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Type of Government

The Goguryeo Kingdom emerged out of tribal lands around what is now the Chinese-Korean border as a kingdom dominated by a warrior aristocracy. Early Goguryeo kings developed their rule around two important considerations: successful integration of local tribal leaders into the emerging royal government, and establishment of a tribute and tax collection system for an expanding kingdom. As the Goguryeo government entered its transition from tribal federation to early statehood, authority became more centralized. Eventually the Goguryeo kings developed a fourteen-grade ranking system that was finalized under the powerful king Jangsu (394–491), from which they would draw the officials who assisted them in ruling. Provincial governors, and hereditary regional patriarchs with armies of their own, assisted the king in governance.


Most likely descended from nomadic steppe peoples, the Goguryeo settled in lands that were inhospitable to agriculture, so they depended on hunting for a livelihood. Contemporary Chinese sources describe them as markedly aggressive and engaged in a warlike way of life. Indeed, in the Three Kingdoms of medieval Korea—Silla (57 BC–AD 935), Goguryeo (37 BC–AD 668), and Paekche (18 BC–AD 660), military training and organization often claimed the best of each ruler’s energy and genius. As state administration grew more elaborate in each kingdom, the kingdoms began to compete against one another for territorial domination. In times of conflict, two of the three kingdoms might side together against the third, but such allegiances were quickly abandoned as new situations arose.

The example and influence of neighboring Chinese empires, with the introduction of Confucianism and Buddhism, were the most important influences on Goguryeo society. Agriculture, government structure, literacy, and urbanization had developed earlier in China, and Chinese literature, art, architecture, music, dress, and etiquette served as models for the early inhabitants of the adjoining Goguryeo Kingdom. Chinese commanderies (administrative outposts), which had been established on the Korea Peninsula in the last century BC, strengthened trade and cultural ties and provided the means for local tribes to become acquainted with Chinese ways. Chinese luxury goods were exchanged for the peninsula’s natural resources. The Chinese extended their authority by presenting Goguryeo tribal and clan leaders with imperial titles and gifts of prestige goods.

Although Korean kings at times became vassals to the Chinese emperor, and even paid tribute, Koreans did not view this as a loss of autonomy, and Chinese attempts to directly interfere with domestic affairs met with Korean opposition. The Chinese commanderies eventually lost influence because of Korea’s geographical isolation and the difficulty of maintaining the outposts when Chinese empires periodically fell on troubled times.

Government Structure

In AD 12 the Goguryeo established an independent tribal federation on lands near the Hun River, a tributary of the Yalu. At its stone-walled capital city of Hwando, the Goguryeo tribal leader assumed the title of wang (king), a signal to the Chinese that he wished to be recognized as the leader of a sovereign state.

As territorial expansion tripled Goguryeo’s size, its kings worked to adjust its military and political organization accordingly. Leaders of tribal groups who became officials in the royal government were frequently given the title hyŏng (elder brother). This designation reflected the importance of family inheritance in determining authority in Goguryeo’s patriarchal society. Officials were given further designations of tae hyŏng (big brother) or so hyŏng (small brother).

The highest rank of was that of taedaero—an elective office chosen from among the ruling elite that was intended to hold royal power in check. Another designation, saja (messenger), applied to tax administrators and others posted in provinces and other smaller administrative units of the kingdom. The importance of the sajas’ work increased as Goguryeo’s territorial holdings increased. At its height, Goguryeo was divided into five provinces ruled by provincial governors residing in large, walled cities. Besides provincial capitals, the kingdom included 170 other walled cities and towns, where government officials, assisted by military deputies, carried out administrative duties. In some areas, hereditary patriarchs with military forces of their own continued to govern surrounding districts.

Political Parties and Factions

The first mention of Goguryeo in written history divides them into five main tribes or clans: the Yŏnno, Chŏllo, Sunno, Kwanno, and Kyeru. These loosely confederated clans eventually formed the centralized Goguryeo state.

Major Events

The long reign of Jangsu, the most notable Goguryeo king, began in 413 and ended in 491, earning him the imperial title of “Long Lived.” Among his many important reforms was the finalizing of the fourteen-rank system that organized government officials. In 427 he moved the Goguryeo capital from its original site on the Yalu River to P’yŏngyang on the Taedong River, thereby planting his kingdom squarely in the center of the Korea Peninsula. This move provided the kingdom with fertile rice-growing lands to use as an economic base. Jangsu continued to press south until he had incorporated the Han River basin in the Goguryeo Kingdom. Following expansion, he organized the kingdom into five provinces and established two additional capital cities: Kungnaesŏng and Hansŏng.

In 372 the Chinese Buddhist monk Sŏndo (fourth century) arrived at the Goguryeo court. He was wholeheartedly welcomed in his efforts to introduce the new religion, and it became the official state religion of the kingdom. Following its adaptation by the ruling elite, Buddhism did much to enlarge the spiritual perspective of Goguryeo’s citizens as they emerged from a tribal consciousness into a national one. Buddhism influenced the development of art, music, and literature, and the practice of meditation and retreat to Buddhist temples offered respite from the demands of everyday life.

Also in 372 King Sosurim (d. 384) instituted an official Confucian academy of higher learning, called Taehak, which was intended for the training of important government clerks. Its students studied not only Confucian principles but also Chinese history and literature. Confucianism was as influential as Buddhism in the history of the Goguryeo Kingdom. It informed ethical standards and provided ideas about government and society. On a personal level, it emphasized the roles and responsibilities of individual family members. On a societal level, Confucianism emphasized loyalty, hierarchy, and authority and clarified the importance of social rank. Young people were viewed as subordinate to their elders, women to men, commoners to the members of the upper class, and subjects to the ruler. Individuals, however, could rise through the Confucian examination system on merit, as opposed to inherited right, although members of elite families had easier access to education.


In 668 the era of the Three Kingdoms ended when Silla, with the help of the Chinese, destroyed Goguryeo. Korea began its long unification in 676, when Silla drove the Chinese out of southern Goguryeo, bringing the entire Korea Peninsula under its rule. With one brief interruption (when Japan turned it into a protectorate from 1910 to 1945), Korea remained one of the oldest continuously unified states in the world, until the end of World War II (1939–1945), when the United States and the Soviet Union partitioned it into the present-day states of North Korea and South Korea. While this partition created rival political states, Koreans remain united by a homogenous culture that shares a common language.

Barnes, Gina Lee. China, Korea, and Japan: The Rise of Civilization in East Asia. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Joe, Wanne J. Traditional Korea: A Cultural History—A History of Korean Civilization. Edited by Hongkyu A. Choe. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym, 1997.

Seth, Michael J. A Concise History of Korea: From the Neolithic Period through the Nineteenth Century. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.