By Yang Sung-jin
On Feb. 25 of last year, President Kim Dae-jung was sworn in as the President at a time when the nation was deeply mired in financial turmoil.
This Thursday, Kim will observe his one-year anniversary accompanied by the usual “evaluations” by media pundits. But, final assessments of his first year in office are for future historians to make.
Of 27 kings who ruled the Choson Kingdom from 1392 to 1910, not all of them received favorable reviews by the historiographers who recorded the public and private actions of the most powerful men of the nation with relentless accuracy in “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty.”
Particularly notorious is King Yonsangun (reign: 1494-1506), who squandered the state’s fiscal resources with his uncontrollable appetite for a life of luxury and pleasure-seeking.
On July 8, 1498, an official named Lee Sae-yong filed an appeal with the king: “Since your inauguration, Your Majesty has hardly hosted the lecture and honored the royal duties.” In his brave appeal, Lee made a remark referring to the increase of natural disasters as heaven’s punishment for the ruler’s wrongdoing, a concept widely believed by the Choson people.
But the king’s reply showed now sign of repentance: “The royal lecture is important but more important than that is my health. The situation will be serious if I host a lecture for officials beyond my ability and become ill as a result.”
As King Yonsangun continued his “inappropriate” sexual aberrations with courtesans, ranking officials boycotted banquets organized by the king in a show of protest in 1500.
The king noticed the boycotts and sent a warning to the officials: “At the banquet held the other day, some officials and ministers filed out of the place as soon as they finished their first drinks, which runs counter to the courtesy observed in the court.”
Royal Parties Boycotted
King Yonsangun also said a number of officials made up excuses for not attending the banquets, a situation jeopardizing the courteous relations between the king and his subjects.
The king went overboard not only as a carnal philander but also as a merciless ruler who whimsically executed his political enemies.
In 1498, the scholar-bureaucrats based in the capital incited King Yonsangun to purge their rivals, the “neo-Confucian literati,” or “sarim,” on a large scale.
The bloody political feud, later known as the “Purge of 1498,” was triggered when a historiographer named Kim Il-son, a disciple of Kim Chong-jik, who pioneered the group of neo-Confucian scholars active in the countryside, incorporated into his draft his teacher’s “Lament for the Righteous Emperor.”
Kim Chong-jik, a champion of morality and idealism, satirized King Sejo’s usurpation of the throne and execution of his nephew, the boy-king Tanjong, using a metaphor referring to Chinese history.
As Kim Il-son’s act was discovered, the scholar-bureaucrats faction immediately called on King Yonsangun to execute Kim and those linked to him. The purge was far-reaching with a bevy of other neo-Confucian scholars banished, signaling a collapse of the sarim faction on the political scene.
In 1504, King Yonsangun attempted to silence all sources of resistance to his lurid pleasure-seeking and abuse of power. He launched another purge when a group of courtiers dredged up the incident of the previous reign of King Songjong, in which Yonsangun’s mother, Lady Yun, was ousted and executed.
King Yonsangun ordered death sentences or banishment for both the bureaucrats-scholars and neo-Confucian members who had survived the 1498 purge.
The royal concubines who took the lead in banishing Lady Yun were cruelly killed. King Yonsangun himself beat to death Lady Um and Lady Chong in court, a tragedy that left a horrific mark on history.
Bloody Sinner Unrepentant
Lady Um and Lady Chong’s sons and their family were exiled to islands and then executed. What King Yonsangun did was a type of fratricide since they were half-brothers.
Two years later, the king’s wicked deeds came to an end as a group of officials led by Song Hee-an, Park Won-chong and Yu Sun-chong staged a coup that dethroned the sinful king on Sept. 2, 1506.
As King Chungjong was sworn in as a result of the coup, the disgraced King Yonsangun was exiled to a small cottage in Kangwha island in Kyonggi-do and died only two months later with his pent-up wrath unresolved.
In the Annals, historiographers detailed a set of episodes shedding light on King Yonsangun’s distorted personality. He often enjoyed horseback riding in the wee hours of the morning and formed a 10,000-strong hawking army, each member of which played the role of hunting attendant.
He was reckless in pushing ahead with public construction projects tailored to his party-loving taste. For instance, 3,000 makeshift structures linking Changdok Palace and Kyongbok Palace were built and an artificial waterway crossing the palace’s backyard was constructed to create an ideal playground for the king.
It is noted in The Annals that some 500,000 workers were conscripted to undertake the daunting construction work, a project that was left unfinished in the end.
King Yonsangun got rid of the time-honored tradition of king-hosted lectures, which served as opinion-sharing forums involving court officials, for fear that somebody would speak out about his misconduct.
Government agencies that might uncover his weaknesses were abolished and the official channels through which the public used to express their opinions were closed off.
Instead, the king enjoyed increasing the harshness of corporeal punishments, many of which are unprintable.
“In the past, a number of kings were cruel and violent, but no one matches King Yonsangun,” the Annals stated.
When the unrepentant king was recklessly doing as he pleased, nobody dared to point out his tyrannical acts. But historical facts are bound to be revealed and judged by future generations as the Choson Annals show — a lasting and haunting lesson for political leaders.