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Seventh-century Korean general Eulji Mundeok. (Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Republic of Korea)

The seventh-century Korean general Eulji Mundeok is legendary for his battlefield brilliance—and his poetry.

IN 612, A CHINESE ARMY of the Sui dynasty marched into Mundeok’s kingdom of Gorguryeo (also called Koguryo). Five years in the making, the force totaled more than a million men, according to Chinese legend. The column of troops stretched 320 miles.

Gorguryeo at the time was the most powerful of three Korean kingdoms and controlled the mountainous northern part of the peninsula. Its army featured rugged veterans of the kingdom’s frequent wars.

The two sides initially clashed on Gorguryeo’s frontier. The Chinese advanced slowly as Mundeok’s forces fought delaying actions over several months. Frustrated, the Chinese emperor, Sui Yangdi, detached a force of 300,000 to march south on the Gorguryeo capital of Pyongyang. Mundeok harassed his enemy’s flanks and fell back, luring the Chinese forward.

Eventually, the emperor’s force reached within 10 miles of Pyongyang. Mundeok then sent his counterpart a flattering poem that some historians suggest was part of a promise to surrender if the Chinese left the battlefield: “Your unfathomable strategies reached heaven / Your intricate calculations penetrated the earth / Winning so many battles already / You should know when to stop and withdraw.”

Low on rations and exhausted, the Chinese assumed his promise was genuine and gave up the campaign. Turning back, they marched north and were crossing the Salsu River (called the Chongchon today) when the Korean general sprang his trap. His men released water from dams they had built upstream, making the river crossing treacherous. Then, with the Chinese divided on the two riverbanks, Mundeok attacked the rear. The fighting was brutal; the sole account of the battle, written by a Korean, says only 2,700 of the Chinese survived.

Weakened, the Sui dynasty never mounted a strong challenge to Gorguryeo again. Today, Korea’s second-highest military honor is named for Mundeok, and his poem is taught in Korean schools.

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