Thursday, December 20, 2012

Monarch Profile: King Seonjo of Korea

King Seonjo was the fourteenth King of Joseon in Korea. He was born Prince Yi Yeon in Seoul, the third son of the “Great Prince of the Court” Deokheung Daewongun on December 26, 1552. With the title of Prince Haseong he was chosen by the royal court to succeed the young King Myeongjong who died without an heir. King Seonjo was then only sixteen years old when he succeeded to the throne in 1567 as the ruler of Korea. Early on, his reign showed great promise but he would ultimately have to face one of the greatest tests of any Korean monarch. King Seonjo showed genuine concern for the welfare of his people, was committed to reforming the government and establishing Korea as a vibrant and powerful kingdom. He sponsored the revival of a group of scholars who had previously been persecuted and appointed many new scholar-officials to high office in an effort to replace those who had grown corrupt with a new generation.

Korean scholars -at a much later date of course
One of his most important acts was to reform the Confucian civil service examination, broadening it to include a wider range of subjects to make for more knowledgeable and well-rounded officials. King Seonjo himself intervened to make sure that candidates had an extensive knowledge of history and political science as well as the Confucian literary classics. This devotion to education and scholarship, based on Confucian morality but encompassing a variety of subjects was something that royal Korea remains famous for. The efforts to get rid of bad officials and promote more honest and competent men made King Seonjo quite popular with his people and as a general trend, this devotion to learning helped make Korea a much more advanced country than most would expect, at times surpassing more powerful neighbors like China and Japan in certain areas. By his actions, King Seonjo raised the level of talent amongst the scholar officials which, in turn, made life better for the common people. With living conditions improving and the country at peace, the people prospered and admired their monarch.

Unfortunately, divisions began to arise in the kingdom in the persons of two high officials; Sim Ui-gyeom and Kim Hyowon. Sim was the conservative of the two and Kim the liberal and each gathered their own factions of supporters. Since those supporting Sim lived on the west side of Seoul and those of Kim on the east side, they became known as the eastern and western factions. King Seonjo himself struggled over favoring one side or the other. It was the beginning of a long-running feud that would eventually prove disastrous for the country. Early on, King Seonjo supported the conservative, western faction of Sim who was related to the Queen and had many supporters amongst the aristocracy. However, their slowness to embrace or even opposition to some of the reforms favored by the King gave Kim and the eastern faction a chance to rise to the top and the King moved to their side. This made enacting the reforms easier but, after a period in power, they began to have second thoughts and soon split into two sub-factions. Matters were further complicated when one of those sub-factions split into two even more radical factions of their own. Obviously, this was devastating for the smooth operation of government and became a major source of weakness for Korea.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Faced by the rising powers of Japan and Manchuria, conservatives advised a stronger army but the liberals absolutely rejected this. Like many idealists throughout history, they thought the era of peace would last forever. They were very much mistaken as both Manchuria and Japan were vibrant and expanding powers and this put Korea at a great disadvantage when the Manchurians moved into China, eventually establishing the Great Qing Empire, and Japanese forces began to return to Korea. Many have since criticized King Seonjo for his handling of this crisis but he was really faced with an impossible situation. The Manchu forces to the north, especially over time, would have seemed the greater and more immediate threat and so he focused most of his resources there. However, the Japanese forces made up for in talent what they lacked in numbers in the south. With commanders like Tokugawa Ieyasu, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, they were bringing their “A” game, while the best Korean commanders were deployed on the opposite end of the peninsula.

King Seonjo had to take a chance and he happened to choose incorrectly. The southern threat was the more serious with a major offensive by Japanese forces led by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, known to later westerners as the “Napoleon of Japan”. King Seonjo was also crippled by the factionalism at court. Those who supported concentrating on the northern front downplayed the Japanese threat while their political enemies did the same regarding the Manchurians. Fortunately for the King, whether he knew it or not, he had a winning commander in the naval genius Admiral Yi Sun-sin; known by later generations as the “Nelson of Korea” to confront the “Japanese Napoleon”. However, it was a long and painful process. Following the Japanese invasion of the south there were a string of victories for Japan. King Seonjo tried several commanders who were each defeated as the Japanese pushed north, taking Seoul and Pyongyang where the King and court had relocated to when Seoul became imperiled. Between the Korean withdrawal and the arrival of the Japanese much of Seoul, including the palace, was looted and a great deal was lost. However, the tide began to turn as Admiral Yi Sun-sin devastated the Japanese supply lines, making use of his brilliantly innovative “Turtle Ships” which were forerunners of the armored warships with diverse weaponry of later centuries. Finally, after a stunning victory for Korea at the battle of Hangju the Japanese agreed to talk peace.

One of the famous, formidable "Turtle Ships"
Korean troops re-took Seoul, allowing the King to return and although, after a brief respite, the Japanese returned, the death of their commander brought peace and breathing room for Korea. Yet, King Seonjo did not enjoy the surge in popularity one might expect for a victorious monarch. The country had been devastated by the war, the people were hungry and discontented and, most damaging of all, the political factionalism stubbornly remained and hampered the well-meaning efforts of the King to rebuild his country. Frustrated and demoralized, King Seonjo finally abdicated in all but name and turned most of his official duties over to the Crown Prince. He died in 1608 with Korea still in the grip of a painfully slow recovery, politically divided and caught between two powerful neighbors. Because of all of this, King Seonjo does not tend to be well remembered. However, the worst disasters to befall Korea during his reign were not his fault and would have been beyond the control of any. He tried his best to improve the lives of his people and the structure of government as well as better training for the military. He is often blamed for having gambled and lost in viewing China as the greater threat only to see Japan conquer almost the whole country. However, in fairness, if he had concentrated everything in the south, it may have been simply a different enemy that did the same and, as it was, Korea still came heavily under Chinese influence. There was plenty of will and plenty of talent so that Korea could have remained more totally independent, but with the leaders of government so bitterly divided, even in the face of great external threats, a benefit for either China or Japan was inevitable. King Seonjo did his best under the most difficult of circumstances and he should be remembered for this.

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