By Yang Sung-jin
Maintaining political power is much more difficult than grabbing it in the first place. That is why so many rulers in both East and West have devised so many clever ways of perpetuating their reigns.
This rule applies in particular to those who take the top seat by illegitimated means such as coups or outright murder. Constant anxiety is sure to have led to sleepless nights for many rulers who felt threatened by their unsteady grip on the top job.
King Taejong, the third monarch of the Choson Kingdom, was clearly no stranger to this anxious feeling.
In a bid to establish a firm political base to protect his position and block revolt or coup, King Taejong devised what today’s historians call a “Shinmungo” system.
Shinmungo was a novel channel through which ordinary citizens could deliver to the king unfiltered complaints about the government or any other kind of information.
The system was a highly sophisticated means of communication between the powerful ruler and his citizens, evidently intended to improve the welfare of the nation as a whole.
But King Taejong had an ulterior motive for installing and enforcing this supposedly generous channel of communication with his subjects.
The chief reason for Shinmungo, at least in its initial stages, was to find and punish traitors. Under the complaint delivery system, an individual or a group of people were encouraged to beat a drum if they wished to file suit to the king directly and those who blew the whistle on traitors were handsomely rewarded.
Still unsure about his position as monarch, King Taejong named a successor to the throne a couple of times between 1406 and 1409 in hopes of ferreting out “unfaithful” subjects.
In the process, King Taejong stressed the legitimacy of his supreme power and did away with hidden political dissidents who mistakenly expressed their support for the fake succession.
On Aug. 18, 1406, King Taejong declared his wish to retire for the first time. “As the king tried to hand over the throne to the crown prince, a number of officials ventured to stop the process,” one Annals article revealed.
The king, however, insisted on abdicating, citing the repeated natural disasters that had descended on the nation since he took the throne.
Royal officials vigorously opposed the king’s well-calculated move, saying it was too early for the 13-year-old crown prince to manage the country.
Finally, King Taejong sent the royal stamp, which symbolized the kingship, to the crown prince, Yangnyong Taegun, on Aug. 20.
As the situation unfolded, court officials began to mull over the best way of capitalizing on the impending power transfer.
Some officials stuck to King Taejong (even though their sincerity was somewhat questionable), while others sided with the crown prince, unaware of the vicious trap lurking behind the king’s move.
As a result, a group of high-ranking officials and even relatives of the royal family were expelled from the court or executed on charges of high treason.
Supposed enemies were vanquished and loyal subjects discerned. Having settled the issue in a way which only strengthened his power, King Taejong skillfully withdrew his intention to resign on Aug. 26.
The way he chose to announce his decision is intriguing.
The king secretly summoned high-ranking official Lee Suk-bon and told him about a recurring dream. “Every night, I see my dead mother and she just keeps weeping and weeping. She even asks why I am trying to starve her. What does it mean?” the king asked his advisor.
Lee replied, “This is a clear sign from the deceased queen that if you hand over the throne to the young and fragile crown prince now, the nation is bound to collapse and no one will perform the ancestral worship ritual.”
Insatiable Appetite for Power
On Aug. 10, 1409, King Taejong once again announced his resignation, blaming the frequent natural disasters on his lack of integrity as a ruler.
This time around, court officials rushed to demonstrate their undying loyalty to the king, expressing unwavering allegiance.
The king wanted to test Lee Suk-bon, who was regarded as one of his most loyal subjects.
“These natural disasters have continually wreaked havoc on the nation. I think that’s because my contribution to the nation has proved unsatisfactory to heaven,” the king said.
“Devoting all your efforts to handling state affairs was all you could do. I have never heard of a case in which handing over power prematurely saved a nation from natural disasters,” Lee said.
“Then, when can I get this heavy burden out of my heart?” the king asked, halfheartedly.
“Man usually loses his vitality after 50. Therefore, the succession can be delayed until you reach 50,” Lee said.
King Taejong, who had no intention of resigning whatsoever, was startled at Lee’s remark, which suggested his reign should be limited to 16 years, a sort of early retirement for a king who wanted to rule as long as possible.
Afterward, the king kept a close eye on Lee, questioning his loyalty.
Coincidence or not, on June 4, 1416, the “16th” year of Taejong’s reign, Lee Suk-bon was stripped of his rank in the court and banished to the remote village of Hamyang on charges of disobeying the king.
King Taejong, respected as one of the chief nation-builders of the Choson Kingdom, could not overcome the chief flaw of power-hungry rulers — an insatiable appetite for flattery.