Reformative King Jeongjo Was Not Fatally Poisoned
Was King Jeongjo Machiavellian? A bundle of 299 letters written by the 22nd ruler of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) showed that he was not fatally poisoned, as widely believed, and that the king was a reformative leader who knew the art of behind-the-scenes politics.
The letters were released by Sungkyunkwan University's Academy of East Asian Studies.
The institute said the letters prove that the king, widely regarded as one of the most successful and visionary rulers of the kingdom along with King Sejong, was a political maverick who secretly kept up correspondence with his political rival Shim Hwan-ji (1730-1802), the minister and the head of Byeokpa, a rival faction to the king, from Aug. 20 in 1796 to June 15 in 1800.
The institute said the letters, national treasures, were in Jeongjo's handwriting.
``The letters are the most prolific of their kind among Joseon kings' letters and, more importantly, they survived despite the Jeongjo's order to remove them,'' said Ahn Dae-hoe, professor of Korean literature in classical Chinese at the university.
Ahn said the letters show the complicated process from conflict to coordination between the king and the minister over state affairs and carry significant value in that they show his private style of leadership ― collecting information and spying on public opinion covertly.
The letters also include the exact records of the dates, times and places of all the recipients.
The institute said the revelation of the correspondence will help historians and researchers study the political situation during his reign and unveil his personality, political ambitions and leadership style.
Historical beliefs about the cause of his death were found to be groundless, as the king expressed concern over his health several times via the letters.
In the letter Jeongjo sent to Shim on June 15, 13 days before he died in 1800, he wrote that ``I feel pain because I can't sleep, and twist and turn all night as a stifling sensation deep in my belly won't subside. I had more cooling medicines this summer as it's getting worse.''
The king was good at behind-the-scenes maneuvering via his letters. He sent one to his political rival to discuss urgent state issues with him and sometimes conspired with Shim over policy implementation.
The letters explain why the rival Shim faction prevailed after 1795, when the king was immersed in building Hwaseong Fortress, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to guard his father's grave in the city of Suwon.
Kim Mun-shik, a professor at Dankook University who participated in the project, said it was inevitable for historians to change their methods of studying from current annals-based studies, such as the Annals of the Joseon Kingdom and Diaries of the Royal Secretariat, to more diverse historical resources.
Jeongjo spent much of his reign trying to clear his disgraced father's name, as Crown Prince Sado was put to death by his own father, King Yeongjo.
He moved the court to Suwon to be closer to his father's grave.
King Jeongjo was known as a open-minded leader who implemented ``tangpyeongchaek,'' an engagement policy toward rival factions intended to give people equal footing in politics despite death threats from multiple sources.