Defenders and Conquerors: The Rhetoric of Royal Power in Korean Inscriptions from the Fifth to Seventh Centuries

Hung-gyu Kim, Korea University
Tomb detail. Deokheung-ri, North Korea. Source: Northeast Asian History Foundation.
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Abstract

This article compares the rhetoric of three inscriptions from the Three Kingdoms period of Korea: the Gwanggaeto inscription, which was carved in 414 on the tomb stele of King Gwanggaeto of Goguryeo; the inscriptions on the monument stones raised between 550 and 568 to record the tours of King Jinheung of Silla; and the King Munmu inscription on the funerary stele of King Munmu of Silla, which was completed in 682. Notably, although all three monarchs were successful warriors, only the Gwanggaeto inscription is characterized by the martial rhetoric of conquest, while the two Silla examples employ the cautious rhetoric of peacemaking. The author analyzes this difference by understanding the inscriptions as situated speech acts, and he suggests that these inscriptions should be understood within the particular political circumstances in which they were situated. Whereas the Gwanggaeto inscription was produced by a powerful Goguryeo acting within a Northeast Asia in which no one state could claim dominance, the Silla inscriptions were produced by a Silla Kingdom that had to struggle first against established Korean rivals and then against an enormously powerful Tang empire.