The Koryo Academy:
The Mongolian
Connection

What does Koryo have to do with Mongolia?

Next February 19-24 Koryo Tours will run its third annual Mongolia – Land of the Winter Horse Tour from the capital Ulan Bator to see wintering herds on the windswept grasslands. You may ask yourself why a company specializing in travel to North Korea offers tours to remote Mongolia. The short answer is that we love to explore new destinations and share the experience with our customers. The long answer is that beyond the shared experience of the DPRK and Mongolia of socialism in the latter half of 20th century, connections between Koryo and Mongolia go way back to the days of old Koryo.

For those unfamiliar with the term ‘Koryo’, it is the name of the Korean dynasty (918-1392) that united the peninsula in 938. Koryo is the name from which we obtain the word ‘Korea’, its first-declension latinate derivative, a linguistic introduction to the medieval west no doubt facilitated by the Mongolian conquest of Eurasia.

Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it. For a number of reasons the Koryo Dynasty has, until relatively recently, received less attention than other eras of Korean history. One is that the Koryo became a vassal state of the Mongol for the last hundred years of its 475-year history. Nationalist conscience historians in both Koreas have seen this as a mark of shame. The loss of Kaesong, ancient capital of the Koryo, by South Korea during the Korean War naturally led southern academics to concentrate on the subsequent Choson Ri Dynasty (1392-1910) centered around Seoul. It is from their work, that most westerners come to Korean history, if at all.

Between 1231 and 1259, Mongolian armies carried out a series of invasions, traumatizing the Korean Peninsula (as well as most of the known world). As the Koryo royal family abandoned Kaesong and fled to the isolated fortress island of Kanghwa, the common people were left to fend for themselves. Korean literature and poetry from this time takes a particularly dark turn, and the ‘Mongol Flute’ became a symbol of extreme sadness (McCann, 1988). In 1251, the Koryo re-commissioned a copy of the Tripitaka Koreana, a complete collection of Buddhist scriptures aimed at bringing divine intervention from the Mongolian threat. Pohyon Buddhist Temple at Mt. Myohyang holds a complete copy printed at this time.

The subjugation of Koryo saw the kingdom turned into a vassal state of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty based in China. The Koryo were forced to send royal hostages to Dadu, today’s Beijing. In exchange, Mongolian princesses were married into the Korean royal family. The most famous was Queen Noguk, the wife of King Kongmin (1330-1374), 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty. Their beautiful twin tomb can be visited in Kaesong.

Korea also became a base of operation for the Mongolian military. Korean artisans helped build ships for the failed Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1274 and in 1276 horse farms were established on Jeju Island with the help of Mongolian trainers. These farms provided horses to the Mongolian war machine for the next 94 years until the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty, and then to the subsequent Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In 1393, the second year of the Ri Dynasty, the Ming court complained “that over 9,800 horses were old and broken down and could not be used in battle” (Goodrich, 1940), perhaps against the Mongolian armies still operating on their frontiers.

To this day horse herds live on Jeju Island and horse meat is a local delicacy. The Jeju National Museum in South Korea has a wonderful online exhibition entitled Korean Horses: Galloping Across Time and Space. It contains a brief section on the historic connection with Mongolia and the malteuri, or herders of Jeju, descendants of the Koreans originally trained by Mongolians.

Our winter Mongolia - Land of the Winter Horse Tour will provide a chance to see to Mongolian horse herders and trainers in action, much as they have done since the days of the Mongol conquests. Horsemanship is taught to children form a very young age and they hone their skills not only in their semi-nomadic life but also in the annual festivals where racing and other competitions take place.

The Mongolian horse is a special breed. Smaller than your average horse, it is extremely rugged, living in both hot and cold, fast and agile. These traits once proved extremely devastating to non-Mongolian armies across Eurasia. A rider’s kit is made up for a non-padded saddle, stirrups, and poll-lasso called an urga. There is a good movie that shares the name with the lasso.

The tour will be led by our own Rich Beal, who from over a decade of experience leading tours in both Mongolia and Korea, feels there are some similarities between traveling in the two.

"Both countries are secluded in communications with the outside world. The benefits for the traveler are there no distractions for the group. Conversations are struck up and the focus is on enjoying the location itself. The people of both countries are both extremely nationalistic and proud of their culture, history and ethnicity, whilst remaining friendly, approachable, and surprisingly friendly to the outsider.”

This year our winter Mongolia tour come right on the heels of our Kim Jong Il Birthday Short Tour (February 14-18) in Korea. The two can be combined with a short stay in Beijing.

The Koryo Academy is a regular posting on Korean history, culture, and language.

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