about history, but history will not forget about you.
Consider this statement on Korean history around the time of Christ: "The significance of sinicised Choson, and later settlements in Korea sponsored by the Han emperors, lay in their long-term cultural influence on Japan. In time the Korean peninsula became the main conduit through which Chinese culture flowed to the Japanese islands." This was written in 1993, in a good book. It could have been written at any time since Japan rose up more quickly in the Western imagination than did Korea--namely, after 1868--but not before. What's wrong with the quoted statement? First, Korea was never "Sinicized," although it came close in the period 1392-1910. Certainly it was not Sinicized at a time when walled mini-states contested for power on the peninsula. Second, is there no other significance to Korea than its "long-term" effects in conducting Chinese influence by remote control to Japan? Was that influence unchanged by its passage through Korean hands?
Did China exercise no "cultural influence" on Korea, but only on Japan? If not, why not? If so, why emphasize and dwell upon Japan, and not Korea?
I could go on, but we may say that from the inroads of the Western imperial powers in East Asia right down to the moment at which I am writing, non-Koreans have had trouble taking Koreans seriously, in understanding Koreans as actors in history. Imagine a European version of this: Greek and Roman culture passed through country X along about 200 B.C. to A.D. 1400 (the above author's time frame) and had a definitive effect on ... England. We need not name country X to see the deficiencies of such a statement. Great Britain, like many other European countries, lived and evolved in the instructive shadow of Greek and Roman civilization. In Edinburgh perched on a hilltop overlooking the sea, we happen upon a partial reconstruction of the Parthenon, a thousand miles from the real thing. Does that make of Scotland a mere reflection of Greek glory, a vessel, a conduit? Of course not.
It is the history of the past century, in which Korea fell victim to imperialism and could not establish its own constructions of the past, which makes us think that if Koreans are Confucians, or Buddhists, or establish a civil service exam system, they must therefore have become "Sinicized." The world is more complex than that, and Korean history is stronger than that. Koreans made Confucius their own just as Renaissance thinkers made Plato and Aristotle their own; that Confucius' grave was in Shantung, just across the Yellow Sea from Korea, made the adaptation all the easier. The real story is indigenous Korea and the unstinting Koreanization of foreign influence, not vice versa.
In his masterful book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre persuades readers in the twentieth century to understand that the ideas inhabiting their minds are fragments of a lost totality, whether they fancy themselves Lockean liberals, Augustinian Catholics, or Aristotelian rationalists. There is simply no possibility of recapturing the disappeared whole, a world where such systems of thought were the only ideas, structuring the totality of human interaction and inhaled like the air we breathe. It is the same with Korea, where a world view suffused with Confucian, Buddhist, and nativist ideas defined what it meant to be Korean for millennia, only to be lost with a poof in our time. Still, there are the remnant fragments of this world in Korean minds, which help to explain why many Koreans do the things they do, and how they have adapted themselves to modern life.
Old Korea was a universe all of its own, a fully realized human history like no other. It was a world defined by virtue, and if the virtues may be in retreat in contemporary Korea, as they are everywhere else, they still animate Korean minds: minds that are "front-end loaded" whether they know it or not, with thousands of years of history, and deeply felt morality. Today we connote those virtues with the catchall term "Confucianism." This is often said to be a conservative philosophy, stressing tradition, veneration of a past golden age, careful attention to the performance of ritual, disdain for material things, commerce, and the remaking of nature, obedience to superiors, and a preference for relatively frozen social hierarchies. If Confucianism had those tendencies, it also had others--a salutary loyalty to one's family, for example, which might translate into competition with other families over material wealth; an emphasis on moral remonstrance, for another, which gives to students and scholars an ethical stance from which to speak truth to power. Much commentary on contemporary Korea focuses on the alleged static, authoritarian, antidemocratic character of this Confucian legacy. Yet one-sided emphasis on these aspects would never explain the extraordinary commercial bustle of South Korea, the materialism and conspicuous consumption of new elites, or the determined struggles for democratization put up by Korean workers and students. At the same time, the assumption that North Korean communism broke completely with the past would blind one to continuing Confucian legacies there: its family-based politics, the succession to rule of the leader's son, and the extraordinary veneration of the state's founder, Kim Il Sung.
Running silently alongside this Confucian stream is a mighty river of inarticulate axiom and belief, a native strain of thought that inhabits the minds of the uneducated, the unlettered, the cloistered, hidden-and-forbidden woman, the bent peasant in the rice field, the old man hustling through the streets of Seoul with a hundred pounds of baggage on his wooden A-frame, the industrial worker howling to the moon under the dull influence of makkolli, the inquisitive young child, the young couple enthralled in the mutual discovery of their own sexuality, the invisible outcaste. That mind sits under the breastbone and not between the ears: as Richard Rutt put it, "Koreans, like the Chinese and the Hebrews, think of the heart, not the head, as the seat of thought." When they say, "I think," they point to their chest. Mind is mind-and-heart or sim, a visceral knowledge that joins thought with emotion and that has an honored position in Western civilization in the thought of Plato.
The Korean mind-heart is attuned to the spirits that inhabit the nature of all things (bears, crickets, trees, flowers, homes, rivers, mountains), the ghosts and goblins that walk the night, the shamans who cast spells, the heterodox women who unite mind and body in the writhing incantations of the mudang sorcerer. This is the human mind connected to the viscera and the body in touch with its natural environment, and out of it comes superstition, intuition, revelation, insight, madness, wisdom, and, above all, freedom. It is the purest Korean tradition, infusing songs, poems, dances, dreams, and emotions; it resists all attempts to excise the senses and bank the fires of passion. It is the Korea that I, a Western rationalist, know least about: ghosts and demons I can't see, wailing and screaming I can't hear, forces for good or evil I can't feel, foot-stomping, throat-shrieking, hand-waving experience that goes on without me. An observant American visitor to Korea a century ago, a scientist and traveler named Percival Lowell, had this to add: "The Koreans are passionately fond of scenery. The possessions of each province in this respect are not only thoroughly known, but they are systematically classified and catalogued. A grove of trees is celebrated here, the precipices of a mountain there, the moonlight falling on a pool of water in a third spot...." Somehow I think this is the most authentic, fully human Korea--perhaps because it is the Korea we are always warned against. From this native source, I think, comes the earthy, expansive, bouncy, kinetic energy the foreign traveler senses in Koreans, so attractive and compelling, and finds lacking in Korea's neighbor to the East. To all those anonymous invigorating people, I raise a cup of soju.
ORIGINS OF THE KOREAN NATION
Koreans emerged as a people on a mountainous peninsula surrounded on three sides by water Someone once said that if the Korean peninsula were flattened with an iron, it would be as big as China. Koreans associate the origin of their history with the great crater-lake mountain on their northern border, Paektusan, or White Head Mountain: they remain today a "mountain people," who identify with hometowns and home regions that, so they argue, differ greatly from other places in Korea. To the foreigner this regionalism often seems exaggerated, but it exercises very real influence--for example, on recent voting patterns in South Korea. No doubt it exercised much greater influence when few Koreans lived in cities, inhabiting a universe called their own village, and walking for hours just to reach a town on the other side of a foothill.
The peninsula was also surrounded on three sides by other people: Chinese to the west, Japanese to the east, and an assortment of influences to the north: "barbarian" tribes, aggressive invaders, and, in the past century, an expanding and deepening Russian presence. Although Japan exercised strong influence in the late 1500s and again in the past century, in ancient times the peoples and civilizations on the contiguous Asian continent were far more important to Korean history. The northern border between Korea and China formed by the Yalu and Tumen rivers has been recognized by the world for centuries, much longer than comparable borders in Europe, and so one might think these rivers always constituted Korea's northern limits. In fact, Koreans ranged far beyond these rivers, well into northeastern China and Siberia, and neither Koreans nor the ancient tribes that occupied the plains of Manchuria considered these riparian borders to be sacrosanct. The harsh winter climate also created frozen pathways for many months, facilitating the back-and-forth migration out of which the Korean people were formed.
The imagined beginning of the Korean nation, for the contemporary North and South, was the third millennium B.C. when a king named Tan'gun founded Old Choson (sometimes translated as "morning calm," Choson remains the name of the country in North Korea, whereas South Koreans use the term Han'guk, a usage dating from the 1890s; the Western name Korea comes from the Koryo dynasty, 918-1392). According to a surviving text from the Koryo period, Chinese historians wrote that Tan'gun built his royal palace near modern-day P'yongyang and established a state called Choson, in the same era as a legendary founder of China, Emperor Yao. James Gale was much closer to the truth when he wrote that Korea "takes its beginnings in the misty ages of the past that elude all attempts at close investigation, ages that lie somewhere between that of man and those of angels and spirit beings, joining heaven on the one hand and earth on the other."
The Koryo text gave this version of Tan'gun's birth (there are several others): In those days there lived a she-bear and a tigress in the same cave. They prayed to Hwanung [the king who had descended from heaven] to be blessed with incarnation as human beings. The king took pity on them and gave each a bunch of mugwort and twenty pieces of garlic, saying, "If you eat this holy food and do not see the sunlight for one hundred days, you will become human beings."
The she-bear and the tigress took the food and ate it, and retired into the cave. In twenty-one days the bear, who had faithfully observed the king's instructions, became a woman. But the tigress, who had disobeyed, remained in her original form. The bear-woman could find no husband, so she prayed under the sandalwood tree to be blessed with a child. Hwanung heard her prayers and married her. She conceived and bore a son who was called Tan'gun Wanggom, the King of Sandalwood.
Of obscure origin, Tan'gun has nonetheless exercised his influence on Koreans in every century since Christ, and no doubt many before; the legend above was not manufactured in the Koryo period, as Japanese historians have claimed, but can be found illustrated on some stone slabs from a family shrine in Shantung, across the Yellow Sea from Korea, that dates to A.D. 147. A temple erected in Tan'gun's honor in 1429 stood in P'yongyang right up until the Korean War blew it to smithereens in the 1950s.
Nationalist historians assert a linear, homogeneous evolution of the Korean people from the distant point of Tan'gun's appearance to the Korean of today. Moreover, the king was not just a person: he was also a continuous presence from the time of Tan'gun down to the present, a vessel filled by different people at different times, who drew their legitimacy from this eternal lineage. Under its first president, for example, South Korea used a calendar in which Tan'gun's birth constituted year one--setting the date at 2333 B.C. And in September 1993 North Korea interrupted the ongoing nuclear crisis involving the United States to announce with great fanfare the discovery of Tan'gun's tomb and a few remains of his skeleton, at a site close to P'yongyang:
The founding of KoJoson [Old Choson] by Tangun 5,000 years ago marked an epochal occasion in the formation of the Korean nation. With the founding of the state of KoJoson an integrated political unit was established, the blood ties and cultural commonness of the population were strengthened and their political and economic ties became closer, which gave momentum to the formation of the nation.... The Koreans are a homogeneous nation who inherited the same blood and culture consistently down through history.
Kim Il Sung toured the site later that month, and a year after that his son, Kim Jong Il, dedicated a museum in the same place. All the scribes came forward to proclaim Koreans the oldest (and therefore finest) people in the world, with one continuous line of history from the thirtieth century B.C. down to the present.
Whatever one makes of this latest discovery or the she-bear myth, this is clearly a Korean story: few other peoples (the Japanese and the Israelis come to mind) assert such distant origins, with a continuously distinct ethnicity and language down to our time. Few place such inordinate attention on the female issue of a prodigal son, or the son's prodigious talents (the North Koreans claimed that Tan'gun's unearthed pubic bone was unusually large; ancient texts sometimes gave the length of the king's phallus, but only if it was something to write home about.) Few peoples eat as much garlic. Above all, few of the world's peoples live in a nation with no significant ethnic, racial, or linguistic difference: Korea is indeed one of the most homogeneous nations on earth, where ethnicity and nationality coincide. It is pleasant for Koreans to think they were always that way; it is a dire mistake to think that this relative homogeneity signifies a common "bloodline" or imbues all Koreans with similar characteristics.
Unfortunately there is no written history of Korea until the centuries just before the birth of Christ, and that history was chronicled by Chinese scribes. Excavations at Paleolithic sites, however, have determined that human beings inhabited this peninsula half a million years ago, and people were also there seven or eight thousand years ago, in the Neolithic period--as revealed by the ground and polished stone tools and pottery they left to posterity. Around 2000 B.C. a new pottery culture spread into Korea from China, bearing prominent painted and chiseled designs. These Neolithic people practiced agriculture in a settled communal life and are widely supposed to have had consanguineous clans as their basic social grouping. Korean historians of today sometimes assume that clan leadership systems characterized by councils of nobles called hwabaek, institutions that emerged in the subsequent Silla period, go back to these Neolithic peoples, as would the Tan'gun myth. But there is no hard evidence to support such imagined beginnings for the Korean people, unless one credits the recent discovery in North Korea, which few outside historians are yet willing to do.
By the fourth century B.C., however, a number of small states on the peninsula had survived long enough to come to the attention of China, and the most illustrious was Old Choson, which some historians locate along the banks of the Liao River in southern Manchuria, and others along the Taedong River, which runs through P'yongyang and northwestern Korea. Choson prospered into a civilization based on bronze culture and a political federation of many walled towns, which (judging from Chinese accounts) was formidable to the point of arrogance. Composed of a horse-riding people who deployed bronze weapons, Choson extended its influence to the north, taking most of the Liaot'ung basin. But the rising power of the North China state of Yen (1122-255 B.C.) checked Choson's growth and eventually pushed it back to territory south of the Ch'ongch'on River (located midway between the Yalu and the Taedong rivers).
As the Yen gave way in China to the Ch'in Empire and the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 200), Choson declined and refugee populations migrated eastward. Out of this milieu emerged a man named Wiman, who assumed the kingship of Choson sometime between 194 and 180 B.C. Wiman's Choson was a meld of Chinese influence and the old Choson federated structure; apparently reinvigorated under Wiman, this state again expanded across hundreds of miles of territory. Its ambitions ran up against a Han invasion, however, and Wiman Choson fell in 108 B.C. These developments coincided with the emergence of iron culture, making possible a sophisticated agriculture based on implements such as hoes, plowshares, and sickles. Cultivation of rice and other grains increased markedly, thus enabling the population to expand. From this point onward there is an unquestioned continuity in agrarian society down to the emergence of a unified Korean state many centuries later, even if we are not yet willing to call the peoples of the peninsula "Korean."
Han Chinese built four commanderies to rule the peninsula as far south as the Han River (which flows through Seoul), with a core area at Lolang (Nangnang, in Korean; the location is near modern-day P'yongyang). It is illustrative of the relentlessly different historiography practiced in North and South Korea today--as well as of the dubious projection backward of Korean nationalism that both sides engage in--that DPRK historians deny that the Lolang District was centered in Korea and place it northwest of the peninsula, possibly near Beijing. Perhaps this is because Lolang was clearly a Chinese city, the site of many burial objects showing the affluence of the Chinese overlords and merchants who lived in it, with many of the artifacts unearthed by a Japanese archaeologist named Sekino Tadashi under the direction of the colonial governor-general, in 1913. (Perhaps the North Koreans have a point, after all.)
THE PERIOD OF THE THREE KINGDOMS
For about four centuries Lolang was a great center of Sino-Korean statecraft, art, industry (including the mining of iron ore), and commerce. Its influence carried far and wide, attracting immigrants from China and exacting tribute from several states south of the Han River. In the first three centuries A.D. a large number of so-called walled states in southern Korea grouped themselves into three federations, known as Chinhan, Mahan, and Pyonhan; rice agriculture had developed in the rich alluvial valleys and plains to the point where reservoirs for irrigation could be established. Chinhan was situated in the middle part of the southern peninsula, Mahan in the southwest, and Pyonhan in the southeast. The state of Paekche, which soon came to exercise great influence on Korean history, emerged first in the Mahan area; no one is certain when this happened, but the state certainly existed by 246, since Lolang mounted a large attack on it in that year. That Paekche was a centralized, aristocratic state blending Chinese and indigenous influence is not doubted, however, nor is its growing power: within a hundred years Paekche had demolished Mahan and occupied what today is the core area of Korea, around Seoul. It is said that the common Korean custom of father-to-son royal succession began with King Kun Ch'ogo of Paekche, and his grandson inaugurated another long tradition by adopting Buddhism as the state religion (in 384).
Meanwhile, two powerful states had emerged north of the peninsula around the time of Christ--Puyo in the Sungari River basin in Manchuria and Koguryo, Puyo's frequent enemy, to its south near the Yalu River. Koguryo, which would also exercise a lasting influence on Korean history, developed in confrontation with the Chinese. Puyo was weaker and sought alliances with China to counter Koguryo, but eventually succumbed to it around A.D. 312. Koguryo was now expanding in all directions, in particular toward the Liao River in the west and toward the Taedong River in the south. In 313 it occupied the territory of the Lolang Commandery and came into conflict with Paekche.
Peninsular geography shaped the political space of Paekche and Koguryo, and a third kingdom called Silla that fills out the trilogy. 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 from the southwestern portion of the peninsula. This was Paekche's historic territory.
Koguryo, however, ranged over a wild region of northeastern Korea and eastern Manchuria subjected to extremes of temperature and structured by towering mountain ranges, broad plains, and life-giving rivers; the highest peak, Paektusan, occupies the contemporary Sino-Korean border and has a beautiful, crystal-pure volcanic lake at its summit, called Ch'onji, or Pond of Heaven. It is 500 meters from the summit, with surrounding peaks at nearly 3,000 meters above sea level. A famous Korean monk named Toson, who combined Buddhist and Taoist practices of geomancy, saw the Korean peninsula as "a branching tree with its roots at Mt. Paektu." Meanwhile, in 1942 a German geographer assayed the traveler's breathtaking vista--"a view of monumental grandeur"--from the rim of the crater, with a vast expanse of virgin forests below:
Gazing outwards, he scans over the slopes with their white patches and downward to the sheer unending plateau with its immense forests. Gazing inward his eye looks down 500 m[eters] over steep precipices to the broad surface of the lake, which appears to be motionless, even when storms are raging overhead. In good weather it is a radiant dark blue, and the forms and colors of the caldera walls are reflected in perfect clarity. The reds of the lower lavas, the gray and black of the higher ones, the gleaming yellowish white of the pumiceous sand appear double their actual size in the reflection and are all the more impressive. All observers agree that the contrasts that this twofold view unite make the scene ... one of the most enthralling sights on earth.
Koguryo branched far and wide from this mountain, from contemporary Vladivostok to Port Arthur, from the thirty-eighth parallel to Changch'un in Manchuria. Like Koguryo, North Korea utilized this mountain as part of its founding myth, and now Kim Jong Il is said to have been born on the slopes of Paektusan, in the desperate year of 1942 (he was actually born along the Russo-Chinese border south of Khabarovsk, and accounts conflict as to whether he was in China or in Russia). Unsurprisingly, it is also the Koguryo legacy that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) claims as the mainstream of Korean history.
Certainly Koguryo bowed to no one in championing its own kings: the founder, Chumong, was not merely the son of heaven, a great archer and horseman, and strong as a mature man at the age of seven; he could also walk on water. Once when enemy warriors were hot on his heels, legend has it, Chumong drew up short in front of a wide river. When he was about to be captured, "immediately a host of fish and turtles gathered together on the surface to form a bridge so that Chumong and his party could cross. Then they dispersed and sank back into the depths, leaving the pursuers on horseback with no way to cross." Chumong "gave the name Koguryo to his land from his family name Ko, meaning high, because he was begotten by the sun on high." North Korea's Kim Il Sung, also a sun-king, called himself by an old Koguryo term meaning maximum leader (suryong) and privileged a direct line from that ancient kingdom through the Koryo dynasty and down to the present.
It is the glories of a third kingdom, however, that first constituted the main current of Korean lineage according to South Korean historiography. The Silla state to the southeast eventually became the repository of a rich and cultured ruling elite, with its capital at Kyongju, north of the port of Pusan. The presidents who ruled South Korea either as dictators or as elected leaders from 1961 through 1996 all came from this region, and most Republic of Korea (ROK) historians privilege Silla's historical lineage; the author of Syngman Rhee's ideology, the first minister of education, named An Ho-sang, produced his own "Juche" philosophy and located its origin with Silla. It is the southwestern Paekche legacy that is the casualty of divided Korea, with the people of the Cholla provinces suffering discrimination by Koreans of other regions and by historians in North and South; fortunately the discovery of King Muryong's tomb (501-23), near Kongju, revealed to twentieth-century scholars the brilliant artistry of Paekche, with finely filigreed gold crowns that rival the celebrated crowns of Silla. One painter of Paekche ancestry in Japan was said to be the foremost court artist of the ninth century, "the first memorable painter in Japan, the first to bring landscape, for example, to the level of a dignified art." Taken together, the three kingdoms continue to influence the history and political culture of Korea; it is not unusual for Koreans to assume that regional traits that they favor or despise go back to the Three Kingdoms period.
Were these three kingdoms inhabited by "Koreans"? Certainly some of the characteristics of each kingdom had survivals in unified Korea, as we will see. But there was way too much warfare, migration, and intermingling to make for a homogeneous race of people, distinct from their neighbors, and far too little verifiable historical material for us to know the boundaries, ethnic stock, and lingustic differences among the three states, or among these three and the states in western Japan, for that matter. Koguryo unquestionably merged with Chinese and northern ethnic stocks, and the two southern kingdoms had much intercourse with peoples inhabiting the Japanese islands, especially western Kyushu. Recent evidence suggests that as many as one-third of the residents of Japan's Tomb period (A.D. 300-700) could trace their recent ancestry back to Korean roots. It is best, I think, to hypothesize that the gene pools of contemporary Koreans and Japanese must inevitably have had an ancient, common root, just as northern Chinese and Mongol peoples cross-fertilized with inhabitants of the peninsula. So we have no unique, homogeneous races in Korea and Japan, however much both peoples want to believe in such things, but a common human stock that branched off culturally and linguistically at some unknown point, thereafter to have a relatively independent historical development, but with only the slightest DNA trace of racial difference.
Silla evolved from a walled town called Saro, and although Silla historians are said to have traced its origins back to 57 B.C., contemporary historians regard King Naemul (356-402) as the ruler who first consolidated a large confederated kingdom and who established a hereditary kingship. His domain was east of the Naktong River in today's North Kyongsang Province. 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 what is now Japan. Kaya was eventually absorbed by its neighbors in spite of an attack by Wae forces from Kyushu against Silla on their behalf in A.D. 399, an attack Silla repelled with help from Koguryo. For the next two decades the Koguryo army was stationed in Silla.
Centralized government probably emerged in Silla in the last half of the fifth century, as the capital became both an administrative and a marketing center. In the early sixth century its leaders introduced plowing by oxen and built extensive irrigation facilities. Increased agricultural output was the result, permitting further political and cultural development, including the formulation of an administrative code in 520, the creation of a hereditary "bone-rank" system for designating elite status, and the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion around 535 (Paekche and Koguryo adopted Buddhism earlier).
Silla was weaker than Koguryo militarily; indeed, by the beginning of the fifth century Koguryo had achieved undisputed control of all of Manchuria east of the Liao River as well as of the northern and central regions of the Korean peninsula. At this time it had a famous leader with an appropriate name: King Kwanggaet'o, whose name translates roughly as "the king who widely expanded the territory." Reigning for twenty-one years (391-412), from the age of eighteen, he conquered sixty-five walled towns and 1,400 villages, in addition to assisting Silla in fights with Wae forces from Japan. Kwanggaet'o was the master of northern Korea and much of Manchuria; in 427 he settled the Koguryo capital at P'yongyang, a junction of alluvial plains and rivers, which became the center of this large nation. But as Koguryo's wide domain increased, it confronted China's Sui dynasty (581-618) in the west and Silla and Paekche to the south.
Silla attacked Koguryo in 551 in concert with King Song of Paekche. After it conquered the upper reaches of the Han River, Silla turned on 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 T'ang dynasty (618-907) in combined attacks against Koguryo. These were immense clashes between hundreds of thousands of soldiers on each side, and they reshaped the face of Northeast Asia. First Koguryo armies drove across the Liao River in 598 and beat back several Sui attempts to dislodge them. Neither could the Sui emperor Yang Ti defeat the Koguryo armies at their Liaotung fortress, so he boldly launched an enormous invasion of Koguryo in 612, marshaling more than one million soldiers and sending one-third of this force against the capital at P'yongyang. The Koguryo commander, a scholar and soldier named Ulchi Mundok, arranged successive defeats, feints, and retreats, in order to lure the Sui forces into a trap along the Ch'ongch'on River, thirty miles north of P'yongyang, where--finally--he awaited the Chinese. There he prepared for the occasion a poem, which he sent to the opposing commander:
Your divine plans have plumbed the heavens;
Your subtle reckoning has spanned the earth.
You win every battle, your military merit is great.
Why then not be content and stop the war?
The Chinese were unimpressed. So the Koguryo forces attacked the enemy from all sides, cutting the Sui forces to pieces; nine armies fled in disarray toward the Yalu River. Perhaps as few as three thousand Sui soldiers survived to retreat into China; their defeat contributed to the fall of the dynasty in 618. The newly risen T'ang emperor T'ai Tsung launched another huge invasion in 645, but Koguryo forces won a striking victory in the siege of the An Si fortress, forcing T'ai Tsung to withdraw.
Koreans ever since have seen these victories as sterling examples of resistance to foreign aggression. There is much merit to the argument; had Koguryo not beaten them back, all the states of the peninsula might have fallen under long-term Chinese domination and ultimate absorption. Thus commanders like Ulchi Mundok became models for emulation thereafter, especially during the Korean War (1950-53).
Paekche could not hold out under combined Silla and T'ang attack (the latter landed an enormous invasion fleet on the southwest coast in 660), however, and it quickly fell under their assaults. T'ang pressure had also weakened Koguryo, and after eight successive years of battle it gave way from both external attack and internal strife accompanied by several famines. It retreated to the north, enabling Silla forces to advance and consolidate their control up to the Taedong River, which flows through P'yongyang. Silla thus emerged on top in 668, and it is from this famous date that many historians speak of a unified Korea. The period of the Three Kingdoms thus ended, but not before all three states had come under the long-term sway of Chinese civilization by introducing Chinese statecraft, Confucian philosophy, Confucian practices of educating the young, and the Chinese written language (Koreans adapted the 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 in the doctrine of a unified body of believers devoted to Buddha but serving one king. In addition, artists from Koguryo and Paekche perfected a mural art found on the walls of tombs, and took it to Japan, where it deeply influenced Japan's temple and burial art. Some Korean scholars maintain that Paekche "conquered" Japan, which raises any number of questions (for example, What was "Japan"?), but many Korean and Western historians now believe that the wall murals in royal tombs in Japan suggest that the imperial house lineage may have had a Korean origin; perhaps that is why Japanese archaeologists are slow to open more imperial tombs (most of the great ones are still off-limits to archaeological research). That Koreans profoundly influenced Japanese development, there is no doubt: as one Japanese historian put it, Paekche art "became the basis for the art of the Asuka period (about 552-644)," and the tomb murals clearly do show a strong Koguryo influence. Nationalistic scholars in Japan try to deny all this, just as their counterparts in both North and South see Korea as the onetime ruler of Japan and "the fount of all ancient Japanese civilization." Recent evidence, weighed dispassionately, shows that Japan got from old Korea advanced iron products, armaments, horse trappings, gold and silver jewelry, pottery, and new methods of statecraft, some of it copied from China and some originated by inhabitants of Korea. In particular, "nearly all the iron to make the first Japanese weapons and tools" came from Korea, and the Japanese learned that the Koguryo method of armoring both horse and rider was "the most deadly military technology in the world before the advent of gunpowder." An American scholar puts the point discreetly: "one may be inclined to agree with those experts, Korean and Japanese, who see Korea as the wellspring of Japanese culture before 700."