We Americans often associate kite flying with a summer or fall activity but in Korea it is traditional to fly kites during the Lunar New Year and the weeks following it. A popular place for kite fliers is along the Han River where they allow their kites to lazily drift back and forth across the sky. But in the past — kite flying was associated not only with fun but with combat.
One of the earliest anecdotes of kites takes place in the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla, during the reign of Queen Seondeok (632-647). Although she was an enlightened ruler, her kingdom was plagued with war and rebellion. The most serious (and final) rebellion of her reign was started by Bidam, one of her high officials, who denounced her rule and claimed that “women rulers cannot rule the country.” Apparently his insurrection was further strengthened when a falling star bathed the night sky with its glow and he joyously declared that it was a portent of queen’s imminent demise. Her fortress surrounded by the rebels and her defending soldiers shaken by the evil omen they had just witnessed; Seondeok’s fate seemed sealed.
But it was General Kim Yu-shin (595-673) who saved the day. Kim, who had used kites in the past to communicate with his men, urged his queen to surreptitiously have a mass of flaming material attached to a kite and then sent flying through the night sky. This act convinced her soldiers that the star had returned to the heavens thus reinstalling their confidence and weakening the resolve of the rebels. The short-lived insurrection was put down but apparently there was some truth to the omen of the falling star. Queen Seondeok apparently died the following night (Jan. 8, 647) but Bidam did not have long to gloat for the queen’s cousin, Jindeok — was declared the new queen, and she promptly had Bidam and his fellow rebels executed on Jan. 17.
In the 1370s, Goryeo was determined to expel the Mongols who had occupied Jeju Island for about a century. General Choe Yeong (1316-1388), arguably one of ancient Korea’s greatest military leaders, was sent to wrest the island away from its foreign occupiers. It was no easy task. Not only was the island well-garrisoned, it was also well-fortified with both man-made and natural barriers. But the general had more than a few tricks up his sleeve.
When the general and his troops arrived on the island they found part of the rebel army entrenched in a fortress surrounded by thorny thickets. Apparently the general had a great deal of patience and ingenuity. According to Prof. Lee E-wha, the general had pouches of reed seeds tied to kites and then flew them over the rebels’ fortifications. Once the kites were in place, he cut the strings to the pouches, allowing the reed seeds to scatter all over the thickets and the approach to them. Several months later, after the reeds had grown tall and then died, he set fire to the dried mass — easily opening an avenue of approach and easily breached the rebels’ defences.
It might be added that Choe Yeong is also claimed to have dressed Oedolgae (a tall stone formation on the coast of Jeju) as a Korean general. The Mongol soldiers, not realizing it was a mere a stone, committed suicide rather than face the Korean giant.
In the late 16th century, during the Imjin War, Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598) is also said to have used kites. He was able to communicate his battle orders to his ships using kites of different colors and designs.