Goryeo-Khitan Wars

From New World Encyclopedia
Goryeo-Khitan Wars
Hangul 거란의 침입
Hanja 契丹의 侵入
Revised Romanization Georan-ui Chimip
McCune-Reischauer Kŏranŭi Ch'imip

The Goryeo-Khitan Wars refers to a series of tenth and eleventh-century invasions of Korea's Goryeo Dynasty by the Khitan Liao Dynasty near the present-day border between China and North Korea. The Goryeo-Khitan Wars consisted of the first, the second, and third campaigns.

The Liao Dynasty Khitans moved into the region traditionally ruled by Korean Kingdoms when they conquered Balhae in 926 C.E. The region in today's Manchuria, north of the Yula River, had been Korean territory since 2333 B.C.E., or for over 3000 years. The Khitan's conquering Balhae compares to the Islamic armies conquering Jerusalem and the other ancient centers of Christianity after 600 C.E. The Khitan's invasion of Goryeo represented their attempt to conquer the Korean Peninsula and incorporate the Korean people into Liao. Their attempt failed, as had many before and as would many attempts after.

Korea unified vertical.svgHistory of Korea

Jeulmun Period
Mumun Period
Gojoseon, Jin
Proto-Three Kingdoms:
 Buyeo, Okjeo, Dongye
  Ma, Byeon, Jin
Three Kingdoms:
  Sui wars
 Silla, Gaya
North-South States:
 Unified Silla
 Later Three Kingdoms
 Khitan wars
 Mongol invasions
 Japanese invasions
 Manchu invasions
Korean Empire
Japanese occupation
 Provisional Gov't
Division of Korea
 Korean War
 North Korea
 South Korea

List of monarchs


During the Three Kingdoms of Korea period, Goguryeo occupied the northern Korean Peninsula and parts of Manchuria. With Goguryeo's fall in 668 C.E., Silla unified the Three Kingdoms, while Silla's ally Tang Dynasty China briefly occupied the northern parts of Goguryeo territory. A former Goguryeo general revived Goguryeo's Manchurian territory as the new kingdom of Balhae. Immediately following the fall of Goguryeo, the Tang Dynasty divided and eventually drove out most of the Central Asia Turkic peoples (called Göktürks). Another Turkic tribe, the Uyghurs, replaced the Göktürks but they exerted weak influence in the region.

As Balhae, the Uyghur and the Tang Dynasty weakened, the Tungusic Khitan people emerged in the region now called Inner Mongolia, and began the expansion of their territory. Following Tang's fall in 907 C.E., China experienced a long civil war. In 911 C.E., threatened by Khitan expansion, Balhae sought assistance from the declining Unified Silla. Records state that Balhae also requested help from Silla's successor dynasty Goryeo during the Later Three Kingdoms. In 916, Khitan chief Yelü Abaoji, founded the Liao Dynasty, replacing the Uyghurs as the dominant power of present-day Mongolia.

Goryeo-Khitan relations

Khitans Eagle Hunters

The Goryeo dynasty succeeded the Unified Silla dynasty in 918. The Khitan destroyed Balhae in 926; many of Balhae's ruling class fled south, joining the newly founded Goryeo Dynasty. Historically, Korea had maintained close relations with the traditional dynasties of China, but considered the northern peoples barbarians, especially after Balhae's fall. The Khitan took control of 16 Chinese provinces south of the Great Wall establishing the foundation of the short-lived Later Jin Dynasty (936-947), which ruled only a small part of China.

In 922, the Khitan leader Yelü Abaoji sent horses and camels to Goryeo as a gift, seeking friendly relations. When Balhae fell, Emperor Taejo embraced Balhae refugees, pursuing a policy of northern expansion. In 942, the Khitan sent 50 camels to Goryeo, but Taejo refused the gift, exiling the envoy to an island and starving the camels to death. Succeeding Goryeo rulers continued the anti-Khitan policy. Jeongjong raised an army of 300,000 to defend against the Khitan. Gwangjong built fortresses along the northwest, and aggressively developed present-day Pyongyang and Hamgyong.

Liao's expansion

In 946 C.E., the Khitan Liao Dynasty sought to seize all of China. As the Song Dynasty moved to unify China in 960, internal conflict among Liao royal family members briefly stopped the Khitan goal of Chinese conquest. In 962, Gwangjong allied with Song China, pursuing a northern expansion policy. Additionally, some Balhae refugees had formed a small state called Jeongan-guk in mid-Yalu River region and allied with Song and Goryeo against the Khitan. The Khitan eventually regained internal stability under the strong leadership of Emperor Shengzong, who sought to counter regional isolation. After conquering Jeongan-guk in 986 and attacking Jurchen tribes in lower Yalu in 991 C.E., the Khitans initiated attacks against Goryeo.

First Invasion: 993 C.E.

Portrait of Zhang Liao


In late August 993, Goryeo intelligence sources along the frontier learned of an impending Khitan invasion. King Seongjong of Goryeo quickly mobilized the military and divided his forces into three army groups to take up defensive positions in the northwest. Advanced units of the Goryeo army marched northwestward from their headquarters near modern Anju on the south bank of the Ch'ongch'on River. The seriousness of the situation compelled King Seongjong to travel from the capital Kaesong to Pyongyang to personally direct operations.

The Khitan attack

That October, a massive Khitan army numbering nearly 800,000 men under the command of General Xiao Sunning swarmed out of Liao from the Naewon-song Fortress and surged across the Yalu River into Goryeo. Waves of Khitan warriors swept across the river and fanned out over the countryside. In bloody seesaw warfare, the fierce resistance of Goryeo soldiers at first slowed, then considerably hampered, the Khitan advance at the city of Pongsan-gun. As against the Chinese, Goryeo's army never surrendered. It stood firm against frontal attacks, broke to retreat and lay ambushes, and launched flanking attacks against the Khitan. Goryeo warriors finally halted Xiao Sunning's army at the Ch'ongch'on River. In the face of such quick and determined resistance, the Khitan decided that further attempts to conquer the entire peninsula would be far too costly, and sought instead to negotiate a settlement with Goryeo.

Beginning of Negotiations

What the Khitan failed to take on the battlefield with arms, they tried to win in negotiations. Without a hint of contrition or humility, General Xiao Sunning demanded the surrender of the former territory of Balhae to Emperor Shengzong. He asked that Goryeo sever its relations with Song Dynasty and, in the boldest demand of all, told King Songjong to accept vassal status under the Liao emperor, paying a set annual tribute to the Liao state. Instead of Goryeo's responding with a unified voice and rejecting General Xiao's demands outright, the Khitan ultimatum quickly became the topic of heated debate in the royal court at Kaesong.

Government officials on one side believed that acceding to General Xiao would prevent further Khitan incursions and they urged the court to appease the Liao emperor. Many of the senior military commanders who had recently faced the Khitan army on the battlefield stood in opposition, including General Seo Hui, commander of an army group north of Anju. While the bureaucrats argued in Kaesong, General Xiao launched a sudden attack across the Ch'ongch'on River directly at the Goryeo army headquarters in Anju. Goryeo quickly repulsed the Khitan assault, but the surprise attack fermented panic throughout the royal court.

Truce Negotiations

Furniture, Liao Dynasty, Palace in Tian Kai Ta, in Fangshan District of Beijing

In an effort to calm the court nobility, minister Seo Hui volunteered to negotiate directly with General Xiao. Both parties knew Song China's heavy pressure on the Liaostate represented the one key factor influencing the negotiations. In face-to-face talks with his Khitan counterpart, minister Seo bluntly told General Xiao that the Khitan had no basis for claims to former Balhae territory. In fact, since the Goryeo dynasty stood without question successor to the former Goguryeo kingdom, that land rightfully belonged under Goryeo's domain. In a cleverly veiled threat, Seo Hui reminded General Xiao that the territory of theLiaodong Peninsula once existed under the dominion of Goguryeo. The Manchurian territories, including the Khitan capital at Liaoyang, should properly belong to Goryeo.


In a final remarkable act, minister Seo obtained Khitan consent to allow Goryeo to incorporate the region up to the Yalu River. General Xiao and the Khitan army not only returned to Liao without having achieved their goals, but the invasion literally ended with the Khitan giving up territory along the southern Yalu River to King Songjong. Seo Hui's brilliant diplomatic maneuver underscored his correct understanding of both the contemporary international situation and Goryeo's position in the region. Following an exchange of prisoners, the Khitan army withdrew back across the Yalu River. The following year, Goryeo and the state of Liao established formal diplomatic relations. In an effort to help the process along, Goryeo temporarily suspended its diplomatic relations with the Song Dynasty in China.

Second Invasion (1010-1011)


Funerary Mask, Liao tenth century C.E.

Expecting further Khitan incursions, King Songjong ordered the construction of what became known as the Six Garrison Settlements to extend the power of Goryeo all along the banks of the Yalu River. Peasant laborers built massive fortresses in the coastal plains and foothills between the Ch'ongch'on and Yalu Rivers near the modern cities of Uiju, Yongch'on, Sonch'on, Ch'olsan, Kusong, and Kwaksan. With its modernized defensive fortifications completed, Goryeo reopened diplomatic relations with Song China.

Khitan Emperor Shengzong viewed that defiant action, and the growing strength of Goryeo forces stationed south of the Yalu River, with alarm. He not only voiced displeasure over those developments, but demanded that Goryeo turn over its Six Garrison Settlements to the Liao empire. King Songjong immediately rejected his demand, thereby heightening tensions between the Liao state and Goryeo once again.

Khitan's Attack

Gang Jo's bloody coup in Kaesong provided the Liao emperor an opportune pretext to invade Goryeo under the guise of avenging King Mokjong's murder. In the winter of 1010 C.E., an army of 400,000 Khitan troops left the Naewon-song Fortress under the personal command of Emperor Shengzong and marched across the frozen Yalu River into the Goryeo frontier. General Gang successfully fought off the first Khitan assault from defensive positions around the Sonch'on Garrison. Undaunted, the Khitan warriors regrouped and launched a second attack. This time they overran the garrison and captured General Gang. Despite repeated demands from the Khitan emperor that Gang Jo vow allegiance to him, the heroic Goryeo general steadfastly refused to bow in submission. Emperor Shengzong executed him on the spot.

Tomb of Wang Geon, first king of Goryeo Dynasty, Korea

Emperor Shengzong's army defeated the Sunchun Garrison and easily pierced Goryeo's defenses, bypassing the coastal garrison at Kwaksan and pushing south to lay siege to the city of Pyongyang. Only a staunch defense by Goryeo defenders prevented the fall of the city. When news of Gang Jo's death reached the royal court at Kaesong, the government nearly panicked. The king's ministers clamored for an immediate and unconditional surrender. King Hyeonjong rejected the plea of his ministers and instead took the advice of one of his generals. Hoping to buy time for the remaining Goryeo forces to reorganize and counterattack when the Khitan thrust lost its momentum, Hyungjong directed the court to move far south to the port city of Naju.


Emperor Shengzong continued drive his forces southward. Khitan troops eventually reached the capital at Kaesong, taking the city. The Khitan army savagely raped and pillaged its way through Kaesong. Hoping to end the hostilities, King Hyungjong attempted to sue for peace. The Khitan emperor haughtily ordered Goryeo to cede the strategic border region then under the control of the Six Garrisons. He also demanded that if King Hyeonjong wanted the Khitan to withdraw from Goryeo, he should come to the capital at Liaoyang and show his obeisance to the Liao Dynasty. Hyeonjong knew full well that such an act would amount to acknowledgment of Goryeo's vassal status to the Liao emperor. The young king stubbornly refused such an absurd request and never took the royal journey north.


Despite their success on the battlefield, the Liao invasion brought the Khitan little advantage. After driving deep into the heart of Goryeo, Emperor Shengzong and his troops found themselves ever more dependent on thinly stretched supply lines that ran between the Naewon-song Fortress and Kaesong. Fearing that he might be cut off and isolated deep within Goryeo, Shengzong decided to withdraw his army. Goryeo's warriors counterattacked the Khitan mercilessly during its northward retreat and inflicted horrendous casualties. Between 20,000 - 30,000 Khitan soldiers reportedly died in their frantic attempt to recross the Yalu River into Liao.

Third Invasion: 1018

The Invasion and Battle of Kwiju

Khitan troops under the command of General Xiao Baiya held two cities on the Goryeo side of the Yalu River in anticipation of taking the region of the Six Garrison Settlements by force. Construction workers labored throughout the summer and autumn of 1018 C.E. to build a large, well-fortified bridge across the Yalu, completing the project in the end of that winter. General Xiao led a force of 100,000 men across the completed bridge onto Goryeo's frozen countryside in December of that year. Columns of Goryeo troops ambushed the Khitan from the moment they set foot on Goryeo territory. After breaking out of the ambush, the Khitan army drove southward, only to meet even stiffer resistance in the region around the capital of Kaesong.

King Hyeonjong received news of invasion, ordering his troops into battle against the Khitan invaders. General Gang Gam-chan, who lacked military experience since he served as a government official, became a commander of the Goryeo army of about 208,000 men. The Khitans still held the advantage, although outnumbered two to one, since most Khitan troops were mounted while the Koreans fought on foot. General Gang marched toward Yalu River. Near the Garrison Settlement of Heunghwajin, General Gang ordered a small stream blocked until the Khitans began to cross it. When the Khitans reached mid stream, he ordered the dam destroyed, drowning much of the Khitan army. Although the Khitans suffered heavy causalities, they continued the campaign into Goryeo.

Goryeo continuously launched harassing attacks on the Khitans, forcing General Xiao to abandon all thoughts of conquest. His attention soon focused on the grave problem of trying to extricate himself from the hellish winter of northwest Korea. In their rush north toward the Yalu River, the Khitan army retreated headlong into the well defended Kusong Garrison near the northwestern town of Kwiju. Goryeo's General Gang Gam-chan led a massive attack that annihilated all the Khitan army. Barely a few thousand of the Liao troops survived after the bitter defeat at Kusong.


Four years later, Goryeo and the Liao dynasty reached a negotiated peace agreement and established normal relations. The Khitan never again invaded Goryeo. Both the Liao Dynasty and Goryeo enjoyed a time of peace, with their cultures at their height. As the balance of power on the Liao-Goryeo border shifted, the Jurchens, who lived around the border between the two nations, began to expand their power. In 1115 C.E., Jurchen chief Wányán Āgǔdǎ founded the Jin Dynasty in Manchuria, launching attacks on both Khitans and Koreans. In 1125, Jurchen troops captured the Liao king with help from the Chinese, who encouraged the Jurchens in the hope of gaining territories they had lost to the Khitans. Most Khitans fled to Turkestan, establishing the Kingdom of Western Liao (Kara-Khitan). Many surrendered to the Jurchens, while the Jurchens forced Goryeo to pay tribute to Jin.

Third Invasion

When Goryeo continued to refuse to submit or return the northern territories, the Khitan attacked once more in 1018. Goryeo generals, including Gang Gam-chan, were able to inflict heavy losses on the Khitan army (Battle of Kwiju). The Khitan withdrew without achieving their demands, and finally the two nations signed a peace treaty in 1022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Grousset, René. 1970. The Empire of the steppes; a history of Central Asia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 9780813506272
  • Kang, Eung-cheon, and Joel Levin. 2005. Koryeo dynasty: a journey into the noble tradition of Korea. Virtual museum of Korean history, 7. Korea: Sakyejul Publ. ISBN 9788958280972
  • Kim, Kumja Paik. 2003. Goryeo dynasty: Korea's age of enlightenment, 918-1392. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum—Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture in cooperation with the National Museum of Korea and the Nara National Museum. ISBN 9780939117253


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.