King Gogukwon lived relatively long, until he was 60 years old, and he ruled his country for as long as 40 years. Unfortunately, among Goguryeo kings, he suffered the most from foreign invasions. But it doesn’t mean he was an incompetent leader or his kingdom had serious problems. Rather, the strong foreign forces the king had to deal with were enjoying their heyday, while Goguryeo was relatively weak.
At the time, Goguryeo’s biggest enemy was the Murong Xianbei force in the west. They invaded Goguryeo in the year 342 to destroy the capital of Hwando, forcing the king to escape. As the king refused to surrender, the Murong forces dug up the dead body of the previous Goguryeo king, Micheon, and took the corpse from the tomb. They also stole treasures and held tens of thousands of people captive, including the king’s mother, Queen Ju. Traditionally, Goguryeo people highly respected their ancestors. For them, the body of the deceased king was something sacred that should not be stolen for any reason. The enemy was well aware of this. By taking the body and the Queen Mother to their country, the Murong forces effectively blocked Goguryeo from counterattacking them.
A few months after the Murong withdrew from Goguryeo, King Gogukwon sent a tribute to the Murong Xianbei. He had to endure humiliation to secure the return of the Queen Mother as well as the body of his father. But the Murong only sent back the corpse, still holding the queen hostage, for fear that Goguryeo might attack at any time. It was not until the year 355 that the Murong finally returned the Queen Mother to Goguryeo after it established the Early Yen Dynasty in 349. The queen was able to set foot on her home soil for the first time in 13 years. When the Early Yen Dynasty collapsed in 370, it seemed that Goguryeo would restore peace.
At the time, the southwestern kingdom of Baekje on the Korean Peninsula was ruled by King Geunchogo, a brave and ambitious leader who opened up the golden age of Baekje. The newly emerging state in the south became a serious threat to Goguryeo, with King Gogukwon facing strong enemies one after another. The king attacked Baekje in 369, leading an army himself despite his old age. However, the attack proved unsuccessful. In response, Baekje troops invaded Goguryeo in 371 and advanced all the way to Pyongyang Fortress. In the fierce battle, King Gogukwon was shot by an arrow and died. He was the only Goguryeo king to be killed on the battlefield.
King Gogukwon’s ill-fated reign is characterized by repeated failures of the westerly and southerly military expeditions.