Born into the presitigous noble family of Choe, as the fifth descendant of Choe Yoo Chung, the Grand Scholar of Jibheyonjeon, the Royal Academy ko:집현전, and the son of Choe Won Jik, he was raised in a strict austere lifestyle, befitting a noble aristocratic family of Korea. He paid little heed to his own clothes and meals, and eschewed fine garments or other comforts even when he became famous and could easily have enjoyed them. He disliked men who desired expensive articles, and he viewed simplicity as a virtue. His motto, left to him by his father “View and treat gold as if they were mere rocks”.
Such a man was well suited for military service, and Choi quickly gained the confidence of both his men and his king during numerous battles with Japanese pirates who began raiding the Korean coast around 1350.
At 36 years of age he became a national hero when he successfully put down a rebellion by Jo Il-shin after the insurgents had surrounded the palace, killed many officials and had proclaimed Jo king. As Goryeo was tributary or “Boomaguk (In-law nation)” of the Mongol Yuans since 1259, Choi Yeong was sent to help the Yuan forces quash the native Han Chinese rebellion: Red Turban Rebellion in northern china against the Yuan Dynasty. In 1354, at the age of 39, he deployed to northern China with 2000 mounted Korean archers, being reinforced in Kanbaluk by 20,000 veterans of the Goryeo Tumens. Together they suppressed the Red Turban Rebellion successfully, and returned home to Goryeo. His success in nearly thirty different battles won him even more fame and favor at home. Upon returning to Korea, he dutifully reported to King Gongmin the internal problems experienced by the waning Yuan Dynasty, which gave the king the idea that the time was right to reclaim some of the northern territories previously lost to the Mongols. Choi fought to recover various towns west of the Yalu River, to great delight of the King. In 1356, he attacked and received the surrender of Mongol-Korean Darughachi of Ssangseong Chonggwanbu in what is now Wonsan, where the former Goryeo ruling aristocrats had surrendered their fiefdoms to Mongols prior to Goryeo national surrender of sovereignty in 1259. The surrendering darughachi of Ssangseong was none other than Yi Jachun, whose son, the deputy Darhughaci was Yi Seong-Gye Taejo of Joseon, the future founder of the Joseon Dynasty.
He served briefly as the Mayor of P’yŏngyang, where his efforts at increasing crop production and mitigating famine won him even more attention as a national hero. In 1364, he distinguished himself further when a powerful minister named Kim Yon-an tried to overthrow the government of King Gongmin for asserting independence from the Yuan Dynasty. Choi Yu, appointed by Yuan, invaded Korea with 10,000 Mongol cavalryman to overthrow the rebellious King. Choi Yeong gathered up his forces and defeated the Mongol tumen of 10,000, solidifying the final defiance and independence of Goryeo Dynasty from the Mongols in 1364.
In 1368, when the new Ming Dynasty of China offered alliance against the Mongol Yuans, King Gongmin of Goryeo ordered Choi Yeong to invade the remaining Mongol garrisons in Manchuria. Choi maneuvered north of the Yalu, capturing Oro Fortress ko:오로산성, and the city of Liaoyang in 1370. But this did not lead to a permanent settlement.
Betrayal and redemption
Following a dream that he thought predicted that a Buddhist monk would save his life, King Gongmin promoted a monk named Shin Don to a lofty position within his court and allowed him considerable influence. At first, Shin Don toiled to improve the lives of the peasants with great opposition from the ministers; however, with the king’s support Shin Don grew increasingly ruthless and corrupt. Choi, who vigorously opposed corruption in the kingdom, found himself at odds with Shin Don, and subsequently, Shin Don engineered false accusations of misconduct against Choi that resulted in a punishment of six years in exile and brought him dangerously close to execution. However, after Shin Don‘s death in 1374, King Gongmin restored Choi Young to his previous position and was immediately asked to prepare a fleet to fight the Japanese pirates and eliminate the remaining Mongol forces on Jeju Island. Choi engaged the Mongols first, who fought tenaciously, but Choi’s forces eventually freed the island. Then, in 1376, the Japanese pirates advanced into Goryeo and captured the city of Gongju. With the new gunpowder recipe obtained by scientist Choe Mu-seon, General Choi and his subordinate, Yi Seong-gye, managed to rout and eventually defeat the pirates and reclaim Gongju.
In 1388, General Yi Seong-gye was ordered to use his armies to push the remnant Mongol forces out of the Liaodong peninsula, which goryeo considered as its lost territory from Goguryeo era. Yi Seong-gye opposed the Northern Expedition, citing four reasons which have become historical: 1. a smaller nation should not attack a larger nation, as it goes against the Confucian order of the world; 2. It is harsh to campaign during summer farming season, as it will result in poor harvest for the populace; 3. With the bulk of men away in the north, Japanese pirates will have free rein in the South; 4. Monsoon rain will reduce the effectiveness of the composite bows, our main weapon, and will encourage the spread of infectious diseases in the camp. General Choe ordered the invasion nevertheless, supported by the King. Knowing the support he enjoyed both the high-ranking government officials and the general populace, Yi decided to return to the capital, Kaesŏng, and trigger a coup d’état. This incident later became famous as the Wihwado Retreat (위화도 회군,威化島回軍) and became the first sign of the change of dynasty.
When Yi Seong-gye returned to the capital, Choe Young put up a gallant fight at the palace, but was overwhelmed by Yi’s forces. Choe was defeated, captured, and banished to Goyang and was later beheaded in the name of the government controlled by Yi Seong-gye. Before the execution, Choe was famously known to have predicted that due to his unjust demise grass would never grow on his grave. Interestingly, grass never did grow on his grave until 1976 and it was known as jeokbun (적분), which means red grave, because of the red soil.