General Ul-Ji Mun Duk
It is not known exactly when or where this great 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 Koguryo, in a turbulent era of Korean history. It was a powerful and warlike kingdom, constantly warring with its neighbours, Silla to the southeast and Paekche 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 Paekche, Koguryo and Silla. This was the background for Ul-Ji Moon Dok as he grew up.
He was an educated man, and eventually became a Minister of Koguryo, 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 Koguryo and saw its aggressive ways as threatening, so in 612 Sui Emperor Yang Je decided to subdue this dangerous neighbour and prepared to attack. He mustered an army of over one million men and personally led them against Koguryo. They quickly overran Koguryo outposts, camped on the banks of the Liao River and prepared to bridge it. General Ul-Ji Moon Dok 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 Koguryo city of Liaotung, but General Ul-Ji 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 Je moved his forces to the banks of the Yalu River in northwestern Korea and prepared for a major assault. General Ul-Ji visited the Chinese camp under the pretense of surrender in an attempt to discover any Sui weaknesses.
Emperor Yang Je listened to General Ul-Ji 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, fighting 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 Ul-Ji 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 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 Je decided that he urgently needed to expand his empire in order to regain power, but the two more desperate attacks on Koguryo by Yang Je following spring met with similar disaster, and eventually internal rebellion in China forced the Sui to give up its desires on Koguryo. By 618, the relatively short-lived Sui Dynasty was replaced by the Tang Dynasty. General Ul-Ji Moon Dok’s strategy and leadership had saved Koguryo from the Chinese.
Probably the most distinguished military leader of the Koguryo period and one of the most well-known generals in Korean history, General Ul-Ji Moon Dok’s leadership and tactical acumen was the decisive factor in saving Koguryo from destruction at the hands of the invading Chinese. 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.