Kim Yu-shin (595-673) was a general in 7th-century Silla. He is said to have been the great-grandchild of King Guhae of Geumgwan Gaya , the last ruler of the Geumgwan Gaya state. This would have given him a very high position in the Silla bone rank system, which governed the political and military status that a person could attain.
Much of what we know about Kim's life comes from the detailed account in the Samguk Sagi, Yeoljeon 1-3, and the much briefer record in the Samguk Yusa, vol. 1.
He was born in Gyeyang , Jincheon County in 595, became a Hwarang warrior at just 15 and was an accomplished swordsman and a Gukseon (±¹¼±, ÏÐà¹; Hwarang leader) by the time he was 18 years old. By the age of 34 he had been given total command of the Silla armed forces.
His first military engagement is believed to have occurred around 629, and through it he quickly proved his capabilities as a warrior. Silla was in a constant struggle with its neighbor to the west, Baekje, over territory. There had been gains and losses on both sides, and the struggle lasted for many years. It was during this period that Kim rose through the ranks of the military, rising to the position of general and becoming a skilled field commander.
Baekje and Silla had formed an alliance to counter Goguryeo's power and its intentions to push southwards, and together they launched a successful attack on it, Silla taking the northern territory and Baekje the one south of the Han river. But Silla broke the alliance and attacked Baekje in order to claim both territories for itself. After this betrayal, Baekje allied with Goguryeo. When Goguryeo and Baekje attacked Silla in 655, Silla joined forces with Tang Dynasty China to battle the invaders. Although it is not clear when Kim first became a general, he was certainly commanding the Silla forces at this time. Eventually, with the help of the Silla navy and some 13,000 Tang forces, Kim attacked the Baekje capital, Sabi, in 660, in one of the most famous battles of the century. The Baekje defenders were commanded by none other than General Gyebaek, although the Baekje forces consisted of about 5,000 men and were no match for Kim's warriors, which numbered about ten times as many. Baekje, which had been experiencing internal political problems, crumbled. Kim's Silla forces and their Tang allies now moved on Goguryeo from two directions, and in 661 they attacked the seemingly impregnable Goguryeo Kingdom, but were repelled. The attack had weakened Goguryeo, though. In 667 another offensive was launched which, in 668, destroyed Goguryeo forever. Silla still had to subdue various pockets of resistance, but their efforts were then focused on ensuring that their Chinese allies did not overstay their welcome on the peninsula. After some difficult conflicts, Silla eventually forced out the Tang and united the peninsula under their rule.
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Many stories exist about Kim Yu-shin. It is told that once he was ordered to subdue a rebel army, but his troops refused to fight as they had seen a large shooting star fall from the sky and believed it to be a bad omen. To regain control, the General used a large kite to carry a fire ball into the sky. The soldiers, seeing the star return to heaven, rallied and defeated the rebels. It is also said that General Kim ingeniously used kites as a means of communication between his troops when split between islands and the mainland. It is also said that, another time, while Silla was allied with China against Baekje, an argument broke out between Kim's commander and a Chinese general. As the argument escalated into a potentially bloody confrontation, Kim's sword was said to have leaped from its scabbard into his hand. Because the sword of a warrior was believed to be his soul, this occurrence so frightened the Chinese general that he immediately apologised to the Silla officers. Incidents such as this kept the Chinese in awe of the Hwarang, and meant that in later years, when asked by the Chinese emperor to attack Silla, the Chinese generals refused, claiming that although Silla was small, it could not be defeated.
His final years
Throughout his life Kim had felt that Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla should not be separate countries, but should instead be united. He is regarded as the driving force in the unification of the Korean peninsula, and is the most famous of all the generals in the unification wars of the Three Kingdoms.
Kim was rewarded handsomely for his efforts in the campaigns. He reportedly received a village of over 500 households, and in 669 was given some 142 separate horse farms, spread throughout the kingdom. He died four years later, leaving behind ten children.
General Kim Yu-shin lived to the age of 78 and is considered to be one of the most famous generals in Korean history. He is the focus of numerous stories and legends, and is familiar to most Koreans from a very early age. Following his death in 673, General Kim was awarded the honorary title of King Heungmu, and was buried at the foot of Songhwa Mountain , near Gyeongju in southeastern Korea, in a tomb as splendid as that of kings.