Ch'oe Ch'ung-hn

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Ch'oe Ch'ung-hn

Ch'oe Ch'ung-hn (1149-1219) was a Korean general who in 1196 established a hereditary military dictatorship which lasted until 1258.

Adescendant of a military family, Ch'oe Ch'ung-hn rendered conspicuous service to the Korean king in quelling a rebellion in the Western Capital (1174-1176). In 1196 Ch'oe assassinated a rival general and cleared the way for his own dictatorship. A year later he deposed King Myngjong and enthroned his own candidate to preserve the technical legitimacy of his position. During his lifetime Ch'oe enthroned four kings and deposed two. Ch'oe ruthlessly eliminated any opposition, including his own family members. In 1197, when his younger brother attempted to marry off his daughter to the heir apparent, Ch'oe opposed him and had him killed. Ch'oe also succeeded in severing the traditional alliance between monks and the nobility, thus forestalling a possible powerful opposition.

Ch'oe's "administration" was harsh, corrupt, and unfair. He sold offices, arbitrarily distributed merits and honors, and tyrannized the people. Outraged peasantry and slaves rose in revolt year after year, the most noteworthy, though unsuccessful, uprising occurring in 1198 in the capital. By 1203 Ch'oe was finally able to suppress the uprisings that had disrupted the social fabric of the country for 30 years.

In order to bolster the power of his clan, Ch'oe organized a private guard corps in 1200, first divided into 6 and later into 36 units, the upper stratum of which comprised elite retainers, and the lower, slaves. Other sources of power were great estates which the clan owned but never directly managed and a large holding of slaves. In 1209 Ch'oe established a supreme council, the chief governing organ of military rule, akin to the Japanese bakufu, and he himself occupied the position of chief councilor, the highest office. In this position he supervised personnel administration, levying of taxes, and surveillance of officials.

Legacy and End of the Clan

In 1225 Ch'oe Ch'ung-hn's son U (died 1249) extended the Ch'oe clan's power to the civil service. He also founded the "Three Special Service Corps," a private army designed to suppress internal dissension and to fight foreign invaders.

The undoing of the Ch'oe rule was the Mongol invasions, which started in 1231. U transferred the capital to Kanghwa Island (1232), determined to fight to the end. The civilian officials, however, allied with dissatisfied military groups, advocated peace, and in 1258 the last Ch'oe dictator was murdered.

Further Reading

There is no book in English on Ch'oe Ch'ung-hn. Takashi Hatada, A History of Korea (1951; trans. 1969), and the chapter on Korea in Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank, eds., East Asia: The Great Tradition (1958), contain information on Ch'oe Ch'ung-hn and his times. W. E. Henthorn, Korea: The Mongol Invasions (1963), is a detailed but inaccurate study. Frederick M. Nelson, Korea and the Old Order in Eastern Asia (1945), discusses the international relations of the Koreans. □