▲ Mural at Hangpaduri Historical site, Jeju. Photo by Robert Neff
While many people are aware of the Mongol invasions of Korea and subsequent failed attempts to invade Japan in the 13th century, few people are aware of the role Jeju played.
Starting in 1231, Goryeo, an ancient Kingdom of Korea, was invaded six times by the Mongol Empire. It wasn’t until 1260, when Wonjeong ascended the Goryeo throne with the assistance of the Mongols, that a period of relative peace between the two states began. Of course there were sacrifices made by the weaker Goryeo government.
First, Goryeo became a tributary state to Yuan China – an empire founded by Kublai Khan. Goryeo was also forced to honor an earlier agreement to move its capital from Kangwha Island to Kaegyong (also known in the past as Songdo and presently as Kaesong in North Korea). The Mongols were understandably reluctant to have a tributary state’s capital out of easy reach of their mounted troops.
When Wonjeong moved the court to Kaegyong it caused dissention resulting in a coup attempt in 1269 which was put down with Mongol assistance. In June 1270, in an apparent effort to consolidate his power and remove any further threats to his rule, Wonjeong decided to disband one of his strongest military units – the Sambyeolcho (Three Elite Patrols), which was stationed on Kangwha Island and had refused his order to move to Kaeyong.
Two of the commanders, Generals Bae Jung-son and No Young-hui, angered at Wonjeong’s perceived weakness and deference to the Mongols, plotted to overthrow the Goryeo government and to appoint their own king. They approached the third commander of the Sambyeolcho, General Yi Baek-ki, and asked him to join their cause, but he rebuked them and paid for it with his life. He was seized and taken into the street and summarily decapitated.
As word of the revolt began to circulate throughout Kangwha Island many of the islanders, fearing for their lives and wanting no part of the revolt, sought to leave the island. Many drowned in their desperate struggle to reach the mainland while others were hunted down and killed by the rebels.
According to one account: “In the city, the people were terrified and scattered to hide in forest and marshes. The wailing of women and children filled the streets.” It should be noted that most of the island’s officials and men of importance were absent – they were in Kaegyong to welcome King Wonjeong back from the Mongol court.
The Sambyeolcho (henceforth referred to as rebels) closed off the island from the mainland and seized weapons from the government armory. A lesser member of the royal family, known only as Wang On, was chosen as the new king, but he appears to have been merely a figurehead – a puppet to be used by General Bae.
It was clear that the rebels would be unable to hold Kangwha Island (its fortifications having earlier been dismantled in compliance with the Mongol demands) against the combined forces of the Goryeo and Mongol armies. So, on June 23, they plundered the island’s treasures, took the women and children of the officials as hostages, and sailed away from the island in an enormous armada of over 1,000 ships.
When the Kangwha Island officials (those who had gone to welcome Wonjeong’s return) discovered that their families had been taken hostage, “their bitter weeping rent heaven and earth,” but there was little anyone could do.
Over the next couple of months the armada slowly made its way south pillaging and plundering the myriad of islands that grace Korea’s western coast. They were careful to avoid the mainland where the Goryeo and Mongol armies held the advantage.
On Sept. 6, 1270, they finally arrived at Jindo Island and began building Yongjang Fortress. When the fortress was completed it had walls nearly four meters tall and about 12.75 kilometers long surrounding a complex of halls and other buildings and a former temple served as the palace.
From this secured position the rebels began a constant campaign of raiding and pillaging the southern province of Jeolla and succeeded in seizing some thirty islands including Geojedo (Koje) and Cheongsando.
Perhaps the most important island to fall to the rebels was Tamna (Jeju Island). The Goryeo government attempted to protect Tamna by dispatching two officers with an estimated 1,200 soldiers to help defend Jeju City. According to one source, the government soldiers constructed a fortification nearly 300 li (about 160 kilometers) long in preparation for the expected rebel assault. The preparations were futile, and on Dec. 19, 1270, Jeju City, as well as the rest of Tamna, fell to the rebel army. Both Goryeo officials died in the fighting.
Over the next couple of months the rebels continued to enjoy great success which not only embarrassed and angered the Goryeo and Mongol governments but also swelled the rebels’ ranks with Koreans throughout the lower peninsula disenchanted with the Goryeo government. The rebellion also inspired other parts of the country to rise up in revolt keeping the combined Goryeo-Mongol forces busy suppressing insurrections.
In March 1271, a messenger was sent to Jindo Island bearing two missives – one from the Yuan court to King Won-jeong and the other from Wonjeong to the rebels imploring them to cease their revolt. While the rebel king entertained the messenger a large force of rebel ships and men were sent to the mainland where they killed nearly 90 government troops and captured a ship.
In April another messenger, this time a Mongol, was sent to the island bearing a missive from the khan himself. The khan offered the rebels control of the Jeolla province provided they directly subordinate themselves to the Yuan court. Again, General Bae tried to stall the Mongols by making demands they knew would not be acceptable such as the complete removal of the government garrisons in the southern part of the peninsula.
Tired of the rebels’ tactics, the khan ordered the rebel forces to be destroyed.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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