Wang Kon

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Wang Kon

Wang Kon (877-943) was the founder of the Korean Koryo dynasty and a descendant of a powerful clan at Songdo which controlled maritime trade on the Yesong River. The legends of his ancestors and his rise to power bespeak the clan's intimate association with the sea.

Wang Kon first served as a general under Kungye of Later Koguryo, one of the Later Three Kingdoms. A Silla prince who took to the hills on account of political squabbling at court, Kungye was something of a megalomaniac and Buddhist fanatic, styled himself a Maitreya, and indulged in butchery in his sumptuous palaces. Finally, Wang's colleagues decided to make Wang king, and he ascended the throne at Ch'orwon, the capital of Later Koguryo (918). A year later, Wang transferred the capital to Songdo (modern Kaesong), his clan's stronghold, for personal, strategic, and geomantic reasons.

The destruction of Later Paekche, established by Kyonhwon in the southwestern part of the peninsula, was Wang's next objective. The battle line was drawn along the west of the Naktong River, where battles were fought from 930 to 936. Wang's fleet also invaded the enemy's coast, especially Naju and Chin islands, in order to sever its communication routes with China and Japan. Later Paekche finally fell in 936, owing chiefly to the internecine feud that sapped the country's energy. Thus the peninsula was reunified after half a century of war and chaos.

Wang's policy toward Silla, the other major Korean kingdom, was that of comity. When the Later Paekche army ravaged the Silla capital and caused the reigning Silla monarch to commit suicide (927), Wang personally took the field and fought the enemy. When King Kyongsun (reigned 927-935), the last Silla ruler, surrendered in the eleventh month of 935, Wang gave Kyongsun his eldest daughter in marriage and did his utmost to absorb peacefully the traditional authority of the vanquished state. Thus Wang was able to display that he inherited the Silla throne not just as a local strong man, but as a legitimate successor to Silla tradition and authority.

The political structure of Koryo was basically the same as that of Silla, and Koryo continued the use of the T'ang administrative system. In order to unite the nation under a single authority, Wang succeeded in consolidating some 20 local magnates, his erstwhile comrades-in-arms, chiefly by marriage alliances.

The foreign policy of Wang was at once dynamic and conciliatory. He attempted to regain the old territory of Koguryo; and the western capital, P'yongyang, the erst-while Koguryo capital, served as the base for his northern expansion. He protected refugees from Parhae, the successor state of Koguryo, when it fell to the hands of the Khitans (926). He also subjugated the Jürchen, east of the Yalu, thus extending his sway to the Yalu River. A devout Buddhist, Wang believed that the country's peace and prosperity depended upon the Buddha's protection and mercy.

Further Reading

Information in English on Wang Kon must be gleaned from general works on Korea, such as Cornelius Osgood, Koreans and Their Culture (1951), and Takashi Hatada, A History of Korea (1969). □