The northern kingdom of Koguryo emerged by the A.D. first century from among the indigenous people along both banks of the Yalu River. The Han Chinese seized the area in 108 B.C., but from the beginning Chinese rulers confronted many uprisings against their rule. Starting from a point along the Hun River (a tributary of the Yalu), the rebels expanded their activities to the north, south, and southeast, increasingly menacing Chinese authority. By A.D. 53 Koguryo had coalesced into an independent centralized kingdom; the subsequent fall of the Han Dynasty and ensuing political divisions in China enabled Koguryo to consolidate and extend its power. Despite repeated attacks by Chinese and other opposition forces, by 391 the kingdom's rulers 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. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Koguryo, according to tradition, was founded in 37 B.C. Its founding monarch, Chumong (Jumong), was an archer and horseman who is said to have had the ability to walk on water. Its greatest king, Kwanggaeto founded the present North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The kingdom produced distinguished scholars and Buddhist figures. Its royal tombs contain exquisitely painted murals that influenced similar tomb paintings in Japan and have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The modern name of Korea is ultimately derived from Koguryo. [Source: Richard Lloyd Perry, The Times, September 5, 2004]

Koguryo, a native Korean kingdom that began as a confederation of hunting tribes, was and expanded in all directions up through A.D. 313. According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: By the A.D. 4th century it had conquered Lolang, and at its height under King Kwanggaeto (ruled 391–413) occupied much of what is now Korea and northeast China. In the 6th and 7th century the kingdom resisted several Chinese invasions. Meanwhile in the south, two main kingdoms emerged, Paekche in the west and Silla in the east. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Throughout its 705-year existence, Koguryo, which ruled the largest territory ever controlled by a state sprung from the peninsula, was constantly at war with both China and peninsula- bound Korean kingdoms until it fell under joint attack from the Tang Dynasty in China and the rival Korean kingdom of Silla in 668. Today, remnants of Koguryo's glory can be found scattered in China and North Korea, in tomb murals depicting mounted archers chasing tigers. Old documents say the Koguryo people liked to drink, sing and dance, traits some South Koreans proudly say they inherited. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, International Herald Tribune, October 12, 2006]

Although Koguryo had been strong enough to repulse the forces of the Sui Dynasty, combined attacks by Silla and the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907) proved too formidable. Koguryo's ally in the southwest, Paekche, fell before Tang and Silla in 660; the victorious allies continued their assault on Koguryo for the next eight years and eventually vanquished the weary kingdom, which had been suffering from a series of famines and internal strife. Remnants of Koguryo formed the kingdom of Parhae (north of the Taedong River and largely in E Manchuria), which lasted until 926.

Jumong: Korean Drama About the Legendary Koguryo Founder

“Jumong” (2006) is set the time period: 108 BC – 19 BC. It was broadcast on MBC and has 82 episodes. Bibimgirl wrote: “This story is about Jumong and how he became the founder of Goguryeo (Koguryo) Dynasty in B.C.. Goguryeo was one of the ancient Three Kingdoms of Korea which lasted for over 700 years. For those interested in Korean history, this drama comes first in chronological order of Korean history. This drama was a global sensation and a ratings blockbuster all over the world and universally on any “must watch” list. Read more on my Jumong page. [Source: bibimgirl, February 3, 2016]

Mare-sensei wrote in reelrundown.com: Jumong “was raised by King Geum Wa who took him and his mother in when his father, General Hae Mo Su was believed to have been killed in an ambush by the Han Dynasty. Then, there's a beautiful merchant's daughter named So Seo No who helped Jumong in realizing his dream to build a new country, and later became his second wife. [Source: Mare-sensei, reelrundown.com, September 28, 2016]

Song Il Gook as Jumong
Han Hye Jin as So Seo No
Kim Seung Soo as Prince Dae So
Hu Joon Ho as Hae Mo Su
Oh Yun Soo as Lady Yoo Hwa

Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668)

The earliest recognized historical period in Korea is the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668). Korea was strongly influenced by China at this time, and Chinese in fact occupied much of the Korean peninsula until around A.D. 400. Confucianism, Chinese writing, and other aspects of Chinese culture were introduced from China during this period.

The Three Kingdoms refers to the early Silla culture (traditionally founded 57 B.C., but significant beginning c. A.D. 350 to A.D. 668), the Paekche culture (Baekje, traditionally founded 18 B.C., but significant beginning c. A.D. 250 to A.D. 660) and the Kokuryo (Koguryo) culture (37 B.C.-A.D. 668). Beginning about the A.D. fifth century, the original tribes in the south — the Mahan, the Chinchan, and the Pynhan — coalesced into two competing kingdoms — the Silla and Paekche. The Koguryo stayed in the colder north and established an empire there.

With the rise of the power and expansion of the Han empire in China (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), Old Chosun declined. A new iron culture gradually emerged on the Korean Peninsula, and in the first three centuries A.D. a large number of walled-town states developed in southern Korea. Among them, the state of Paekche was the most important as it conquered its southern neighboring states and expanded northward to the area around present-day Seoul. To the north, near the Amokgang (Yalu), the state of Koguryo had emerged by the first century A.D. and expanded in all directions up through 313 A.D. A third state — Silla — developed in the central part of the peninsula. These three states give name to the Three Kingdoms Period (first– seventh centuries A.D.). Eventually Silla, allied with China, defeated both Paekche and Koguryo to unify the peninsula by 668. During the Three Kingdoms Period, Confucian statecraft and Buddhism were introduced to the Korean Peninsula and served as unifying factors. By 671 Silla had seized Chinese-held territories in the south and pushed the remnants of Koguryo farther northward; Chinese commandaries (which dated back at least to the second century B.C.) had been driven off the peninsula by 676, thereby guaranteeing that the Korean people would develop independently, largely without outside influences. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China in A.D. 372 and spread into Japan from Korea in the sixth century A.D. The religion originated in India and made its may to China before reaching Korea. Buddhism had a profound influence on culture during the Three Kingdoms Period. One of the most beloved figures from this period was King Munyung (A.D. 461-523).

The militaristic Koguryo was made up of fierce horsemen from Manchuria. The Silla evolved out of a loose federation of tribes into a powerful dynasty centered in present-day Kjongju. The Paekche dynasty was dominated the agricultural regions of western and southwestern Korea. Japanese culture was influenced by the Paekche dynasty who passed on ceramic techniques and decoration, architectural design, sculpture, handicrafts and tomb construction to Japan. The most well known event from the Three Kingdom Period involved 3000 women of the Paekche court who leapt to their death to avoid dishonorable death at the hands of enemies from another kingdom.

Before the Three Kingdoms

The territory south of the Han River is relatively distant from the Asian continent; hence, the people living there were initially able to develop independently, without much involvement with events on the continent. The early settlers of this region gradually organized themselves into some seventy clan states that were in turn grouped into three tribal confederations known as Chinhan, Mahan, and Pynhan. Chinhan was situated in the middle part of the peninsula, Mahan in the southwest, and Pynhan in the southeast. Their economies were predominantly agricultural, and their level of development was such that they built reservoirs and irrigation facilities. These tribal states began to be affected by what was happening in the region north of the Han River around the first century B.C. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

About the middle of the third century A.D., the Chinese threat began to serve as a unifying political force among the loose confederations of tribes in the southern part of the peninsula. Adopting the Chinese political system as a model, the tribes eventually merged into two kingdoms, thereby increasing their chances of survival against Chinese expansionism. The two kingdoms eventually came to play an important role in Korean history.

Geographic features of the southern parts of the land, in particular the configuration of mountain ranges, caused two kingdoms to emerge rather than one. In the central part of Korea, the main mountain range, the T'aebaek Range, runs north to south along the edge of the Sea of Japan, which lies off the east coast of the peninsula. Approximately three-fourths of the way down the peninsula, however, at roughly the thirty-seventh parallel, the mountain range veers southwest, dividing the peninsula almost in the middle. This extension, the Sobaek Range, proved politically significant; the tribes west of it were not shielded by any natural barriers against the Chinese-occupied portion of the peninsula, whereas those to the southeast were protected. Moreover, the presence of the mountains prevented the tribes in the two regions from establishing close contacts.

Foundation Myth on the Kwanggaeto Stele

Kwanggaeto Stele — a 6 ½-meter-high memorial stele made from single mass solid granite and erected in A.D. 414 — has an inscription that traces lineage of the legendary founder of Koguryo. Ir reads: “Of old, when our first Ancestor King Ch'umo laid the foundations of our state, he came forth from Northern Buyeo as the son of the Celestial Emperor. His mother, the daughter of the Earl of the River (Habaek), gave birth to him by cracking an egg and bringing her child forth from it. [Source: Kwanggaeto Stele, Wikipedia]

“Endowed with heavenly virtue, King Ch'umo [accepted his mother's command and] made an imperial tour to the south. His route went by the way of Puyo's Great Omni River. Gazing over the ford, the king said, "I am Ch'umo, son of August Heaven and the daughter of the Earl of the River. Weave together the bulrushes for me so that the turtles will float to the surface." And no sooner had he spoken than [the God of the River] wove the bullrushes so that the turtles floated to the surface, whereupon he crossed over the river. Upon the mountain-fort west of Cholbon in Piryu Valley established his capital, wherein his family would long enjoy the hereditary position.

“Accordingly, he [ritually] summoned the Yellow Dragon to come down and "meet the king." The King was on the hill east of Cholbon, and the Yellow Dragon took him on its back and ascended to Heaven. He left a testamentary command to his heir apparent, King Yuryu, that he should conduct his government in accordance with the Way. Great King Churyu succeeded to rule and the throne was handed on, [eventually] to the seventeenth in succession, [who], having ascended the throne at twice-nine [i.e., eighteen], was named King Yongnak ("Eternal Enjoyment") (Kwanggaeto the Great)

Koguryo Military Might and Expansion

By the A.D. 1st century, Koguryo was strong enough to pose a military threat to the Chinese Han Empire (202 B.C. – A.D. 220). Historical records suggest that the Koguryo Kingdom was the first Korean state to emphasize the military arts. From the A.D. first through the fourth centuries, the Koguryo tribes frequently fought with Chinese and other groups for control of the region from the Liao River south to the Yalu River, the latter forming today's international boundary between North Korea and China. Modern South Korean textbooks emphasize an unbroken history of foreign incursions.

Like the early warrior kings of Paekche and Silla, the Koguryo kings significantly added to his state's territory by military conquest, absorbing neighboring tribes and fortified towns throughout present-day northeastern China and down into the Korean Peninsula. The Koguryo established military units in each of their five tribes. Each tribal army had about 10,000 men. An elected leader in charge of all military forces in the kingdom headed the chain of command. It was considered an honor for a man to be selected to be a soldier by the council of elders. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Koguryo moved its capital to Pyongyang in 427 and ruled the territory north of the Han River. But Koguryo's expansion caused it to come into conflict with the Sui Dynasty of China (581-617) in the west and Silla, which was beginning to expand northward, in the south. Although Koguryo had been strong enough to repulse the forces of the Sui Dynasty, combined attacks by Silla and the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907) proved too formidable. Koguryo's ally in the southwest, Paekche, fell before Tang and Silla in 660; the victorious allies continued their assault on Koguryo for the next eight years and eventually vanquished the weary kingdom, which had been suffering from a series of famines and internal strife.

Silla thus unified Korea in 668, but the kingdom's reliance on China's Tang Dynasty had its price. Eventually Silla had to forcibly resist the imposition of Chinese rule over the entire peninsula, which Silla's rulers did, but their strength did not extend beyond the Taedong River. Much of the former Koguryo territory was given up to the Chinese and to other tribal states. It remained for later dynasties to push the border northward to the Yalu and Tumen rivers.

King Kwanggaeto

Koguryo's best-known ruler, King Kwanggaeto — whose name literally means "broad expander of territory" — lived to be only thirty-nine years of age, but reigned twenty-one years, from 391 to 412. During that period, Kwanggaeto conquered 65 walled cities and 1,400 villages, in addition to aiding Silla when it was attacked by the Japanese. His accomplishments are recorded on a monument erected in 414 in southern Manchuria.

Kwanggaeto, the 19th Koguryo monrach, ascended to throne at the age of 18. He expanded Koguryo to the north and south and came close to controlling the entire Korean peninsula. He even fought with the Wa (Japanese). After his death, Kwanggaeto was bestowed with the title “Great King, Expander of the Domain and Bringer of Peace.” His son and successor, Changsu, raised a huge stelae in his honor. And likely placed it on the road to the king’s tomb. The stela was found in Ji’an in the Yalu Valley of China’s Jilin Province in an area freckled with Koguryo tombs, all looted long ago.. [Source: Daniel C. Kane, Archaeology magazine, March/April 2002]

The Kwanggaeto stele records battles and triumphs during of Kwanggaeto's reign. Many of the battles are aimed at thwarting Wa aggression. The Koguryo aided the Silla when it was invaded by the Wa ("Japanese"), and punished Paekche for allying with the Wa. In regards to Kwanggaeto’s military activity, the Kwanggaeto stele reads:

Year 395 (Yongnak 5): The King led troops to defeat the Paeryeo tribe (believed to be a Khitan tribe) and acquired their livestock. He inspected the state and returned in triumph. Year 396 (Yongnak 6): The King led troops and conquered many Paekche castles. As the troop reached the capital, the Paekche king paid reparations in and swore to be a subject of Koguryo, paying male and female captives and a thousand bolts of cloth in reparation. Kwanggaeto returned home with a Paekche prince and nobles as hostage. Year 398 (Yongnak 8): Assigned troops to conquer the Poshen (presumably a tribe of the Sushen people) to capture 300 people. Since then, they have sent tribute to Koguryo. Year 399 (Yongnak 9): Paekche broke previous promise and allied with Wa. Kwanggaeto advanced to Pyongyang. There he saw Silla's messenger who told him that Wa's troops were crossing the border for invasion, and asked Koguryo for help. As Silla swore to be Koguryo's subject, the King agreed to save them.

Year 400 (Yongnak 10): The King sent 50,000 troops to save Silla. Wa's troops retreated just before the Koguryo troops reached to Silla capital. They chased Wa's forces to a castle in Imna Gaya (Mimana). The Japanese troops in the castle soon surrendered. Year 404 (Yongnak 14): Wa unexpectedly invaded southern border at Daifang. The King led troops from Pyongyang to prevail. Wa troops collapsed with enormous casualties.

Year 407 (Yongnak 17): The King sent 50,000 troops, both foot soldiers and mounted, and battled (the inscription that mention the opponent state is marred). Year 410 (Yongnak 20): Eastern Buyeo ceased tribute to Koguryo. The King led troops to conquer them. Eastern Buyeo was surprised (and surrendered. Some characters are also scratched out in this passage). As they submitted to the King's kindness, there was also a noble who followed the King to Koguryo.

Koguryo Architecture and Tombs

Yonson Ahn wrote in Japan Focus: “Koguryo remains, including of walled towns, fortresses, palaces and tombs, as well as wall paintings and artifacts, have been found on both sides of the Chinese-North Korean border as well as in South Korea (the ROK). The remains and relics in the People's Republic of China (PRC) reflect the history and culture of the early and mid-period Koguryo kingdom; they also showcase Koguryo's architectural style and pioneering new patterns of city construction, in which both mountain cities and plain cities were successfully constructed. [Source: Yonson Ahn, Japan Focus, January 1, 2008; Yonson AHN is a former research fellow at the East Asian Institute, the University of Leipzig, Germany. She is conducting research on Korean “comfort women” and Japanese soldiers during the Asia-Pacific War and on historical controversies in East Asia, including debates over the ancient kingdom Koguryo/Gaogouli and the Paekdu/Changbai Mountains, colonial history in Korea and historical revisionism in Japan. See her “Competing Nationalisms: The mobilisation of history and archaeology in the Korea-China wars over Koguryo/Gaogouli”and “China and the Two Koreas Clash Over Mount Paekdu/Changbai: Memory Wars Threaten Regional Accommodation.”]

Koguryo tombs in Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) represent the later period of the kingdom after Koguryo moved its capital to Pyongyang in 427 A.D. So far, approximately 13,000 ancient tombs of the Koguryo/Gaogouli kingdom have been identified in China and Korea. Among these, 90 tombs discovered near Ji’an in China’s Jilin Province (the former capital of Koguryo and home to a large collection of Koguryo era tombs), and in the vicinity of Pyongyang and Nampo in North Korea contain wall paintings dating from around A.D. 500.

The Koguryo tombs demonstrate ingenious engineering solutions, an important example of burial typology and special burial customs. These tomb complexes exemplify remarkable natural and man-made features important in both archaeology and art history, including different typologies of tomb structure and ceiling construction and varied iconography. The tombs can be divided into two groups according to the materials used. The stone pyramid type, which include those from an earlier period and are found in the Amnok/Yalu river area, and the later earth mound type, found both on the Amnok/Yalu river and to the south, usually containing murals.

Koguryo Tombs: UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Complex of Koguryo Tombs was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. According to UNESCO: The property includes several group and individual tombs - totalling about 30 individual tombs - from the later period of the Koguryo Kingdom, one of the strongest kingdoms in nowadays northeast China and half of the Korean peninsula between the 3rd century BC to 7th century AD. The tombs, many with beautiful wall paintings, are almost the only remains of this culture. Only about 90 out of more than 10,000 Koguryo tombs discovered in China and Korea so far, have wall paintings. Almost half of these tombs are located on this site and they are thought to have been made for the burial of kings, members of the royal family and the aristocracy. These paintings offer a unique testimony to daily life of this period. [Source: UNESCO]

“Koguryo was one of the strongest kingdoms in northeast China and half of the Korean peninsula between the 3rd century BC and the 7th century AD. The best known cultural heritage remains of this kingdom are the tombs, built of stone and covered by stone or earthen mounds. These tombs, from the middle period of the kingdom, many with beautiful wall paintings, are the representative remains of this culture. About 100 out of more than 10,000 Koguryo tombs discovered in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and China to date are decorated with wall paintings, some 80 of which are in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Among the Koguryo tombs identified in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 63 individual tombs including 16 tombs with wall paintings are included in the inscribed property.

The Complex of Koguryo Tombs is a serial property and includes several groups and individual tombs situated mainly at the foot of mountains and some in villages. Located in Pyongyang and surrounding provinces, the tombs are thought to have been made for the burial of kings, members of the royal family and the aristocracy.

There are several types of tombs included in the property, based on the number of burial chambers – single chamber, two chambers, and multi-chambers with side chambers. They represent the full range of the Koguryo tomb typology and showcase the best examples of this construction technology. The tombs are monumental, stone-chambered earthen mounds that were skillfully constructed with ingenious ceiling designs to support the heavy weight above. The technology employed represented a unique, creative and long-sought engineering solution to the technical problems posed by underground tomb construction.

The wall paintings of the Koguryo tombs are masterpieces of the culture and period of the Koguryo kingdom; the construction of the tombs demonstrates ingenious engineering solutions. The subject matter of the wall paintings of the tombs offers unique evidence of the richness and complexity of the now-vanished Koguryo culture, portraying the costumes, food, residential life and burial customs, as well as religious practices and imagery associated with Buddhism, Taoism and the Four Deities. The Complex of Koguryo Tombs represents an exceptional testimony to the Koguryo culture, its burial customs, daily life and beliefs. The special burial customs of this culture had an important influence on other cultures in the region, including those of Japan.

The serial property, which is scattered across the northwest part of the Korean peninsula and grouped into four regions, comprises 63 individual tombs, 16 of which feature wall paintings. The tombs represent the full typology of Koguryo tombs from the later kingdom and together with the wall paintings represent among the only remains of the now-vanished Koguryo culture. Most of the known tombs suffered clandestine excavations in the last thousand years and few were scientifically excavated prior to such activity. Although some of the wall paintings in the tombs were damaged by looting and environmental factors, the architectural features remain largely intact and the wall paintings possess sufficient integrity to express their Outstanding Universal Value.

Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom

Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom (in and near Ji’an City) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. The site contains archaeological remains of three cities (Wunv Mountain City, Guonei City, and Wandu Mountain City), and 40 identified tombs of Koguryo imperial and noble families.

Koguryo was an influential kingdom in Korea and northeast China during the Western Han Dynasty (202BC-9) and Tang Dynasty (618-907). Built on Wandu Mountain, Wandu Mountain City was one of the typical mountain cities in the early and medium stage of the Koguryo Kingdom. Wandu Mountain City and Guonei City were important cities of the kingdom. Wunv Mountain City is only partly excavated. The remains of the stone city walls of Guonei City are still solid and magnificent. Wandu Mountain City contains many vestiges including a large palace, a watch platform, houses, gates and ponds. Among the 40 identified tombs of Koguryo Kingdom, 14 are imperial and 26 of nobles. The tombs feature exquisite wall paintings from over 1,000 years ago, but they are still vivid and colorful; Admission: 100 yuan (US$15.73) per person;

According to UNESCO: “The capital cities and tombs are exceptional testimony to the vanished Koguryo civilisation. The layout and construction of the capital cities influenced the city planning and building of later cultures. The tomb paintings represent a rare artistic expression in medieval Northeast Asia and together with the stele and inscriptions show the impact of Chinese culture on the Koguryo." [Source: UNESCO]

The site is important because: 1) The tombs represent a masterpiece of the human creative genius in their wall paintings and structures. 2) The Capital Cities of the Koguryo Kingdom are an early example of mountain cities, later imitated by neighbouring cultures. The tombs, particularly the important stele and a long inscription in one of the tombs, show the impact of Chinese culture on the Koguryo (who did not develop their own writing). The paintings in the tombs, while showing artistic skills and specific style, are also an example for strong impact from other cultures. 3) The Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom represent exceptional testimony to the vanished Koguryo civilization. 4) The system of capital cities represented by Guonei City and Wandu Mountain City also influenced the construction of later capitals built by the Koguryo regime; the Koguryo tombs provide outstanding examples of the evolution of piled-stone and earthen tomb construction. 5) The capital cities of the Koguryo Kingdom represent a perfect blending of human creation and nature whether with the rocks or with forests and rivers.

Wunu Mountain City: Ancient Korean Site and UNESCO World Heritage Site

Wandu Mountain City (10 kilometers northeast of Jian) is a Goguryeo (ancient Korean) site that is part of the Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom, a combined UNESCO World Heritage Site that also includes sites in Ji'an, Jilin that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. .

According to UNESCO: “The site includes archaeological remains of three cities and 40 tombs: Wunu Mountain City, Guonei City and Wandu Mountain City, 14 tombs are imperial, 26 of nobles. All belong to the Koguryo culture, named after the dynasty that ruled over parts of northern China and the northern half of the Korean Peninsula from 277 B.C. to A.D. 668. Wunu Mountain City is only partly excavated. Guonei City, within the modern city of Ji’an, played the role of a ‘supporting capital’ after the main Koguryo capital moved to Pyongyang. Wandu Mountain City, one of the capitals of the Koguryo Kingdom, contains many vestiges including a large palace and 37 tombs. Some of the tombs show great ingenuity in their elaborate ceilings, designed to roof wide spaces without columns and carry the heavy load of a stone or earth tumulus (mound), which was placed above them.

“The Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom dating from the 1st century B.C. to the 7th century CE comprise archaeological remains of three cities and 40 tombs: Wunu Mountain City in Huanren Manchu Autonomous County, Liaoning Province; Guonei City, Wandu Mountain City, and the 40 tombs in Ji’an municipality, Jilin Province.

“The Koguryo kingdom was a regional power and ethnic group from the year 37 B.C. until the kingdom moved its capital to Pyonyang in 427CE.Wunu Mountain City, Guonei City and Wandu Mountain City served as capitals of Koguryo during the early and middle period of the Kingdom. Wunu Mountain City was built in 37 B.C. as the first capital of the Koguryo regime. Surrounded by a defensive wall with three gates which was partly built in stone and in other places exploited the cliff face, the city included a palace, military camp, watch tower, houses and warehouses. Guonei City, now surrounded by the city of Ji’an, was built on the plain with a stone-built defensive wall and had separate palace and residential zones. Wandu Mountain City, the only Koguryo mountain city capital whose general layout was planned with the large palace as its core, created a mountain city that perfectly combined the Koguryo culture with the natural environment. Guonei City and Wandu Mountain City were the economic, political and cultural centers of the Koguryo for hundreds of years. Guonei City was destroyed in the year 197 CE when the Koguryo were defeated by another power. Wandu Mountain City was built in 209 CE. Both cities were damaged in wars and rebuilt several times, serving alternately as the capital. Guonei City played the role of a supporting capital after the main Koguryo capital moved to Pyongyang; it is one of the few plains city sites with stone city walls still standing.

“The tombs of kings and nobles of the ancient Koguryo Kingdom are distributed in the Donggou Ancient Tombs Area of Wandu Mountain City. The 12 imperial tombs take a stepped pyramid form constructed of stone. The burial chambers within were roofed with clay tiles. The tombs of the nobles have stone chambers covered with earth mounds and are decorated with wall paintings, depicting scenes of daily life, sports, hunting, nature, gods, fairies, and dragons. The stele of King Haotaiwang dating from 414CE, tells the story of the founding of the Koguryo kingdom."

Kwanggaeto Stele

The Kwanggaeto Stele is a memorial stele for the tomb of King Kwanggaeto the Great of Koguryo. Carved out of a single mass solid granite stela, it is over 6½ meters and four meters wide is one of the largest stele in all of China. Its four sides are inscribed with 1,802 Classical Chinese characters, each larger than a human hand. Erected in 414 by the king’s son Jangsu. Kwanggaeto Stele stands near the tomb of Kwanggaeto in the city of Ji'an along the Yalu River in Jilin Province, Northeast China, which was the capital of Koguryo at that time. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Kwanggaeto Stele is dedicated to king Kwanggaeto of Koguryo, who reigned A.D. 391–413. It was was raised as a grand memorial epitaph to the monarch, whose empty tomb is nearby. One face features the foundation legend of Koguryo. Another provides terms for the maintenance of Kwanggaeto's tomb in perpetuity. The rest is a synopsis of Kwanggaeto's reign, achievements and military accomplishments.

The stele is one of the major primary sources for the history of Koguryo, and supplies invaluable historical detail on Kwanggaeto's reign as well as insights into Koguryo mythology. It has also become a focal point of national rivalries in East Asia manifested in the interpretations of the stele's inscription and the place of Koguryo in modern historical narratives. An exact replica of the Kwanggaeto Stele stands on the grounds of War Memorial of Seoul and the rubbed copies made in 1881 and 1883 are in the custody of China and Japan.

Koguryo Art

A number of gold objects, including a gold crown of great delicacy and sophistication dating from the Three Kingdoms period, have been found in South Korea. Buddhism was the dominant artistic influence during the later Three Kingdoms period and the Silla and Koryo dynasties. Themes and motifs that had originated in India passed to Korea through Central Asia and China. A number of bronze images of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas were made during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. The images are not mere copies of Indian or north Chinese models, but possess a distinctly "Korean" spirit that one critic has described as "as indifference to sophistication and artificiality and a predisposition toward nature."

From December 2002 to March 2003, Koguryo relics from both South Korea and North Korea were displayed at an exhibition called "Koguryo!" at the COEX Convention Center in Samseong-dong in southern Seoul. The JoongAng Daily reported: On display are 30 relics that belong to the Korea Central History Museum in Pyongyang and 140 museum-quality reproductions that were crafted by 2,000 technicians in North Korea. One of the reproductions is a 6-meter-high stone monument to King Kwanggaeto from Jian, China. The tombstone, bearing a gold inscription, is the largest ever discovered in Asia. Others include five life-size murals from 5th century tombs. [Source: JoongAng Daily, December 6, 2002]

“Koguryo relics have long been celebrated for their distinctive artistic characteristics, such as symbolic animals signifying the universe. A mythical three-legged crow, or Samjogo, represents the sun; a toad symbolizes the moon. Flame patterns, expressing the Koguryo Kingdom's powerful spirit, are common motifs. Halos are also an important element in Koguryo art. One of the most elaborate on display is a gilded nimbus with the inscription "Yonggang 7th year." The halo, from A.D. 551 was discovered in Pyeongcheon, near Pyongyang, and is one of four national treasures on loan for the exhibition.” One nimbus “has lotus petals and vines surrounded by a delicate relief of flames.

“Another unique relic on display is a queen's crown from the 4th or 5th century with a flame pattern on its brim. While several gold crowns from the Silla and Paekche kingdoms have been found, this is the only known example from the Koguryo Kingdom. It features a delicate, dynamic pattern of flames, and bears some resemblance to the queen's crown found in the tomb of King Munyeong from the Paekche Kingdom. Another exquisitely detailed piece is a gilt-bronze decorative panel in the shape of the sun that was part of a headrest. Believed to have been used by a king, the panel once was layered with the iridescent outer shells of black beetles and fastened to a piece of fabric.

“Also on display are two rare earthenware vessels. One is a steamer to make rice cakes, and the other is an urn for ashes.” The rice steamer is “particularly interesting. It is the earliest known example of a steamer with a drain in the bottom. It has numerous small openings. Later versions that have been discovered have fewer, but larger, holes.”

Koguryo Tomb Art

Among the earliest forms of Korean art are the paintings found on the walls of tombs of the Koguryo Kingdom (located in what is now North Korea) and around the China-North Korea border area. These paintings are colorful representations of birds, animals, and human figures that possess remarkable vitality and animation. Similar, though less spectacular, tombs are found around the old capitals of the kingdoms of Paekche and Silla in present-day South Korea.

Yonson Ahn wrote in Japan Focus: “Mural tombs have decorative paintings inside the burial chambers. The mural paintings constitute their chief claim to glory. The murals are rich in content including the family life of noble lords, feasting, dancing, drama-playing and outings. Representative pictorial motifs of the wall paintings include the following: daily life scenes, such as farming, hunting, banquets and entertainment, wives and household retinue, stables, kitchens and storehouses. [Source: Yonson Ahn, Japan Focus, January 1, 2008]

“Among these motifs, daily life scenes are numerous. Popular decorative motifs include the spiral pattern, the “king” letter pattern, lotus-petals, clouds, intertwined dragons and honeysuckle. The contents of the mural paintings provide important information on Koguryo life, customs and beliefs; for example, the lotus-petal that appears in so many murals is indicative of the spread of Buddhism during the fifth and sixth centuries. Furthermore, these walls bear an exceptional and early witness to a culture, painting tradition and archaeology in East Asia, especially during the so-called “Northern and Southern Dynasties period” which falls between the Han and Tang periods, for which there was little information until the past decade.”

Outstanding works of art include: 1) the Hunting mural, Muyongch’ong Tomb (fifth century), Ji’an, China; 2) depiction of a kitchen, meat store and carriage shed, Anak Tomb No.3 built in 357, Hwanghae province, North Korea; 3) scenes of official duties and/or the ordering of socio-political status and military activities, thirteen government officials congratulating the tomb-owner, Jin, on his appointment to an important post, Tokhung-ri Tomb built in 408, Nampo, North Korea; 4) celestial, cosmological,or immortal ascent scenes and figures, such as the blue dragon and white tiger, the tortoise and the snakes, and the red phoenix, and scenes of filial piety and morality, the star constellations in Tokhung-ri Tomb built in 408, Nampo, North Korea;

“5) Red phoenix (one of the Four Guardian Deities, defenders of the four directions on each wall to guard the soul of the deceased against demons), Kangso Middle Tomb built between the second half of sixth century and the first half seventh century A.D., Nampo, North Korea; 6) Sun and moon deities, Ohoe Tomb No. 4 built between in the late sixth century and the early seventh century A.D., Ji’an, China; 7) Fire deity, T’onggu Sasinch’ong Tomb built in the sixth century, Ji’an, China; 8) Lotus flower and heavenly world, Ssangyongch’ong Tomb built in the late fifth century, Nampo, North Korea; 9) The first image of a Buddhist monk of the Koguryo period, Ssangyongch’ong Tomb built in the late fifth century, Nampo, North Korea; 10) Portrait of the tomb owner’s wife: Anak Tomb No.3, Hwanghae province, North Korea; 11) “Black warrior”, a combination of snake and turtle in one body, Kangso Great Tomb, Nampo, North Korea

In 1972, archaeologists discovered well-preserved murals inside the Takamatsu tomb at the Asuka archeological site near Osaka, Kyoto and Nara in Japan. Dated to the end of the seventh century, the murals contained images of tigers, dragons, and star constellations like those found in Korean and Chinese tombs. The people in some of the murals are wearing Korean-style clothes. Women, for example, depicted in murals in wore pleated skirts like those found in Korea at that time. Some historian believe this and other similar tombs provide evidence that rulers in the Asuka-period Japan (A.D. 538 to 710) were either Koreans or Chinese or strongly influenced by Korean or Chinese culture. Many Koreans believe they offer proof that Japanese Imperial family was founded by a Korean clan, something that Japanese nationalists vehemently deny is possible.

Fighting and Alliances Between Paekche, Silla and Koguryo at the End of the Three Kingdoms Period

Militarily weaker than Koguryo, Silla sought to fend the former off through an alliance with Paekche. By the beginning of the fifth century, however, Koguryo 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, Koguryo 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 Koguryo's domain increased, it confronted China's Sui Dynasty (581-617) in the west and Silla and Paekche to the south. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Silla attacked Koguryo 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 Koguryo. The Sui emperor Yang Di launched an invasion of Koguryo in 612, marshaling more than 1 million soldiers only to be lured by the revered Koguryo 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 Koguryo forces won another striking victory in the siege of the An Si Fortress in western Koguryo, forcing Tai Zong's forces to withdraw.

Koreans have always viewed these victories as sterling examples of resistance to foreign aggression. Had Koguryo 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).

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 Koguryo, and after eight years of battle it gave way because of pressure from both external attack and internal strife exacerbated by several famines. Koguryo forces retreated to the north, enabling Silla forces to advance and consolidate their control up to the Taedong River, which flows through Pyongyang.

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 Koguryo 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.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.