Friday, January 6, 2017

Great Leaders: Who was King Gwanggaeto the Great?

If the West looks upon Alexander the Great as the greatest conqueror that they have seen, In Korea, they turned to Gwanggaeto the Great as their equivalent. Who is this Gwanggaeto the Great? And why the Koreans revered him as one of their greatest leaders in history?

Name: Gwanggaeto the Great 
Country: Goguryeo (Modern day Korea 
               and Manchuria)
Position: King
Tenure: 391 - 413

  • Defended his people from invasion
  • Expanded Goguryeo's territory
  • Enlarged his kingdom's sphere of influence
  • Unified virtually the Korea Peninsula

Who was Gwanggaeto the Great?

Gwanggaeto the Great, a name meaning The Great Expander of Territory was born as Prince Damdok of the Kingdom of Goguryeo (Koguryo) in 374. A son of King Gogugyang, he grew up imbued with Buddhist and Confucianist values, which his father and grandfather promulgated. Also, he also had to learn to be a great warrior, following a long time tradition of military leaders since the time of their kingdom’s founder King Jumong in 37 BCE. In 391, his father passed away, leaving him to ascend the throne. From that point, he embarked in the creating his kingdom the most powerful and largest in the Northeast region of Asia.

Not much is known as about the life of Gwanggaeto due to lack of sources. The Samguk Sagi or the History of the Three Kingdoms offered details of his life. Another, the Gwanggaeto Stele, showed the glory that the Koguryo King delivered to his people. But the stele had been damaged and several scripts became unreadable. Thus, the life of Gwanggaeto is filled with many void. Nonetheless, they offered enough information on the extent on the exploits of the King.

Gwanggaeto’s Goguryeo

By the time of his ascension, Gwanggaeto ruled upon a weak Goguryeo Kingdom in contrast to its neighbors. The kingdom lacked the luster it had once during the time of its early King who stroke fear to the Chinese and other tribes and kingdom. Starting in 342, Goguryeo’s misfortune began with the invasion of the Kingdom of Early Yan.

In 371, Goguryeo suffered another blow when its neighboring kingdom in the south, Baekche attacked. Goguryeo King Gogugwon failed his country when the major fortress of Pyongyang and he himself fell to the might of the Baekche King Geunchogo. From that point, Baekche surpassed Goguryeo as a regional power, establishing relations with the Chinese Eastern Jin Kingdom, sending envoys and tributes. They also sent a seven-branched sword to the Japanese Kingdom of Wa as a symbol of friendship, which lasted for decades.

Goguryeo then tried to strengthen itself by initiating reforms. In 372, King Sosurim established the National Confucian Academy called Taehak to train talented individuals for the benefit of the Kingdom. The establishment followed with the promulgation of an administrative code in the following year. Sadly, the contents of the code disappeared in history. These internal reforms laid a strong foundation for Gwanggaeto to pursue an aggressive foreign policy.

Gwanggaeto’s Campaigns

4 years into his reign, in 395, Gwanggaeto started his military campaigns by attacking the Khitans in the north and advanced his kingdoms border up to the Liao River.

In the following year, Baekche’s King Asin took these Gwanggaeto’s expedition as an opportunity to attack Goguryeo in the south. Gwanggaeto then used his navy to attack Baekche and captured 22 walled cities and castles. Nevertheless, Baekche continued to fight on. Gwanggaeto then led his troops south and captured lands between the Imjin and Han Rivers, including the capital Wiryeseong. The King of Baekche finally surrendered and offered 1,000 individuals as captives and 1,000 pil or 20 km length of fabrics, as well as his oath of fealty or “faith of submission” to King Gwanggaeto, bringing Baekche to Goguryeo’s fold.

During the conquest, Gwanggaeto captured 58 castles and 700 villages. The peace agreement also resulted to Goguryeo taking the King’s younger brother and 10 nobles as hostages back to their capital, Gungnae.

After the war with Baekche, Gwanggaeto turned his attention north once again. In 398, he and his army marched subjugated the Tungusic people called Sushen. The conquest resulted to an additional tributary state for Goguryeo. But not long after his conquest in the North, he received alarming reports from the south.

Baekche rebelled against Goguryeo, allied with the Japanese Kingdom of Wa, and attacked the weak kingdom of Silla. Silla King Naemul Maripgan sent a messenger to Gwanggaeto, seeking assistance against the strong combined might of Baekche and Wa. The Goguryeo King then sent 50,000 strong army to Silla to push the Baekche and Wa troops out. But then, the small Kaya confederation sided with Baekche and Wa to fight Silla and Goguryeo. Against all odds, Gwanggaeto manage to defeat this huge coalition force, securing the gratitude of Silla and its fealty. Baekje and Kaya, defeated, also submitted once again to the will of Gwanggaeto, offering their submission and sending tributes to Gungnae. At that point, Gwanggaeto virtually unified the Korean Peninsula under his tutelage.

In 404, the Wa returned to the Korean Peninsula and attacked Goguryeo once again. It ended in vain. After this, Gwanggaeto turned his attention from the Korean Peninsula to the Liaodong Peninsula.

The Liaodong Peninsula was held by the Later Yan Empire of the Murong people, part of the Xianbei Tribe of Mongolia. Gwanggaeto started his conquest in 407. The war between the Later Yan and Gwanggaeto ended with the latter taking the Peninsula along with 6 castles and 10,000 armors from the former.

After his conquest of the Liaodong Peninsula, in 410, King Gwanggaeto faced another challenge, this time from Eastern Buyeo, in the northeast frontier of the Kingdom. Buyeo refused to pay Gwanggaeto the tribute he demands. Gwanggaeto then marched his army to the capital of Buyeo. His mere display of his army at the gates frightened the Buyeo leaders enough to get their surrender and resumption of their status as a tributary state.

After the conquest of East Buyeo, Gwanggaeto ruled upon the largest kingdom in Northeast Asia. His campaigns resulted to his capture of 64 walled cities and 1,400 villages.

In glory of his own achievements, he took the reign name Great King Yongnak or Eternal Rejoicing. The mere act of tacking a reign name, a privilege exclusively reserve for the Chinese Emperor, pointed Gwanggaeto’s standing as an equal of the ruler of the middle kingdom instead of a subservient vassal state. Gwanggaeto’s rule continued for another 3 years until in 413, he passed away at the age of 39.

In recognition of the King, he was posthumously named Gukgangsang Gwanggaeto Gyeongpyeongan Hotae Wang or The Great King on the Capital Hill, Great Expander of Territory in Tranquil Borders, simply called as Gwanggaeto. Upon his demise, Gwanggaeto left Goguryeo in a new golden age. His son, King Jangsu showed gratitude to his father by ordering the erection of a stele, narrating the conquest of his father. This stele immortalized Gwanggaeto’s reign and became a source of pride for Koreans for the great achievement of one of its leaders.

Summing Up

King Gwanggaeto is revered by many Koreans for his great leadership that led to the creation of the largest kingdom in Korean history. And for this he earned the title “the Great” along with another brilliant leader with profound impact in Korean identity King Sejong. Gwanggaeto built from a kingdom once humiliated by its neighbor to an empire that controlled large part of Manchuria and a political sphere of influence that loosely unified the Korean Peninsula, an achievement that many looked up to this very day.

Kim Djun-Kil. The History of Korea. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Lee Ki-Baek. A New History of Korea. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Seth, Michael. A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2011.

Shin, Michael (ed.). Korean History in Maps: From Prehistory to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Inscription on the Gwanggaeto Stele Translation of the Full Text. The Teiko Denmo Show. Accessed on January 6, 2017. URL:

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