Eulji Mundeok (을지문덕, 乙支文德) (c. 550-c. 620)

A symbol today of a “just war” or “righteous defense,” Eulji Mundeok was an almost-mythical Goguryeo general who in A.D. 612 played a decisive role in a great military victory, or defeat, depending on your side. He was a key player in the ever-waving back-and-forth of military tides that periodically wash across Northeast Asia. He stood at the crossroads between two great Northeast Asian military alliances, too, using both broad strategy and intimate tactics to defeat the invading Sui. His victory for Goguryeo set the tone for Northeast Asia for centuries to come: it allowed the rise of the Tang, and gave the Korean kingdoms the freedom to fight among themselves. We know very little about him, only a few stories jotted down about 1,000 years after his alleged deeds.

The relationships between Northeast Asian polities has always been complex. It’s not as simple as “war or peace,” or “ally or enemy.” Certainly, ancient Korean kingdoms voluntarily adopted Chinese legal and other institutions, Buddhist and Confucian ideologies, and the Chinese written language. There were also close cultural contacts and peaceful diplomatic ties between the ancient kingdoms of today’s China and today’s Korea. Nonetheless, war and antagonism were always lurking in the background. Whether it be THAAD today or Eulji Mundeok (을지문덕, 乙支文德) (c. 550-c. 620) in the early 600s, whichever Korean state is currently on top has often had to stand up to the Han Chinese, who across the centuries try to keep their borderlands broken and divided.


The War Memorial of Korea has a bust of what we think Eulji Mundeok may have looked like.

By the late 500s, a major political change had occurred on the Korean Peninsula. After seizing the Hangang River basin by betraying its former ally, Silla had gained land in the central part of the peninsula and had earned the enmity of Baekje and Goguryeo. Silla now stood alone against those two foreign countries, and this new Baekje-Goguryeo alliance was baying for blood. It moved quickly against Silla, specifically targeting the Silla communications link with the recently formed Sui (수, 隋) (581-618). This communication link was through the Danghang-seong fortress (당항성, 黨項城) in today’s town of Namyang (경기도 화성시 남양읍), just west of Suwon. Ruins are still there today and make for a pleasant day hike.

These intra-peninsula wars, however, overflowed. Korean countries have always had an over-amplified influence on their Han Chinese neighbors, perhaps because Korea has almost always been China’s strongest and closest immediate neighbor. Similarly, these tensions between Korean kingdoms in the late 500s affected mainland China. In the 580s, the Sui had succeeded in uniting most of the Han Chinese under their new rule. At the same time, however, a new power was rising in the northern steppes of Siberia, the Gokturks (돌궐, 突厥 ), who would eventually become the Khitan people (거란, 契丹). They posed a direct threat to the newly-arrived Sui, and they created a great opportunity for Goguryeo.

With its vast kingdom stretching over today’s South Korea, all of North Korea, most of Manchuria, all of Liaoning Province, all of Jilin Province, most of Heilongjiang Province, many parts of eastern Inner Mongolia, and most of Primorsky Krai, Goguryeo saw this as an opportunity. It reached northward to forge ties with the Gokturks, just as its ally, Baekje, reached southward to forge ties across the sea with Wa (왜, 倭), a broad collection of Kofun/ Asuka kingdoms (고훈 시대, 古墳時代/ 아스카 시대, 飛鳥時代) .

Thus, a great north-south axis was formed: the Gokturk-Goguryeo-Baekje-Wa (Siberia-Manchuria-Korea-Kyushu). To counter this, Silla teamed up with Sui to form an east-west axis: the Silla-Sui (Korean Peninsula-Mainland China). It is here that we lay our scene.

The final decisive test of strength between these two axes was between Goguryeo and Sui in A.D. 612, and Eulji Mundeok was the Goguryeo general in charge.

Who was Eulji Mundeok? We don’t know, but we can presume.

Eulji Mundeok was born in or around the year 550 and died after at least the year 618. The “Biographies of Famed Korean Generals” (해동명장전, 海東名將 傳) (1794) mentions him briefly. Also, stories about him appear in the “History of the [Korean] Three Kingdoms” (삼국 사기, 三國史記) (1145) and in the “Memorabilia of the [Korean] Three Kingdoms” (삼국유사, 三國遺事) (c. 1200s). Other stories about broader politics in Northeast Asia in the 500s and 600s appear in the much-earlier “Book of Sui” (수서, 隋書) (636), “Book of Zhou” (주서, 周書) (636), “History of the Northern Dynasties” (북사, 北史) (mid-600s) and other classical texts. All of these are available in English, as well as simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese and Korean. Many of the e-books have a search feature, too.

Warren Cohen describes the international relations situation of those times: “…The constant bloodshed up and down the Korean Peninsula and in Manchuria where Goguryeo was centered may seem meaningless. But of course none of the peoples involved thought of themselves as Koreans. All could see the virtue of increasing their holdings by taking from others. All recognized the value of defending what they had from any who came to take it from them…” Cohen, Warren I. “East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World,” Columbia University Press, 2001, p. 50-51.


The great Goguryeo-Sui war was decided at a battle along the Cheongcheongang River (청천강, 淸川江) near the town of Anju-si in Pyeongannam-do.

Goguryeo was the first to open hostilities. In 598, it launched a lightning assault across the Liao River (랴오허, 遼河) in southern Manchuria, just north of the Liaodong Peninsula (랴오둥 반도, 遼東半島). The Sui monarch, Wen (수 문황제 양견, 隋 文皇帝 楊堅) (r. 581-604), launched a retaliatory attack against Goguryeo. He was unsuccessful and had to turn back.

In 612, the next Sui monarch, Yang (수 명황제 양광, 隋 明皇帝 楊廣) (r. 604- 618), launched another retaliatory attack. This time, Sui was better prepared. Yang had gathered an unprecedentedly large army to send into Goguryeo-Manchuria. The texts estimate that it involved 1,000,000 soldiers.

The anchor of Goguryeo’s first line of defense was the fortress at the modern-day city of Liaoyang (랴오양시, 遼陽市) in today’s Liaoning Province (랴오닝성, 遼寧省). Splitting his forces and lightening the siege, Yang decisively ordered about a third of his force — say, 300,000 men — to break off southward and to head directly for the Goguryeo heart in Pyeongyang.

Just north of Pyeongyang is where Eulji Mundeok laid his trap.

Eulji Mundeok used a strategy similar to that used by the USSR against the Nazi invasion of 1941. Eulji retreated and retreated, strategically, drawing the invading army further and further from its supply lines. Tactically, he used weather to his advantage, in this case the rainy season and a river. Also tactically, he laid ambushes and chose the time and place of his battles.

The Cheongcheongang River (청천강, 淸川江) flows westward into the Seohan man of Korea Bay, through today’s town of Anju-si in Pyeongannam-do Province. In older forms of Romanization, it’s sometimes called the “Salsu River.” The battle is sometimes called the Battle of Salsu (살수대첩, 薩水大捷).

This is where Eulji Mundeok sprung his trap. He made grand feints and thrusts, and made use of his knowledge of the terrain. The story goes that he had dammed the river, swollen with the rainy season, and then at the crucial moment broke the dams to release the raging water, washing away the Sui soldiers. Texts tell us that only 2,700 of the 300,000 Sui soldiers survived to find their way back home. The battle was decisive.

Yang lifted his siege of the Goguryeo fortress at Liaoyang, packed up his forces, and headed back to mainland China. Yang continued to send smaller armies against Goguryeo-Liaoyang, but to no avail. These losses led directly to the Sui collapse in 618, allowing for the rise of the Tang (당, 唐). Ignoring, or perhaps even fearing, Goguryeo and other Korean kingdoms, the Tang focused their energies elsewhere and managed to reign quite successfully for just under 300 years.

Finally, the symbolism of Eulji Mundeok still looms today when it comes to the defense of the Korean Peninsula. Modern people see in his victory a justification for a “just war” or for a chest-thumping, flag-waving “righteous defense.”

First, the ROK Navy has three KDX-I Okpo-class helicopter destroyers, all made by Daewoo at its shipyards on Geojedo Island. One of them is named the Ulchimundeok (DDH-972). This ship is a type of “helicopter aircraft carrier,” a warship that carries helicopters, not airplanes.

Second, the military of the Republic of Korea and the military of the U.S. hold joint maneuvers each year called the “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” maneuvers (을지프리덤가디언). These are cyber warfare maneuvers and command & control maneuvers, pointing toward the future of warfare where computers and communication systems are more and more relevant.

By Gregory C. Eaves Staff Writer
Photos: Cultural Heritage Administration, War Memorial of Korea