When Mongolia ruled Jeju, Jeju, South Korea
In 1270, Kim Tong-jeong’s Sambyeolcho army landed in Jeju. It was a motley assortment of Korean freedom fighters and liberated Mongolian Prisoners of War who had continued to fight Mongolia despite orders from the Goryeo court in Seoul to lay down their weapons. In pursuit were the Mongolian army and their new Goryeo allies, who had assembled a force of 10,000 men to hunt down and destroy them. With the help of local residents, Kim overtook Jeju’s indigenous army and erected a fortress near Halla Mountain. They held Jeju until 1273, when Kim and Korea’s resistance to Mongolia came to a bloody end. The Mongol-Goryeo force annihilated the Sambyeolcho at Hangpaduri, and Kim was forced to flee to the wilds of Halla Mountain, where he later committed suicide.
With that final act of rebellion, Jeju’s Mongolian era had begun. For over one hundred years, they used Jeju as an enormous stable, feeding Mongolia’s insatiable thirst for horses and livestock. It also became the staging ground for two unsuccessful invasions of Japan. Goryeo seemed content to leave the oft-neglected island to Mongolia, but when the Mokhos (or Mongolian horsemen) began to incite riots and assassinate local governors and aristocrats, King Gongmin finally lost his patience. He was passionately anti-Chinese, and as Mongolia’s hold over that country waned, Gongmin saw an opportunity to wrest control of Jeju from his erstwhile Mongolian tenants.
So it was that in 1374 Goryeo sent 314 ships containing 25,605 soldiers to retake the Tamra Kingom in Jeju. Continuing in their long standing tradition of thumbing their noses at the mainland, many Jeju residents joined a force of over 3,000 Mokhos who had gone out to meet the Goryeo army at Myeongwolpo Harbor in modern day Jeju City.
Goryeo General Chae Yeong, with his vastly superior numbers, decided to offer the Mokho’s the olive branch so as to avert any unnecessary bloodshed. He therefore sent 11 ships to shore to sue for peace. All aboard were promptly slaughtered by the Mokhos. The act so terrified the Goryeo forces that Chae Yeong had to torture and behead a number of his subordinates before they finally agreed to attack. Once they did, General Chae used his numbers to wrestle the Mokhos from the shoreline. The Mokhos retreated and later regrouped at Saebyeol Oreum, present day site of the Fire Festival, where the two armies fought a vicious battle. Those who survived beat a hasty retreat south towards modern day Seogwipo. There the Goryeo army set up camp in Beophwan-li, near where World Cup Stadium now stands (to this day, the area is still known as “Maksuk” or “Night Camp”). The Mokhos and Goryeo fought their final battle there, with the remaining Mokho forces retreating to Beomseom Island. Legend says Chae dressed Oedelgae rock as an enormous general, and the Mongols killed themselves in a fit of fright. In reality, General Chae had the island surrounded with 40 ships, and sent in hand-picked soldiers to slay the remaining Mokho forces.
With the massacre of the Mokhos at Beomseom, 100 years of Mongolian rule in Jeju came to a close. But if General Chae thought defeating the Mokhos would end their influence on the island he was sorely mistaken. In fact, traces of Mongolian influence still remain to this day. Tamra residents had long been intermarrying with Mongolians, absorbing their language and culture. The Jeju dialect, so distinct from standard Korean, was heavily influenced by Mongolian. Islanders also took to Mongolian dress, and adopted their custom of wearing leather and furs. Even the practices of carrying babies in baskets (as opposed to on their backs) and transporting water by stringing large pots over one’s back come from Mongolia.
Few Mongolian architectural accomplishments have survived the centuries, but tantalizing reminders still dot the island. Wondang Bultap-sa (built in 1300, 6 km east of Jeju-si) was one of Jeju’s reigning centers for Buddhist worship during the Mongol reign of Jeju. Nearly all of the original structure has been destroyed, but a 5 tier pagoda made of basalt still remains, and is said to be completely unique on the island. Just west of Seogwipo is Beophwa-sa, which was built at nearly the same time. It was the most important temple on Jeju until the original structure was destroyed in 1410. Local authorities have carried out excavations since the 1990s. Many interesting discoveries have been made there. The less exciting discoveries, including ancient cornerstones, are lying about on the right hand side of the temple.
But the Mokho spirit perhaps lives strongest in the jorangmal, the Mongolian horses that interbred with local horses to become what we now call “Jeju ponies”. The Mokho’s former steeds are the last living reminder of a Jeju long since past, and a testament to her defiant Mongolian rulers.