So I came to America from Korea a while ago and I decided to study a bit of history (because who doesn't like history?).

While doing so, it kind of confused me that the extent of the Mongol empire engulfs the Korean peninsula. Because in all my life, I looked at images (like the ones below) that mark the Korean peninsula as not being part of the Mongol Empire. Map of Mongol Empire in KoreanMap of Mongol empire showing Goreyo outside Many Korean sources mark the borders of Goryeo (the Korean empire at that time) as the furthest extent of the Mongols in the East.

Now, I have found some reasons for this, mainly being that Goryeo was a vassal state that maintained its autonomy of government (sort of), so it was not included in these maps.

But this argument fails to explain why many other maps show the Mongols as taking charge of the Korean peninsula. Why would Koreans in particular display the story like this? It may be misleading to some young kids that only see these maps (like me) and say, "Oh, the map says Goryeo is not a part of Korea, so it successfully resisted Mongol attacks". But in fact, the Mongols did make the Goryeo Empire surrender.

Also, to what extent was this vassal state relationship extended? I found that the Goryeo imperial court married into the Mongol Royal family and they had a close relationship with one another. What was intermarriage between the nations like, and was it major enough that the Mongols saw Goryeo as a separate state?

So my main takeaway from this point is: Was Goryeo's autonomy of state great enough so that they were to be acknowledged as a separate state like the images below, or do these maps gives people a wrong impression on how the vassal relationship worked?

1 Answer 1


There are a few parts to the question:

  1. Scope of Mongol Yuan Ulus (incl Goryeo)
  2. Autonomy of the Goryeo dynasty
  3. To what extent was this vassal state relationship extended? (as provided by OP, above).

The third point - "extended" aspect of vassal state relationship - is unclear to me. If you mean to ask, did Mongol Empire have other vassals via a son-in-law (kuregen) institutional relationship, the short answer is yes, the Tibetans, Uyghurs, Persians, Georgians, Armenians and some smaller tribal unions. If you're asking what is the extent of the vassal relationship, I have tried to answer this below.

Map of Mongol Yuan Ulus (territory)

Technically the maps provided are incorrect in terms of scope of the Mongol Yuan Ulus, because the border (very loosely defined) should include Goryeo itself.

I will show 2 maps, from Britannica website and another, that is more correct.

A. Britannica Website

Mongol Yuan Ulus

B. Yuan and Goryeo Dynasties

This is from Korea and the Fall of the Mongol Empire: Alliance, Upheaval, and the Rise of a New East Asian Order by David M. Robinson, at page 48:

Korea and the Fall of the Mongol Empire by David M. Robinson, p.48

The clear distinction between these maps and the ones provided in the question is the lack of border between Yuan and Goryeo dynasties in Maps A & B.

Autonomy of Goryeo Dynasty

There's a fine line between a vassal having great autonomy and just having autonomy as a sovereign. But there is a line to distinguish the first (recognising the suzerain authority of the Mongols) and the second, full sovereignty, in which case King Wonjong would not have had to make annual trips to the Mongol court, Daidu. So, however much autonomy the Goryeo dynasty had, they were still subject to the overlord's authority.

So, in this sense, because both dynasties existed at the same time, with Goryeo as vassal to Mongol Qaghan (i.e. Qubilai Khan), Goryeo can be shown in the map as per Map B (by David Robinson - more on him below, but just to note that he is a clear authority on Goryeo-Mongol dynamic during late Mongol empire, mid-14th century).

For comparison, the state of “Western Xia” (1038–1227) does not exist anymore. It was subjugated by the Mongols (as a vassal) by 1210, and fully conquered & destroyed by 1227. Western Xia's capital was Xingqing (later Zhongxing, now city of Yinchuan in Ningxia, China). You will not see Western Xia (Xi Xia) in these maps because the dynasty by Wuzu Weiming (Li Yuanhao) does not exist anymore. In short, Goryeo, by submitting to the Mongols, kept its dynasty and polity relatively intact.

Vassal State Relationship

If this was the question, it's too broad to answer with full details and I will just point out that Mongol Yuan can, and did, make Goryeo dynasty kings work on behalf of the Mongol empire. It doesn't mean that Goryeo dynasty had no autonomy with its so-called borders, but just that their autonomy was not complete.

A good example would be the establishment of Jeongdong Haengseong 征東行省 (provincial government in Goryeo for the Eastern (Japanese) campaign) in 1280. It was staffed by Goryeo and headed by the Goryeo king, Chungnyeol. The Goryeo administration had to work with Mongols and Mongol-affiliated staff, as this passage shows:

After service in Daidu, Yi Gok would return to Goryeo, where he worked in the Branch Secretariat for Eastern Campaigns 征東行省. The Branch Secretariat for Eastern Campaigns had been first created to facilitate mobilization of Goryeo resources for the Mongols’ campaigns against Japan in the late thirteenth century. Its administrative offices located in Gaegyeong, the Branch Secretariat was nominally headed by the King of Goryeo and staffed in large part by Goryeo officials appointed by the king but at the same time directly subordinate to the Yuan throne, which assigned Chinese, Jurchen, and Mongolian men to many of its key posts.

Source: Robinson DM. Korea and the Fall of the Mongol Empire. In: Korea and the Fall of the Mongol Empire: Alliance, Upheaval, and the Rise of a New East Asian Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2022:i-ii (page 24).

In conclusion, are these maps provided in question correct? Probably not. But it depends on what they are trying to explain. At the very least, I would not put a border between Liaoning and the Korean peninsula but it can certainly show Goryeo as a polity because it still existed under the Mongol empire. Since it isn't the job of historians (to demarcate borders), nationalistic tendencies usually determines the rest.

Finally, Goryeo's role in the later stages of the Mongol Yuan Ulus was quite significant. As you've noted, by way of dynastic marriages, Koreans did impact and influence decisions at the Mongol court. This part is not widely known.

The best books to fully appreciate how much the late Mongol Yuan (mid-14th century) depended on and worked with Goryeo dynasty to fight against rebellions, such as Red Turbans; are by David M. Robinson.

Both books, 13 years apart, focuses on the nature of Goryeo-Mongol relationship. The first one focuses on King Gongmin, and the next one on his counterpart, Toghan-Temür Khan (r. 1333-1370) and his Korean wife, Empress Gi. Both books uses Goryeo sources extensively.

  • Robinson DM. Empire's Twilight: Northeast Asia under the Mongols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2009

  • Robinson DM. Korea and the Fall of the Mongol Empire. In: Korea and the Fall of the Mongol Empire: Alliance, Upheaval, and the Rise of a New East Asian Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2022:i-ii.

  • 3
    I don't think you included too much information; necessary to clarify the issues. Well done.
    – MCW
    Dec 26, 2023 at 14:59
  • 4
    I can't evaluate the quality of the information -- I know little of this area's history -- but I don't think you provided too much information. A good, fact-filled, and well-presented answer as this is a exactly what I like to see here.
    – Mark Olson
    Dec 26, 2023 at 15:42
  • From what I know of the period, I agree with your assessment that the autonomy of Goryeo was "not complete". However, one could argue that the relationship of Goryeo/Joseon did not have complete autonomy from the Ming dynasty. Can you please comment on the relative autonomy from the Yuan vs the Ming? Dec 28, 2023 at 12:24
  • 1
    @AstorFlorida - This is an interesting question, to which I cannot answer well. What I know of Ming China's focus, especially its court, is unfortunately still about (former Yuan) Mongols, now located in China's northern border zone. Also, the origin of Joseon's rise, whether merely a palace-coup or not, in 1392 is something I've meant to understand in detail, but haven't. It might be a good idea to ask this as a 'standard question' (i.e. start a new one) as I do not know enough about the Ming-Joseon relationship. I'm sure someone more able can provide a better answer/discussion.
    – Pūnicus
    Dec 29, 2023 at 12:46

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