The statue of King Sejong the Great sits at the Gwanghwamun square in central Seoul.
/ Korea Times file
By Kim Tae-gyu and Kevin N. Cawley
This is the sixth of a 10-part series on Korean history from its mythological, ancient beginning until the present day. This project is sponsored by several companies and public agencies including Merck Korea, eBay Korea, Daewoo Securities and Korea Post. — ED.
Joseon was the last kingdom in the long history of the Korean Peninsula and founded the framework of modern Korea, such as the capital of South Korea, and the northern boundary of North Korea. Culturally, it helped shape Korea’s unique identity that distinguishes it from its East Asian neighbors.
Joseon lasted over 500 years, making it the longest-lasting Confucian kingdom in world history. From its establishment in 1392, it respected the hegemony of the powerful Chinese empire, but it shaped its own destiny. While it was a part of the great Classical Chinese literary tradition, it nevertheless created its own unique alphabet named Hangeul.
The kingdom’s fortunes waned in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when its closest neighbors staged devastating wars.
Thereafter, Joseon savored around two centuries of peace, but it failed to catch up with the economic development and technological advancement of Western societies partly because it held too fast to the ideals of Confucianism, which led to policies of isolation, as well as endless internal feuds between political factions.
The country, with the moniker of the “Hermit Kingdom,” was eventually annexed by the colonial forces of Japan in 1910 amid a wave of 20th century imperialism that ravaged the country for the next 35 years.
Final kingdom on Korean Peninsula
After sweeping away the century-long intervention of the Mongols in the late 14th century, the Goryeo Kingdom attempted a set of reformative drives in order to keep its almost five-century-long reign afloat.
At the time, mainland China saw the rise of the Ming Dynasty, which urged Goryeo to hand over a wide part of the latter’s northern territory. The country was bold enough to refuse these requests, and went one step further — it decided to make preemptive attacks to regain Manchuria, the old territory of Goryeo’s predecessor, Goguryeo.
General Yi Seong-gye, who was second-in-command of the army marching toward Manchuria, stopped in his tracks and returned with his loyal followers to launch a military coup, where he dethroned the king of the tottering Goryeo Kingdom in 1388.
Yi assumed the throne himself in 1392 and named the new kingdom Joseon, after the first country on the Korean Peninsula, Gojoseon. He also moved the capital to Hanyang, known today as Seoul — a city surrounded by mountains, with a river flowing through it, with four main gates such as Namdaemun, which was gateways to the new capital, and now listed as a National Treasure. Yi also depended on Confucian scholars to validate his rule. In particular, Jeong Do-jeon, a staunch Confucian, was responsible for the transition from a Buddhist kingdom (Goryeo) to a Confucian one (Joseon), heavily relying on the philosophy of the Chinese Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi.
Confucian rites such as “ancestor memorial rites” became extremely important during this time, and last until this day.
Yi Seong-ge, whose official title became King Taejo after his death, established Joseon. Yi had a total of eight sons from two queens and he chose the eighth son from his second wife as his successor — a decision that was backed by the Confucian Jeong Do-jeon, but that offended his fifth son Bang-won who had greatly contributed to the founding of Joseon.
In 1398, Bang-won raided the royal palace, killing two of his half-brothers, including the crown prince and their supporters like Jeong Do-jeon, which instantly prompted Taejo to abdicate his kingship to his second son, King Jeongjong.
However, Bang-won maintained the real power and forcing his disgruntled senior brother to abdicate in 1400, thus causing serious political strife that also claimed numerous lives.
Bang-won had eventually become the third ruler of Joseon — the powerful King Taejong. Taejong tilted the pendulum of power toward the figurehead of the king, instead of top bureaucrats, by preventing the latter from maintaining private armies. He also revised the taxation system on land ownership, which revealed the hidden estates of his retainers.
Through these two outstanding measures, he greatly restricted both the military and the financial capacity of the aristocracy so that they could not easily organize revolts.
He did not stop bloody campaigns during his reign — this time around in order to garner stability in the young kingdom, he removed most of his top lieutenants and all four brother-in-laws, despite the fact that they had played a pivotal role in his acquiring the throne.
Due to fears that the queen’s relatives would pose a threat to his successors, King Taejong even killed the father-in-law of his third son and next king, King Sejong the Great. As a result, King Taejong weeded away the notorious influence of in-laws for the time being.
King Sejong the Great and Korean alphabet
After Taejong, the man who eventually became “King Sejong the Great” came to the fore midway through 1418. He eventually became one of only two kings in Korea’s long history to earn the title of “great” in their posthumous titles — the other was King Gwanggaeto the Great of Gojoseon, mentioned earlier in this series.
One of Sejong’s earliest campaigns was to deal with the Japanese pirates in the south, and then to reclaim Korean territory via expanding to the north, which was by and large the present-day border between North Korea and China.
On top of his military exploits, Sejong gathered together the greatest scholars of his time in the “Hall of Worthies,” a sort of research center, spearheading a host of achievements in diverse areas such as science, engineering, agriculture and medicine, to name a few.
However, it is an undeniable historical fact that his biggest contribution to his country was the creation of the Korean alphabet, known as Hangeul, which was developed in spite of opposition from top Confucian officials who preferred Chinese characters.
Composed of 14 basic consonants and 10 vowels, Hangeul is regarded as one of the most scientific alphabets ever made since its logical phonetic system is very easy to learn.
Both South and North Korea use Hangeul. In 1989, UNESCO named its literacy prize, which recognizes contributions to increased literacy worldwide, ‘the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize.’
Another bloody campaign
The fifth king of Joseon, Munjong, was regarded as smart and benevolent, just as his father Sejong had been, so that people expected he would successfully continue the wise governance following his father’s legacy.
But Munjong died after just 25 months as king in his late 30s in 1452, and his 12-year-old only son ascended to the throne under the auspice of a few powerful ministers loyal to the two previous kings.
Unfortunately, they could not block the rise of Munjong’s younger brother, who deposed his nephew, King Danjong, and killed the teenager, so as to become the seventh king of Joseon, or King Sejo.
Sejo also had many others killed, including bureaucrats and royal family members who attempted to assassinate him hoping for the return of Danjong, before his death at the age of 17. Danjong’s wife was expelled from the palace and was made a slave.
Sejo was similar to his grandfather Taejong, in that he too depended on bloody and heartless campaigns to grab power. In addition, they were similar to each other in their role of laying the foundations of Joseon.
Sejo masterminded a flurry of undertakings in administrative reforms and is responsible for setting up the legal framework and the Confucian ruling system, which was completed by his grandson Seongjong in the late 15th century, some 100 years after the start of Joseon, cemented in the National Code, outlining the laws of the kingdom.
Dr. Kevin N. Cawley is currently the Director of the Irish Institute of Korean Studies at University College Cork (UCC), Ireland — the only institute in Ireland dedicated to promoting Korean studies — funded by the Academy of Korean Studies, South Korea. He was previously a Gyujanggak Fellow at Seoul National University.
Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392):
A Korean kingdom that succeeded the Southern-and-Northern States period
Yi Seong-gye (Taejo of Joseon, reign: 1392~1398):
The founder of Joseon Kingdom
A historical name for a large region in Northeast Asia
The earliest Korean state recorded in history
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644):
The ruling dynasty of China that was founded after the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty
Currently Seoul, the capital of South Korea
The capital of the Goryeo Kingdom
Jeong Do-jeon (1337-1398)
: A Confucian scholar who played a big role in establishment of the Joseon Kingdom
Zhu Xi (1130-1200)
: A Song Dynasty (960-1279) Confucian scholar who was the most influential Neo-Confucian expert in China
King Gwanggaeto the Great:
The ninth monarch of Goguryeo. Over his reign between AD 391 and 413, he has expanded territory greatly to make Goguryeo become a super power of East Asia. He died in 413 at the age of 39.
An ancient Korean kingdom in the northern Korean Peninsula and Manchuria
Korea’s alphabets made in the 15th century composed of 14 basic consonants and 10 vowels. It is now the official language of both South and North Koreas.