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Choe Chung-heon

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Title: Choe Chung-heon  
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Choe Chung-heon

Choe Chung-heon
Revised Romanization Choe Chung-heon
McCune–Reischauer Ch'oe Ch'ung-hŏn

Choe Chung-heon (1149 – 29 October 1219) was a military ruler of Korea during the Goryeo period.

Choe's father was a Grand General in the Goryeo military, hence precipitating his own entry into the military. Choe witnessed military men become all-powerful in the quick succession of military leaders who deposed one another.

Choe plotted against the long-standing war council, feigning fealty to the newly promoted supreme general and council head, a slave's son, Yi Ui-min. After many years of humiliation and hardship, Choe and his subordinates launched a coup d'état while Yi was away. After destroying the war council and killing Yi, he became a prominent leader.

Although the coup was a success, Choe did not take full power. Choe became Prime Minister of the State and Royal Protector, seeing the abdication of 4 kings (asked for 2 of the 4), 3 rebellions and numerous attempts on his life. Finally during the early reign of King Gojong, Choe retired, handing his position to his eldest son Choe U (though not without bloodshed as his youngest attempted to take it for himself). Choi Chungheon died of age at 71 in 1219.

Until the death of Choe's grandsons, the Choe family reigned supreme over the political and military landscape of Goryeo. Choi U, Choi Hang, and Choi Ui passed the legacy of Choe Chung-heon for sixty years until the assassination of Choi-Ui.


  • Background 1
  • Rise to power 2
  • Rebellions 3
  • Succession 4
  • Death 5
  • Legacy 6


Choe Chung-heon was born in 1149, the son of Grand General Choe Won-ho (최원호). He is thought to have been born in Gaeseong or Gyeongju. He was descended from the famous Confucian scholar Choe Chi-won, who lived in the North South States Period and was the ancestor of the Kyongju Choe clan, but because Choe Won-ho was given the subname, Ubong (우봉, "great warrior"), his family split from the Kyongju Choe clan and became the Ubong Choi clan. He married a Lady Yu (유씨) and had two sons by her, Choe U(최우) and Choe Hyang(최향).

Rise to power

Choe entered the military, like his father, and was a colonel until he reached age 35, when he became a general. He joined the War Council at age 40. Choe served under the military dictators during the reign of King Myeongjong. When the last of these dictators, Yi Ui-min, was ruling, Choe and his brother Choe Chung-su (최충수) led their private armies and defeated Yi and the War Council.

Choe replaced the weak Myeongjong with King Sinjong, Myeongjong's younger brother. The government started to rebuild from the previous military dictators, but Chung-su unseated the Crown Princess and tried to marry his daughter to the Crown Prince. Choe Chung-heon immediately intervened and a bloody struggle between the Choe brothers ensued. In the end, Chung-su lost and was beheaded by Choe Chung-heon's troops. Choe Chung-Heon was said to have wept when he saw his brother's head, and gave a proper burial.

Choe then appointed several of his relatives to high government positions, and slowly expanded his power. King Sinjong fell ill in 1204, and secretly begged Choe to preserve the kingdom and not overthrow it. Choe respected this last request from the king and gave the throne to Sinjong's son who became King Huijong. Sinjong died of disease immediately thereafter.

Huijong was determined to retrieve all the former powers that military dictators and usurpers had taken from the kings, including by removing Choe. Choe had been given the ranks of Prime Minister of the State, and Royal Protector, with power equivalent to the king's.


Soon, two rebellions struck at once. One was led by Pak Jin-jae, Choe's nephew, and the other was a movement to resurrect Silla. Both rebellions were destroyed by Choe. This was followed by the Slave rebellion, led by one of Choe's own slaves, Manjeok (만적). The slaves killed their masters and gathered on a mountain, around 100 strong. This rebel army was easily terminated, and the bodies of the dead were thrown into a river, unburied. More rebellions occurred, including by Buddhist priests. Choe was not able to completely silence the Buddhists, but he did capture the individual Buddhists that were behind a plot to assassinate him.

During this time, various northern tribes, including the Khitan, were being driven from their homelands by the Mongols. Many escaped to Goryeo, and violence flared along the northern border. Choe's sons, U and Hyang, led separate campaigns in response. Hyang defeated the minor tribal armies to the east, and U defeated those in the west with the help of General Kim Chwi-ryeo (김취려). These victories were aided by small contingents of the Mongols.


Choe had witnessed the downfall of Chong Chung-bu's regime, which was caused partially by the lack of a strong legitimate heir. Choe's first son, Choe U, was an effective strategist, soldier, and leader. The second son, Choe Hyang, was an exceptional soldier, but not a very good negotiator or statesman.

Knowing a succession fight would ensue, Choe he forbade U to enter the house. Hyang attempted to kill his brother to cement his position as successor. U and Hyang fought a sword battle, which U won. U did not kill his brother as his father had done to Chung-Su. Instead, he left the fate of his younger brother in the hands of his father.

Choe Chung-heon was pleased by U's decision, and sent his younger son into exile. Choe announced that he would be succeeded by his son U, and that he would retire. He was around 65 years old when he made this announcement, and U was probably in his mid-thirties.


Choe lived peacefully for the remaining seven years of his life, and even got to see his grandson Hang, son of U. Choe did regret some of the decisions he made earlier in life, and also realized that he had fallen into the power-craze that he had sworn not to fall into. Choe survived several attempts on his life. He suffered a stroke, and lived for one more year before he died at the age of 71, on 29 October 1219. It is recorded that his funeral was like that of a king's.


Choe Chung-heon was the first of the Choe dictators, and he set up the system of rule that the later Choe dictators would use. After Choe Chung-Heon was his first son Choe U, who directly led the armies of Goryeo to fight the Mongol armies. After Choe U came his first son Choe Hang (최항), who forced the king to reject all offers of surrender that the Mongols offered. When Choe-Hang died, his only son Choe Ui (최의) came to power.

Choe Ui was described as cowardly and obese. The Choe regime ended when Choe Ui was assassinated by one of his lieutenants. Other accounts claim that some troops were trying to push the heavy tyrant over the wall, but were killed before they could do so because he was so fat. Choe Chung-Heon, Choe-U, and Choe-Hang were all trained in the arts, but Choe-Ui did not. This is probably because by then, the Choe family was very wealthy, and no fighting on the battlefields was necessary.

The Choe regime lasted 60 years, during which Goryeo was able to resist the Mongol invasions. After the fall of the Choe military regime, the Sambyeolcho, which was the private army of the Choe family, separated from the Goryeo government and attempted to start its own nation, but this rebellion was defeated by a Mongol-Goryeo army.

Approximately 845 Koreans today are members of the Ubong Choi clan.

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