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Gwanggaeto the Great, the Spirit of Goguryeo


King Who Ruled Over Northeast Asia
Among the Three Kingdoms of Korea, Goguryeo was the most powerful nation, with its territory encompassing the northern part of the peninsula. A king who contributed greatly to the establishment of a great empire was none other than Gwanggaeto the Great, the nineteenth monarch of Goguryeo. From the time he ascended to the throne at the early age of 18 until he died at the age of 39, Goguryeo maintained its position as a major superpower in Northeast Asia, wielding strong influence over the neighboring countries. To the north of the peninsula, Gwanggaeto conquered the Later Yan, invading Manchuria and the entire Liaodong Peninsula. To the East, the King attacked and conquered Dongbuyeo and showed off the nation’s military strength to Japan, firmly establishing Goguryeo as the most dominant power in the region.

In 374, during the rule of King Sosurim, Gwanggaeto the Great was born as the son of Yi Yeon, a younger brother of King Sosurim, and was given the name Damdeok at birth. His full posthumous name is Gukgangsang Gwanggaeto Gyeongpyeongan Hotae Wang (국강상광개토경평안호태왕 國岡上廣開土境平安好太王), meaning "The Very Greatest King, Broad Expander of Territory, Buried in Gukgangsang,” which is abbreviated as Gwanggaeto the Great or Hotaewang.

King Sosurim died without a son, and his brother Yi Yeon or Gogukyang rose to the throne. In 386, the third year of King Gogukyang’s rule, young Damdeok became the crown prince at the age of 12. In 342, the capital city of Hwando collapsed and in 371, King Gogukwon, Gwanggaeto’s grandfather, died in a battle against Baekje in Pyongyang. Seeing the country in ruins, Gwanggaeto devoted himself to the study of military science and actively promoted territorial expansion, in accordance to the founding ideology of the nation set forth by Jumong or King Dongmyeong, the founding monarch of Goguryeo. Dreaming of establishing an economic superpower, Gwanggaeto exercised great leadership skills since the early days of his reign, and Goguryeo aggressively propelled its territorial expansion in all directions.

Tombstone of Gwanggaeto the Great, a Representation of the Glorious History of Conquests
In 414, King Jangsu of Goguryeo built a magnificent tombstone in honor of his father Gwanggaeto the Great in Gungnae Fortress, the capital city of Goguryeo during the rule of Gwanggaeto the Great. While the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) and Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) were written from the perspective of scholars from the Goryeo Dynasty, the tombstone of Gwanggaeto known as the Gwanggaeto Stele, was written by one of the King’s subjects from the Kingdom of Goguryeo. Among the 1775 inscribed characters, the detailed account of Gwanggaeto’s conquests and military achievements is worth noting. One section reads:

In the sixth year, Pyongsin 396, the king personally led his naval force to chastise Paekche. The army, marching by separate routes, first attacked and took fifty eight fortified towns, after which they advanced and laid siege to that state's capital. The enemy, rather than bring their spirit into submission, dared to come out and fight numerous battles. Flaring up in terrible rage, the king crossed the Ari River. He sent his vanguard to put pressure on the city, and with a lateral thrust and frontal assault they seized the capital. The Paekche king Chan wang, in dire straits, proffeered a thousand male and female captives and a thousand bolts of fine cloth. Pledging his allegiance to out king, the Paekche king swore a solemn oath: "From this time on I shall forever be your slave-guest." (Source: Gwanggaeto Stele: The Inscription,

In 396, Gwanggaeto the Great raised an army, attacked, and conquered Baekje forces, who were responsible for the death of his grandfather, King Gogukwon. Having gained confidence from the victory against Biryeo, a small part of the Khitan tribe located in central Manchuria in 395, Gwanggaeto effectively led a campaign against Baekje using brilliant military tactics. While the Goguryeo army fought against Baekje’s main military forces, Goguryeo’s strong naval forces led by the King attacked Hanseong (present day Seoul), the capital city of Baekje, controlling the sea and strengthening the nation’s diplomatic capacity. In 402, Gwanggaeto launched a long-prepared attack on Later Yan, seizing two fortresses and acquiring land worth approximately 700 li (one li is equal to 400 meters). In 410, Gwanggaeto conquered 64 fortresses of Dongbuyeo, successfully bringing the region under Goguryeo domination. In addition, in 399, at the request of Silla, which was suffering from a joint encroachment by Japan and Gaya along its borders, Gwanggaeto sent 50,000 forces to Silla. The troops advanced into Gaya, flaunting their military prowess to Japan, and the King of Silla visited Goguryeo to pay tribute to Gwanggaeto.

The spirit of Gwanggeto was passed on to his son King Jangsu, who ruled for 79 years from 413 to 491. During King Jangsu’s rule, Goguryeo dominated all territory including two thirds of modern Korea, Manchuria, and parts of Mongolia and Russia, rising as a true superpower of Northeast Asia. Gwanggaeto commands respect and admiration not only for establishing a great empire in Asia, but also for instilling a lasting sense of pride and self-esteem among the Korean people.

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