Sunday, 9 July 2017

The Battle of Hwangsanbeol and the Sacrificial Heroics of Korean Unification

The 7th century was a "foundational" time in the political history of the Korean people. At its start the Korean peninsula was divided into several states, but at its end it was more or less united, certainly more united than it is now.

The key driver of this unification was the rise of the state of Silla and the key event was the Battle of Hwangsanbeol which took place today (July 9th) in 660 AD.

Based in the South Eastern tip of the Korean peninsula, the kingdom of Silla faced three main rivals: the Japanese across the sea and the rival Korean kingdoms of Paekche to the West and Koguryo to the North.

Like the state of Prussia in 17th and 18th century Europe, this unenviable position probably accounts for its development of a superior military culture that allowed it to compete with, and ultimately conquer, larger states like Paekche and Koguryo, while also fending off the Japanese and later the Chinese.

The war of unification started as follows: Koguryo, occupying the North, was an enemy of Tang China. Paekche was initially friendly to Tang China, but wanted to conquer Silla so it allied with Koguryo, opening a way for a Tang-Silla alliance.

At first the Tang-Silla alliance concentrated its forces against Koguryo, which was considered more dangerous. But in 660, they realized that a coordinated attack against the Paekche kingdom might yield better results. 

After a Silla army of 50,000 men attacked from the East and a Tang fleet with 130,000 men attacked from the West, the Paekche kingdom started to fall into disarray, and was unable to mobilize its full defensive force.

Led by General Kim Yu-Shin, the Silla forces, advanced to a place called Hwangsanbeol, where a force of 5,000 Paekche soldiers were assembled under the command of General Gyebeck to meet them. In order to concentrate his mind solely on the task in hand and to avoid being swayed by familial concerns, General Gyebeck butchered his own wife and children before the battle. Inspired to fight with equal dedication, the small Paekche army did well at first and repelled the enemy who grew demoralized.

This led the Silla army to employ similar sacrificial heroics. General Kim Pumil sent his young son Kim Gwanchang, one of the Knights of the Hwarang Order (Order of Flowering Knights), an elite group of young, high-born knights, to engage the enemy single-handedly in suicidal combat to raise morale. The first time he was captured and sent back, but the second time he was killed heroically in battle and his body sent back. 

With this sacrifice to set against that of  General Gyebeck, the Silla forces were reanimated, and able to finally overpower the Paekche, essentially annihilating their force and killing General Gyebeck. 

Following this victory, the Silla forces marched on and captured the Paekche capital of Gongju, finally merging the Paekche kingdom in Silla. In the following years, a Japanese attempt to revive Paekche was defeated and the Northern kingdom of Koguryo was crushed with the help of Tang China. Silla then found itself at war with Tang China itself, finally driving out Tang forces by 676.

In order for a country like Korea to exist where it does, a great deal of heroism and sacrifice has been necessary and are still deeply encoded in the Korean mind and psyche. This is something that should be remembered by those foreign states that would push around the descendants of the warriors of Silla and Paekche.

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