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Ulji Moonduk

It is not known exactly when or where this illustrious man was born, and unfortunately it is also not known exactly when he died. The best that can be said is that he was born in the mid-6th century and died in the early 7th century, sometime after 618. He was born and raised in the kingdom of Goguryeo, in a turbulent era of Korean history. It was a powerful and warlike kingdom, constantly warring with its neighbours, Silla to the southeast and Baekje to the southwest. The balance of power was roughly equal between the three kingdoms, however, and it took the injection of an outside influence to tip the balance. This influence was supplied by the kingdoms much larger western neighbor, China. In 589 China had been united under the Sui Dynasty, and this new dynasty, hungry for power, would be the deciding factor in the struggles between Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla. This was the background for Ulji Mundok as he grew up.

He was an educated man, and eventually became a Minister of Goguryeo, with skills in both the political and military sciences. He was called upon to render service as a military leader, however, when the very existance of the kingdom became threatened by alliances between its rival neighbors.

The Sui Dynasty was suspicious of Goguryeo and saw its aggressive ways as threatening, so, in 612, Sui Emperor Yang Di decided to subdue this dangerous neighbour and prepared to attack. He mustered an army of over one million men and personally led them against Goguryeo. They quickly overran Goguryeo outposts, camped on the banks of the Liao River and prepared to bridge it. Ulji Mundok was called upon to assist in the defence of the nation, and so he prepared to meet the superior Sui forces with a strategy of false retreat, deception and attack.

After the Sui forces crossed the Liao River, a small contingent was sent to attack the Goguryeo city of Liaotung, but General Ulji sent his forces to meet them there and drove them out. As the rainy season progressed, the Sui forces tried other probing attacks, but these were not really of any significance, as they were mainly biding their time until the rainy season passed.

When the rains stopped, Yang Di moved his forces to the banks of the Yalu River in northwestern Korea and prepared for a major assault. General Ulji visited the Chinese camp under the pretense of surrender in an attempt to discover any Sui weaknesses. Emperor Yang Di listened to General Ulji and allowed him to leave the camp, but shortly after changed his mind and set out after him. But it was too late the general had discovered what he needed to defeat the force. He had learned that the Sui forces were short of provisions and had overstretched their supply lines, and so he decided to pursue a strategy of gradual retreat, hoping to lure his enemy deeper and deeper into hostile territory. He drew the Sui on and fought a kind of guerrilla warfare, picking when and where he fought and allowing the Sui forces to feel as though victory was close at hand, all the while luring them deeper into his trap. A Sui advance force of over 300,000 men was sent to take the city of Pyongyang. General Ulji continued to lure them closer and closer to the city, but led them to a strategic point where he could strike. His forces attacked from all sides, driving the Sui troops back in utter confusion. His troops pursued the retreating army, slaughtering them almost at will, so that it is said that only 2,700 troops successfully made it back to the main body of forces. This was the great battle of Salsu, and it has come to be known as one of the most glorious military triumphs in Korea's national history. Following this defeat, winter began to set in and the Sui forces, short on provisions, were forced to return home.

The Sui Dynasty was beginning to disintegrate and Yang Di decided that he urgently needed to expand his empire in order to regain power, but the two more desperate attacks on Goguryeo by Yang Di following spring met with similar disaster, and eventually internal rebellion in China forced the Sui to give up its desires on Goguryeo. By 618, the relatively short-lived Sui Dynasty was replaced by the Tang Dynasty. General Ulji Mundok's strategy and leadership had saved Goguryeo from the Chinese.

Probably the most distinguished military leader of the Goguryeo period and one of the most well-known generals in Korean history, General Ulji Mundok's leadership and tactical acumen was the decisive factor in saving Goguryeo from destruction at the hands of the invading Chinese Sui Dynasty. He faced forces of far superior numbers and not only turned them back but was able to pursue and destroy them with such vigor that they were not able nor inclined to return. His life was filled with enough spectacular success to earn him a permanent place among Korea's most remembered. He is still celebrated as a great Korean hero, and a main street in downtown Seoul, Ulji-ro, is named after him.