Balhae dominated Manchuria
This is the fourth of a 10-part series on Korean history from its mythological, ancient beginning until the present day. This project is sponsored by several companies and public agencies including Merck Korea, eBay Korea, Daewoo Securities and Korea Post. ― ED.
By Kim Tae-gyu and Kevin N. Cawley
The smallest and weakest country Silla terminated the Three-Kingdom era by felling bigger rivals Goguryeo and Baekje in the late 7th century with the help of China's Tang Dynasty.
Then, Silla managed to drive away Chinese forces, which showed their ambition of taking the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria under its control.
However, Silla ruled only lands below Pyongyang and the areas above it belonged to no nation for around 30 years before former Goguryeo General Dae Jo-yeong founded a state there in 698.
Dae destroyed the Tang forces, which used its subordinate Khitan people, to set up Jin. Dae established the country, which was later called Balhae, as a successor to Goguryeo to occupy southern Manchuria, the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and the areas around today’s Vladivostok.
Balhae controlled this wide-ranging territory for more than two centuries before collapsing in 926 due to an attack of the Khitans, a nomadic Mongolic people.
It is ironic that Balhae was founded after defeating the Khitans but eventually fell to them. After then, any state governed by ethnic Koreans failed to regain Manchuria, northeast of China.
The ruling class of Balhae was by and large composed of ethnic Koreans, mostly descendents of Goguryeo, while the Mohe comprised most of the state’s population.
The Mohe, otherwise called Malgal, were people in ancient Manchuria who failed to build a strong nation-state and were attacked or annexed by countries in China and the Korean Peninsula.
Although a vast majority of Balhae population was Mohe, the Korean ruling class successfully built and maintained a national identity and competed with surrounding kingdoms including the Tang Dynasty in the west and Unified Silla in the south.
Feeling isolated and threatened due to the checks from the two neighbors as well as warlike tribes in the east, the second King Mu attacked the Shandong Peninsula of Tang with his navy in 732 to record early victories.
The Shandong Peninsula was the base camp where Tang sent its navies twice to Korea when it struck Goguryeo and Baekje.
However, Balhae maintained good relations with Tang after the death of the second King Mu and the former reached its peak in the early 9th century to regain most of the former Goguryeo lands.
Back then, it gained its nickname the ``flourishing country of the east’’ from China.
When Balhae attacked Tang under the reins of King Mu, Silla invaded Balhae’s southern borders at the request of Tang. The standoffs prompted Silla to build a northern wall in the early 8th century. But later on, the northern and southern countries had good relations with each other.
Balhae also had lots of exchanges with Japan, thus delivering its advanced culture to the island country.
In Balhae, a small group of Goguryeo remnants ruled much bigger groups of Tungusic people, mostly the Mohe. In many aspects, the country adopted the culture of the former.
Balhae’s cities including its capital Sanggyeong were considered to be culturally advanced as well as similar to those of Goguryeo based on research of its archaeological remains, mostly in northeast China today.
Unfortunately, all the written records from Balhae have been lost so that historians have no choice but to depend on records of other countries or from archaeological discoveries to uncover the real face of the nation.
Because not so much research has been done on Balhae due to a lack of data, the country still remains as a somewhat mystic entity.
Farewell to Manchuria
In the early 10th century, Balhae’s fortune waned for some reason and the Khitans, the very tribe Balhae destroyed 200-plus years ago in order to found itself, took advantage of the situation to take down Balhae.
Up until now, the consensus has been that the clash between the ruling class Koreans and the underclass Mohe caused the weakening, but new hypotheses have risen of late.
Of note is the theory that the eruption of Mt. Baekdu led to the decline of Balhae as its volcanic ash greatly damaged its agricultural infrastructure, which was the basis for its survival.
No matter what the reason was, the Khitans founded a country in 926 after beating Balhae, which was annexed by the Liao Empire 10 years later.
A few self-proclaimed heroes managed to create countries in the region, which described themselves as the successor to Balhae, to chase the Khitans, but they were swept away by Liao.
Some Chinese historians insist that Balhae was not a Korean kingdom but one made up of its own ethnic groups or the Mohe. Korean historians refute that claim as the distinctive Balhae culture had its origins in Goguryeo, including the ondol house-heating system.
Significantly, its people saw themselves as distinct from the Chinese as can be seen from the fighting and conflict with Tang of China.
In addition, when Balhae sent envoys to Japan, the state also described itself as Goguryeo. The second Emperor Mu said in a letter to Japan that Balhae succeeded Goguryeo, while calling himself a Goguryeo king.
The last royal family of Balhae also revolted against the Khitans fleeing southward where they were welcomed and received protection from the new Goryeo Dynasty.
Historically, there were some attempts to regain Manchuria as part of the national territory but none of them produced tangible results.
There after, Manchuria was no longer included as part of Korean history after the fall of Balhae.
But neither Unified Silla nor the later Goryeo Dynasty wrote an official history of Balhae, which has offered some grounds for those who claim that it does not belong to Korea. However, an increasing number of modern historians are now researching the country’s history.
Dr. Kevin N. Cawley is currently the Director of the Irish Institute of Korean Studies at University College Cork (UCC), Ireland _ the only institute in Ireland dedicated to promoting Korean studies _ funded by the Academy of Korean Studies, South Korea. He was previously a Gyujanggak Fellow at Seoul National University.
A Manchurian kingdom set up after the collapse of Goguryeo
Unified Silla (AD668-935):
Korea’s first unified country after the Three Kingdom era
An ancient Korean kingdom in the northern Korean Peninsula and Manchuria
An ancient kingdom in southwest Korea
An ancient kingdom in southeast Korea
Dae Jo-yeong (reign: 699-719:)
Founder of Balhae
King Mu (reign: 719-737):
Second monarch of Balhae, who attacked the Tang Dynasty
A peninsula in the Shandong Province of northeastern China
Currently the capital of North Korea, which is located at the heart of the country
Tang Dynasty (AD618-907):
An imperial dynasty of China, which flourished in terms of cultural capacity and military power
Liao Empire (907-1125):
A Khitan empire in East Asia, which ruled over such regions as Manchuria, Mongolia and parts of northern China
Korea’s unique heating system based on heat transference from the underside of a thick brick floor
Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392):
A Korean kingdom that succeeded the Southern-and-Northern States period