King Gogukcheon’s name was Nammu and he was the second son of Goguryeo’s eighth king, Sindae. He became king in the year 179 when his father died. He led his army himself to defeat the invasion forces of the Chinese Han Dynasty in the year 184. Domestically, he also suppressed rebellions by the aristocracy in the year 191.
The king stabilized his kingdom politically by repelling enemies, both foreign and domestic. But he is more famous for his wise selection of people when managing state affairs. After quelling rebellions, he felt the need for new and promising figures, not existing aristocrats, in order to properly govern his country. In the year 191, the king made merit-based appointments in his government. That was a major shift from a government mostly run by aristocrats. As a result, the king was able to dig out hidden talent from around the country. The greatest of the talented people was Eul Pa-so, who was named Prime Minister. Eul Pa-so was not of noble origin, but a farmer who was renowned for his wisdom and integrity. The king’s unexpected appointment of a mere peasant as Prime Minister drew strong backlash from aristocrats. But the king refused to budge from his decision and trusted his new Premier all the more. On the back of the king’s strong confidence, the Prime Minister was able to push ahead with various reform measures as he wished. Eul Pa-so was indeed a competent official, but it is also worth mentioning that the king recognized the official’s ability and actively supported him.
Eul Pa-so successfully assisted the king in administering state affairs in an effective way. He prevented a particular faction from monopolizing power and banned illegal trading of government posts. He was also very strict in selecting talented people and arranged an educational system to help people learn history, law, culture, music and art as well as martial arts. In fact, Goguryeo people enjoyed learning and reading books. Even people who belonged to the lowest class of society, such as gatekeepers and those who fed horses, were willing to educate their children.
An episode about the king is recorded in an ancient history book, The History of the Three Kingdoms. The king went hunting and met starving people in a farming village. He gave some of his clothes and food to the poor people and felt that he was responsible for the starvation of the people. As part of efforts to improve the livelihood of farmers, the king introduced Jindae Law, a sort of relief loan law. This was unquestionably the king’s most remarkable achievement. The new law allowed farmers to borrow grain from state storehouses during the lean season in spring and to repay them during the harvest season in autumn. The system greatly contributed to stabilizing farmers’ lives and also prevented peasants from being controlled by aristocrats, thereby strengthening royal power even further. This system was maintained by the era of the Joseon Dynasty some 12-hundred years later. Rumors about the new law spread to neighboring tribes, and numerous people scrambled to settle in Goguryeo to avoid war and starvation.
King Gogukcheon ruled his kingdom for 18 years before he died in the year 197. During his reign, the country achieved political and economic stability. Much of the credit went to the king and his loyal subject Eul Pa-so.