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King Naemul of Silla -- Movers and shakers of Korean history

There is very little we know about King Naemul of Silla (r. 356-402), aside from his tomb, but we are lucky that he was mentioned in at least two historical texts, and that give us some facts about his life and rule.

Much of our knowledge about him comes from the "Memorabilia of the [Korean] Three Kingdoms" (Samguk Yusa, 삼국 유사, 三國 遺事), but he is also mentioned in the "History of the [Korean] Three Kingdoms" (Samguk Sagi, 삼국 사기, 三國 史記).

The "Memorabilia" is a collection of tales and myths put together by a Buddhist monk in the early 1200s. It's a collection of casual stories, folk tales and myths that date from the 100s B.C. to about A.D. 650. The "History" is an official government text put together by Goryeo royal scholars in 1145. It's officially a minutely factual record of three earlier kingdoms that existed on or around the Korean Peninsula -- Baekje (백제, 百濟), Silla (신라, 新羅) and Goguryeo (고구려, 高句麗).

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King Naemul of Silla (내물왕, 奈勿王) (r. 356-402), the 17th Silla monarch, is buried in plot No. 188 at the official Silla royal tombs in Gyeongju. Nowadays, the royal tombs are part of a public park.

King Naemul is most famous for putting the Gyeongju Kim Clan (경주 김씨, 慶州 金氏) firmly in control of the Silla throne. After him, until A.D. 935, it was almost only Gyeongju Kims who sat on the throne in Gyeongju. Before him, the Kim Clan, the Sok Clan and the Pak Clan had been vying for power in early Silla days, with the throne going back and forth between the three. After King Naemul, however, it almost entirely belonged to just one family.

The "Memorabilia" includes some bullet point facts about King Naemul. He was Silla's 17th monarch. His father was Kim Malgoo (김말구, 金末仇), a man who had received the gakgan award (각간, 角干) in honor of deeds performed for the nation. His mother was Wife Hyurye (휴례부인, 休禮夫人) of the Gyeongju Kim Clan. Finally, Naemul's royal spouse, Wife Buban (보반부인, 保反夫人), was the daughter of an earlier king, King Michu (미추왕, 味鄒王) (r. 262-284), a monarch known for his "virtuous spirit."

In 364, Naemul defeated an unnamed upstart chieftain around Tohamsan Mountain (토함산, 吐含山), between today's Ulsan and Pohang, who was being supported by Kofun (고훈시대, 古墳時代) forces. On the mountainside, Naemul set up scarecrows that looked like soldiers, tricking his enemy and giving him a successful ambush.

In 373, he defeated some Baekje forces in one of the many Silla-Baekje battles.

In 381, he sent a tributary mission to King Fu Jian (부견, 苻堅), the third ruler of the Former Qin (전진, 前秦) and was thereby able to import more "Chinese cultural products" (중국 문물), including the Chinese writing system and green celadon.

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The "Memorabilia of the [Korean] Three Kingdoms" (Samguk Yusa, 삼국 유사, 三國 遺事) is a miscellanea of stories and tales collected by a Buddhist monk in the early 1200s. It includes many myths about Korea's earliest kings.

According to the Samguk Yusa, in the 36th year of Naemul's reign, A.D. 390, a monarch from Kofun sent an emissary to Naemul's court. Kofun, Silla and Baekje had all been warring during these times. The Kofun monarch denounced Baekje for its attacks on Silla and asked Silla for an alliance against Baekje. The monarch then asked Naemul to send one of his sons as a sign of alliance. Naemul agreed and sent his third son Mihae (미해, 美海), then 10-years-old, along with an old servant named Park Sa-ram (박사람, 朴娑覽), to go back to Kofun with the emissary. The son, Mihae, ended up living there and not returning to Silla until he was 40-years-old.

In 392, Naemul then made an alliance with Gwanggaeto the Great (광개토왕, 廣開土 王) (r. 391-413), the 19th Goguryeo monarch. In 393 when Kofun forces invaded Silla again, King Naemul defeated them in alliance with Goguryeo. In 395, he also defeated an invasion from Mohe (말갈, 靺鞨).

Finally, in 397 a famine broke out and Naemul ordered to have the people exempt from taxes for one year, which is remembered as one of the many great deeds he did.

For historical personalities in the distant past, quite often literature and texts are all we have. All works of art, including royal records and collections of stories, are political and reflect the era in which they were made. So the information we have about ancient Silla kings reflects what subsequent peoples -- Goryeo, especially -- deemed to be important.

King Naemul ruled for 46 years, a long reign in any era, especially in ancient times when people died much younger than they do today. He lies at rest in Gyo-dong, Gyeongju, specifically in plot 188 at the official Silla royal tombs there (경상북도 경주시 교동. 사적 제188호). Visitors can enter the grounds of the royal tomb for a small fee and, to be honest, his burial site makes for a very pleasant park these days.

By Gregory C. Eaves Staff Writer
Photos: Cultural Heritage Administration
Sources: Doopedia, Naver, Wikipedia

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