(20) Kings Responsible for Natural Disasters

By Yang Sung-jin

The notorious El Nino phenomenon, widely suspected of having caused unusual weather patterns across the globe, is slowly dying out, vernacular newspapers reported recently. The primary reason for the public attention paid to El Nino was that it had an enormous impact on the everyday lives of so many people.

Choson Kingdom chroniclers thought that unusual weather and natural disasters were highly newsworthy, as well. So, the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty has plenty of factual data about the weather and particularly about unusual phenomena.

Especially intriguing to today’s historians and scientists are the articles referring to a “red tide,” or glut of plankton which devastated marine culture. In the Annals, there are a total of 90 articles about the phenomenon, which goes squarely against the present notion that it is a result of water pollution in recent years.

A record dated July 17, 1399, states that the color of the sea near Ulju in southeastern Kyongsang-do was as red as blood. Another article written one month later says, “The sea water stretching from Ulju to Tongrae looked bloody and the area was estimated to be 30 ri (1.2km) long and 20 ri (800m) wide. The red color lasted for four days and all the fish were found dead. People said it was the result of a star falling into the sea.”

In mid-1403, red tide was spotted around the port city of Mu-an, Cholla-do and Chinyang, Kyongsang-do, both of which continued to be affected for three days. In the same year, locals reported another red tide, the color of which changed from yellow to black to red and the thickness of which made it look like soup. Numerous dead fish were also found floating on the surface. It seems that the year 1403 was a disaster for fisherman because other regions also witnessed the red tide phenomena to varying degrees.

In fact, the Annals of the Choson Dynasty records all sorts of natural disasters and abnormal weather conditions including thunder and hailstorms, charcoal-colored rain and swarms of locusts.

On April 13, 1401, Chiri Mountain and the surrounding area was struck by hail stones which were as big as a human fist. It is reported that it took three days for the hail to melt and that the damage from the storm was severe.

In the same month, the city of Tanju suffered from charcoal-colored rain, which resulted in drought and famine. Today it is reckoned that the unusual rain must have been caused by the ashes of a nearby volcano.

Cause of Disaster In Dispute

Most natural disasters were regarded as ominous by the Choson people and kings were required to identify the causes and come up with possible countermeasures. Often, the process generated some heat between the monarch and his subjects.

For instance, a strange incident occurred on the first day of the year 1402: a stone in a temple in the northeastern province emitted the sound of a bell. King Taejong dispatched an official to hold a special ceremony to “calm” the stone.

The trouble was that the officials began to voice their suspicions that the king was ultimately responsible for the inexplicable phenomenon of the ringing stone, which got on the nerves of King Taejong.

“The other day, a rice steamer was reported to have cried and opinions were divided over the meaning of it.

Therefore, today’s incident of the crying stone cannot be wholesome. But, it is wrong to assume that the king is always accountable for these kinds of incident while the wrongdoing of his subjects are never mentioned,” the king said.

The other side of the coin was that some officials capitalized on the natural disorder to express their opinions at their own risk.

Concerning the construction project of new buildings in a palace, Yun Tae-su of the Censor-General Office issued a plea to the king: “Hamkyong-do and Pyongan-do were hit by a swarm of locusts and the depth of the Yalu River became shallower. Moreover, charcoal rain came, stones moved of their own volition, and frost and hail were visited upon the site at random. Nevertheless, Your Highness is trying to make the people toil to finish the construction, which is the exact opposite of what the king should do in order to avert theses natural disasters.”

It is true that upright officials often utilized natural disasters as a brake on the reckless acts and policies of the almighty king. Then again, a truly decisive king never concerned himself much with criticism.

After reading Yun’s desperate suggestion, King Taejong said, “You remarked that the water of the Yalu River had become lower than usual.

But the depth of the river is fundamentally changeable regardless. In addition, you pointed out that the people are subject to hard public labor.

But those who have been hired for the construction are monk-soldiers and none of the people were recruited.” Distressed, King Taejong put Yun in jail, the Annals show.

Muddy Snow

A highly inauspicious incident happened on Jan. 24, 1502 when snow mixed with soil, or what is now cautiously thought to have been volcanic ash, pelted the nation. Then, Choson officials lost no time raising their voice against the acts of the king: “Soil-rain has been recorded but there’s been no record of soil-snow. This is due to the fact that the political current has been manipulated by the king’s relatives and the balance in the recruitment of officials has broken down.”

In a plea to King Yonsangun, officials argued that anomalies such as severe droughts, floods and hailstorms were signs that the heavens were trying to bring the king to a realization of his mistakes. Their recommended response to the continued occurrence of these abnormal natural phenomena was to dismiss the king’s relatives who were wrongfully occupying the highest-ranking positions in the court.

Another headache during the Choson Dynasty was the embarrassing swarms of locusts which wreaked havoc on the nation. In early 1401, locusts and drought came together to jeopardize the well-being of the country.

The State Council reported the worsening living standards to the king: “This year, the swarms of locusts and drought have come together as we deeply feared. To ride out the crisis, we should ban drinking and also stop all the public construction projects.”

“Both in the public and private sectors, I order the prohibition of drinking. And those who violate the prohibition will be punished. In addition, all construction projects will be banned from now on. I urge all the people to concentrate on farming,” King Taejong subsequently announced.

But it seems that the Choson people were helpless in the face of the overwhelming locusts. In mid-1402, the locusts dealt a harsh blow to Kyongsang-do, leaving 67 towns with nothing to harvest.

As the damage by the locusts was getting out of control in northern Pyongan province, the king ordered the local administrators to take necessary actions: “Destroy the locusts in Pyongan-do and Hwanghae-do.

Although there’s a limit to what one can do about locusts, I will punish local governors found to have been remiss in promptly dealing with the locusts.”

On June 15, 1434, heavy rains caused a landslide, leaving four people dead. On July 29 of the same year, rainstorms raked the northern provinces, raising the combined casualties to 77. Hwanghae-do governor Kim Maeng-song felt he was responsible for the tragic incidents and filed his resignation with the king, saying that “All the natural disasters happened due to my incompetence.”

But King Sejong did not permit his resignation. In retrospect, Kim’s act seems fairly courageous and even inspiring compared with the behavior of today’s spiteful politicians, none of whom have volunteered to resign in the wake of the financial crisis which began late last year.