|Tombs of King Gongmin and his wife, Queen Noguk in Gaesong, N. Korea. Picture from here|
King Gongmin, one of the most underrated kings of Goryeo
Among the most well-known kings of Goryeo Kingdom are the founding King Taejo and the 31st King Gongmin. Long dismissed as self-indulgent and corrupt, King Gongmin may have been evaluated unfairly by historians, given that he had to rule the country in a particularly difficult and volatile time.
Mongolia started expanding its territory soon after Genghis Khan united the vast country in 1206. It was inevitable that its expansion policy collided with its smaller neighbor Goryeo. Mongolia, with its mighty military, demanded exorbitant tributes from Goryeo, which saw no other way to resist the political bullying than going to war. Starting with the first Goryeo-Mongolia war in 1231, the two countries fought seven wars in four decades. Although Goryeo held out for an admirable amount of time against a mightier opponent, an immense loss in manpower and the devastated land forced the smaller kingdom to sign a treaty subjugating Goryeo to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in 1270.
Before the Goryeo-Mongolia war, Goryeo kings were named independently like King Gojong or King Wonjong, but in the post-treaty years Goryeo kings had to include the letter “chung” to their names, indicating their loyalty to Mongolia. This can be seen in the names of King Chungnyeol or King Chungseon.
The Mongolian court also interfered with Goryeo’s royal line, dictating who came to the throne and who was disposed. The Goryeo court was in total disarray when King Gongmin was enthroned as the 31st king of the Goryeo Dynasty.
The start of reform
Born in 1330 as the second son of King Chungsuk and younger brother to King Chunghye, King Gongmin was sent to the Yuan court as a hostage at age 12 and lived there for ten years until he returned to Goryeo following the dethronement of his nephew King Chungjeong.
Having failed in his two prior attempts to rise in power, King Gongmin was able to move up in the inheritance line by marrying the Mongol Princess Noguk at age 21. He was at last enthroned at age 22 at which time he launched the anti-Mongolia reform plan.
The vast Yuan Empire began to wane in the late 14th century, prompting Goryeo to regain national pride and independence. In the first year of his reign in 1352 King Gongmin banned Mongolian customs practiced in Goryeo, such as having Mongolian hairstyle or wearing Mongolian costumes, and fired pro-Mongolia court officials. He also closed down an office set up to facilitate Mongolia’s interference with the internal affairs of Goryeo and recovered an area in the northern part of the country lost to the Yuan Empire in 1258.
King Gongmin’s territorial repatriation continued in the late 14th century as he ordered General Yi Seong-gye, later founder of the Joseon Dynasty, to cross the Yalu River and retake Liaoyang of Dongnyeong Prefecture, which had been incorporated in the 1270s into the Mongol Empire. The king also launched several land reform policies. He appointed reformist Buddhist monk Shin Don to free slaves and return the ill-gotten gains of large landowners to the original owners.
But King Gongmin’s reform was stymied by the opposition from the ruling families and the Yuan Empire. Making the situation worse were the invasions the Red Turban troops in the eighth and tenth years of his reign. The chaos and devastation brought on by the invasions made any reform virtually impossible to execute. Then, Queen Noguk, the staunchest supporter of King Gongmin, died in 1365, leaving the king almost insane with grief, indulging only in Buddhist rituals in remembrance of his beloved wife.
The king’s indifference to governing the country resulted in Buddhist monk Shin Don wielding too much power in the royal court, sparking strong protest from the ruling class. The discontent of the aristocrats culminated in the assassination of King Gongmin in 1374 at the hands of his personal bodyguards, the sons of wealthy and powerful families. Thus ended the life of reform-minded King Gongmin, whose talent as a painter and calligrapher was highly lauded in his early years and who devoted his reigning years to rebuilding the Goryeo Dynasty.
The death of King Gongmin was the last straw that brought down the Goryeo Dynasty. The millennium-long Goryeo Dynasty came to an end with King Wu, who succeeded King Gongmin as Goryeo’s 32nd ruler. With the disintegration of Goryeo, King Gongmin’s reform policies, artistic talents, and enduring love for Queen Noguk were all dismissed and mocked as failures and he is now remembered disgracefully as an unfinished reformer who went insane in his later years.