The Three Kingdoms period refers to an era in Korean history in the fourth century c.e. when the three states of Koguryo, Silla, and Paekche existed simultaneously until the unification of the peninsula by Silla in 668 c.e. Koguryo was the largest and earliest unified kingdom, followed by Paekche and Silla. Our knowledge of the three kingdoms comes from archaeology and ancient historical texts from China, Japan, and Korea, particularly the Samguk Sagi, Korea’s first history written in 1145.
Koguryo was unified as a kingdom under the sixth ruler, King T’aejo, and occupied the northern part of the Korean peninsula and Manchuria in northeastern China. The Yemaek tribes, who conquered the Puyo state in 37 b.c.e., founded Koguryo. For centuries Koguryo kings fought against tribes to the north and China to the west. In 313 c.e. the Koguryo king drove the Chinese out of their Lo-lang commandery centered in Pyongyang. However, the Chinese retaliated in 342, successfully attacked the Koguryo capital, dug up the corpse of the Koguryo king, and departed with50,000 prisoners. Paekche took advantage of Koguryo’s weakness by invading the capital near Pyongyang and killing the ruler.
The golden age of Koguryo’s territorial expansion was during the rule of King Kwanggaet’o. According to an inscription in his tomb, he conquered 64 fortresses and 1,400 villages. He also took over the Liaotung region of northeastern China, which had been a focal point for Chinese attacks against Koguryo. He drove back a Japanese invasion of Silla in 400 c.e. In 475 Kwanggaet’o attacked the Paekche capital and expanded his borders southward by defeating an allied force of the Chinese Northern Wei kingdom and Paekche soldiers. Koguryo dominance did not last, however, and starting in the early seventh century Koguryo was constantly at war with the Chinese Sui dynasty. Although Koguryo defeated the Sui invasions, the largest consisting of 1 million soldiers, the years of warfare significantly weakened the country. The subsequent Tang (T’ang) dynasty also invaded Koguryo and was defeated until a fateful alliance with Silla, which led to the unification of the peninsula.
After the fall of the Sui dynasty Koguryo prepared itself for further invasion by the Tang, setting up defenses along the border between the two states and forming an alliance with the Turks. The key to Koguryo’s destruction was the pact between Tang and Silla and internal power struggles. Under this agreement the Tang helped Silla defeat Paekche, and then the two attacked Koguryo. The Tang court was not content to simply defeat its Koguryo enemies but intended to incorporate the peninsula into its state. The Chinese left 10,000 troops in Paekche after the latter’s surrender in 660. They also established administrative and military offices throughout Paekche. The Chinese planned a similar strategy with Koguryo when the Tang-Silla alliance laid siege to the capital, Pyongyang, in 661. After the Koguryo king surrendered in 668, the Chinese removed the king, officials, and 200,000 prisoners and placed rule over the territory under a military governor and established commanderies.
Paekche was a kingdom that mixed Puyo refugees (who had moved southward after their defeat by the Koguryo) with native Mahan tribes. Although the Samguk Sagi claims that Paekche was founded in 18 b.c.e., the state was unified by the reign of King Koi in the mid-third century c.e. and became a centralized aristocratic state a century later. Paekche was located in the southwest part of the peninsula and shared a border with Koguryo to the north and Silla to the east. Between the mid-fourth and mid-seventh centuries Paekche maintained a relatively friendly and consistent relationship with Japan, providing various technical and cultural advisers in return for occasional military support against Koguryo. It was Paekche that acted as the main conduit of culture and technology between China and Japan.
Silla unified as a state under the rule of King Naemul (356–402 c.e.) when the Kim family was established as the reigning family of the kingdom. Silla’s unification was aided by adopting Buddhism as the official state religion.
Located in the southeast section of the peninsula, Silla often allied with Koguryo to help defeat the smaller tribes that were eventually incorporated into their realm and to fight off the invading Japanese. Silla also unified with Paekche to counter Koguryo’s dominance of the peninsula.
During the Three Kingdoms period Silla had a famous military academy and a group of young warrior aristocrats called the Hwarang. Originally a local institution for educating young males and providing them with military training at the village level, it quickly grew into a national center for young, elite male cultivation. Even after the fall of the unified Silla state, the Hwarang (flower knights) were the heroes of legendary tales. The legends of the Hwarang should not belittle the very real military power of the Silla kingdom. Although it was the smallest of the three kingdoms, the great Koguryo and Paekche formed an alliance in an unsuccessful attempt to stave the rise of Silla and its alliance with the Tang Chinese.
The Silla leaders understood that the Tang planned to take over the peninsula, and immediately after the surrender of Koguryo, Silla began supporting rebellions in the fallen kingdom. The Silla followed up with an attack on Chinese-controlled Paekche in 671, eventually defeating the Chinese. In addition to Silla supported rebellions in Koguryo, however, were the Malgal tribes who fought against the Tang and eventually took control of the Manchurian area of former Koguryo. The Koguryo natives and Malgal formed a new state called Parhae. The chaos accompanying the fall of the Tang dynasty weakened Parhae, which was eventually invaded by the Khitan tribes in 926. Refugees fled south into Silla and became part of the Koryo dynasty.
- Best, Jonathan. “Diplomatic and Cultural Contacts between Paekche and China.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 42, no. 2 (1982);
- Lee, Ki-Baik. A New History of Korea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984;
- Lee, Peter, and William Theodore de Bary. Sources of Korean Tradition, Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997;
- Nahm, Andrew. Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Korea. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 2004;
- Woo-Keun, Han. The History of Korea. Honolulu, HI: EastWest Center Press, 1971.
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