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King U of Goryeo
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King U of Goryeo

King U was born in 1363, and ruled Goryeo (Korea) from 1374 until 1388.

During the beginning of the eleventh century Mongol forces had advanced into China and the Korean peninsula, and by the year 1238 Goryeo was fully under Mongol domination and would remain so for the next full century. The Ming Dynasty in China had grown extremely powerful during the 14th century, however, and began to beat back the Mongol armies, so that by the 1350s Goryeo had regained its independence, although China garrisoned a large number of troops in the north-east of Goryeo, effectively occupying part of the country.

In 1374 a military hero and high official named Yi In-Im led a small yet strong anti-Ming faction that assassinated King Gongmin. The anti-Ming group enthroned an eleven-year-old boy reportedly born to a palace slave girl as Gongmin's successor. The Chinese were suspicious about King Gongmin's sudden and unexplained death, and had real doubts about the legitimacy of the adolescent King U.

The Chinese turned away Goryeo envoys en route to the Ming court on the pretext that Goryeo was sending them old, weak horses in tribute. Tensions over this crucial foreign policy protocol had not been resolved when, in 1388, the Ming dynasty proclaimed its intention to establish a command post headquartered in the Ch'ollyong Pass at the southern end of the Hamgyong plain. The occupation of the area by the Ming army was tantamount to annexing the entire northeastern territory once under the command of the Mongols.

Goryeo's senior military commander, General Choi Yong, consulted with General Yi Seonggye and determined that in order to reduce the perceived threat from Ming China, they would have to remove the anti-Ming faction from power in Kaesong. Choi, supported by Yi, accordingly removed Yi In-Im and his group in a coup d'état, and General Choi took personal control of the government.

There was a growing feeling in Kaesong that Goryeo needed to take some kind of pre-emptive action against China, and advisors to King U eventually goaded him into attacking the powerful Ming armies. Against universal opposition, and in violation of the long-standing Goryeo practice of not invading its neighbors, King U went one step further and insisted on attacking China proper. In 1388, General Yi Seonggye was ordered to use his armies to push the Ming armies out of the Korean peninsula. The general, however, was no fool. He realised the strength of the Ming forces when he came into contact with them at the Yalu River, and made a momentous decision that would alter the course of Korean history. Knowing of the support he enjoyed both from high-ranking government officials and the general populace, he decided to return to the capital and secure control of the government instead of possibly destroying his army by attacking the Chinese.

He returned to Kaesong and, after overpowering the royal court's defenders and killing General Choi Yong, Yi Seonggye seized the throne from King U and took control of the government.

King U became the only king in Korea's long history never to have had a posthumous title for his reign.