King Yeongryu was the son of the 25th king Pyeongwon and half-brother of the 26th king Yeongyang. Before he became king, his name was Geonmu. When the Sui Dynasty of China invaded Goguryeo in 612, Geonmu fought bravely to become a war hero. Thanks to his distinguished military service during the war, the king’s younger brother enhanced his status within the military and won public support. Soon, he emerged as the heir to the throne. It is not known whether King Yeongyang had offspring. But even if the king had a son, it would be fair to say that Geonmu was able to take the crown because of his great contribution in the war.
When King Yeongryu ascended the throne in 618, the Sui Dynasty in China was replaced by the Tang Dynasty. After a series of major battles with Sui, Goguryeo was recovering from the aftermath of the wars. The new emperor of the Tang Dynasty, on his part, still needed time to unify his state internally. Neither side could afford to wage a new war, so the two dynasties chose peace and friendship by exchanging envoys. In 622, Goguryeo accepted Tang’s request for a prisoner exchange. King Yeongryu repatriated 10-thousand prisoners of war from Sui. It is unclear how many Goguryeo prisoners of war the Tang Dynasty sent back home, but it is assumed that the number was far less than that of Sui soldiers. In 624, the king also received Taoist scholars and books from Tang.
The Goguryeo king mostly accepted Tang’s requests to maintain peace. Tang also showed a friendly attitude, at least on the surface, since it was well aware of the fact that Goguryeo defeated Sui troops several times. But inwardly, Tang harbored an ambition to conquer its archrival Goguryeo. When it became stronger in 631, Tang sent troops to destroy a monument commemorating Goguryeo’s victory over the Sui. King Yeongryu thought that Tang would soon attack his country. He mobilized his people to build a defensive wall along the western border. It was a long and grueling project that lasted 15 years. The fortresses that were refurbished during the process actually contributed greatly to warding off the enemy during the subsequent Goguryeo-Tang war. During the king’s reign, Goguryeo continued its confrontation with Silla to recover its lost territory. But overall, the king focused mostly on the relations with Tang. He tried to avoid conflict with Tang, while preparing against a potential war with the Chinese state.
The king is believed to have had a major disagreement with General Yeon Gaesomun about how to deal with the threat from Tang. In 642, the king was assassinated by the young general, who placed the king’s nephew, Bojang, on the throne instead.