Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Sambyeolcho: Military Rule and Rebellion in Ancient Korea

One of the earliest-known examples of a state security agency or police force in Asia is that of the Sambyeolcho, which was responsible for both military and police functions during the final decades of the Goryeo Dynasty in Korea when the powerful Choe family ascended to power and used it to extend military rule across the peninsula.

In 1196, Korea had been in the throes of a military dictatorship for 26 years. During this time, the country had been ruled by four different military rulers. Three of these rulers had been assassinated. Two ruled with an iron fist and murdered a number of political opponents, including the former Emperor Uijong and many of his officials. The tyrannical military ruler of the time, Yi Ui-min (who personally murdered Emperor Uijong), was assassinated by Choe Chung-heon and his brother Choe Chung-soo, who had launched a coup d'etat with various allies in the military government.

After ascending to power, Choe Chung-heon established a new order in Korea. He removed Emperor Myeongjong from power, replaced him with Emperor Sinjong, and reversed many of the policies of the previous military rulers. However, he also paved the way for 61 years of rule over Korea by the Choe family.

During their time in power, the Choe family established the Yabyeolcho (야별초meaning "Special Night Unit" in Korean) as a special army unit. The Yabyeolcho was a type of police force composed of elite soldiers who kept law and order at night in the streets of the Goryeo capital Kaesong and prevented burglaries. They were composed of two initial units: the Jwabyeolcho, or "Special Left Unit", and the Ubyeolchol, or "Special Right Unit".

In 1232, one year after the first invasion of Korea by the Mongols under Ögedei Khan, the Goryeo royal court was moved to Ganghwa Island, which is a large island located in Gyeonggi Bay near the present-day Korean DMZ. This island was inaccessible to the Mongols, who at the time were limited to land-based horse and cavalry attacks.

In 1255, under a decree from Choe Hang, the Yabyeolcho received an extra unit for escaping Goryeo POWs and former Goryeo defectors and collaborators who had a change of heart. This unit was known as the Shin-euigun ("Divine Righteous Troops") and the Yabyeolcho was officially renamed the Sambyeolcho (삼별초; Hanja 三別抄; "three special units").

Throughout its history, the Yabyeolcho/Sambyeolcho was the Choe family's private army. They were a combination of police and army and eventually superceded the army itself. The Sambyeolcho worked in conjunction with the Tobang, which was a separate elite army unit responsible for safeguarding the military leader(s).

During the Mongol invasions, the Shin-euigun was particularly useful to the Goryeo leadership on Ganghwa Island. They were used as frontline soldiers and as diplomats to the Mongols. Rather than executing traitors, the Goryeo and Sambyeolcho generals used them for military intelligence, psychological operations, and diplomatic purposes. In fact, some Shin-euigun soldiers learned and practiced the art of diplomacy!

After almost thirty years of war, the Korean countryside was in ruins and scores of Koreans, both military and civilians, were killed. A growing number of leading Goryeo scholars just wanted peace with the Mongols and for Goryeo to become one of Khubilai Khan's vassal states. The Sambyeolcho were used in a number of plots by these scholars to overthrow or murder the leaders in power. In 1258, they were used to overthrow Choe Ui and bring the Choe dynasty's hold on Korea to an end, bringing to power the pro-Mongol faction with Kim Jun as military leader. Ten years later, Kim was assassinated by the Sambyeolcho acting under orders from Im Yeong. In 1270, they were used again to assassinate Im Yumu, who would be Goryeo's final military leader. 

That same year, the military's hold on power in Goryeo was abolished with Mongol help. King Wonjong complied with Mongol demands that the Goryeo capital be relocated back to Kaesong and the Sambyeolcho be disbanded. Wonjong complied, but the Sambyeolcho would not fade away so easily....

A group of military officials led by the general in charge of the Sambyeolcho, Bae Jungson, refused to submit to Mongol authority over Goryeo. They declared a revolt against the Goryeo Dynasty. The Sambyeolcho seized control of Ganghwa Island, some other islands lying off the shores of Korea, and a few coastal regions of the Korean mainland. They appointed a member of the royal family, Wang On, king of this dominion.

Not long afterwards, the Sambyeolcho retreated from Ganghwa to Jindo Island and established their headquarters there. They managed to hold out on Jindo for a few months in the winter of 1270-71 and coordinated raids on Mongol and Goryeo targets along the Jeolla coastline of southwest Korea. 

The Sambyeolcho proved to be a serious thorn in the side of the Mongol overlords. He demaded their immediate and unconditional surrender. Bae Jungson appealed directly to Khubilai Khan to be recognized as an autonomous region, but he refused. Instead, he ordered the Sambyeolcho to be annihilated and in April of that year, a combined force of Mongol and Goryeo soldiers stormed Jindo Island. The island capitulated in a month and the king was killed in battle.

The Sambyeolcho fled to Jeju Island, which was an autonomous kingdom at the time. They overthrew the Tamna (Jeju) king, took control of the island, and set up a fortress. Throughout 1271, they laid low, regrouped, and launched sporadic raids on the Korean mainland. In February of 1272, an Mongol-Goryeo invasion force invaded Jeju Island. The island fell two months later and the Sambyeolcho was no more.

Today the Sambyeolcho are honored as heroes in Korea who stood up to the mighty Mongol hordes and bravely defended their country, even after defeat. A statue dedicated to them stands at the site of their fortress on Jeju Island. They may have started out as an organ of the military dictatorship which ruled over Goryeo-era Korea, but they ended up becoming defenders of the nation.

If you want to see the homepage of the Hangpaduri Earthen Fortress the Sambyeolcho constructed and used on Jeju Island, you can find that here:

For more information about the Shin-euigun, check out these articles:


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