(10) Choson Suffered by Fair-Weather Neighbor

By Yang Sung-jin

Korea-Japan relations soured after Tokyo unilaterally scrapped the bilateral fisheries agreement in February, followed by Japan’s seizing of several Korean fishing boats in its self-imposed restricted waters.

The recent dispute left a bitter aftertaste, which is embarrassing, yet hardly surprising. After all, history tends to repeat itself.

No historical document illustrates the long-standing conflicts between the two neighboring countries better than the Annals of the Choson Dynasty.

Historical records about Japan in the Annals abound. According to the search results by the CD-ROM Annals, there are a total of 12,710 articles under the category of “Japan.”

On the very first page of the Annals, the historiographer mentions Japan. As expected, it is not a friendly passage; it is about a military expedition in a bid to defeat the “waegu” or the seaborne Japanese marauders prevalent in the mid-14th century.

“The Choson’s diplomatic principle toward Japan in the early stages was focused on blocking the waegu’s raids and, to that end, the Choson government often resorted to conciliatory measures such as allowing the Japanese marauders to trade with the Choson,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

In understanding the geopolitical situation of the day, the importance of the waegu cannot be emphasized too much. For instance, Yi Song-gye, the founder of the Choson Dynasty, was himself elevated into a national hero after defeating the Japanese pirates at the end of the Koryo Dynasty. Upon ascending the throne, Yi pushed ahead with diplomatic negotiations with Japan in order to tame the waegu.

In 1403, Choson and Japan exchanged formal diplomatic letters, opening a new chapter of bilateral relations. It is now known as “kyorin,” or diplomatic ties between Choson and Japan on an equal footing.

Equal But Not Always

“It’s true that the Choson king and the chief shogun in Japan were on equal terms but other local governors in Japan wanted to establish a diplomatic channel with Choson as a tributary state,” Lee said.

The Choson-Japan relations became multi-layered, not only because Japan’s political structure was decentralized, but also because Choson willingly allowed such a diversified diplomacy in a bid to resolve the waegu issue.

The mutual interest translated into a frequent exchange of diplomats and delegates. Choson dispatched formal delegates 65 times to the chief shogun.

“Most of the dispatches were done in the earlier period, reflecting a greater interest on the part of the Choson rulers at that time with regards to the waegu,” Lee said.

Japan, on the other hand, sent official delegates to Choson some 60 times. When it comes to individual contact, mostly from the less influential shoguns or local governors in Japan, the number goes upwards of 2,500, displaying how badly Japan wanted to trade with Choson.

Japan’s desperate position is understandable. The Japanese were in great need of necessities such as rice and cotton clothing, and Choson was the destination to get such items.

“An interesting fact is that most Japanese delegates wanted the Tripitaka Koreana when visiting Choson. At that time, new temples were sprouting up in Japan, and they wanted to own the sacred Tripitaka from Choson, a symbol of the highest authority for a temple or individual,” Lee said.

In the first half of the Choson period alone, Japan requested the Tripitaka Koreana 82 times. The Annals show that Choson distributed the sacred Buddhist writings along with other artifacts such as temple bells and Buddhist images on 46 occasions.

“There’s no question about the Choson’s immeasurable influence upon Japan’s Buddhism,” Lee said.

Also exported to Japan around the mid-15th century was cotton cloth. Choson’s exports of cotton cloth to Japan totaled hundreds of thousands rolls per year, suggesting its considerable impact on Japan where there was no cotton.

In exchange, the Japanese brought in rare minerals such as copper, tin and sulfur. Also imported to the Hermit Kingdom were luxury items such as medicines and spices.

Japan Exotica

Exchanges of officials, plus trade, resulted in greater exposure to each other’s culture and society. A Choson official named Park Suh-saeng traveled to Japan as a “Tongsinsa” (envoy to Japan) and reported what he witnessed there to King Sejong in 1429, which tells much about Choson society, as well.

One of the items that sparked Park’s interest in Japan was a water mill. “Japanese farmers are irrigating with a water mill, which operates automatically, using the natural currents of the water. Therefore, we have made a miniature model now, which can be used for our farmers in irrigation,” Park said.

Another exotic thing to the eyes of Choson people is a bathhouse in Japan. Park witnessed numerous private and public bathrooms, and thought it not only convenient but also very helpful for other purposes.

“In Japan, when a person boiling the water of the bathhouse blows a whistle, everybody pays money and takes a bath. We should establish bathhouses in public places in order to help our people to know how to use money,” Park said. Which means Choson had yet to establish a coinage system.

Yet, Park’s exciting experience was not without troubles. Above all, traveling to Japan across the East Sea was highly risky, to say the least. In addition to the turbulent conditions at sea, the Japanese marauders intent upon seizing the travelers were a constant threat.

“It took at least nine months for the Choson delegates to visit Japan and return safely. And the difficulties of the travel are not hard to imagine. But Choson kept sending those delegates in the hope of maintaining peaceful relations with Japan,” researcher Lee said.

But the peace was likely to fall apart mainly due to the intractable waegu and other Japanese preferring smuggling and pillaging to an official route.

In 1419, King Sejong sent Yi Chong-mu to attack Tsushima to wipe out the bases of the Japanese marauders. As a result, the waegu’s activities subsided, but not for long.

Unable to produce enough food on their mountainous rocky islands, the rulers of Tsushima repeatedly sent missions to Choson to express their regret. The Choson government, in response, granted the Japanese limited trading privileges.

In 1443, Choson reached an agreement with Tsushima, allowing them to do limited business here. The annual trading ships from Japan were regulated to under 50, and the traders had to show their credentials authorized by the lord of Tsushima.

According to the agreement, three ports — Chaepo (Changwon), Pusanpo (Pusan) and Yompo (Ulsan) — were opened to the Japanese traders along the Choson’s southeastern coast. And a restricted zone named “waegwan” (trading and living quarters for the Japanese in Choson) were established in order to control the Japanese visiting Choson.

Yet, the Japanese were not satisfied with the official trade; many of them resorted to smuggling. In 1438, the Uijongbu (State Council) reported to the king: “The Japanese are cheating the documents to get more food, which should be resolved immediately. Also, more strict checks on the visitors are needed to prevent them from cheating.”

On the part of the Japanese, trading with Choson meant a handsome profit. Therefore, they wanted to get into Choson desperately, resulting in a sharp increase of trade and more trade vessels, which violated the agreed treaty of 1443. At one point, more than 3,400 Japanese were staying in the waegwan in Chaepo alone.

Ungrateful Troublemakers

However, more Japanese led to more troubles. In 1510, the Pusan governor punished a Japanese criminal in order to tame the increasingly violent and unruly Japanese in the waegwan. But it triggered the Japanese’s anger in three ports. With the supporting soldiers from Tsushima, the Japanese rose in arms against the Choson commander. The disturbance was put down immediately, while the privileges at the three ports were abolished and trade relations were severed.

But the lord of Tsushima begged for a resumption of trade with Choson, which resulted in another treaty in 1512. The agreement stipulated that the number of ships allowed to trade was cut in half and the Japanese in the three ports were expelled.

The trade, resumed by the request from Japan, broke apart when 20 Japanese vessels intruded into the Choson territory without permission in 1544.

Again, the Japanese entreated for the resumption of trade, which Choson accepted on the condition that stricter regulations would be placed upon them.

Then again, in 1555, the Japanese marauders invaded a port in Cholla-namdo and killed the people and pillaged the villages, resulting in another souring of relations between Choson and Japan.

After the disturbance, Japan did not send a diplomatic mission to Choson for some 30 years, a blessing for Choson, eager not to be bothered by Japan.

However, it was a curse in disguise. The Japanese were building up their political and military power during this time and invaded Choson in 1592, which is now called the “Hideyoshi Invasion.”

Even after the devastating war, Japan repeatedly requested for trade with Choson. Trade eventually resumed again, along with the establishment of waegwan, which turned into a trouble spot saddled with crime.

On the fair-weather nature of the Japanese, Tongsinsa Park Suh-saeng commented in his report to King Sejong, which reminds us of today’s fisheries agreement unilaterally scrapped by Japan: “In general, the Japanese are ignorant of decorum and politeness. They are quick to send delegates when they want something from us, yet slow to honor our affairs when they are in need of nothing.”

(9) The Ups and Downs of the Choson Legal System

By Yang Sung-jin

The “fair and square” group of 15 judges at the Uijongbu Court reportedly took bribes from the local lawyers in return for favors. In response, the “just and impartial” prosecution announced it will not indict them on the grounds that the money exchanged does not amount to the level of bribery.

Fishy or not, a new legal principle has emerged in Korea: Judges, prosecutors and lawyers are excluded from the “universal” application of the law, while punishing the poor and powerless, in the name of “legal justice.”

The legal justice of the Choson Dynasty is worth a closer look because it has direct and indirect relations with today’s legal system that is tainted with the corruption scandal. The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty reveals a vast array of articles related to both the negative and positive applications of law.

One article dated 1589 details a murder case in which a literati named Yun Baek-won died after eating with a guest at his home. Yun Dok-kyong, son of the dead literati’s concubine, suspected the lawful wife’s daughter named “Kaemichi.”

Yun Dok-kyong filed a petition pointing Kaemichi as the culprit to the Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General). However, Kaemichi accused Yun and his two brothers of poisoning the food in order to kill their father.

The murder of a parent, under the strict Confucian moral standard, was subject to the severest penalty. Therefore, the investigation was conducted by a joint team comprising Sahonbu, Uijongbu (State Council) and Uikumbu (Royal Inspector’s Office). Unfortunately, the investigation resulted in the death of Kaemichi due to severe torture, leaving the case unresolved.

Related articles of the CD-ROM Annals provide background information on the incident. Even before the murder, the relations between Kaemichi and the three brothers had soured. The reason was that the lawful daughter had lost her right to the inheritance, while the three brothers by a concubine exclusively owned the property of the house. The mutual hostilities involving the inheritance culminated in the heated battle over the murder.

Case Revisited

Interestingly, the unresolved case returned to the public focus over 10 years after the investigation was wrapped up. In 1602, Kaemichi’s son filed a petition calling for the re-investigation of the case to unearth the truth.

Again, the joint investigation team questioned the three brothers. This time, they secured a confession from the suspects, proving they had orchestrated the murder.

However, the three brothers were released despite their admission of guilt. The king then duly inquired about the unusual leniency exercised: “The three brothers’ false accusation resulted in Kaemichi’s death, which obviously amounts to capital punishment. But why they were released?”

The king’s question went unanswered. Ten years later, another article dated July 3, 1612, comments upon the controversial murder and acquittal case: “People believe Kaemichi was wrongly killed during questioning because there was no hard evidence confirming her crime. Now the three brothers have also died. The king’s attention in favor of the dead Kaemichi is due to the fact that she had relations with the royal family.”

“It is interesting to see a murder case being discussed and reviewed by the Choson chroniclers even 20 years after the incident. Yet, the related articles also shed some light on the prevalent collusion between the high-ranking officials and the law enforcement officers, distorting the legal system,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

Korean Teflon

Another controversial murder case reflects the omnipotent political power getting in the way of the fair enforcement of legal procedure. On Jan. 11, 1478, a dead body bearing numerous knife wounds was found in Seoul. The investigation looked into the case, with no visible success.

The king issued a public announcement promising a reward for those who provided a clue to the case.

Late in the month, the investigation institutions received an anonymous letter suggesting a person named “Kawoe” knew the dead woman. Kawoe was immediately called upon and questioned by interrogators. He confessed that the murdered woman was a former slave of Changwongun, a son by a concubine of late King Sejo (reign: 1455-1468).

The investigation also found that Changwongun had tried to rape the murdered woman. To prove the case against the royal family member, the investigators asked Changwongun to turn in the entire list of slaves he owned, which he strongly refused.

Facing the controversial case involving the royalty, the Choson administration was on high alert. Reported on Changwongun’s refusal to comply with the investigation, King Songjong ordered the list of slaves to be brought to the court.

Finally, the investigators secured the confession from Changwongun’s three slaves, confirming the suspicion that the royalty had masterminded the murder.

For all the evidence and confession, Changwongun denied the charge vehemently. He said, “This incident is fabricated by my servants fearing torture. I did not commit such a crime.”

Even with strong evidence, including blood being found in Changwongun’s house, the prosecution hesitated in formally indicting a member of the royal family.

An article dated Feb. 28 shows that King Songjong delayed the imprisonment of the royalty: “Changwongun told me he was wrongly accused. I found the investigation report has no hard evidence. If the woman was killed by a knife, it should be somewhere. Send people to search for the knife.”

On March 11, the investigation concluded that Changwongun was the murderer and asked for the king to deliver a sentence. Under strong pressure, the king ordered the disgraced royal member to be punished.

But two days later, the king mitigated the penalty, asking the officials to consider Changwongun’s royal status.

Eventually, no punishment was placed on the convicted murderer despite the strong opposition of officials, calling for the fair and universal application of law.

Choson’s Solomon

King Chongjo (reign: 1776-1800) is respected as one of the best judges during the Choson Dynasty. The much-admired king tried to set up a fairer legal foundation with his extensive knowledge about legal cases.

One of the famous rulings by King Chongjo is recorded in an article dated in 1790, describing a murder case. A married woman named Eunae, living in southwestern Cholla province, was arrested on charges of murdering her neighbor with a knife.

When questioned about the murder, Eunae confessed her crime without showing any regret, “Choe Chong-ryon, living next to my house, spread the false rumor that he slept with me in the hope of marrying me. As I married another man, Choe and his friend Ahn Cho-e openly spread the bad word about me. I was so angry that I went to Ahn’s house to kill her. I even tried to kill Choe but I couldn’t, because of his mother’s interference. I implore the government to put Choe to death, as well.”

Reading the bold and imposing testimony of Eunae, King Chongjo asked the prosecutors’ opinion. As expected, the officials demanded the death penalty. But the king had a different idea.

King Chongjo said, “Eunae is aged less than 18, but she was wrongly humiliated concerning her virginity. Therefore, it is understandable that she tried to prove the truth, risking her own life. Moreover, she talked about her reason quite frankly, even though she knew it could lead to the death penalty.

“Decades ago, the same incident happened in Hwanghae-do. But the local governor forgave and released the convict. It is said that when the woman was released, countless matchmakers rushed to get her. Since Eunae’s case is in the same category, I grant her to be released.”

The government officials that had called for capital punishment, helplessly backed off from their position because the king’s generosity was based on his extensive knowledge about legal cases, plus his prudent perspective.

The king did not stop there. He considered the case late into the night and the next day ordered the officials to get a document from Eunae, promising not to attack Choe again: “I released Eunae in honor of her courage. But she is likely to seek revenge against Choe Chong-ryon in the future because of her strong character. Which means, by releasing Eunae, we may put another person’s life in danger, which goes against the spirit of law. Therefore, I order the related office to get a confirmation from Eunae, promising not to attack Choe.”

“Though King Chongjo’s rulings were limited to the moral standard of the Choson Dynasty, he is a sensible judge, interpreting the legal code in a flexible way to ensure more fairness,” researcher Lee explained.

King Chongjo’s respectable rulings could serve as a useful reminder for the 15 Uijongbu judges, who are “strict” for others’ misconduct, yet mysteriously “flexible” about their own.


(8) Penalties Were Harsh in Choson Period

By Yang Sung-jin

Kwon Young-hae, the former director of the Agency for National Security Planning (NSP), stabbed himself with a cutter blade during questioning on Friday over his alleged role in a smear campaign to portray Kim Dae-jung as a communist sympathizer.

Yet, public doubts over the incident are snowballing. Right after Kwon underwent surgery, Kwon’s eldest daughter raised questions about the investigation, claiming that the prosecution’s explanation about her father’s suicide attempt is suspicious.

It is a pity that the prosecution’s credibility is still in doubt. Perhaps, people still remember the days when the prosecution interrogation office often turned into a site for torturing dissidents, some of whom were killed in the process.

Tortuous though it may sound, the acts of torturing suspects beyond the level of interrogation has long been practiced regardless of region and time.

The Choson Dynasty is no exception. For instance, the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty pinpoints an extreme case back in 1489 when some 70 suspects of robbers in northwestern province were arrested and abused during the questioning phase.

Official named Lee Jong-ho reported to the king on the torture case: “Of about 70 robbers, 15 are dead, two are fatally injured. Those who suffered serious wounds on their bodies are countless.”

King Songjong ordered “Sahonbu” (Office of the Inspector-General) to further inquire into the true state of things, chiding the recklessness of the officials favoring tortures.

Five Punishments

The Choson Dynasty had roughly five kinds of punishments administered to the convicted criminals, based upon the Ming China’s legal system.

First, and lightest punishment was “tae-hyong,” slapping the convict with a stick made of an ash tree 10-50 times upon degrees of the crime.

Second, “chang-hyong” is one step severer than “tae-hyong” in that 60-100 times slapping were done under the category.

Third, “to-hyong” is similar to today’s imprisonment. In this case, prisoners were forced to work in state-owned workplaces such as iron mill.

Fourth, “yu-hyong” is an exile. In China, the exile broke down into three different ones: 2,000 ri, 2,500 ri and 3,000 ri (one ri equals 393 meter).

Since the Korean peninsula cannot afford more than 2,000 ri (roughly 786 kilometer), the exact enforcement of “yu-hyong” was impossible. Instead, deporting all the family members of a prisoner into the northeastern borderline and confining one’s residence in a certain area were adopted.

Royal family members and high-ranking officials were exiled into a remote place and isolated from people, often surrounded by thorny trees.

The last one is death penalty, whose methods include hanging, beheading and dismemberment.

In addition to these five methods, there were other kinds of punishments, many of which might have been viewed as human rights violation by today’s Amnesty International.

For instance, “muk-hyong” is engraving ink onto one’s face, whose letters indicate the person is a criminal. Similarly, cutting off the nose or the heel were practiced in order to leave an indelible criminal mark on the convict’s body.

“It must be noted that these cruel punishments were not put into practice as often as today’s people imagine. Rather, the enforcement of the harsh punishment can be seen as symbolic in order to give a strong warning to the people about specific crimes Choson people thought harmful to society,” Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

Humanitarian Consideration

The CD-ROM Annals also show numerous records about the government announcement prohibiting the enforcement of punishment on special occasions such as birthdays of king and queen, and coronation ceremony.

For instance, an article dated in October, 1450, announces the prohibition of whipping on the punishment-free days. “This kind of measure played the role of restricting and reducing the days when the convict could be punished, which represents the Choson’s humanitarian consideration for the prisoner,” Lee added. On the day when the death penalty was executed, all the governmental agencies in Seoul made it a rule to cease working to show condolences to the dead.

In a document dated in September, 1520, an official pointed out the violation of the rule specifying the cancellation of works and events on the execution day: “This month, a convict guilty of breaking the prison was put to death. Even though the condemned criminals die for their crimes, the king should reproach himself about the executed. Yet, the rituals and music concerning the Emperor were performed as usually, which is totally wrong.”

Following the document is King Chungchong’s formal acknowledgement about the mistake concerning the death penalty. In addition, the Choson’s law designated specific days as inappropriate to execute the death row inmates. According to the articles in 1472, the government classified 10 days of a month inadmissible for the execution: 1, 8, 14, 15, 18, 23,24, 28, 29 and 30.

“The general notion here was based upon Taoism, in which the cosmic power was believed to come down to earth on these dates of a month to inspect human’s wrongdoing. Therefore, it was feared to execute people on these delicate dates,” Lee explained.

Another interesting twist of death penalty was related to the traditional notion of the Choson Dynasty, emphasizing the filial piety, especially on the part on the only son. In 1415, an official named Chang Dok-sang was caught stealing the seal of the governmental agency, which led to the death penalty. In a petition to the king, Chang’s mother urged the government to save him because he is her only son.

On the issue, King Taejong stated, “There is a saying that even murderer should be saved, if the person is only son, so that he can serve the parents. Therefore, I want to know what others think about the option saving Chang for his parents.”

The officials agreed to King’s idea of releasing Chang, and the record that followed show the practice of saving the only son from execution was put into a law.

Tradition Cuts Both Ways

In contrast, if the person in question violated the traditional value of society, the law was stricter than ever. When King Sejong announced reducing the forbidden clauses, he excluded certain crimes related to the Choson’s social norms such as impiety to parents, adultery and slaughtering cows and horses without permission, (both of which were the most important items for the farmers of the day).

Interesting fact reflecting the Choson society was the legal specification favoring women, whose status was much lower than men at large. During the Choson period, inmates were forced to wear a long sword upon their necks to prevent them from breaking the prison. But women were exempted from this clause. In addition, women were not put into prison except for those who committed the special crimes such as adultery.

But it seems that the government regulations did not work all the time. King Songjong issued a special directive to punish those officials arresting and putting women to prison without due reason.

In the earlier period of Choson with its social and legal system still to be refined, there were cases in which prisoners were whipped to death even for minor misconduct, due to the official’s abusive treatment.

King Sejong ordered a cautious enforcement of whipping punishment in 1435: “Whipping is limited to 50 times at maximum, but some officials are violating the rule, which put some minor offenders to death. It goes against the principle of placing less severe punishment in case the degree of crime is not decided. Excessive whipping, therefore, should be avoided.”

It was King Yongjo (reign: 1724-1776) who laid the foundation for a sophisticated criminal law while abolishing cruel torture and harsh punishments.

On the occasion of completing the revised version of the national legal code in 1740, King Yongjo remarked, “The kings who made the nation prosper, respected and practiced generous laws. In contrast, those who favored harsh law perished, which should be considered when enacting these new laws.”

King Yongjo also urged the related officials to be impartial in sentencing and not to resort to torture in 1755. King Yongjo’s belief for generous law was illustrated as early as his inauguration year, 1725 when he abolished “absul-hyong,” one of the most cruel tortures of the day.

“Absul-hyong” or pressing heavy woods on the prisoner’s shins, was mainly imposed upon traitors, but was criticized as inhuman and unnecessarily harsh.

In 1732, King Yongjo also wiped out notorious was “juri,” or twisting the wooden sticks between the legs of a prisoner relentlessly, whose aftereffect was enormous.

Next year, the reformed-minded king also eradicated another torture named “nanjang” which means beating up thieves with sticks as punishment. Also implemented in 1771 by King Yongjo was the law prohibiting the interrogators from binding the suspects. Although King Yongjo made great efforts, not all the officials followed his direction. In an article, sagwan (chroniclers) deplored that the officials in charge of penal code did not respect the king’s order faithfully, thus threatening the public with torture.

Thefts for Food

The most troublesome crime during the Choson Dynasty was theft. “At that time, people were relatively poor, so more crimes were related to the theft to survive,” researcher Lee explained.

Under the agrarian society, however, theft was the most abominable crime imaginable; therefore, severest punishment was imposed upon the thieves, often including engraving ink onto the forehead of the convict.

However, despite the continued efforts through strict punishments, the theft did not disappear easily. Official named Chong Sae-chang opposed to King Chungjong’s order to strengthen the penalty against theft: “Stealing is mostly out of poverty. People turn into thefts only because they are greatly suffering from starvation and cold, due to the bad harvest in recent years.

Since the nation agreed with the austerity measures prescribed by the International Monetary Fund in the wake of the financial turmoil last November, it is reported that the so-called petty crimes such as shoplifting and theft are on the rise, reflecting plunging living standard of the public.

Perhaps, today’s policymakers can get a clue about such deplorable situation from the greatest king of Hermit Kingdom. In 1444, King Sejong remarked concerning the report indicating increasing habitual thieves: “I heard there are more thieves. I feel greatly ashamed of myself because those crimes are committed only because I have failed to provide decent living conditions to the people.”