(59) Kwanghaegun: Reformer or Tyrant?

By Yang Sung-jin

Kwanghaegun (reign: 1608-1623), the 15th monarch of the Choson Kingdom, is an intriguing, almost puzzling, figure in the eyes of today’s historians.

Kwanghaegun was one of two monarchs who were disgracefully downgraded to “gun” or prince along with the notorious tyrant Yonsangun (reign: 1494-1506). All other kings retained the formal royal titles, “jo” or “jong.”

Kwanghaegun was forced to step down in a 1623 coup orchestrated by a group of reform-minded politicians, including the prince who would succeed him and become King Injo.

Following this, the official annals of the king were lowered to that of “Kwanghaegun Diary.”

On closer inspection, however, the diary describes the king as a highly realistic ruler well versed in the mechanics of East Asian geopolitics. A number of articles point to Kwanghaegun’s laudable efforts to set a healthy social order while promoting national wealth and power.

Contrary to the general perception, King Injo’s reign was worse than other kings.

For instance, Kwanghaegun implemented an array of public projects aimed at rebuilding the nation torn apart by the Japanese invasion (1592-98). He also re-opened diplomatic relations with Japan in an effort to nurture peace across the Ming China (1368-1644) and Japan.

Despite China’s repeated calls for the Choson ruler’s participation in a war between its Ming Dynasty and the emerging Ching Dynasty, Kwanghaegun used his diplomatic skills to delay entering the escalating conflict, ultimately protecting the Choson people from the war.

Meanwhile, King Injo, upon ascending to the throne, executed those who upheld the mainstream policy of “equidistant diplomacy” as he opted for a pro-Ming line.

King Injo’s open bid to side with Ming China invited the devastating invasions by the Ching Dynasty twice, in 1627 and 1636. As a result, he had to accept direct responsibility for his kingdom’s involvement in those conflicts.

In addition, some 200,000-500,000 Choson women were taken by the Ching government as slaves to compensate for the reckless diplomacy of the Choson kings.


All told, the country was just that much worse off thanks largely to King Injo, who should have done more for the welfare of the nation. At least, that is what some historians believe in their re-assessment of the trouble-laden era.

Whether such an argument is viable in the long run is arguable at best. What’s certain, however, is that Kwanghaegun’s life is worth taking a closer look at from birth to coronation to dethronement.

Kwanghaegun was born the second son of King Sonjo and concubime Kongbim Kim, in April of 1575. At age 18, he was designated as the official Crown Prince and became king on Feb. 2, 1608, beginning his near 15-year-long reign.

Dragged down from the throne by political opponents, Kwanghaegun was expelled to Cheju Island, the largest island off the Korean peninsula, where he led a solitary life until his death in 1641 at 67.

Brief as it was, his reign was entangled in a web of significant historical upheavals that shook the social and political order of the times from top to bottom.

When first appointed as the Crown Prince on April 28, 1592, the nation was on the verge of being attacked by Japan.

King Sonjo, a shrewd ruler who had long delayed the formal announcement of his successor as a political play against anxious officials, had no other option but to make his decision known in the face of outpowering troops armed with the state-of-the-art rifles.

On that particular day, King Sonjo was filled with anxiety. “Since the nation is in deep trouble, we have to appoint the Crown Prince. Who do you think is fit for the job,” the king asked his officials. “It is entirely up to Your Majesty,” was their reply.

Royal Intelligence

King Sonjo was far from making a decision. The excruciating delay blocked court officials, including Prime Minister Lee San-hae, from returning to their homes.

King Sonjo finally disclosed his preference, saying “Since Kwanghaegun is very intelligent and fond of studying, I will appoint him as the Crown Prince.” All the officials immediately stood up and made a deep bow to the throne in a show of respect for the king’s decision.

The formal royal statement following the public announcement for prince’s elevation offers a glimpse of the character of the newly-appointed Crown Prince “Kwanghaegun is intelligent and thorough in scholarly pursuit. He is also known for his unwavering filial piety. Therefore, appointing him as the Crown Prince is predestined.”

But the matter was more complicated than seemed. For one thing, Kwanghaegun was not a son of the official queen, a factor that raised the issue of qualifications. Second, he was the second son of one of the king’s concubines. At the time, the eldest son was given the priority in major affairs including the appointment of the Crown Prince.

In addition, Crown Prince-appointees had to get approval from the Ming Dynasty in order to secure legitimacy as ruler. Understandably, Kwanghaegun’s qualifications were viewed as “outrageous” by Ming China’s emperor and his officials.

Finding fault with Kwanghaegun’s background, Ming China balked at issuing a formal recognition of the Crown Prince, a sorry development that placed strong pressure on a Choson court dying to get on with defense of the nation against the Japanese army.