Mongol Conquest of Korea




The Jin made one last attempt to retrieve their situation in 1217, failed, and definitively abandoned the province. But Yelu Liuke’s pro-Mongol grip on the country was always shaky, with a majority of Khitans yearning for independence, and in the very same year a powerful anti-Mongol alliance under Han-she plunged the country into civil war. Yelu managed to defeat him, but Han-she retreated into Korea with most of his army intact. Korea itself was already in turmoil, convulsed by the aftermath of an attempt at a coup d’état in which 800 Buddhist monks perished.91 The Khitan invaders swept all before them and occupied the capital, Kaesong; the bewildered Koreans, at first not knowing what had hit them, initially appealed for help to the Song, who were uninterested.92 Hard on the heels of the Khitans came Yelu and his Mongol allies with a powerful army. Yelu ran the rebel Khitans to earth, powering his way through terrible snowstorms to do so. He defeated the rebels, Han-she hanged himself, and his 10,000-strong force surrendered; the Mongols beheaded about a hundred of the officers.

As a result of this incursion, Korea became part of the Mongol empire. The Korean king submitted but was ill requited: the first Mongol envoy sent to his court acted boorishly, making a point of wearing a bow and arrow to his first audience, seizing the monarch’s hands and roughly thrusting Genghis’s greetings into them. An annual tribute was fixed in 1221: Korea agreed to provide 10,000 pounds of cotton, 3,000 bolts of silk, 2,000 pieces of gauze and 100,000 enormous sheets of paper; in 1223 the tribute was consolidated into an annual quota of valuable sea-otter skins. Yelu died in 1220, so the Mongols simply annexed both Manchuria and Korea.

There were several consequences of the Mongol absorption of Korea. They employed a policy of mass human transportation, moving any troublesome Koreans into north China. They were bowled over by the beauty of Korean women, who became highly prized as wives and concubines. Genghis’s favourite wife Qulan was considered so beautiful that it was commonly said that she was a Korean princess. The Mongols also appropriated all the choicest agricultural land and earmarked it as part of Temuge’s appanage. At a more general level the Mongols smashed the traditional balance of the three-way relationship between China, Korea and Manchuria, though this rhythm would reassert itself after the Mongol era. Ironically, the Mongol invasion had the unintended effect of producing a true national consciousness in Korea. One result of all this was that, after Muqali’s death in 1223, the Koreans rose in rebellion. Preoccupied elsewhere, the Mongols did not put down the insurrection until 1233. As a final irony the Koryo dynasty, founded in 918, managed to limp on until 1392, thus outliving the Liao, the Jin, the Song and even the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China.


Muqali was unquestionably a captain of genius and he had performed wonders for Genghis in China while permanently short of manpower. It was Muqali who enabled Genghis to fight successfully on two fronts – something that would later elude Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler and is generally considered the most elementary mistake in the military textbook. He has the distinction of being the only Mongol general who was never defeated in battle. But both he and Genghis singularly underestimated the sheer tenacity of the Jin – ‘this truncated state in possession of astonishing resilience and determination’. When the Jin concentrated on the Song instead of the Mongols this was thought consummate folly, but they not only held the Mongols in stalemate – Muqali was never able to land a knockout blow – but repelled the Song and eventually compelled them to sue for peace. The high talent of Muqali is clear from the way he fought successfully in terrain not suited to Mongol horses, in regions rife with disease and even in boats and on rivers – a form of warfare to which the Mongols were not at all accustomed.

As to whether he was the greatest of Genghis Khan’s generals, this is more doubtful. One may perhaps concede that Muqali certainly achieved the most during Genghis’s reign, though many would still rate Jebe higher. Sceptics say that Muqali won all his victories against the demoralised and second-rate Jin, that he never defeated the best contemporary military opposition worldwide, as did Jebe, and even more so, Subedei. Genghis always possessed what Napoleon considered the key to success – luck, and never more so than in his marshals. At least three of them – Muqali, Jebe and Subedei – were military geniuses who eclipsed anything that the lieutenants of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar and Napoleon were able to achieve.

The death of Muqali gave new heart to the Jin and many others who had chafed under his dominance. The Tangut took no further part in the war, while in Korea a nationalist movement slew the Mongol commissar and his staff and declared independence. More seriously, the Jin ended their war with the Song. Hsuan Tsung died on 24 January 1224 and was succeeded by Ai-Tsung, who saw the folly of simultaneous war with the Mongols and the Song; the latter, as well as being masters of Shandong, were by now beginning to make serious inroads into southern Hebei. They had already acted treacherously for, as soon as Muqali went west in 1222, they struck west and took Tung Ping, adding all of western Shandong and part of eastern Hebei to their conquests.


Alongside the titanic Mongol efforts in China and Iran, Ogodei finally brought the troublesome Koreans to heel. It will be remembered that when Muqali died in 1223, Korea used the occasion to try to throw off the Mongol yoke. Busy with other, more important, concerns, Genghis paid little attention to events on the far side of the Yalu. Not even the murder of his envoys in 1224 – officially by bandits, who however were really Korean troops in disguise – stirred him to send a fresh expedition. Simultaneously, the revolt in Manchuria by Pu-hsien Wan-nu was allowed to dribble on until 1233.

Korea was not able to take full advantage of Genghis’s distraction elsewhere, for in 1223, the very year of Muqali’s death, its coasts began to be ravaged by large-scale raids from Japanese freebooters, who had been inactive for the previous hundred years. The devastation wrought by these pirates severely taxed the power of the Korean state and led it in turn to be distracted from the Mongol problem. However, on Ogodei’s accession he ordered a full conquest of Korea, with a large army sent to the peninsula under the general Sartaq (not to be confused with the more famous Sartaq, son of Batu).

In 1231 the Mongols swept into Korea, laying waste the land mercilessly, killing all males over the age of ten, and distributing the women and children as slaves among the soldiers; their onslaught caused further trouble for the Korean elite by triggering a slave rebellion. The Koreans were used to the Mongols’ deadly archery but were taken aback by the new weapons since perfected, including a new kind of flame-thrower in which fat was used to make the belched flame rage inextinguishably. The reign of terror was spread from Pyongyang to Kaesong. King Gojong of Korea fled to the island of Ganghwa west of Seoul and remained there for the next thirty years. Meanwhile huge reparation payments were agreed to persuade the Mongols to withdraw: the tribute included a vast amount of gold, silver and pearls, otter pelts, 20,000 horses and hostages as surety for future good behaviour by the Koreans. The Mongols then trekked back across the Yalu into Manchuria to deal with the rebels there, leaving behind governors and political commissars to make sure Ogodei’s writ ran. But Sartaq suddenly died, and this seems to have encouraged a revival of the resistance movement. Guerrilla bands arose, the Mongol officials in post were killed, and a ferocious anti-Mongol propaganda campaign was set in motion by Buddhist monks. Further instability was caused by the annual withdrawal of the small Mongol army of occupation, on which the commissars could theoretically call for help, for the winter hunt in Manchuria.

Angered by the inability of his subordinates to subjugate Korea properly, at the great quriltai of 1235 Ogodei announced a new expedition to pacify Korea once and for all. A large army was prepared, under the command of the Tangut general Baghatur, with the Korean traitor Hong Bok-won as his second-in-command; they were instructed to destroy all vestiges of opposition but not to waste time or resources on a seaborne assault on the island of Ganghwa. The Mongols crossed the Yalu and rolled up the Koreans in a devastating campaign in spring 1236 which took them south of the Han River via Anju and Kaeju.

The Koreans switched to guerrilla warfare, but in response the Mongols instituted full-scale genocide. Every time the country seemed finally tamed, there would be a fresh guerrilla outbreak, triggering a fresh Mongol atrocity in response. Finally, from his eyrie on Ganghwa king Gojong decided he could bear the sufferings of his people no more. In 1238 he signed a binding truce and sent a team of negotiators to Ogodei’s new capital at Karakorum to agree a permanent treaty. Although the Mongols demanded his personal presence at Karakorum he refused, but satisfied face and Mongol honour by sending all his closest relatives as hostages.

Peace came finally in 1241, but the fearful Gojong spent the rest of his life on his island. Nonetheless, in Korea the Mongols gained useful experience of amphibious operations, which they would later use in their conquest of the Song. When Gojong died in 1259 after a reign of some 46 years, they moved in on the island and demolished all walls and fortifications. Korea was then annexed by Qubilai Khan, though the Koryo dynasty limped on till 1392.

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